Harold Best, Dean of the Wheaton College Conservatory of Music, recently spoke at the Institute for Christian Worship (Southern Baptist Theological Seminary) on the subject of "The Glory of God in Contemporary Worship: A Shared Burden." In it you will hear an aging, passionate man stumble and fumble over his words trying to convey a message that even he says is impossible to tell. By the end of it you just want to cry. It's not that he is ill-prepared or under qualified to teach on the subject of worship (humanly, he is one of the most qualified), but rather it's as if in his closeness to the glory in the face of Christ, he is speechless or child-like. He began the lesson portion of his talk (about half-way through the audio file) with the following excerpt, which I definitely find worthy of posting if for no other reason than I wish we all, including myself, would stop making worship an idol.

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Who is God? What is He doing? What is central to what He does?

These three questions are infinitely important, and I mention them only to say this: These questions take precedence over what we call worship, or the question we ask, “What is worship?”, because as we know it, the evangelical church is riddled with the word “worship.” It seems to be the only subject there is: “What’s your worship style? How do you worship? What are your worship songs?” Worship, worship, worship, worship, almost to the point where it’s become a cuss word, i.e., it’s vainly repeated. And we, thereby, in talking about worship all the time, or a good part of the time, fail to ask the questions, “Who is God? What is central to what He does?”, because I think, I know I’ve been guilty of this, we tend to craft our definitions of God on our concept of worship. That is to say, our theology of worship becomes so central to what we have come to call worship, that then our theology, i.e., the study of God, becomes framed by the word “worship” and our worship practices.

There is an astonishing potential among us for whittling God down to the size and shape of our worship theology. When we do that we are committing what can only be called theolatry, i.e., we’ve made a god out of God that is less than He is, because it’s been crafted according to the parameters of something else, even though the parameters of that something else seem to have theological merit, namely a theology of worship. But if our theology of worship has been crafted without thought to who God is, what He does, and what’s central to what He does, then we’ve crafted a theology of worship which then frames God within that theology rather than our framing a theology of worship within the larger, mysterious question of, “Who is God? What does He do? What is He like? How then should we worship once we have uncovered and continue to uncover the counsel of God?”

I would argue that if we had more thought to theology and would understand the theolatry that our limited theologies of worship cause us to commit, we might not talk about worship at all. In fact, I for one would like to see the word disappear for a good decade, so that we would swear ourselves to a code, to an oath, almost, of silence about the word because it has come to master us. And as I have said in Unceasing Worship, we tend to worship about worship, or even tend to worship worship, because we are being shaped by something we’ve crafted that is less than the God Who we hope is overseeing our worship, but Who in the meantime might have been whittled down to fit inside the parameters of what we call worship.

And I say this without pointing a finger at anybody, but I get around enough to know, and I’ve heard enough dissatisfaction among young people (this is why young people are so important to me) about the strictured life of the body of Christ, of the assembly of believers. In some very loyal way, i.e., loyal to God through Jesus Christ, in some passionate way in love with the Lord and in love with, being with, each other, many of them are saying, “Something isn’t right yet. Something hasn’t been put together quite right yet. What is that?” And I hear that in any number of ways.

And when you think of it, I talk about whittling God down to the size of our concept of worship, where we find God within our worship, rather than finding out how to worship within the counsel of God, that our whittling goes even further,…where we define worship as a module on a given Sunday morning: “First we’ll worship and then we’ll…(so on and so forth).” I still hear that. Worship is that “front time” followed by whatever follows.

And then, amazingly enough, this sacramentalizing of music happens to the extent to which for many people (I’m not saying necessarily the leadership; it’s the impression the leaders give, not what they believe) music is worship. It is the worship. And I know from talking to many, many worship leaders that they don’t believe that: “Of course music isn’t the worship. We’re worshiping God.” But I’m talking about perceptions rather than orthodoxies. The perception that many worship teams, for want of the better word, give is not necessarily what they truly believe, but because of the power of music in there hands, and because of the power that music has in a pagan culture, where music is a more causal event than it should be, the impression is given that the music is the worship.

So we have this tripartite whittling: We whittle God down to the size of worship, we whittle worship down to a module, and then we whittle the module down to music being the worship. So we have God whittled, then the module, and then music as the real worship.

So the question is: “What overwhelms our worship? Is it God or artifact? What drives our theology? Is it a truncated theology of worship that somehow ends up defining God, or is it a full-blown theology of God Himself that defines our theology of worship? And then, is it our theology of worship that puts music in its place?

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