During the last week of February, I had the opportunity to conduct a mini workshop for the youths in my church touching on the theology of corporate worship. I shared with them an article on how youths particularly in the west were struggling to address questions they faced in school because their youth ministries had been reduced to engineering “events that ratchet up emotional commitment.” The result was that youths often left church with an emotional high but a poor biblical understanding of God, themselves or the world. While the article was mainly addressing the situation in the west, churches in Asia are not exempt from such danger. In my observation of churches in Singapore, quite a few have moved to a slightly more contemporary form of worship service. Personally, I do not think that there is anything wrong with it. However, there are potential dangers that we need to be aware of.
The first is in using emotional experience as the litmus test of true worship. Back in my secondary school days, I would attend concerts at the Esplanade and the musicians would play a beautiful repertoire that could move people to tears. Yet this emotional experience that we felt was probably less about experiencing the presence of God and had more to do with how the musicians managed to affect our emotions through music. While emotions certainly play a part in our worship, the reality is that it can be manipulated. Emotional experience in and of itself in the absence of scripture cannot be the benchmark of true worship. Take a video that I once saw on the net. The preacher talked about how God was healing when a song was being played and so requested for that song to be played again. What was that powerful and mighty song you may ask. It was called “Hokey Pokey”. I kid you not. The preacher himself called it the “Holy Ghost Hokey Pokey”. The lyrics went something like this:
“You put your left foot in
You take your left foot out
You put your right foot in
You take your right foot out
You put it in and you shake it
And you shake it all about”
In the middle of the song, people started dancing and waving their hands around. Were they emotionally charged? Certainly. Would that have counted as worship? In all honesty, I find it too hard to comprehend how that can be worship. If that could be counted, then perhaps I might as well play any secular music during church service. Perhaps that might also invoke some emotions among the congregants. But clearly, emotional experience alone cannot be the litmus test.
The second danger would be to equate supernatural manifestations as true worship. In churches today, it is very possible to find all sorts of random break outs like people suddenly bursting into laughter. Some even go into a state of drunkenness all of which they call “drunk in the spirit” even though scripture instructs us to be sober minded (2 Tim 4:5), to exercise self-control (Gal 5:23) and that worship ought to be orderly (1 Cor 14). When questioned, the reason leaders in this movement typically give is that since God is being exalted or praised and miracles are being performed then who else can it be but the Holy Spirit that is moving in them? Ironically, it was the Catholic Church that used a similar reason to validate themselves against John Calvin and the Protestant Church during the Reformation to which Calvin’s reply was:
“And we may also fitly remember that Satan has his miracles, which, though they are deceitful tricks rather than true powers, are of such sort as to mislead the simple-minded and untutored.”
While Calvin’s reply was certainly harsh, we would do well to remember Jesus’ words in Matthew 7:22-23:
“Many will say to me on that day, ‘Lord, Lord, did we not prophesy in your name and in your name drive out demons and in your name perform many miracles?’ Then I will tell them plainly, ‘I never knew you. Away from me, you evildoers!’”
If the two potential dangers mentioned above are true, how then do we discern whether something is of God?
At the heart of the reformed tradition lies the centrality of the Word. Back in the 1500s, when John Calvin was pastoring in Geneva, his worship service was simple. There was no such thing as fanciful lights, smoke machines and guitars. In fact, in Calvin’s church, the only song they ever sang was taken from the Psalms. Today many churches don’t quite follow that style of worship. But within the reformed tradition of which the church I am in belongs to, the Word of God must continue to remain central in our worship for it is God’s revealed and authoritative will to His people in order that we may live godly lives and worship “in spirit and in truth” That is why during church service there will always be the reading of scripture. Because the reading and hearing of scripture is an integral part of our worship experience and not separate. At the same time, the word of God also teaches us how we should worship and whether the theology reflected in our songs match up with it. If they do, then we can be sure that our experiences of God and emotions are indeed guided by scripture and thereby moved by the Holy Spirit.
Let us place our corporate worship under the authority and sufficiency of scripture making it central in our lives as we come together to stand coram Deo – in the presence of God.
 Calvin, J. (1960). Institutes of the Christian religion (Vol. 1) (J. T. McNeill, Ed.; F. L. Battles, Trans.). Philadelphia: Westminster Press.