A few years ago, my son John accompanied me to a television appearance promoting the book, Seven Words of Worship. It was to be taped in studios outside South Bend, Indiana.
When this invitation came, being the big college sports fan that I am, I thought, South Bend, Indiana — that’s where Notre Dame is located. The taping is set for Monday morning early, so if I have to leave on Sunday anyway, I might as well go in time to catch a Saturday football game at one of the most historic football programs in the country. When I learned that Notre Dame indeed had a home game that weekend against Purdue (John’s favorite team), I thought, this is too good to be true. Throw in a visit to The College Football Hall of Fame (and a picture of Archie Manning), and I knew this weekend was going to be a special one with my son.
As the time came closer John asked, “What will we do about church Sunday?,” and I declared, “We’ll find a church and go.” So, Saturday night in the hotel room, I began to search for a church in South Bend and found one, not far from our hotel… the plan was in place.
Sunday morning we got up early, got dressed and started looking for the church. Oddly enough, though I had “map-quested” it, I couldn’t find it. But I did pass another one and thought, “If I can’t find the church, we’ll just come back here.”
After driving for another 15 minutes and noticing we were running out of time, I headed back to the sure choice, the church we passed before. We easily found a parking place and John commented, “They don’t have many people.” I thought the same thing.
The building looked rather large, but when we entered the back of the sanctuary, what John observed proved to be true. The 500-seat room had only about 50 people in it, mostly older and spread out all over the large space. As we entered, a sweet lady handed me a bulletin. I bet they will follow this, I thought.
They were singing a familiar hymn, led by a person in a choir robe. There was no piano, no rhythm section, only organ. The choir numbered eight and had only one man, probably in his seventies. The setting could not have been more different from our church back home.
The service was very structured and included alternating Scripture readings and traditional hymns. In the middle of the service a lady stepped out of the choir and asked for all the children to come forward—and all three of them met her at the front as she delivered a short children’s sermon. I couldn’t help but flash back 28 years to Calvary Baptist Church (my first church as Minister of Music) and think about all the children’s sermons I did back then. In many other ways, the service felt just like that—28 years removed. When she finished she said, “The children’s sermon is over — go back to your seats.” How sad, I thought. They are totally out of touch here.
A group of 15 or so Special Needs Adults sat just three rows in front of us and one of the men made noises throughout the service at random times. Every once in a while, he would lift his hand and say “Hallelujah,” and I couldn’t help but wonder if the others in this stoic congregation were bothered by him. It was all very interesting to watch.
The pastor preached a straight-forward, but short, message about the Lordship of Christ. The invitation was given and no one came. The offering followed, and I made a small contribution. We slipped out during the last prayer, and soon we were in the car headed back to the hotel. No traffic jam here, I thought.
Now, my first inclination after a service like that is to rip it apart. No energy, no response — a children’s sermon? Come on. That church doesn’t have a clue. But I knew John didn’t need to hear all that so I just kept quiet. John said, “That was a lot different from our church,” and I agreed, “It sure was.” So John continued, “Why did you give something to the offering?” I was wondering the same thing. And then the Lord gave me a little “children’s sermon” for both of us. As I started talking, I realized the message was for me as much as John. Here’s what I said:
You know, John, I didn’t hear one thing this morning that I would disagree with. Those folks talked about Jesus, read from the Scripture, sang songs of worship, prayed for each other and for our nation, and encouraged each other in fellowship. The fact that they didn’t outwardly express worship the way we do and they sang older songs and followed more of a traditional structure doesn’t mean they weren’t worshiping, and that God was not at work in their lives.
You see, God doesn’t look on the outward, He looks at the heart. You know that man that made all the noise? When it comes down to it, if we could see things from heaven’s point of view, he may have been the most genuine worshiper of all this morning. Only God knows that. We shouldn’t try to make that judgment.
After this short conversation, I couldn’t help but feel convicted about the way I often view worship. Who am I to size up what is or isn’t happening in any given worship service? I think about how often Christians compare their worship to others, or the worship of their church against other churches. The story in Mark 9 comes to mind. John, the disciple, runs up to Jesus and tells him to stop this other person who was working in the Lord’s name because, “He isn’t one of us.” Jesus’ answer was, “Don’t stop him…whoever is not against us is for us.”
The story of Michal and David in 2 Samuel 6 invades my thoughts as well—in that story about the ark coming back to Jerusalem and the worship that David expresses in dance. Michal makes a judgment about David’s worship and, well, let’s just say God wasn’t too happy about that.
When I pause enough to consider the point there, I realize she isn’t the only “Michal” prone to do that. There have many times I’ve been guilty of the same thing. I can’t help but think about churches like the one we went to in South Bend. They definitely are not against Jesus. Who am I to question the authenticity of their worship?
Instead of drawing conclusions about other churches or Christians, I think we would all be better off spending our energy focusing on whether or not, as the Psalmist in Psalm 24 says, “We have clean hands and a pure heart” as we approach the Lord in worship.
I told John, “If you will learn this lesson now, it will save you a lot of wasted energy as a believer.” Boy, did I need to hear that.
So, I’ve decided to keep the bulletin from that church in my Bible as a reminder. I looked at it today as a matter of fact. They did follow it exactly that morning. And I would do well to remember that God is the only One qualified to determine what was done in the hearts of those folks that day.
The children’s sermon is over. Now I’ll go back to my life and hopefully be a little bit closer to the man God wants me to be…
Mike Harland is the Director of LifeWay Worship. When he’s not directing 30+ employees, you’ll find him leading worship at various churches around the country, writing/arranging worship songs and/or, writing his next book. In his spare time, he loves playing basketball and spending time with his family. Mike can be found on Twitter @MikeHarlandLW and on facebook.com/Mike.Harland.37.