An Unusual Church Service

    This little essay is meant primarily for those church-going folk of the Pentecostal ilk; however, if you consider yourself to be a believer who enjoys a somewhat spontaneous church service and thinks that God can actually take an active, personal interest in your wellbeing, you’re welcome to read on. It is a description of a recent church service I had the privilege to attend along with a few personal observations about what it tells me about the church in general and the direction it is going.
     The Pentecostal faith in general is blessed with pastors and evangelists who are dedicated, passionate, and truly concerned about the souls with whom they come in contact.  Their messages to the various congregations are usually intense, uplifting, and designed to help their followers walk the straight and narrow in their quest for salvation.  Services are usually concluded with the congregation feeling encouraged, blessed, and forgiven.  Occasionally, services end differently…not badly, just differently.
     It was just such an evening service not too many days ago.  The minister, an evangelist, stepped to the pulpit and delivered a soul searching message to the listeners.  This time however, at the end of his message there was not the usual loud praising and shouting accompanied by the obligatory cacophonic music.  Rather, while preaching of dedication, commitment, and sacrifice, he broached on the concept of “travailing” in one’s search for God’s will.  “Travail” can be a noun or verb, but its primary meaning is “very hard work.”  The Scriptures use the word “travail” when describing a woman giving birth or when a soul is experiencing a period of extreme adversity.  It also uses the same term when describing the “travailing” church as it gives birth to new souls into the Kingdom. As the evangelist begin to reach the end of his sermon, there was an interesting process of events.  Listeners from all over the congregation began to walk to the front altar area to kneel and pray.  No music…no order or plea from the pulpit to come forward…just an instantaneous response from those who wished to draw closer to their God.  Within a few moments a strange sound began to rise from those in the altar area.  It was not the sound of loud praise or joyous shouting, but more of a low moaning or a loud groaning.  It reached a crescendo that filled the large auditorium.
    At this point, I have a confession…I did not go to the front.  I am anticipating hip surgery in a few weeks and I was in such pain I could barely walk, so I was sitting in the back row of the church, praying as fervently as I could.  As I was sitting there, I looked up just as a woman sat down next to me.  This lady, middle aged, has been a respected member of our church for a few years, but, compared to us grizzled old veterans, is still relatively new (anything under 15 years is new to oldsters) to the church.  I was stunned at the question she asked me.
   “Brother Downing,” she asked intensely, “what is happening?  Are we in mourning for something?  Why are so many crying?  I have never been in a service like this.”  It was clear she did not recognize the soul searching that many people were experiencing at the moment.  In a few words, I attempted to explain to her that those who were weeping or appeared distraught were not expressing grief, but were simply reaching out to God in a spirit of sacrifice and deeper worship.  After a little more explanation, she seemed relieved and expressed again that she had never been in such a service.
     In talking with some of my fellow oldsters later, the service and its impact was the topic of discussion, and the general consensus was that this kind of service which calls a person to go beyond the standard level of praise was occurring less and less, often with the unfortunate result being we have church goers who have never progressed beyond the infancy stage in their spiritual maturity.  Why are we experiencing fewer services and sermons which call the members to a higher level of dedication and service?
     I think the reason is very clear, and, to put it into a somewhat youthful vernacular…these types of services are not “fun.”  Think about these facts:  The primary demographic target of any sort of church outreach is the 18-25 year old age bracket.  Most church music is written by 20-somethings for 20-somethings.  Most church services are choreographed to be high energy, highly active, pulsating periods of praise.  And why not?  The youth live for excitement and activity, and the best way to draw them to church is to offer the same level of energy.  Besides, joyous praise is inherent in a Christian’s walk with God anyway.  It would be hard to experience “joy unspeakable” as described in the Scriptures without some sort of active praise.  This essay is not meant to denigrate nor minimize the need for enthusiastic praise in any way.  The song says it clearly, “When I think of the goodness of Jesus and all He has done for me, my soul cries out ‘hallelujah!’ Praise God for saving me!”  A sinner saved by the grace of God cannot help but praise.
    But the service which calls us to offer sacrifice, travail, or greater spiritual dedication does not cause us to shout, dance, scream, yell, or praise, and therein lies the problem.  A call to sacrifice is not a popular sermon for a minister or a congregation because it does not appeal to our normal human quest for enjoyment.  It is not popular because it requires both minister and member to go beyond praise and into the realm of worship, and the process of worship goes far beyond what we refer to as praise. The words "praise" and "worship" are NOT synonymous nor interchangeable.  A recent Pentecostal Herald magazine had as its primary subject the need for praise and worship in our churches, and I was astounded to discover that in most of the articles the writers didn’t have the foggiest idea that there was any difference in the two terms.  In the issue, writers emphasized the need for worship while quoting scriptures which discussed praise and vice versa.  And yet the two concepts are worlds apart.
    Praise is the enthusiastic recognition of God’s blessings and is evidenced in practically every book in the Bible.   Psalm 150:6  “Praise Him with the psaltry…harp…timbrel…dance…stringed instruments…organ…loud cymbols.  Let everything that has breath praise the Lord!”  It’s hard to praise quietly.
     Worship involves an active dedication to God.  It is not a measurement of decibels but a measurement of your actions.   I Chronicles 16:29,  “Worship the Lord in the beauty of holiness.”  Psalm 95:6,  “Oh come, let us worship and bow down.  Let us kneel.”    Matthew 2:11,  “And when they were come into the house, they…fell down and worshipped him.”    Every instance of worship mentioned in the Bible involved some combination of altar, bowing, and dedication.  It was a reverential act of commitment.  Worship is much more intense, personal, and introspective, and occurs only when we have gone beyond the level of simple praise.   It is through the communion of worship that we both gain strength to face adversity and also truly communicate with our God.   Praise alone will not sustain a soul bent on being faithful to God.
    In Ecclesiastes 3:1, the preacher eloquently tells us, “To everything there is a season and a time to every purpose under the heaven.”   He lists a litany of events which each of us faces during our human existence on this earth.  Being careful not to add to the scriptures, I would like to offer this also:  There is a time to praise and a time to worship.  We need both.