Steve Mitchell is a dear friend who has posted here before. Whatever he writes is always a good stir: honest, reflective, and challenging. Here is more of the same. He not only moved me to reflect on worship, but to worship. Please join us.
My wife and I recently were privileged to spend several hours in unstructured worship of God along with 30 or 40 Stanford students. Our eldest daughter is a junior at the university and, along with a few dozen others, spends Saturday nights in worship modeled after the International House of Prayer (www.ihop.org).
The group began as a small gathering in a dorm room. They simple preferred to spend time together in God¹s presence to the standard Saturday evening college fare. These few found more joy spending time with Christ than they ever did spending time taxing a tap at the local fraternity. Before long they had attracted others and outgrew the dorm room, arranging for space in the student union.
That doesn’t surprise me. The time we shared with them was tender, refreshing, and encouraging. It was also remarkable to see students who bear such intense academic pressure offer themselves so freely and lavishly to Christ. Their generous desire to wait on the Lord invited His presence with a sweetness and immediacy that I’ve rarely experienced.
We sang choruses together, prayed softly in groups, and individually, as a sincere and modestly talented worship leader led us softly, while sometimes simply playing instrumentally. We sang corporately, but during the quieter instrumental interludes some people would read from the Scriptures, offering only a minimum of commentary. There was a titular leader, but that role was reduced to non-hierarchical facilitation. I was struck by the contrast between that evening and the worship that characterized a typical Sunday morning at my own church.
It is important for you to know that I love my church. It is full of people captivated by the love of God in Christ. Their outward expression of that love is both regular and concrete. As a result, the church is exemplary in its commitment to God¹s Word, evangelism, and profound good works. Even so, it is a large church, beholden to the logistics of shuttling thousands of people through three services and over-burdened parking lots. These demands make it exceedingly difficult to afford the lavish gift of time that came so easily to those Stanford students. And our worship is the poorer for it, frankly. I cannot stand apart from my church in this critique. I serve part-time as a pastor and have some measure of influence. In short, I am part of the problem.
But if we are to recapture a lost extravagance in worship, we need to look first at the Scriptures to discover what lavish worship means—if anything—and how we might move towards it. If we define worship as a complete giving over to God of anything in loving adoration with the intent of ministering to Him, several examples come to mind.
In Mark 14 we see the woman with the alabaster jar of perfume. She interrupts a meal and anoints Jesus, breaking a jar filled with extraordinarily expensive perfume in the process. This story reminds us that lavish worship involves a certain abandon. It is, by definition, unreasonable. Anyone seeking to reasonably maximize the impact of available resources would be advised to steer clear of lavish worship. Much like those who chided the woman, saying that her treasure could have been sold to help the poor, there are those in the contemporary church who are so attuned to the practical demands of church enterprise that the kind of lavish worship exhibited by the woman who anoints Jesus seems a non-essential luxury. It would simply be too unreasonable. The woman’s critics share a reasonable pragmatism with some contemporary counterparts.
And yet, Jesus immediately tells the woman¹s detractors to leave her alone. He further challenges their self-righteousness and lack of attentiveness to Himself. He lauds her, saying, “wherever the Gospel is proclaimed in the whole world, what she has done will be told in memory of her.” Mark places this passage immediately before his account of Judas’ agreement to betray Jesus, so we cannot escape the sense of foreshadowing of the Lord’s Passion in Mark’s account of the anointing. But neither can we escape the appropriateness of the unreasonable, extravagant, and lavish ministry by this woman to the One she loved.
Lavish worship is not only associated with expense. It is also related to time. When we consider the story of Martha and Mary in Luke 10, we see that lavish worship involves offering the Lord plenty of unstructured time. Often this passage is taught with respect to priorities, where we are encouraged to give to God “first”. Martha is bustling about attending to the necessities of entertaining a household full of guests while Mary is imply sitting at Jesus feet. Upon Martha’s objection, Jesus compliments Mary saying that while Martha is worried about so many things, only one thing is really necessary and that Mary has chosen the better portion, something that cannot be taken from her.The implication teased out by most teachers is that Martha is not doing wrong, but that Mary has her priorities straight. But ordering one’s priorities is not simply a question of sequence or “quality”, as it has come to mean in our overtaxed culture. It is also a quantitative question. One cannot simply give God the first 15 minutes of each day and legitimately call it a priority just because God happens to be the first in a list of activities. Again, lavish worship requires a generous expenditure of resources—in Mary’s case that resource is time offered without reserve in the face of other priorities.
These are only two brief stories that help to illustrate the point, but it would not be difficult to recount more. The real question is in the face of God’s extravagant self-giving in Christ is: why do we offer so little of ourselves in response?
I cannot speak for others, but in my case it is competing loves. I find things other than spending time with God all too attractive, and even those things that are not inherently attractive often capture my heart because of the status or advantage they offer. I am not without company. The priorities and concerns of those who first heard Jesus words in His Sermon on the Mount are mirrored in his teaching: “But seek first his kingdom and his righteousness, and all these things will be given to you as well”.
It is all too alluring to seek Christ for the benefits that accrue to one in His vicinity. In John chapter 6 those who had once eaten their fill seek Jesus again. They ask Him to do another miracle, to feed them once more. He tells them that He is the bread of life. He is it. He is what they need, what they’ve always needed. He is the One Whom they should seek with all their hearts. His words to them are His words to me, so may I be quick to lavish a warm-hearted response on my Lord.