Jesus arrives in Jerusalem, riding on a mother donkey with her foal chasing behind.
The crowds go wild. They take off their coats. They pull palm branches down from trees and cover the road. It’s basically a “red carpet” that they create for their celebrity rabbi to come in on.
They surround him and shout his praises.
“Hosanna to the Son of David!”
“Blessed is he who comes in the name of the Lord!”
“Hosanna in the highest heaven!”
Whether or not the people understand who Jesus is, they know that he deserves their praise. It’s this incredible scene of worship.
It’s also a complete failure.
The Devil Can’t Have All the Good Music
For the last few decades, how churches worship has gone through massive change.
In the 1970s church music began to go through a massive change. Traditional worship, such as simple verse & chorus hymns, often accompanied only by an organ or even sang a cappella was replaced. These new styles incorporated the features of gospel, rock and roll and other contemporary styles.
It wasn’t just the sound that changed, there was a push to move from the narrative and theology heavy verses to the use of praise choruses.
Then in the late 90s and early 2000s the contemporary Christian music movement was answered by those who wanted to see worship incorporate “ancient-future” styles. This meant brining in liturgical elements from across historical traditions. These would include responsive prayers and the use of silence and iconic imagery.
The heart behind such changes in worship was often to create a deeper, more natural, more authentic worship experience. The hope is to create opportunities for people to encounter who God is and what he can do.
War…What is it Good For?
Here we are, almost four decades later. Some amazing music has been written. Lives have been changed by these powerful worship experiences. Churches have gotten more professional, incorporating state of the art technology for projection, animation, lights sometimes even some machines.
This has led to some subsequent changes. There have been entire “worship wars.” Churches split over whether or not specific instruments or styles could be used. Many churches underwent an internal split where the church would contain both a “contemporary” and a “traditional” service.
Then there’s the business side. An entire industry has been built around Christian music, with its own radio stations, concert promoters and even celebrities.
All of this raises the question: with all of these changes, is the church any better off?
Do we have more people living lives more committed to Jesus? Are we doing a better job of representing Jesus in forms and styles that speak to our cultural context? Our music is different, but are we different?
Or, are we focusing on the wrong changes altogether?
From Music to Transformation
It’s hard to imagine a more powerful worship gathering than the crowd greeting Jesus on his way into Jerusalem. People are laying down their clothes on the ground and tearing down branches to make a road for Jesus the Messiah to ride in on. It’s an awe-inspiring scene.
But if you know the rest of the story, its troubling.
This crowd had come to Jerusalem to celebrate the feast of Passover. In just a few days, a crowd will gather in front of Pontius Pilate, the representative of the Roman government. Pilate will tell the crowd that Jesus is innocent, and they will still call for his execution.
As powerful as this worship experience was, it did not change them from being the kind of people who would demand the death of an innocent man.
Paul the first Christian missionary describes worship this way:
Therefore, I urge you, brothers and sisters, in view of God’s mercy, to offer your bodies as a living sacrifice, holy and pleasing to God—this is your true and proper worship. Do not conform to the pattern of this world, but be transformed by the renewing of your mind.
Then you will be able to test and approve what God’s will is—his good, pleasing and perfect will.
Our worship, no matter how we improve it, seems to fall short of what Paul is describing. It is an entire life sacrificed to God. It is a willingness to let the example and teachings of Jesus, as well as the leading of the Holy Spirit completely rearrange how we think and live.
Perhaps the failure of worship comes from not seeking after what Paul calls being “be transformed by the renewing of your mind.” The answer might come from taking Paul seriously, asking God to literally change our brains.
We know from scripture that we are made in the image of God, yet we are also fallen and broken. We know from brain science that trauma, addiction and the pains of life rearrage how our minds work.
What if the key to worship isn’t to get better music? What if true worship means being transformed, renewed, and rearranged into the kind of people who have minds that can really love God?
What the crowds did for Jesus, praising him and laying down palms, was a beautiful thing. What we do when we sing about God on Sundays is a beautiful thing. It was ultimately a failure, because they remained the kind of people that could kill an innocent man.
Imagine instead, the church as a group of people who are slowly but surely being transformed into the kind of people who could, like Jesus, let themselves be sacrificed for the sake of the world.