You hear it over and over again—from strangers, friends, even family. They say it with a plaintive whine, a defensive shrug, or an air of intellectual superiority: I don’t go to church. I just don’t get anything out of it.” The crux of the matter is that God is a person and not to be described by the pronoun “it.” A negative attitude about church usually does not express a grievance against God but against the individual’s church experience, as though coming to church had nothing to do with God.
Even religious leaders sometimes forget the real character and purpose of the church. Desperate to build and hold on to their dwindling congregations, they misrepresent the nature of the church service and its ministries by neglecting the basic principle of worship—proper reverence in the acknowledged presence of God. The first and foremost purpose of the worship service is to keep a rendezvous with the Eternal Father, who has asked us to meet him there.
In trying to motivate people to enjoy church, too often we allow the worship service to deteriorate into an entertaining performance instead of an opportunity to present ourselves before God. This entertainment mentality often leads to applause for a solo or a choir number. Those who participate from the platform are there not to entertain, but to encourage a climate of worship so we can focus upon God. In a moment of salutary applause, the congregation may unthinkingly treat them as entertainers, as though they had presented the music to the people rather than to the Lord. (It would be more appropriate for the Almighty to applaud the presentation, were he so inclined.)
While the Old Testament does mention the clapping of hands to God, that occurred during the worship music, not after it stopped. Its purpose was to maintain a holy rhythm, not to show appreciation. When congregations applaud at worship as they would in a concert hall, they send themselves and others the wrong signal about the purpose of that service.
We must never confuse worship with entertainment, albeit entertainment based on a religious theme. Entertainment pleases an audience, but worship ought to please God. In entertainment, responsibility rests with the performer to awaken feelings and interest. It allows the observer absolute passivity and the option of whether or not to pay attention. In contrast, true worship by nature is an active experience. Even obedience to the scriptural admonition, “Be still and know that I am God” requires a certain kind of concentration. In corporate worship in particular, “stilling our hearts” takes a certain energy flow. We must actively focus on God by intentionally directing our minds and hearts toward him as we acknowledge that he is reaching toward us. Worship is a presentation of ourselves to God—an act of the will.
We do this first by establishing disciplined regularity. We present ourselves in a given place at a given time in obedience to God’s command not to neglect fellowship and prayer with other believers. Then in that act of presenting the body in the pew, we testify publicly of our faith and love for God.
When people say they don’t get anything out of a church service and can pray at home, the flaw lies with them, not with the church service. They are confusing worship with entertainment for which they have paid admission, or perhaps more nobly, with an educational lecture for which they have paid tuition. Those who “don’t get anything out of worship” do not know or do not want to know what they ought to get—or what they ought to give.
In one respect, a worship service is like banking. You cannot make withdrawals unless you have first made a deposit. If you put nothing in, you get nothing out.
The primary purpose of worship is not to please the worshiper but the one who is worshiped. We enter God’s presence not to receive anything, but to show obedience. Nevertheless, true worship never fails to pay dividends—the joy and peace of being in God’s presence.
Let’s put first things first! There is nothing wrong with trying to be the friendliest church in town—with having the most moving, most exciting messages, the best music brought by the brightest people and even the best potluck dinners. Nevertheless, these do not comprise the essential elements of worship, nor should they be used as motivation for church attendance.
You could even advertise a circus with superlatives and attract a crowd, as Barnum and Bailey did with “The Greatest Show on Earth.” Those who would respond to superlatives and join a church only because of the superior ambience, the superior rhetoric of the preacher or even the superior friendliness of the congregation should ask themselves: “How does my involvement there tell God that I find him worthy of my focused devotion and undivided attention?”
Yeshua said, “Man was not created for the Sabbath, but the Sabbath for man.” God set aside time for worship not to provide leisure or entertainment for his people, but for renewal as they concentrated upon and contemplated him. Our chief joy in assembling before God ought to be our relationship with him rather than activities that affirm us, entertain us or make us feel good.
In our desire to bring people into the church we dare not allow the worship service to deteriorate into a competition with bagel brunches, the Sunday newspaper or NFL football. We must challenge people with their need for God. We need not be ashamed to ask the football fan, “Would you rather spend your time, energy and money watching a bunch of men bump into one another to capture a rubber bladder covered with the skin of a swine, or would you rather commit yourself to a worship experience where you can sense the reality of the living God?” We avoid such confrontations because we are afraid to hear that many would really rather watch the football game or enjoy a leisurely breakfast over the Sunday supplement than worship their Creator.
If that is their inclination, why not let them do that instead of trying to make the church service compete? Let’s see what we can do to gather those who would rather honor the living God than the gods of the griddle or the gridiron. Then let’s pray for the unchurched, the uninterested and the unbelievers, that their eternal destiny will become more important to them than which team gets the pigskin over the goalposts. When that happens, they will hunger more for the Bread of Heaven than for Sunday morning’s waffles, and more for the Word of God than for the Sunday supplement.
Some might still argue that we owe it to God to make church as attractive as possible so that unbelievers will come and commit their lives to him. Such logic implies that God is either unconcerned or incompetent to draw people to himself. If he were unable to attract people through his Holy Spirit, how could we undertake to make him more attractive? But he is able, and he does attract whomever and whenever he chooses. Our feeble attempts to help by tailoring the worship service to satisfy less-than-spiritual appetites diametrically opposes the basic purpose of worship—praise to God for being all-caring and all-powerful.
We cannot use pleasure bait to bring in the unchurched. Pleasure bait is the wrong lure for God’s kind of fishing. Such enhancement of the church service smacks more of salesmanship or seduction than it does of shining a spiritual light. There is nothing wrong with making the church service enjoyable, but that is a secondary consideration. We dare not compromise the quality of our worship or become confused about its purpose.
The church must be militant in its stance. Yeshua said that the gates of hell would not prevail against it. The church’s mandate is not to attack people, but the gates that prevent them from coming to salvation. God wants the church to take the offensive rather than the defensive position. Too often we resist because we don’t want to risk offending. We need to differentiate between taking the offensive and being offensive. We need to get off our seats and on our feet to go out and tell the good news to those who need to hear it. That is the purpose of the church—to bring the lost into God’s kingdom. We must seek out those who will want to come because they need God, not because they want to be entertained.
We should not invite people to church because it is enjoyable or because it makes them “happy” in the sense that unbelievers regard happiness. Christian joy is not easily evident in the trials of life. The believer may have joy through tears, and the world may see only the tears and the pain that produced them. Christian joy transcends pain. Our outward appearance does not necessarily testify of the reality of our God. The best argument for the validity of the gospel is not that believers live in a state of perpetual happiness, but that they love one another. The true love of God shining in us and through us and our pure devotion to him will attract unbelievers more than anything else.
There are proper times for fun and enjoyment, even within the church, but worship of God is a serious obligation. The church that appeals only to the fun-loving side of the unchurched may be doing God a disservice in keeping unbelievers from understanding the serious nature of the message of salvation.
In any case, as the body of Christ, we are not to attract the spiritually needy to ourselves or to our wonderful services, but to the Savior. After all, association with a church, even if it is the friendliest church in town, cannot save people. Only Yeshua saves!