It’s no accident that the prophet Ezekiel used the image of a river to describe the experience of worship the Lord wanted for the ancient Jewish people. In Ezekiel 47 the prophet describes how the river of worship has its origins in God’s temple then flows through history with a life-giving flow. His vision is an amazing revelation of the true nature of worship and how the local church can connect with worship in a more authentic way.
Ezekiel’s vision focuses first on the altar located in Jerusalem’s temple, an unsettling sight because the temple in fact was destroyed some years before. The people to whom Ezekiel speaks were in exile, living in the alien land of Babylon following the destruction of their homeland. But even though the temple was gone, worship was not.
The Holy of Holies was the most sacred part of the temple, and only the high priest could go there. The altar, though, was where the people encountered God. When the people fell into sin, the altar was the place where sacrifices were offered in order to find forgiveness. Drink offerings were offered there, as a pleasing aroma to God. Priests ministered to the people before the altar. Prayers were prayed. The altar was, in large measure, the tangible place where God’s grace intersected human need. Of all the temple precincts, the altar was the most accessible location for the people to meet with God.
But it wasn’t the altar as religious furniture that Ezekiel saw. Instead, the altar was nothing less than the source of a great river of praise and worship. In the prophet’s vision, the altar was the fountain of life. “I saw water coming out from under the threshold of the temple toward the east,” Ezekiel says, “The water was coming down from under the south side of the temple, south of the altar.” (Ezekiel 47:1)
Ezekiel’s point is that in the emptiness of broken lives and lost dreams, there is yet the presence of God who heals and redeems, just as a river flows through the desert. The origin of the water is what’s important: it has no human origin but instead flows from the very place where God is. Worship doesn’t originate from the mind of man but instead comes from the throne of God. It has a divine source and so contains divine life.
The flow increases, a surprising development considering the meagerness of the beginning. But the life contained in the river has a force all its own. A divine figure directs the prophet’s attention to the rising water. “As the man went eastward with a measuring line in his hand, he measured off a thousand cubits and then led me through water that was ankle-deep.”
An astonishing breadth to the river now is apparent. A thousand cubits—fifteen hundred feet! The river advances even more. It becomes knee-deep. The depth next reaches the prophet’s waist. The flood tide accelerates and Ezekiel finds “it was a river that I could not cross, because the water had risen and was deep enough to swim in—a river that no one could cross.”
What started out as a stream from beneath the altar has increased in size to a great river rushing through the salt-encrusted regions of the desert to become a divine source of blessing. Indeed, as the passage continues, Ezekiel reveals the impact of the river’s flow: “Swarms of living creatures will live wherever the river flows. There will be large numbers of fish, because this water flows there and makes the salt water fresh; so where the river flows everything will live.” (Ezekiel 47:9)
Where the river flows everything will live.
The battle in many churches today takes place at precisely this juncture. Many pastors and worship leaders essentially lead performance-driven worship. They often have no concept of the life-giving flow of worship and instead view their task as building up church attendance through the creation of various groups, soloists, choirs and special events. To them, worship isn’t a divinely ordered flow but a venue for musical performance.
Worship leadership in modern churches is often like a circus ringmaster with dancing bears. The more bears and the more sophisticated the dance, the better the performance.
A Youtube video of a contemporary mega-church worship service made the rounds last Christmas. A group of music leaders at the church programmed i-pads with seasonal music applications. Then they performed carols for a worship service by playing the i-pads with the different apps. One was an organ, another bells, still another a bass. One of the musicians wore wearing reindeer antlers, others preferred stocking caps and one looked lost in a parka. All looked more like dancing bears more than anything else. The thousands in attendance hooted and hollered like they were at, well, a circus. I sent the link to a young man I know, a sharp college student who’s fled both contemporary and traditional churches for Orthodoxy. His response back to me was, “The apocalypse is upon us.”
Traditional, contemporary and everything in between suffers the same malaise. Worship is viewed as performance and consists of little more than a congregation watching passively as various performers strut across the stage. Such an approach ignores any sense of worship as the authentic flow of God’s Spirit through human hearts and becomes instead a weekly programmed event subject to human manipulation, contrivance and agendas. What’s intended to be a life-giving river becomes instead a stagnant swamp.
Performance-driven worship—whether that of the preacher, the music leadership or anyone else—leads to death. When those leading worship are driven by ego needs more than the Spirit of God then worship no longer imparts life. Romans 8: 5-6, while not expressly addressing corporate worship, still lays down the core principle:“For those who are according to the flesh set their minds on the things of the flesh, but those who are according to the Spirit, the things of the Spirit. For the mind set on the flesh is death, but the mind set on the Spirit is life and peace.” (NASB)