May 2, 2018

Not About Us

“It’s time that Adventists everywhere recover a keener sense of just where we are when we sing and preach and pray.”

Bill Knott

Gabriel yawned and stretched.

“Gather ‘round,” he said wearily. “We’ve got to pull this together, and we’ve only got 20 minutes until worship begins. And remember, we’ve got three services today, so we’ve got to pace ourselves.

“We’ll start off with ‘Majesty’ in the opening set,” he continued. “Yes, I know it’s 40 years old. But we get a lot of kudos every time we perform it. We’ll add a couple of old hymns for the traditionalists in the myriads who can’t seem to go even one Sabbath without hearing ‘How Great Thou Art.’”

“Raphael put together some thoughts about the possibilities of intergalactic travel that he will be sharing during the homily. And Ariel and his friends have a little skit that should make everyone smile about the challenges of singing in the same choir for hundreds of years.”

“That’s pretty much the run sheet for today’s services. Sound check, everyone?”

The scene just described is truly unbelievable, especially for believers who maintain that the book of Revelation is a central inspiration for their theology and their practice. But something akin to this occurs in hundreds of Adventist churches across the land each Sabbath. And while we all agree—whatever our preferred worship style—that practicing is a key element of the excellence God’s character demands, it has become increasingly difficult to imagine much of what Adventists experience in worship as any but the merest shadow of what John the Beloved tells us is constantly occurring in heaven.

“It’s time that Adventists everywhere recover a keener sense of just where we are when we sing and preach and pray.”

Lest these words incite another skirmish in the worship wars, let me hasten to add that nothing here should be construed as endorsing or critiquing any of the many worship styles Adventists now employ. I’ve wept with joy at the feet of Jesus as the worship leader thoughtfully guided us through contemporary Christian anthems. I’ve wept in frustration as nineteenth-century art songs more appropriate to a recital were gorgeously delivered by a tenor in a “traditional” congregation. I’ve stood among the people as the music of deliverance and redemption swept over an African-American congregation and known conclusively that I was in the throne room of heaven. And my soul has writhed with discomfort as those ostensibly leading me in worship practiced funky dance moves.

Missing from many such services is any notion that all of this—all that we call “worship”—is occurring in the very presence of the One before whom angels, elders, and living creatures are constantly bowing in adoration. And no, this isn’t a hymn to the hushed solemnity that characterized much of the Adventist worship of my childhood. I’ve been fond of saying from pulpits everywhere that the most reverent place in this universe is also the loudest place in this universe—with trumpet blasts, thunderings, and the voices of millions of adoring worshippers rising in one vast, eternal chorus. Reverence doesn’t equal quiet: silence isn’t the highest form of praise.

But it’s time that Adventists everywhere, and especially those to whom we give the privilege of leading us in worship, recover a keener sense of just where we are when we sing and preach and pray—and for whose glory all this wonder is unfolding. Worship is the moment that most unites God’s faithful universe. Somewhere, through every time zone on this “terrestrial ball,” believers are enacting the deep, delighted adoration we see pictured in the book of Revelation, led, as I imagine, by one of those 24 elders.

And when it flows like that river that proceeds from the throne of God; when it rises to a zenith in proclaiming the grace we find in Jesus; when it makes our hearts burn with a passion to tell everyone of the goodness of our God—then it is worship pleasing to the Lord, in whatever language, music, style, or idiom.

So here’s a call for “verticality”—an ever-upward look—in our worship, excellently planned and passionately led; a soul-moving opportunity for us to find our knees even as our tongues extol His praise.