David de Bruyn

Worship Should Feel (Somewhat) Awkward

A God who is utterly unthreatening is not worthy of admiration, and does not provoke fear for His justice or love for His mercy. To worship the God of Scripture is to worship a God who, like Aslan, is “not safe, but He is good”. The worship of an unsafe God includes at least some hesitation, some awkwardness, and some intimidation. As Spurgeon said, it is a throne, lest we presume, but it is a throne of grace, lest we fear too much.

The things we take for granted are often our worst errors. Assuming the correctness of what is false can be disastrous.
An unquestioned expectation of modern worshippers seems to be this: Worship should be enjoyable in its entirety. It should feel familiar, and not foreign. It should be easy to do, not demanding. It should set me at ease, not intimidate me.
The theological idea behind this feel-goodism appears to be: God is a welcoming God, with no particular preference as to how we worship Him. He is happy if we are happy.
In order for this theological idea to be true, we would need to see several supporting ideas in Scripture. Among them would be:

Humans who encountered God directly or through a vision felt immediately at ease, at home, and relaxed.

God never required any intermediaries between Himself and His worshippers. All could come as they were, and enter God’s presence directly.

God was never prescriptive or detailed about where, when, or how He wanted to be worshipped, but left this up to the worshippers’ creativity and sincerity.

No one was ever punished for a worship-offence, because sincerity covers a multitude of sins.

God preferred worshippers to express themselves freely through a multitude of words – the more, the better.

God liked His people to mimic those worship practices found among the pagans, and adapt them for Jehovah-worship.

Once a person was converted, no growth or maturity in worship was needed. A newborn Christian had instant, perfect discernment as to who God is, and what He deserves.

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The Worship of Worship

I fear many people today are caught in the childish rut of worshiping their emotions. For this reason, they dislike the sober worship of conservative churches, because such worship seldom inflames the emotions to the intensity desired. Why? Plato told us: “Beautiful things are hard.” God is beautiful, and a singular focus on His beauty is demanding. If you want to feel your feelings, you don’t want subtlety of musical and poetic metaphor, persuasive appeals, and demanding art. You want the taste-burst of the loud, the moody, the maudlin, the mushy, the gushy, the romantic, the sexy, the intense. 

Many people do not worship the living God. They worship their worship.
The great secret (and great difficulty) of true worship is that when we worship truly, our focus is to be exclusively on the object of our worship: God. If our eye is on how our worship is being perceived by others, it falls under the condemnation of the Sermon on the Mount, for we are then performing our worship to be seen by men and lauded by them.
More subtle, and less visible to us, is if our eye is on our own worship experience.
Many people judge whether worship is occurring by whether they are sensing or feeling certain emotions. In other words, they are actually watching themselves. God receives a glance or two, but then the focus returns to self. Am I feeling anything? Do I feel joy? Do I feel intense intimacy? Do I feel ecstasy? Here, our focus is not on the worth and qualities of God, but on the quality of our own worship experiences.
You are supposed to enjoy God in worship. You are not supposed to try to enjoy your joy. You are supposed to wonder at God in worship. You are not supposed to wonder at your wonder. You are supposed to love God in worship. You aren’t supposed to love your love.
Loving your love, enjoying your joy, or being in awe at your awe is a subtle idolatry. It turns the gaze from God to self, and feels satisfaction in yourself for being such an intense worshipper. We begin to watch ourselves worship, and admire ourselves for being so full of admiration; we adore our adoration; we weep over our own intensity. But this is pseudo-worship.
God is the object of worship. He is not supposed to be the means by which we achieve joy, or ecstasy or religious happiness. If God, or biblical truth, or anything in a worship service is simply a means to achieving a religion emotion, then the religious emotion is the true object of our affections.
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AI, ChatGPT and Ministry—Part 2

Someone with a ubiquitous AI pastor in their pocket never learns to chew any food; he remains spoon-fed on the milk of the word…AI will repeat biblical fact, but lack insight into the person’s life. AI will summarise biblical teachings well, but fail to give appropriate application. AI will be intelligent, but not wise.
AI will transform how many jobs are done, and will completely replace many others. Tools like ChatGPT will reduce the task of writing to command-line prompts for professions ranging from medicine to law to office administration. The heavy lifting of writing will be done by an increasingly smart machine. How will this affect ministry: those who write, teach and preach the Bible? I suggest a few possibilities.
AI will tempt some to laziness and “cheating.”
For those tempted to skip the labour of study and original writing, AI will offer such men decently written sermons or Bible studies. This is just the next generation of copying and pasting from the web, except that now the material will be “original”: created from scratch by a machine. Or, if you like, it is the next generation of ghost writing: employing another to write on your behalf, and then taking the credit for the product. Strictly speaking, it is not cheating to have a computer write your sermon for you, for the work is original and ‘commissioned’ by the preacher. But it is cheating in the same way that it was cheating for jocks to pay nerds to write their term papers for them.
AI will tempt the marketers to deepen the phenomenon of fake church.
During Covid, we found out that many churches had a quasi-Gnostic view of the human body, and a passive-entertainment view of worship. That is, it made no difference to them if humans were actually present with each other in worship, because to them, live images on a screen are as much the reality of worship as in-person worship. With those views already in place, we are ready for the next level of worship simulations. AI will be able to produce Deep Fake versions of a church’s preacher or pastor preaching either sermons he has written or sermons produced by AI. These can be streamed or played on the big screens on Sunday—for those who want to show up. If worship can be a screen, who can object?
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AI, ChatGPT and Ministry

Just as we made machines that can lift more than we can and move faster than we can, we have now designed machines that can know more and communicate more in a shorter period of time. If thinking is defined as memory, factual recall, and the ability to swiftly convert factual recall into written (or verbal) communication, then we have designed machines that can think better than we can.
We have always produced machines to reduce our labour. These machines are necessarily stronger than we are. The Industrial Revolution produced machines that could build bigger, better and faster than human hands could manage.
In the 20th century, we produced machines that could calculate more and faster than we could, machines that could store and remember more information than we could. We then produced machines that could combine this and beat us at chess. In other words, by one metric, even the computers of the 20th century were ‘smarter’ than us. Our software could reveal more in seconds than our library research could have produced after hours of page turning.
The last years represent another threshold. We have now produced machines that can mimic and understand language. Combined with massive storage, and a huge range of examples, we now have machines that can write faster, and sometimes, better than we can: essays, descriptions, instructions, poems, riddles, jokes, speeches, or sermons. Similarly AI can now code software better than we can, and perform visual design of graphics, websites, presentations and eventually, live-action movies, and simulations. Whereas we thought that creative activity would always be the domain of the human, we have now trained computers to mimic the creative process and perform it faster than we can.
For example, I asked ChatGPT to write a prayer by Charles Spurgeon. After about ten seconds, it had the following:
“O Lord, we would delight ourselves in You who are the chief of all delights. We thank You that of Your own good pleasure You bring salvation to sinful men. We confess that before You made us to differ, we were as others are, dead in trespasses and sins, having no hope and without God in the world. We bless You for the eternal covenant by which You foresaw us and chose us to be Your own, and for the precious blood of Christ by which we are redeemed. We pray that we may never lose sight of the exceeding sinfulness of sin, the infinite mercy of divine love, and the fullness of grace that dwells in Jesus. May the Holy Spirit who has begun the work of grace in us carry it onward to completion until we are complete in Christ, and find our joy and satisfaction in His service; for the Lord’s sake. Amen.”
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Why We Need the Worship Wars

We should not be surprised that there exists in our era contention over proper sensibilities toward God. The truly alarming thing would be if there were none. What is somewhat different in our era is the post-modern mood that despises debate and clear definition. This pseudo-tolerance has long ago compromised the doctrinal integrity of professing Evangelicals. The same worldly mood that abhors necessary conflict and clear definition in doctrinal matters, is even more incensed at the thought of anything similar in the more subjective realm of orthopathy. In some ways, the most problematic people are not the combatants in the worship wars, but those who insist there should be none.

For some Christians, the worship wars are much ado about nothing. They regard these conflicts as the dying thrashes of hide-bound traditionalists, raging against the waning popularity of those songs most familiar and nostalgically precious to them. Such Christians think that debates over worship reveal only the immature clamor of people who do not understand the Romans 14 principle, and want to elevate their preferences to the level of orthodoxy.
If you believe that it is possible to have correct or incorrect affections towards God, appropriate or inappropriate responses to God, acceptable or unacceptable worship, then the worship wars are a natural, and indeed, essential part of church life. While no Spirit-filled Christian delights in conflict, no Spirit-filled Christian doubts that some conflict is inevitable and necessary. Consider how important doctrinal conflict has been.
We should be very thankful for the heretics and their heresies. Without them, we would not know all the ways that Christian orthodoxy can be denied and twisted. Before heretics come along, orthodoxy is assumed, without clear definition. Through the heresies of Gnosticism, Ebionism, Apollonarianism, Eutychianism, Nestorianism, Arianism, and Sabellianism, the church hammered out orthodox Christology and trinitarianism. The Apostles’, Nicene, and Athanasian creeds represent early responses to heresies, and defining points for orthodoxy. The creeds represent points of definition. After these definitions were in place, deviations represent deliberate heterodoxy. A certain amount of vagueness or imprecision is expected before the point of definition that becomes intolerable after the point of definition.
For that matter, we can be “thankful”, so to speak, for the heresies of transsubstantiation, indulgences, baptismal regeneration, Mary as co-redemptrix, and others, for leading to the Reformation with its five solas. In many ways, our propositional statements of faith, as ornate as they now appear, partly represent a kind of timeline of doctrinal combat. Our liturgies, polities, and ministry philosophy represent a practical version of the same.
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Thinking About Revival – 3 – The Character of Revival

True reverence for God is a weighty, serious, profound response to God that is more than a feeling you feel. It instead becomes a sense of God’s importance, greatness, beauty, loveliness that affects every part of the Christian life. The fear of the Lord is what we experience the clearer our view becomes of who God is.

If I told you that there would be a worship service for the God of Scripture, to seek His blessing on us, led by a well known preacher, with many churches working together, at great expense and organisational effort, and the music and the preaching is going to stir us up to intense zeal and passion, wouldn’t you be interested? This was the scene when Israel worshipped with the golden calf.
But God’s verdict on this? Here we have in black-and-white, God’s opinion of their worship service:
Then the Lord spoke to Moses, “Go down at once, for your people, whom you brought up from the land of Egypt, have corrupted themselves. “They have quickly turned aside from the way which I commanded them. They have made for themselves a molten calf, and have worshiped it and have sacrificed to it and said, ‘This is your god, O Israel, who brought you up from the land of Egypt!’ ” (Exodus 32:7–8)
God called it corrupt, and said Israel was not worshipping Him, but instead worshipping a thing they had made. Can you imagine their reaction, to be told, “You weren’t worshipping God. The symbol you made of God, you had actually worshipped it, and it warped your idea of God, and you worshipped your own feelings.”?
Apparently, the essential ingredients of revival are not sincerity, passion, zeal, emotion, organisation, expense, unity, sacrifice, effort. Apparently, you can have all that, and yet not have revival.
So why was it not revival? We get part of the answer by looking at how they acted in this event, and what was the character of this worship-response. What was the dominant affection, the mood, or the tone of this event? C. S. Lewis once said the thing we think we are loving is seen in the kind of love. He wrote this, “The form of the desired is in the desire. It is the object which makes the desire harsh or sweet, coarse or choice, ‘high’ or ‘low.’ It is the object that makes the desire itself desirable or hateful”.
So, what kind of desires, and affections were present in this event? We can tell be looking a little closer.
First, we read, they ate and drank, and got up to play.
What does that mean? Well, likely not church volleyball, or hide and seek. The Hebrew word translated play is tsahaq, and it often means laugh, mock, joke.
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Strange Lyre: Nothing But Feelings

Manipulative worship impatiently skips the slow and deep persuasion of the human spirit (knowing full well that it will not be popular with the masses). It will give us the intensity our bodies crave, regardless of the object of our worship. When it comes to what Pentecostals call “intensity,” we would do well to distinguish persuasive, spirit-centered zeal from a manipulative, sensually-controlled passion.

Pentecostal worship places great emphasis on intensity. By intensity, they mean a strongly felt experience of emotion, intimacy, joy, wonder, or happiness. Indeed, this is a close cousin of the ecstasy in ecstatic utterances. The experience sought is one where active seeking gives way to a passive experience of overwhelming pleasure or emotion.
Critically examining emotional experiences like this has all the fun of ruining someone’s birthday surprise or spoiling a joke by blabbing the punchline before the narrator has finished. We don’t like people like that, who appear to find joy in lessening the joy of others. Not surprisingly, when a critique of someone’s spiritual experiences begins, the response is often an impatient sentiment along the lines of “Can’t you just let people have their fun?”, or, “What’s it to you if someone has a different worship experience to you?”
But in matters of Christian worship, we cannot be content if worshippers merely make the claim to an ecstatic experience. That’s precisely because the experience of worship is not the goal of worship. Worship is not successful simply because the worshippers enjoyed their worship. Christian worship is rooted in truth, and therefore everything that claims to be Christian worship must be a truthful response to a truthful revelation of the true God. In other words, you can get worship wrong, even if it felt right. Many people feel good about an exam they wrote, and find out they failed; some feel terrible and find out they passed with flying colours. The indispensable necessity of Christian worship is a true revelation of God from the Scriptures, and a truthful—that is, appropriate and corresponding—response to that revelation. The First Commandment restricts worship to the true God. The Second Commandment restricts the responses of worship to those He has commanded, which correspond to His being. The true God worshipped the true way constitutes biblical worship.
This brings us to a rather dispassionate discussion of felt emotions in worship, one that is sure to annoy all fans of scrunchy-face worship. Philosophers and thinkers have written much on how human emotions differ: their categories, their manifestations, and how they are evoked. Dating back to classical Greece, philosophers have often placed emotions into two categories: those evoked by reason, and those evoked by physical sensation. Different nomenclature has been used, but a similar idea prevailed for centuries. Pre-modern theologians spoke of the affections and the passions. Nietzche coined the terms Apollonianand Dionysian. Our own era has collapsed the two into the word emotion, but the distinction is worth reviving and keeping.
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Letters to An Agnostic—#6

Morality cannot be simply part of our biology. It doesn’t deal with material reality. Morality has to do with people and relationships and fair treatment of each other. So if moral reality is all about people and their relationships, what should we conclude about where it came from? 

Dear J,
To take your objections to my last letter in order, they seem to be:

What I am calling morality is just self-preservation, an instinct for survival.
The so-called “Bigger Rule”, where we expect or demand certain behaviour from others is the same instinct, enlarged and modified for a group, or a herd. Our supposed primate ancestors travelled in troops, and this means we evolved instincts that protect the group, which in turn protects the individual. We “expect” behaviour from others because we evolved to expect protection from the herd.
None of this proves a personal universe.

All right, let’s suppose that the morality of the Golden Rule is a kind of biological instinct. When we speak of instinct in animals, we mean an impulse in them which they always obey. Birds always migrate, they don’t need to be trained to do so. They do not freely choose their instincts; they merely follow them.
But this lack of freedom in instinct is very problematic for the theory that morality is a mere instinct. If right and wrong is really just a hard-wired, biological instinct, why do we need to be told to obey it? Why are we always exhorted to do the ‘right thing’, if, in fact, the right thing is a natural survival instinct?
Indeed, we are told we ought to obey this inner morality, which you call instinct. Being told we ought to do something is itself a value judgement. Why ought we to obey the survival instinct? It’s one thing to have the sense that drinking water is needful to stay alive. This is the instinct – you feel thirsty. But why I ought to obey that instinct, why I ought to want to listen to its promptings to keep me alive is something else. Being thirsty is one thing, wanting to keep living is another. Does blind instinct tell me it is better to live than to die? Does instinct give me the value of living?
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Strange Lyre: Early Beginnings of Pentecostal Worship

Pentecostalism grew out of the Holiness movement, and thus drank deeply from the populist movements in Methodism and Baptist and African-American circles. Charles Fox Parham (1873–1929), is usually credited with the beginnings of the movement. He was born in Muscatine, IA, and claimed a revelation of light at age 13. Parham associated with Methodism, but rejected their hierarchy, and moved toward holiness theology. He broke with Methodism in 1895 and established his own ministry, Bethel Bible College, in October 1900. He emphasized “primitive Christianity.” 

An easy error for a historian to commit is to equate or link events or movements in history that are similar, while ignoring or underplaying their differences. One example of this is when historians of worship note that modern negative reactions to contemporary pop-rock worship contain similar objections to ones leveled against the hymns of Luther, and later, Charles Wesley and Isaac Watts. Without question, there are similarities. What a lazy historian fails to notice is when the differences are greater than the similarities.
That can be said about the roots of Pentecostal worship, found in the populist religious mood that swept America in the late 1780s, through to the 19th century. Yes, there are many parallels to earlier reactions against ossified liturgical forms that sparked more colloquial and lay-driven worship (e.g., some Waldensians and Lollards, some Anabaptists, the Moravians). But there are differences to previous reformations of worship that far outweigh the similarities. When we examine those differences, we will find that the seedbed from which Pentecostalism grew in the 1900s was actually a considerable departure from prior worship reformers such as Luther, Wesley and Watts.
Nathan Hatch detects four waves of populist folk religious music in America from 1780 to 1830. The first was among Separatist Baptists in rural New England. Some of the early hymnals of these Baptists maintained continuity with the hymns of Watts and others, but a flood of hymnbooks published by Elias Smith between 1804 and 1820 contained no overlap with the accepted hymnals of the day. Original and catchy lyrics linked to popular folk tunes became the new tradition of rural New England Baptists.
The second wave of populist worship was Methodist revivalism. The Wesleys had taught the importance of the participation of all people, but had also insisted that hymns maintain dignity and reverence. But Methodism in America during the early 1800s went in a new direction. It included spontaneous song, shouting, jumping and seeking a rousing emotional response to the singing. These songs were the beginnings of the “gospel song”: simple, easily remembered lyrics, verses written in rhyming pairs with a chorus or refrain. Gospel songs were songs of testimony, marching songs of solidarity, humorous ballads, even appeals to repentance.
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Strange Lyre: The Pentecostalization of Christian Worship

What can the “Pentecostalization of worship” refer to, if we have removed the overtly charismatic acts of praying in tongues, healing, and so forth? In a series of upcoming articles, I will argue that Pentecostal worship has a matrix of distinctives that is a clear break from historic, Protestant worship, or even the worship that preceded it. These distinctives are not unique to Pentecostalism, and some of them originated before it existed. Nevertheless, they represent much of the esprit de corp of self-identified Pentecostals when it comes to worship, and certainly represent an innovation in Christian worship. 

It’s hardly disputable that global Christianity has been overwhelmed and colonized by the Pentecostal and charismatic movements. After Roman Catholicism, the Christianity identified variously as charismatic, Pentecostal, Prosperity Gospel, or Latter Rain (with all its permutations and differences) makes up by far the largest percentage of what is classified as Christian. In just over 100 years since its beginnings in Azusa Street, California, it has come to dominate Christianity, and particularly the Christianity spreading in the Global South and and South-east. The growing and new-born Christianity in South America, Africa, and south-east Asia is overwhelmingly of the Pentecostal kind.
Non-Pentecostals, or cessationists as they are sometimes called, have dwindled into the minority. Very few voices have been raised to counter the theological distinctives of Pentecostalism: an emphasis on the supernatural sign gifts of the Holy Spirit, a belief in the baptism of the Spirit subsequent to salvation, and assorted novel views on healing, prosperity, and spiritual warfare. A notable exception was John MacArthur’s 2013 Strange Fire conference and subsequent book. By and large, cessationists simply accept their minority status, and defend their theology when asked.
But perhaps far more insidious has been the quiet takeover of Christian worship by Pentecostalism, even in those churches that reject the theology of continuationism. Worship forms are far more portable than doctrinal statements, and tend to insinuate themselves gradually and quietly. A popular song, emerging from Pentecostal or charismatic roots, finds a home in cessationist circles, because its theology is either orthodox and acceptable to cessationists, or sufficiently banal to fit in almost anywhere. This is not intrinsically problematic; it simply illustrates how worship forms travel across denominational lines in ways that sermons and Bible studies do not. Of course, some of the the most distinctive Pentecostal acts of worship remain out-of-bounds for cessationist churches: praying in tongues, announcing prophecies, public laying on of hands for healings or exorcisms. What arrives incognito is the Pentecostal understanding of the act of corporate worship, with its accompanying postures, approaches, and expectations.
As cessationist churches post vigilant patrols at the doctrinal boundaries, but offer open borders to charismatic songs, music, forms of prayer, and overall sentiment, a quiet transformation takes place.
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