What makes the church special? I don’t mean what makes a church special, there may be many answers to that question. What makes the church, the church of Jesus Christ truly special? The answer is simple: The church is the only place on the face of the earth where God reveals his glorious splendor and grace in a manner that no other institution or experience can hope to do so.
How does God do this? He does it through what are called “the means of grace”, that is to say, the Word (read and preached and exercised in godly discipline), the Sacraments (the Lord’s Supper and Baptism) and Prayer. Each week as sincere Christians gather together in the presence of an holy, almighty and gracious God, He chooses by the means He has appointed to open the heavens and bestow grace upon grace on his people. There is no other place like gathered worship for the means to be known; family and individual worship, while necessary and beneficial, are not the zenith of the means of grace. Gathered worship is, where God’s family gather in God’s house to glorify God and in doing so enjoy him.
The Word, sacraments, prayer and discipline are often called the ordinary means of grace. They are the ordinary or usual means that God uses to grow us in both the knowledge and grace of Christ our Lord. As we, by faith, put ourselves under them, God blesses us. His Spirit works faith, repentance, assurance, joy--whatever is needful in us--to his own glory and our strengthening. It is in the word, sacraments and prayer, that we come face to face with the holy God of heaven and earth, the appalling wretchedness of our own sin and the glorious grace of God in Christ Jesus.
Yet the church at large has become diverted. The ordinary (usual) means of grace have become for many just that – ordinary. They have become tired, boring, old fashioned, traditionalistic. The church has sought other ways of receiving God’s blessing and has replaced the ordinary (usual) means that God has ordained with its own methods. Lighting, atmospheric music, informality, homour, visual stimulants, shallow teaching and a sparse observance of the Lord’s Supper now characterize many churches. By addition or subtraction, God’s means have been replaced by man’s means in an attempt to worship God and edify the saints. Now here is the rub...these new means cannot do what they are supposed to do.
While the ordinary (usual) means may appear ordinary (boring), they are actually extraordinary. That is to say, they are the primary and usual ways in which God has promised to do what man, by his innovative ways, is always attempting to do. Man’s attempts to worship God and be satisfied in Him by human means are actually unsuccessful in that goal. Man’s ways are natural. God’s ways are supernatural. Man’s ways are ordinary, God’s ways are extraordinary. God’s means come to those who believe with the power of the Spirit of God, man’s ways are limited to the power of man. Only God’s ways can do what God desires (see 1 Thess. 2:13-14; 4:1-8 for the Word; 1 Cor. 10:16 for the Sacraments and James 5:14 for prayer). When the Word, sacraments and prayer are lost in the church, either totally or in spirit, the church has lost its worship, its power, yes, even its identity. It may look like a church from the outside, it might sound like a church on the inside, but it has long since ceased to be a place where God meets with his people.
When feelings replace doctrine, when entertainment replaces corporate worship, when an individual’s personal musings replace the preached word, when the Lord’s Supper is not practiced frequently, when “I” replaces “we”, when lights and atmospheric music are so overwhelmingly trusted in that they become an attempt to do the work of the Spirit, when trite replaces sober, the extraordinary and supernatural work of the Spirit is lost. It is instead replaced by the ordinary, natural and fleshly work of man. This is not about contemporary worship versus traditional, or whether a guitar or organ ought be played. An organ can be as idolatrous and selfishly played as a guitar. No, the central issue is whether our worship is Spirit-filled, that is, whether it conforms to the Scripture in practice and is exercised in faith. When it comes to the means of grace, it really is God’s way or the highway.
The real problem here is that a lack of confidence in God's ordinary means of grace is a lack of faith in God and an idolatrous view of self. Man presupposes that his ways are better than God’s, so he acts accordingly. Scripture speaks with devastating condemnation on such practices. First it speaks to the powerlessness of idols, “Their idols are silver and gold, the work of human hands. They have moths but do not speak, eyes but do not see. They have ears but do not hear, noses but do not smell. They have hands but do not feel, feet but do not walk and the do not make a sound in their throat” (Psalm 115:4-7). Such is the worship and god of those who worship without God’s ordinary means. Their god is self-created, and when they look to it for guidance it does not hear, see or speak to them. When they look to their god for help in time of need it remains silent. When they call on him to stretch out his “mighty hand” it remains motionless. No power, no sight, no sound. A voice maybe heard by the worshipper, but it is certainly not the voice of Almighty God.
And so what becomes of the worshipper? Psalm 115 continues “Those who make them (idols) become like them; so do all who trust in them.”. Sobering. Worship where God’s ordinary and yet supernatural means have been supplanted by man’s idolatrous means makes spiritually deaf, dumb, blind and inactive people. In short, worship without God’s ordinary means, entombs already dead souls.
Again, this is not an argument for a particular style of worship, though I do believe Scripture has something to say on that matter. It is a plea and warning that the church returns and clings to a faith in God and his ways. Those ways bring life and light. Man’s ways lead to darkness. God has promised, by his own power and by His Spirit, to bless the ordinary means of grace, for they are “extraordinary ordinary.”