Look at Jesus’ words from John 12:32. This statement is rich with meaning on many levels. First, Jesus was reminding his Hebrew listeners how Moses lifted up the serpent in the wilderness as a sign of healing. In this reference, Jesus built a bridge both to his Jewish heritage and to his crucifixion to come. Just as Moses lifted up the serpent, Jesus would soon be lifted up on a Roman cross as the ultimate healer of sin for all time and all eternity. But there is more in this simple statement that we dare not miss. Jesus was also giving us the simplest formula for true worship. When we lift him up above all, he will draw hearts and lives to himself. Worship style is simply packaging for the truth of the gospel.
For example… I have used the same brand of body lotion for many years. Across those years, the identifying marks of the lotion bottle—color, shape, print style, etc.—seldom change. And why would it, since the manufacturers want me to be able to identify it easily in any store? On the other hand, the words “new and improved” seem to appear on my lotion regularly. They are always seeking to change the product to better fit the ever-changing needs of the users.
The good news that Christ died on the cross for the sin of the world is just the opposite from my favorite lotion. The product of the gospel is never new and improved. When Christ gave his life for us, it was fully active for all time and all people in all places. Truth, by definition, is completely true and never gets stronger, more effective, or “more true.” Christ’s death and resurrection cannot be improved upon. It always will be the only way that God redeems us to himself. God’s plan is perfect.
But our tendency, like the manufacturer of my lotion, is to make an icon of the packaging. Any way you cut it, our music and preaching styles, architecture, dress, seating arrangement, format, etc. are simply packaging for the product. We want to take our favorite shape, color, and style and make them the standard in every market. When we fall into that trap, worship methodology becomes idolatry. Worship of God misses the mark when we make it all about our favorite package. The formula for real worship is all about the product—the gospel—not the packaging.
Rick Warren wrote in The Purpose Driven Church: “Every church likes to believe its worship style is the most biblical. The truth is there isn’t a biblical style of worship. Each Sunday true believers around the world give glory to Jesus Christ using a thousand equally valid expressions and styles.”1 Colossians 3:16 (NIV) shows us that God affirms variety in our worship: “Let the Word of God dwell in you richly with all wisdom, teaching and admonishing one another with psalms, hymns, and spiritual songs, giving thanks in your hearts to God.” In modern terms, psalms are Scripture songs, hymns are great songs of the faith that present the gospel, and spiritual songs are songs sung to God personally.
The gospel never changes, but the packaging of the gospel must change! The language and style of our cultural context at any given time demand different wrappers. The means of communicating the truth of the gospel must be contextualized to best convey the message. The means of salvation, however, will always be Jesus Christ, Son of God. — Mark Powers
1 Warren, The Purpose Driven Church, 241.