Features, Highlights

Worship ‘not a performance for people in the pews’

It is giving to God what He desires and requires of us

WORSHIP is a matter of giving to God what He desires and requires of us. It is not, and never was, intended to be a spectator sport or the performance of the few for the benefit of the many couch potatoes in the pew.

Stating this in his no-punches-pulled style, the Rev Dr Ben Witherington, III added: “The consumer approach to worship puts the emphasis almost entirely on the wrong syllable. It leads to pastors desperately seeking to change worship patterns and acts so it will attract a bigger crowd on the theory that worship should be a matter of giving the people what they want and crave.

“WRONG! If you end up with a nice buzz, that’s a bonus and a by-product; it’s not what we are striving for.”

The Professor of New Testament Interpretation at Asbury Theological Seminary was delivering the Aldersgate Service sermon at Wesley Methodist Church on May 24, 2008. The service rounded off the week-long annual Aldersgate Convention from May 19 to 24, organised for Methodists to affirm their unity in Christ as they gathered to explore their Wesleyan heritage, and to be inspired by their founder John Wesley’s heartwarming experience.

As this year’s main speaker, the Rev Dr Witherington also gave three illuminating evening talks and conducted two seminars – one for pastors and seminarians, and the other for church members.

There were lively discussions during the Q&A sessions at each of these events. A few people found what the Rev Dr Witherington said “radical”, but all agreed that he was an “engaging and lively speaker”.

Ms Yuen Wai Mey, a member of the Methodist Church of the Incarnation, said: “He had a very interesting way of making his presentations, and his bursting into songs brought colour and a personal touch to the convention.

“And what I like about the Aldersgate Convention is that it gathers Methodists from all the three Annual Conferences. There is this sense of bonding and unity.”

The convention opened with two evening talks in Mandarin by the Rev Dr Ezra Kok, Principal of Seminari Theoloji Malaysia, on May 19 and 20.

Speaking on the sermon entitled “A Vision of Worship” based on the texts from Isaiah 6 and Revelation 4, the Rev Dr Witherington told the congregation that “we often hear people say I don’t go to that worship service because I don’t get anything out of it.

“But who is supposed to be doing the worshipping here? If it is the congregation, then the primary question should be, where can I go to best give praise and worship to God, not where I can go to get the most out of it.”

He said John of Patmos was not looking for a “more informed” worship service when he was in the Spirit on the Lord’s Day and received a vision.

Consider first what was the pre-requisite for John receiving the vision. It was not that the “right mood” was being set by the music. It was not that he was in the “right place”. It was rather that he came prepared for an encounter in holy time; he came prepared to give honour, praise and glory on the Lord’s Day.

“He was wide open to the Spirit to such a degree that he was in the Spirit. Notice it does not say the Spirit was in him, though that was also true. No, he had already immersed himself in the divine presence before the vision came. This likely means that he had prepared his heart to worship, he had repented of his sins, he had been cleansed, and so he boldly approached the Throne of Grace and immersed himself in God.

“And when God gave him the vision, what a vision it was – it was a vision of heavenly worship that transfixed and transfigured him.”

Earlier, referring to Isaiah’s vision, the Rev Dr Witherington said worship was not about “our cozying up to God, our buddy or pal”.

“There is of course intimacy with Abba, but we are in no way being set up in a partnership of equals in worship. A partnership or koinonia between equals results in fellowship, not worship. So let us be clear – the experience of Isaiah was worship.

“Any experience which seeks to put us up on God’s level is not worship. It is inappropriate and even shocking familiarity; indeed it can even be called idolatry. God condescends and remains God, we do not ascend and become as gods.

“Notice what Isaiah says, ‘Woe unto the Holy One, and Isaiah, even with his priestly and prophetic pedigree, is not the Holy One. Worship happens when the creature realises he is not the Creator, and bows down before and adores the one who is. That is true worship.

“True worship is about giving up, surrendering, presenting yourself as a living sacrifice, bowing down, recognising and restoring the creation order of things.” The Aldersgate Service started with the singing of processional hymns and choruses following the call to worship by the Rev Melvin Huang, Pastor-in-Charge of Wesley Methodist Church.

“O For A Thousand Tongues To Sing” pierced the air as the procession of pastors in their colourful robes was led into the sanctuary by carriers of the Cross, Bible and Banners. Forming the rear of the procession were Mrs Laureen Ong, President of the General Conference Women’s Society of Christian Service; Chinese Annual Conference President Rev Khoo Cheng Hoot; Emmanuel Tamil Annual Conference President Rev James Nagulan; Trinity Annual Conference President Rev Dr Wee Boon Hup; the Rev Dr Witherington and Bishop Dr Robert Solomon.

The smooth sound of music was provided by Wesley Dawnbreak the organist and Mr Jason Wu the pianist. Three pastors from Trinity Annual Conference received their 25-year Long True worship is about giving yourself as a living sacrifice Service Award from Bishop Dr Solomon towards the end of the service. The Rev Huang, the Rev Lee Yam Kai, Pastor of Bedok Methodist Church, and the Rev Edmund George de Souza, Pastor-in- Charge of Christ Methodist Church, were each given a Bible.

Peter Teo is the Editor of Methodist Message.