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Guest Blogger: Jason Helopoulos

Few things harden the soul, deaden the heart, close the ears, and chill the affections more. It serves as one of the greatest weapons of our adversary, though few recognize it. One would expect such a foe to be obvious, but it often chooses to operate subtly in the shadows of the mind and the private ruminations of the heart. It has the added deadliness of feigning holiness while encouraging pride with the false assumption we are more holy than others due to our greater “discernment.” Donning the robes of the critic maims and kills many would-be worshipers in churches every single Sunday morning.

In all honesty, very few of us knowingly enter church with such a motivation. How silly it would be for us to rise early on Sundays to play the role of the critic. But as we take our seat in the church pew, our focus and motivation cowers to the voice crying out within, “they are not doing this right,” “they are not doing this well,” “they are not doing this as I would do it.” And in the midst of it all, we move from worshipper to critic. No doubt, the Christian is called to be discerning and discriminating in worship. All that passes for worship these days should not receive our approval. Paul has no qualms identifying wrong practices in the worship of the Corinthian Church (1 Corinthians 11-14), Jesus is clear about worthy and non-worthy worship (John 4), and God’s seriousness about the manner and means by which we worship cannot be overestimated (Leviticus 10). Yet, there is a temptation to spend more time at church critiquing than confessing, judging than rejoicing, criticizing than praising, and challenging than receiving when there is very little reason to do so.

This trap is great and our adversary is pleased with the results. The Christian leaves church with a satisfied conscience. She rests having fulfilled her “weekly duty,” but little worship was practiced or experienced. Instead of meeting with God, she played the cynic. Instead of hearing the voice of God, she heard the frail words of the preacher. Instead of a mind stirred by truth, it was stymied in criticism. Instead of a heart moved with joy, it was hardened in judgment. If you or I depart church on Sunday mornings and our main thoughts or topics of conversation consist of concerns, critiques, and criticisms, it is likely we have become a critic rather than a worshiper.

How do we fight this tendency? First, we must remind ourselves of the great privilege of corporate worship. My friends, we are meeting with the Triune God of the Universe. The Lord of Glory is speaking to us, the grace of Christ is being extended to us, and we are enjoying a taste of that which we shall enjoy for all of eternity. Nothing in all the earth is more significant, monumental, and remarkable than the reality that God chooses to meet with us by His Word and Spirit week in and week out. Corporate worship is the high-point of the Christian’s week. Anything that detracts from it is an enemy.

Second, intentionality goes a long way in fighting unnecessary critique. Begin Saturday night by setting aside time in prayer and reading the Bible to soften your heart for the next day’s holy appointment. On Sunday, rise early enough to seek the Lord in order to have your heart moved with affection for Him before entering the church building. As you take your seat in the sanctuary, remember above all else that worship is a meeting between God and His people. You are not there to sit in judgment or question the motives of others. You journeyed to this place at this time to meet with the Living and True God of heaven and earth. What a delight! As the music begins, even if it is not your “cup of tea,” seek to meditate upon the words you are singing. Allow your affections to be stirred as you think and meditate upon Him. As prayers are uttered, seek to stay your thoughts upon Him. Say over and over in your mind, “Amen,” as you agree with the words offered in corporate prayer. As the sermon is preached, plead with Him to lay bare your own heart, root out sin where it is found, and provide comfort where it is needed. When driving home from church talk about how the service or sermon impacted you. Limit critiques and abound in discussion about how the Word preached, sung, read, confessed, and prayed that morning shaped and informed your own understanding and life in Christ. And throughout the week meditate upon that Word and watch for how the Lord is conforming you more and more to the image of Christ.

Criticism can detract and deject the worshiper. We all must seek to limit it to healthy bounds. It may be the case that you attend a church where the Word isn’t preached, the Sacraments aren’t administered, and worship is absent. If that is the case, it is time to move on. However, if you attend a church where the Word is preached, the Sacraments are rightly administered, and worship is present then delight in worshiping God. You are meeting with the Triune God of the universe. Don’t let our adversary tempt you to do something less. The worship critic stands in judgment over everyone and everything else, the God-adoring worshiper rightly kneels in unity with her brothers and sisters humbly before her King.


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29 thoughts on “The Sunday Worship Killer”

  1. Ed VW says:

    Thank you for this convicting reminder of what should occur within me during worship as opposed to what often does. And, by the way, choosing Statler and Waldorf for your visual aid was perfect.

  2. Steve G says:

    I really appreciate your thoughts on this, Jason. This is something with which I have wrestled for years. I see my own pride and self-righteousness raise its head often during Sunday worship. I often find myself wondering about the leadership, choice of songs, the content and delivery of the sermon, comments of the worship leader, and on and on.

    One of the things I have found challenging is trying to separate my pride and self-righteousness from things which truly undermine worship. I am blessed to have had the opportunity to pursue formal theological training and to study the Bible on a high academic level. The context where I currently serve as an elder is one in which the pastor preaches through the Bible, but does not generally preach the point of the text. Although the pastor at least knew at one time how to prepare an expository sermon (he studied under Haddon Robinson) today he generally takes a preaching outline from someone else and adjusts it to to his liking. If he takes Tim Keller’s outline, the content is generally good. If he takes an outline from someone who doesn’t have the same exegetical, theological, and homeletical sensibilities, the content of the sermon obviously reflects it. I may be wrong, but I think there is a part of me that is rightly grieved when Christ is not preached. My problem is (I think), I have the tendency to take credit for God’s grace in my life. And so instead of seeing any legitimate shortcoming in the worship service (or elsewhere) as underscoring the greatness of the Savior who is at work to rescue us from such things, I exalt human beings by believing that if the preacher (in this case) was only faithful, that everything would be okay. I have effectively come to see the preacher as my Savior or the one who is able to allow the gates of Hades to prevail.

    Pray for me as I continue to struggle with this.

  3. Ryan says:

    I know its a slightly different situation to the one you’re describing above but it does seem linked: I wondered if you had any thoughts regarding the ministry staff needing to be ‘on’ for critque of the various elements of the gathering? I must admit that I often find this destroys my ability to enter properly into the gathering, much to my despair and yet part of my role is in giving feedback and so it’s difficult to not be be sitting over these things, rather than under or in them. Any tips or thoughts? Hopefully the question makes sense! :-)

  4. Ross Riggan says:

    “Limit critiques and abound in discussion about how the Word preached, sung, read, confessed, and prayed that morning shaped and informed your own understanding and life in Christ. And throughout the week meditate upon that Word and watch for how the Lord is conforming you more and more to the image of Christ.”

    That is a rich statement because so often we think of the service as having individual, self-containing parts like praying, singing, preaching, sacraments, etc. Yet all these should be various avenues of God’s Word entering our minds and hearts so that we worship in Spirit and Truth. When the Word is completely lacking in these categories then perhaps it may be time to find a new church. But if the Word is found throughout and you just happen to dislike the music style or the preacher’s squeaky voice, then we need to silence the critic in our own heart and let our hearts and minds be filled with the Word. Great thought on the Word having a predominant place in every section of worship, Jason!

  5. Tysin says:

    Great, balanced thoughts Pastor DeYoung. Thanks for sharing. This topic has been on my heart recently as well. Your article helped reveal the sinful criticism I have in my heart on Sunday mornings. I desire to repent and glorify God on Sunday mornings and promote a spirit of unity and humility in the body of Christ. Thanks for the wonderful thoughts and applications!

  6. Tysin says:

    My apologies! Thank you Jason Helopoulos for writing this article! I missed the great, big, green heading with your name. I merely saw DeYoung’s picture and name and incorrectly assumed he was the author. Forgive me!

  7. Jason Helopoulos says:

    Ryan, even as I know the struggle in the post, so I know well the struggle you identify. There is a great temptation for the pastor and staff of a local church to cease being worshipers. It is incumbent upon us to maintain the centrality of worship in our own lives. If we aren’t worshiping, but are seeking to encourage others to worship, there is a problem. If I can’t fairly critique and worship, then I know which I am giving up! As much as I am able on Sunday mornings, I attempt to just be a worshiper. One of the things that helps me is to write down anything that was amiss on the inside of my bulletin. This quickly allows me to get it off my mind and it is there for our worship assessment meetings on Tuesday morning.

  8. Dan says:

    I was in that mindset for three years after my church leadership effectively chased our pastor out the door. Sometimes, grief and anger color one’s perspective. In retrospect, that’s no way to go to church, but my wife and I agreed eventually that we needed to find a new body of believers, and that we did. We’d been there for over 15 years, so was not a light decision. But I could not go back to it. Where we are now, we hear Christ preached, the Word honored, and worship is reverent. While I’m not completely settled on my own doctrinal views, our new church demonstrates a desire to worship and live according to the Word, and I eagerly look forward to going to worship every Sunday. So while our emotions can skew our discernment in the midst of church turmoils or grief over some events, that does not mean that what see and how we assess it is totally invalid. Three years was a long time to wait to move, but other than the inevitable loss of relationships, I haven’t looked back.

  9. Pete R says:

    This seems overstated to me. I work as a college lecturer so am in an academic environment which thrives on critique most of the time, so maybe my perspective is not typical, but I find my faith is bolstered by keeping an alert mind during the sermon and testing what I hear. I do not want to be one of those Christians who check their brain at the door; maybe I don’t leave every service on an emotional high but for me emotional satisfaction is not the main thing I want God to give me in the Church service.

  10. Wendy C says:

    “As the sermon is preached, plead with Him to lay bare your own heart, root out sin where it is found, and provide comfort where it is needed.”
    There is a big difference between preachers who raise up Christ believing the purpose of the sermon is doxology, and those who’d rather to bring the congregation under condemnation believing that the purpose of a sermon is to get the congregation to focus on their lack of holiness. The latter is more likely to cause the type of criticism in this article (who can be encouraged in such an environment), the former much more likely to send the congregation home rejoicing in their saviour and reflecting on the sermon!

  11. Ross Riggan says:

    Pete R, I feel like Jason addressed your concern here:
    “In all honesty, very few of us knowingly enter church with such a motivation. How silly it would be for us to rise early on Sundays to play the role of the critic. But as we take our seat in the church pew, our focus and motivation cowers to the voice crying out within, “they are not doing this right,” “they are not doing this well,” “they are not doing this as I would do it.” And in the midst of it all, we move from worshipper to critic. No doubt, the Christian is called to be discerning and discriminating in worship. All that passes for worship these days should not receive our approval. Paul has no qualms identifying wrong practices in the worship of the Corinthian Church (1 Corinthians 11-14), Jesus is clear about worthy and non-worthy worship (John 4), and God’s seriousness about the manner and means by which we worship cannot be overestimated (Leviticus 10). Yet, there is a temptation to spend more time at church critiquing than confessing, judging than rejoicing, criticizing than praising, and challenging than receiving when there is very little reason to do so.”

    There is a big difference between checking our minds at the door and needless criticism. The difference lies in the heart. Criticism itself is not the problem… the heart is. If I bring up a point of disagreement about the sermon because I believe the pastor was in exegetical error and I’m concerned for the flock, that’s one thing. But if I come home grumbling because the pastor seemed boring or I think the song leader “has something to prove”, my heart needs tending to.

  12. Barry says:

    Thank you for a very needful exhortation, and for concrete steps to put the critic in decline and the worshipper in ascension.
    At the close of paragraph 4, often I conclude that Christian worship would be the highlight of the week” – if the Spirit were present in all His fulness, along with his Word (same paragraph).
    thank you~

  13. Neville Briggs says:

    I don’t understand the point of all this at all. The picture at the top, showing the two muppets seems to relate to a theatre. Is the Sunday meeting a sort of theatre.

    The statement of Mr Helopoulos that we meet with the Triune God at the church meeting makes no sense in the light of the New Testament, in the NT we are told that we are the temple of the Holy Spirit. We don’t go somewhere to meet God, he indwells each of us.
    The first martyr, Stephen was attacked and murdered because he spoke against the temple ( a critic ! ) and said that God does not live in buildings built by men. Your God is too small Mt Helopoulos.

    The article above sounds more like it is about control by the ” clergy” than the freedom and joy of Christians meeting together to edify and encourage each other, as each participates in the gathering.
    So I conclude that the problem of criticism is systemic, It arises from the people being locked into pews, watching some sort of performance by the professional clergy. Who wouldn’t start to think about criticism if all you were to do was just sit there just watching and thinking.

    There is no need for criticism if everyone can participate. The answer to the ill effects of critics is not spiritually sounding lectures about the church being some sort of temple ritual, the answer is to abolish the clergy system of endless lectures and open up the assembly for all to participate…. as was the original idea..

    I suppose I will be tagged as un unspiritual rebel and critic. Good thing John Calvin isn’t around or I might have been burnt at the stake, Calvin knew how to deal with critics.

    ,

  14. I guess one of the mindsets Christians have to combat every day is the notion that God lives in a temple somewhere and we can only truly find Him if we get under 4 walls and a roof. Not that I want to take away from any God encounter people may have in a structured church system. I spent most of my life in church leadership and within 4 walls and a roof ethos, so I get get what is being said by Jason and others. However, scripture is very clear when 2 or more are gathered together in HIs name He is their with them..So the ecclessia can be 2 people or more. I agree with Neville each one of us is the temple of the Holy Spirit we don’t need to look any further, God the Holy Spirit or Christs spirit is within us and Christ is the word. Ive been serminised in church for 50 years, yes it did expand my bible knowledge however, what it didn’t do most of the time was convince me church is 7 days a week experience and the HS has a job for me to..ie….Jesus, people relationships! All the leadership did do was tell me and others to come back next Sunday…. or if you don’t you will eventually get visited to find out why you didn’t turn up at least 60% of the time…evidence you were a good believer apparently. The institutional church is dying in the western world “all denominations are loosing a lot of people” even Kevin De Young has stated that much. The solution in not attending a temple but gathering together to encounter Christ and support each other through word and deed. Break tradition and let Christ lead you each day into divine appointments, which will include Sunday gatherings where you build relationships and share His grace to others. If you are not sure about what I said ask yourself when was the last time I shared my faith (through word or deed) and when did I see someone come to Christ. If church is one day a week then you might be scratching to find examples. That was me till I got what was meant by Jesus, People, Relationships (both vertical (God) and horizontal (people)) . Hope this informs the debate.

  15. David Wittenberg says:

    Thanks for an excellent article.
    My friend, Robert D. Smith, wrote a piece on his conversation with the pastor of a church he visited. On the way out the door, Bob expressed some dissatisfaction with the service he’d just attended. The pastor’s question in reply was this: “Which part of the service do you think God was displeased with?” I’ve always remembered that question, and it has helped me to recall that God is the only one whose evaluation matters. Mine does not.

  16. Perhaps the answer to the Pastor may have been, if it was in my case, He was not pleased with any of the service because My Son is not the head of the church here, the leadership is. Worth thinking about

  17. Barry says:

    It sounds like many criticisms of “church service” may be valid in our day. For years, I have anticipated worship and fellowship in small group settings more than large assemblies on Sunday morning. If corporate worship were bound less to tradition and more to Christ and His spirit, then the systemic criticism might wane. In preaching on the topic of ‘how a church drifts’, Andy Stanley’s first observation touched upon moving from passion for Outsiders (zeal for missions) to pacifying Insiders. Or, do we love our traditions more than we love our grandchildren – or others God may draw to church?

    Of course many resources exist to assist pastor\teachers; I think it was TGC than some time ago recommended “Saving Eutychus”, How to preach God’s word AND keep people awake, authored by Gary Millar and Phil Campbell.

    In all likelihood another reformation may be needed and coming.

  18. Barry the reformation has arrived and was prophesied by Billy Graham in 1965. ie a mass exodus would happen. A big shift is happening where Christ is honored as the head of the church and human authoritative leadership will and is disappear. The shift is organic not institutional.

  19. Neville Briggs says:

    Barry, I think you are right about reformation needed. What is coming I am not sure.
    Jesus warned His followers, the salt of the earth, that if they lost their saltiness they would be good for nothing but be thrown out and trampled underfoot by men. In what we call the western culture, the church is being thrown out and trampled underfoot. We can only conclude that it has lost the saltiness. It is in a deep malaise, the city on the hill has become the private theatre within the expensive walls. As Grahame has alluded to, the most telling criticism comes from the Lord Himself, in the book of Revelation He is depicted standing at the door and knocking to be invited in. In where, the church ?? The problems of the church don’t start at the bottom, the church has made itself into a hierarchical institution, so the problems start at the top. Instead of blogs slating the supposed deficiencies of the people, what about those with grand titles of Senior Pastor, Reverend, Doctor, Ruling Elder, subjecting themselves to the scrutiny of The Word. Matthew 23, verses 1 to 12 would be a good place to start, you will just have to endure Jesus being very critical. t.

  20. Grace says:

    Agree with what you shared. Yet what do you do when those leading the worship are dressed very immodestly? Super-tight pants and tops on the women….and those in leadership roles ignore this even though it is so distracting some of us cannot focus on the singing of great words? Would be grateful for input on how to approach this situation because we truly do not want to be the source of any strife in the church we love.

  21. To Grace
    If the Leadership are ignoring it, then it would seem they agree with it. As Neville has said these days institutional church is more about entertainment and presentation and being sermonised then its not surprising. A time will come when you will have to choose to stay or move on to another fellowship group, in the mean time you could close ur eyes and focus on God the Holy Spirit during worship. If you cant see the worship team it can distract you.

  22. C. Richard Lewis says:

    I’d critique this but then I would be guilty of being as critical as the author is critical of critics.

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