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Worship and the Cross

by Gerrit Gustafson

In the last few years, there has been a proliferation of praise and worship seminars, conferences, magazines, books and articles. "Praise and worship" is now recognized as the fastest growing segment of the Christian music industry. It's almost impossible to keep up with all the newly released worship songs and CDs that are being recorded by individuals, churches, small companies and large companies.

But more than the broad growth of the worship movement is the deep growth. I believe the renewal in worship is maturing.

At first we were mainly concerned with the effects of worship, whereas we are now grappling with the essence of worship. Now the quality of worship is more our concern than just the quantity. Worship as the event is making room for worship as the lifestyle. God is moving us beyond the song to the sacrifice - the laying down of our lives to do the will of God.

Sacrifice - The Essence of Worship
I regularly notice recurring themes and phrases in the songs we review. Because these songs come from many different streams of the church from all over the world, these phrases serve as a very interesting indicator of what the Spirit is saying.

One such theme is sacrifice. The phrases "sacrifice of praise," "living sacrifice," "a pleasing sacrifice," etc., are found in new songs almost to the point of overuse. At the time of this writing, Kirk Dearman's We Bring the Sacrifice of Praise is the most widely used song among member churches of Christian Copyright Licensing, Inc. It is a fantastic song I use almost every weekend. And yet, I am still disturbed by the word "sacrifice" because I don't think we know exactly where that word is leading us.

Paul appealed to the Romans to become true worshipers: "I urge you, brothers, in view of God's mercy, to offer your bodies as living sacrifices, holy and pleasing to God - this is your spiritual act of worship" (Romans 12:1). To paraphrase: "This is worship - to live sacrificially before God!"

Essentially, worship is the act and attitude of wholeheartedly giving ourselves to God - spirit, soul, and body. The central concept is self-giving. Singing is only worship if accompanied by yielded lives. And worship may not even involve singing.

Mother Theresa on Worship
In 1988, Jim Gilbert and I were conducting pastors' seminars in India on worship. During that time, I had the privilege of interviewing Mother Theresa at her quarters in Calcutta. Someone who knew her suggested that I ask her about worship, which I did.

After introductions, I presented her with three Hosanna! tapes and told her about the worldwide revival of wholehearted worship. She was definitely "underwhelmed." I wondered if I had picked the wrong subject. At first, she refused the tapes, saying that she and her mission had purposely decided not to have any tape players, so as to not be distracted. Later, however, she said she would give the tapes to someone who would enjoy them.

Then I asked what worship meant to her. Without hesitation, she said that Jesus told us how to bless the Lord: "In as much as you have done it unto one of the least of these My brethren, you have done it unto Me. Find the least," she said, "and treat them as you would treat the Lord." Where do you go from there? I asked her if she would pray that I would be a true worshiper, which she graciously did.

Eagles and Ants
What Mother Theresa said had very little to do with smooth transitions between songs or the "flow of worship," but it had everything to do with the essence of worship.

In the letter to the Hebrews we learn that acceptable worship includes 1.) lips that confess His name, and 2.) doing good and sharing with others (Hebrews 13:15,16). This means vocal declaration and deeds of kindness.

Today, if you use the term "worshiping church," what does it mean? Usually the term refers to a church that sings enthusiastically. Should it not also mean a church that is serving the needs of others enthusiastically? Should not the term include churches that minister to the homeless or addicted? Would the "good Samaritan" qualify as a worshiper? Amos said that God didn't want to hear any more of our music until we became concerned with justice (Amos 5:23,24). I am praying that the Church of our generation will praise God vigorously and defend the helpless compassionately; that we will soar like eagles and work like ants...not just one or the other. This will require much more teaching on worship and the cross, by both precept and example.

The acts of worship - singing, clapping, shouting, dancing, and lifting hands - are simply tokens of our lives laid down to do the will of God. Yielding to God in the Sunday worship experience is like an enactment, or rehearsal, of the steps of obedience that are ahead of us in the week to come.

Corporate worship is a "transfiguration" of sorts, preceding the difficult choices that must be made by everyone who wants to live for God. It is a "pre-choosing" of the daily death that comes to those who live by the cross.

Living the Cross
What exactly does it mean to take up our cross? It means releasing the privilege of self-determination. We are not our own (II Corinthians 5:15). It means having crucified affections. God is over every treasure (Matthew 10:37,38). It means embracing God-ordained suffering (Romans 8:18). It means humility and service (Philippians 2:3,4). It means obedience (Hebrews 10:5-7). It means sacrifice (Romans 12:1). It means living out of Christ's life and not our own (Galatians 2:20). It means the power of God (I Corinthians 1:18).

Be Glorified
The message of the cross will probably never be a very popular message even in the Church. However, my guess is that God is up to something. He is deliberately drawing His people into His awesome presence; and He knows that once we get a little taste of His power and glory, we're hooked.

Once we see the exalted Lord surrounded by the angels and hear their description of the whole earth filled with His glory, God knows we will be willing even to embrace the cross. We will say with Paul, "I consider that our present sufferings are not worth comparing with the glory that will be revealed in us" (Romans 8:18).

The truth is: Worship is bringing glory to God, but the Cross is the price of the glory.

Gerrit Gustafson is a Bible teacher and songwriter who serves on the creative team of
Integrity's Hosanna! Music.

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