1. Your worship isn’t rooted in God’s word, but extra-biblical or unbiblical traditions.
Many people are shocked when they read the account of Nadab and Abihu in Leviticus 10. These two priests offered to the Lord “strange fire” and as a result were killed by God. While Bible scholars have varied opinions on what exactly made their offering so offensive, one thing is clear: God did not approve of their particular form of worship.
Jesus told the Pharisees that their extra-biblical traditions kept them from obeying God’s word (Matthew 7:13). God is displeased with our traditions in worship that keep us from actually obeying God’s word. If our worship practices don’t align with the Bible, they cannot be pleasing to the Lord.
Some wonder why God is so particular about the way he’s worshipped, and the answer to that question is very important. Worship isn’t just an opportunity for us to express our feelings; it is the primary way in which the faith (i.e. the doctrines which define what we believe as Christians) is passed down from one generation to the next. Unbiblical worship teaches people lies about God, and since God mustn’t be misrepresented, our worship must be rooted in his revelation rather than our own innovation.
2. You worship God while being unreconciled with your brothers and sisters in Christ.
Among many of the shocking things Jesus said in his sermon on the mount are these words: “So if you are offering your gift at the altar and there remember that your brother has something against you, leave your gift there before the altar and go. First be reconciled to your brother, and then come and offer your gift” (Mt. 5:23–24).
During the days of the temple, when people would go to worship God with their sacrifices, Jesus said that unresolved tension between worshippers kept them from properly offering their gifts to God. While we no longer worship according to the temple ceremonies today, the principle is applicable for believers under the new covenant.
The French theologian John Calvin highlighted the shocking nature of this command:
When he commands those who have injured any of their brethren, to be reconciled to him, before they offer their gift, his meaning is, that, so long as a difference with our neighbor is kept up by our fault, we have no access to God… it is a false and empty profession of worshipping God, which is made by those who, after acting unjustly towards their brethren, treat them with haughty disdain. (Comments on Matthew 5:23)
The apostle John said, “If anyone says, ‘I love God,’ and hates his brother, he is a liar; for he who does not love his brother whom he has seen cannot love God whom he has not seen” (1 Jn. 4:20). Simply put, our worship of God is hindered by our unwillingness to reconcile with brothers and sisters in the faith.
3. Your worship respects persons and doesn’t make room for the poor.
Christianity today has suffered from the celebrity pastor culture. Sometimes, unknowingly, we elevate the man instead of the message, and give special treatment to some, while others are neglected. Jesus Christ is no respecter of persons, and our worship shouldn’t elevate some people above others, either.
My brothers, show no partiality as you hold the faith in our Lord Jesus Christ, the Lord of glory. For if a man wearing a gold ring and fine clothing comes into your assembly, and a poor man in shabby clothing also comes in, and if you pay attention to the one who wears the fine clothing and say, ‘You sit here in a good place,’ while you say to the poor man, ‘You stand over there,’ or, ‘Sit down at my feet,’ have you not then made distinctions among yourselves and become judges with evil thoughts? (James. 2:1–4)
In Isaiah 58 God said that true worship looked like humbling ourselves before God, repenting of our sins, and ministering to the impoverished (Isa. 58:6). If in our worship of God we’ve forgotten about our neighbors who are in need—especially the poor in our own churches—there’s something terribly wrong (See 1 Cor. 16:1; Gal. 2:10; Acts 20:1-5).
4. Your worship confuses and scares non-Christians.
Some years back a friend of mine told me the story of a church she visited prior to coming to faith in Jesus. She said the experience traumatized her. Members of the church were running up and down the aisles screaming. A few were in a back corner; she was told they were speaking in tongues. The pastor behind the pulpit looked at her and said, “There are backsliders among us!”
She sat through the pandemonium and left confused without ever hearing the gospel. Paul said, “If, therefore, the whole church comes together and all speak in tongues, and outsiders or unbelievers enter, will they not say that you are out of your minds? … all things should be done decently and in order” (1 Cor. 14:23, 40).
Paul’s principle of doing things decently and in order is applicable to our worship today. There are two real dangers here:
The first danger is that in our desire to reach people we water down worship. We remove all talk of sin and the substitutionary death of Jesus Christ. We avoid biblical language because we think it’s too archaic. This ends up confusing people because it’s a bait and switch strategy for growing the church. We remove everything distinctive about the faith in order to make people comfortable, and then we expect them to embrace the faith once they’re settled in. More often than not, if something other than Jesus is attracting people to your church, it will be confusing for them when at last they’re introduced to the real Jesus of Scripture.
The second danger is that in our desire to be faithful to God, we’re all speaking in tongues. I don’t mean the charismatic gift; I mean sometimes we can be so tribal and heady that we lose our ability to speak to outsiders in an intelligible way. Years ago, I had a non-Christian friend who said he wanted to come and hear me preach. I was still interning at the time, and I was so excited that he was actually going to come to church! After the service I caught up with him and asked, “How was it? What’d you think?” Somewhat overwhelmed he replied, “It was cool; I didn’t really understand anything though.” My heart sunk. Thinking back on that incident, I can see why he was confused. A lot of the jargon I used in my sermon was understandable to people within the church but speaking in tongues for those unfamiliar with the lingo! We have to carefully explain the Scriptures in a way that those unfamiliar with the Bible can understand. We don’t water down the text, but we lovingly preach it in a way that is accessible for all.
Worship shouldn’t confuse people because it’s a bait and switch, but it also shouldn’t confuse people because it’s unintelligible for the average person. Worship that honors God is faithful to the Scriptures, and it speaks the truth of Scripture to the people who need to hear it in clear and understandable ways.
5. Your worship minimizes the things that God values for his people.
Early Christian worship focused on the apostolic doctrine and the ordinances which Jesus left for his church to observe. Acts 2:42 says, “And they devoted themselves to the apostles’ teaching and the fellowship, to the breaking of bread and the prayers.” Many have noted that the reference here to the breaking of bread is probably speaking of holy communion, because the Greek text includes the definite article before the word bread. This is the breaking of the bread, i.e. the Lord’s Supper.
Christian worship should be devoted to apostolic teaching found in Scripture, prayer, community, and communion. God values these things for his people because he knows that they lift our eyes above the present circumstances and onto Jesus Christ. Worship should always fix our eyes on Jesus and his work for us, and worship that places the spotlight anywhere but Christ and him crucified is not pleasing to the Lord.