During a sermon from the Psalms, my pastor made the observation that “Jewish worship offered blood sacrifice, but Canaanite worship offered sex.” This simple observation has stuck with me, and I would like to comment on the topic of Christian worship. Let me be clear that the topic of these essays will not be music per se. Music, in its proper place, is an appropriate piece of a larger worship picture, and should not be viewed as the sum total of worship. I will be writing about the overall focus and grounding of the Christian worship, and will at the end of the series address the specific elements of Christian worship. This three part series will explore 1) the fatal flaw of modern Evangelical worship, 2) how we got to this point, and 3) a proposal for where we can go from here. Let’s now explore what I believe is the fatal flaw of modern Evangelical worship.
The Canaanite worship of Baal was a very sensual experience. It was meant to evoke positive religious feelings by appealing to the desires of the participants. If you had felt needs, Baalism offered answers. If you wanted to have an ecstatic experience, well, sex will do that for you. If you want a god who gives you what you want, the way you want it, come on over, Baal is the god for you. As Peterson states it, “Baalism is worship that is reduced to the spiritual status of the worshipper.”
In contrast, the worship of Yahweh “established a form of worship that was centered in the proclamation of the word of the covenant God.” The worship involved prostrated prayers, sacrifices, and tithes centered in the proclamation of God’s covenant with his people as revealed in scripture. The appeal was to the hearer’s rational intelligence, which was called upon to respond to the will of God. In the worship of Yahweh, something was said about God, and this speaking of God and his promises provoked people to worship. This whole person response was that of intellect, then will, and then possibly emotion. This process is natural when worship is centered in the proclaimed truth of King Jesus, and him alone. It was a God-centered worship that encouraged the worshipper to encounter her creator, and to respond to this encounter with truth and exaltation. The worshipper was not free to do whatever in order to express his or her feelings. No, God prescribed worship in order to express Himself upon the hearers and elicit a response from them.
When the Israelites strayed from the ordained worship of Yahweh in favor of the sensual and exciting worship offered by Baal, the charge of “harlotry” or adultery was the standard criticism of the prophets of God against the people. They had chosen to leave their first love in favor of something more exciting. Make no mistake; the people of God did not abandon Him because they thought Baal told more truth, or because he engaged their minds. No, they abandoned the worship of Yahweh because he was looking rough around the edges. The constant reminders of how He had brought them out of Egypt, and the promises made to Abraham and Moses were no longer exciting to them. The years of sameness had grown tiresome and they felt that his bland and bloody worship just wasn’t working for them any longer. The people of Israel were bored.
For the first 1,800 years of the Church’s existence there was a set pattern for worship that followed the pattern carried over from Jewish practice. The early church adopted the Jewish pattern of worship and infused it with Christian meaning. There was prayer, reminder of sacrifice (Communion/Eucharist), and the proclamation of God’s word to His people. Hymns were sung as an acknowledgment and response to God’s word and deed. Singing was not viewed as the central part of worship nor was it a means to evoke an emotional response though emotions certainly are an appropriate response to proper worship. It was a very God-centered, Jesus-focused worship of Word and Table. Further, Christian worship was meant for Christians, and though non-believers might be present, what happened during worship was not meant for them.
Today, I witness a worship scene that looks very little like what we see in scripture, and what we know from our own Christian history. I see the old Baalism in the form of new spiritual adultery of self-centered worship. I see a worship that, instead of compelling us to respond to the higher calling of God, is reduced to pleasing the worshipper’s ever changing preferences. The expectation of the adulterous worship of Baal was that the experience should be interesting, relevant, and exciting. The mundane was discarded as useless. I can’t help but see the parallels to what passes for worship in Evangelicalism today.
Many of us are looking for a worship experience on Sunday morning that fulfills some emotional need. Peterson has this to say:
The phrase “let’s have a worship experience” is Baalism’s substitute for “let us worship God.” The difference is between cultivating something that makes sense to an individual and acting in response to what makes sense to God. In a “worship experience,” a person sees something that excites interest and tries to put religious wrapping around it. A person experiences something in the realm of dependency, anxiety, love, and a connection is made with the ultimate. Worship is a movement from what a person sees, or experiences, or hears, to prayer or celebration or discussion in a religious atmosphere. Subjectivity is encouraged.
Baalism tells the worshipper to use his own observations and experiences as the basis for what God must do for him during worship. Sometimes people say, “Our culture expects to be entertained, so we need to have a more entertaining, expressive worship experience to attract the lost.” Has anyone ever stopped to ask if our cultural expectations are wrong? Has it occurred to anyone else that our culture is sinful and broken, and worship demands coming from a sinful and broken culture are also likely to be sinful and broken? Why do we assume that if culture demands something God must comply? Complying with the worship demands of a broken world in the name of evangelizing that broken world is just foolishness.
The problem with our culture’s demand for a “worship experience” is that neither the Bible, nor the great worship tradition of the Church uses the word “worship” as a description of experience. It is common for people today to feel they can have a worship experience anywhere, and they can have this experience perfectly well by themselves. This normally means, “I have religious feelings that remind me of good things, awesome things, nearly anywhere at any time.” While it is true that positive feelings about God can be evoked from just about anything from babies being born to viewing the Grand Canyon, I would argue that this reduces worship to the level of the individual experience of feelings, and doesn’t resemble how the Bible describes robust worship. Worship, properly understood, has always been the response to God’s declaration as it happens in the presence of God’s people.
In practical terms, what does modern Baalism look like? Most often, scripture gets little more than passing attention. It is used more as a support to the preacher’s points, but those points are not derived from scripture. Preaching itself tends to be overly focused on societal issues, and not God’s revelation of Himself and the exaltation of Jesus Christ. Such preaching tends to be “man-centered,” telling us God’s plan for making us happy right now. Modern Baalism tends to be obsessed with music as the primary means of worship while using prayer as little more than bookends to a concert. Any thought that the congregation should confess its sins together before God is seen as an invasion of individual privacy instead of the positive expression of the community’s need to acknowledge its common condition before our holy God. Communion, if practiced, is usually stripped bare of any meaning and often practiced in a haphazard manner. Perhaps worst of all, it is likely that there is quite a lot of talk about God generically, but little said about Jesus outside of fact that he died so you could go to Heaven. Modern Baalism makes worship into a sensual experience with man-centered preaching meant to show how faith works for you in your life. As I said before, this approach to worship is very inconsistent with what we see in scripture and from what we know of historical Christian practice. Worship has become the pragmatic means by which we attract people into the church building on a Sunday morning.
On the front page of a church website I once read a testimonial from a teen-aged young woman. She said, “I used to think church was boring, but then we came to ___________________ and I found out church could be fun.” Baalism. Spiritual adultery. It isn’t wrong to have fun at church. We can laugh and be full of joy, but I suspect this young woman and her family have reduced the worship of God to an experience where they no longer have to feel bored. We have become a church of spiritual consumers. If our primary reason for going to church is that it makes us feel better, we are committing spiritual adultery. If our primary reason for picking a particular church is because our over-stimulated-constantly-plugged-into-technology children aren’t bored when they sit in an auditorium with stage lighting, a great band, and slick video production, then we are allowing our children to worship themselves. If we pick a church because we would rather hear about the “5 steps to a better whatever,” and hear little to nothing about the exalted Christ into whose image we are to be transformed, we are spiritual adulterers guilty of forming God into our image. If we pick a church just because we like the music, then have we not placed our musical preference above more important measures of a church’s ministry? We should pick a church because that church helps us see Jesus clearly and worship God for who He is. We should pick a church based on a sense of God’s calling, not because our list of preferences is adequately fulfilled.
We Evangelicals are, like the people of the Judges period, doing whatever is right in our own eyes. In this, our fatal flaw is a propensity for spiritual adultery in worship where our own preferences and feelings are of paramount importance. We have forgotten the pattern of worship established by God for Israel, and followed by Christ and the Church down through the centuries. In the name of “relevance” we’re making it up as we go along so as to appeal to the broken spiritual condition of the worshipper. How did we get here? In the next installment of this series, we’ll explore the phenomenon of American Christianity and how I (along with others much smarter than me) believe we got to this place of modern Baalism.
 Peterson, Eugene. Five Smooth Stones for Pastoral Work. Eerdmans Publishing Company, Grand Rapids. 1980. p. 181.
 Ibid. 183.