Celebration in Contemporary Worship
These days it is not uncommon to come across worship meetings where song leaders vigorously urge the congregation to freely give praise to God in the name of celebration. The songs chosen in these meetings seem to engender a euphoric, if not jubilant mood. Emotional spontaneity becomes palpable with lines of bodies swaying along to the loud beat of the drum. The high point of celebration-worship comes when members are urged to ‘sing in the spirit’ as they follow cues from the musical team giving notes of ‘chords progression’. The crescendo is rounded off with a flourish of ‘clap offering’.
It would be churlish to doubt the appropriateness of celebration-worship today. Christians who have been battered throughout the week need to be emotionally and spiritually recharged, and what better way to recharge them than through celebration in church worship? Indeed, many visitors to church testify that they come because they are attracted by the celebrative spirit of our services. Who can resist the contagion of joy?
Celebration is evidence of the sovereign work of the Holy Spirit. Donald Gee, a prominent Pentecostal writer, commented that a worship meeting where you know what is going to happen next is backslidden. After all, the Spirit blows where He wills—spontaneity brings joy unalloyed. It is therefore not surprising that many worshippers count celebration as the high point of worship. Who then wants to be a grudge in questioning celebration-worship?
And yet, I can’t help but stress that celebration is only one aspect of worship. True, worship should be characterized by celebration, joy and thanksgiving based on God’s redemptive work in Christ. But there is far more to worship than celebration. Holistic worship also involves confession of sin, contriteness of heart, intercession, preaching, that cannot be subsumed by the word celebration. We can consider celebration as the high point of worship only if we assume that the primary aim of worship is to meet our needs. But surely, worship should be centred on God with expression of homage and reverence. Take this away, and celebration can become a subtle form of self-centredness that ignores the demands of discipleship and holistic spirituality found in the Bible worship. As R.P. Martin puts it, is “an enterprise undertaken not simply to satisfy needs or to make him [the worshipper] feel better or to minister to his aesthetic needs or social well-being, but to express the worthiness of God himself”.
That celebration should be a defining feature of worship cannot be denied. Much would be lost if Christians were to dichotomise their faith from celebration in reaction against emotionalism of celebration-worship in some churches. Regardless of any protest against the shallowness of such worship, still it must be acknowledged that any Christian who has a genuine experience of God cannot help but celebrate God’s goodness and greatness. The challenge, really, is to strive for celebration that reflects biblical proportions.
Celebration in the Old Testament
Many contemporary worshippers want to accentuate on celebration because they sincerely believe that they are merely taking a cue from the Bible. Indeed, festivals and feasts are celebrated aplenty in the Old Testament. We also read of rejoicing whenever God defeated the enemies of Israel. Never mind that the New Testament uses the word celebration only on a handful of occasions, such as the keeping of the Passover (Matthew 26:18), merry-making over the return of the Prodigal Son (Luke 15) and the unsaved gloating over the death of the Two Witnesses (Revelation 11:10).
What does a closer look at the Old Testament show? The feasts and festivals immediately come to mind. A brief survey of these festivals and their theological significance should impress us about the holistic nature of Old Testament celebration:
• Passover: A celebration of personal redemption by God exemplified in the Exodus event in which God delivered Israel from slavery in Egypt.
• Feast of Unleavened Bread: A call to purity from dependence upon Egypt. The celebration should mirror the enjoyment of victory over sin in the believer’s life.
• Feast of First Fruits: Thanksgiving at the beginning of the barley harvest to affirm God’s ownership. First fruits were offered as sanctification of one’s property and acknowledgment that God is the real owner of all things and that men enjoy the fruits of the land in return for a token tribute.
• Feast of Weeks/Harvest: At the climax of the wheat harvest comes celebration of the completion of God’s provision.
• Day of Atonement: An occasion to express national sorrow for sin and deliverance with a scapegoat.
• Feast of Tabernacles/Ingathering: Celebration of God’s protection and provision during Israel’s 40 years in the wilderness.
In summary, the many feasts observed in Israel were occasions for acts of consecration with sacred places and times, and sacred objects that continually impressed upon Israel the sovereignty and holiness of God.
Israel’s celebration-worship involved more than praises and songs. God had provided Israel with the physical means to express spiritual realities, which served as a context to experience afresh the presence and power of God. Gratitude was expressed in offerings and sacrifices in response to God’s blessings and answered prayers. Such gratitude was expected to result in an overflow of generosity expressed in care and concern for needy neighbours. We should not miss out the Jubilee, which was celebrated every 50 years with injunctions for lands to be returned to their original owners and for debts to be cancelled (Leviticus 25).
Just as important were the sacrifices that provided an avenue for the Israelite to confess their sins. Israel was to know that atonement came not from frequency of offerings or from their inherent value. Such an approach would have amounted to a salvation based on works. Restoration to God (atonement) could come only through faith and humility that accompanies the obedient performance of the ritual and ethical requirements of the Covenant. That is to say, the sacrificial system was instituted by God to give Israel the opportunity for confession and restoration.
In other words, there is no intrinsic value in the sacrifices. Divine grace is obtained only within the framework of the Covenant relationship. God is not simply imposing a ritual observance from his people (Psalm 40:6-8). Above all else, God desires a real relationship with his people, who worship him out of the earnestness of their hearts.
What is Acceptable Celebration?
The contemporary emphasis on celebration represents a laudable attempt by Christians to represent the joy and festivity of the religion of the Covenant. And yet while God instituted the ancient feasts, it comes as a shock to discover that God through the prophets, also on occasions condemned the feasts.
Isaiah 1:14-15 comes to mind, “Your New Moon festivals and your appointed feasts my soul hates. They have become a burden to me; I am weary of bearing them. When you spread out your hands in prayer, I will hide my eyes from you; even if you offer many prayers, I will not listen. Your hands are full of blood.” Likewise, Amos shares with Isaiah the prophetic critique of Israel’s celebration. As the Lord declares, “I hate, I despise your religious feasts; I cannot stand your assemblies. Away with the noise of your songs! I will not listen to the music of your harps. But let justice roll on like a river, righteousness like a never-failing stream (Amos 5:21, 23-24).
The last verse gives us an insight into why God rejected the songs and festivity in Israel’s worship. To be sure there was an abundance of religious activities in Israel, but religiosity was only a salve to the conscience of Israelites who were more concerned about sensuality, luxury, idleness and bodily care rather than spiritual vitality. With great sarcasm Amos likened the wives of the elite as prime cows of Bashan “who oppress the poor and crush the needy and say to your husbands, bring us some drinks” (Amos 4:1). All the references to their luxuries pointed to their callousness, which betrayed their self-indulgence, self-importance and self-will.
Our hearts will be warmed should we witness the crowds thronging the shrines in ancient Israel. Such was the festivities at Bethel where God revealed himself to Jacob. Others flocked to Beer-sheba—a historic shrine (Genesis 26:23-24, 46:1-4) and a repository of promises that assured believers of the living companionship of the Lord. Finally, but not least, came Gilgal—the site of Joshua’s encampment before the conquest of the Promised Land. It served as a shrine which proclaimed the inheritance and possession of the Promised Land. It would be hard to match the carnival and electric atmosphere that normally characterizes celebration at these popular shrines.
Yet we hear a thunderous judgment from the prophet Amos, “Seek me and live, but do not seek Bethel” (Amos 5:4-5). Why? It seems that the crowd was only hankering after the carnival spirit. They enjoyed religion at the shrine, but they left spirituality at the shrine when they returned home. Life remained unchanged. Their self-centredness was evident from the way the prophet denounced their perpetuation of social injustice. Still, they remained complacent in their sins because of the false assurance that God will not judge his chosen people.
Obviously the Israelites somehow missed God even when they were at the shrines. Without a personal encounter with the Living God, Israel remained ignorant of God’s holiness and awesome power. They must be taken aback to hear that “the Lion has roared” in prophetic judgment, “You only have I chosen of all the families of the earth; therefore I will punish you for all your sins” (Amos 3:2).
True celebration then must be accompanied by confession, consecration and renewed love for God and his people. Worship of God should lead to mutual submission within the fellowship of God’s people. As the prophet Amos challenged God’s people, “Hate evil, and love good, and establish justice in the gate (Amos 5:15).