Nostalgia and Idolatry

In worship recently I was privileged to hear a group sing some old gospel music. They were enthusiastic, energetic, and clearly enjoyed worshipping God through their music. As I sat and listened, I could feel a wave of nostalgia roll over the congregation. There was the feeling that this was the sort of service–campmeeting style, singing good old hymns, and expressive–in which they had really met the Lord.

Now I’m not complaining about people being nostalgic for the style of worship that they experienced in their youth. It’s wonderful, in fact, to see people trying to look for that first love, the intimacy with the Lord that was felt for a short period of time but that they don’t necessarily feel on a daily basis now.

But there is a point at which nostalgia can become idolatry, and that point is when we let the form replace the substance. For many of the folks in that service, while they loved the form, they knew and sought the substance, God’s actual presence in their lives. For others, however, they loved the form, and let it replace the substance. Just across the campus, during the next hour, at another worship service, there are people who are worshipping with enthusiasm and sincerity, and experiencing that good old time revival encounter with God. Many of the second group–those who long for the form but have forgotten the content–think that the group of people in the other service have either departed from the faith, or at least have ventured onto dangerous ground. They don’t recognize that these people, using modern music and a modern setting are experiencing the communion with God that they experienced when they were young. The form has changed, but the substance is the same.

I call it idolatry when we let the form replace the substance. This is the Exodus 32 dancing around the golden calf. “These are your gods, oh Israel!” (Exodus 32:4). We replace the golden calf with the order of worship, and the plural “gods” with “God’s presence” but we still substitute the image for the reality.

And lest anyone get me wrong, it is just as easy to worship the modern form as an idol as any older form. Young people who look at their contemporary worship service with modern music and equate the music and the form with the presence of God are just as much idolaters as older members who remember the past with nostalgia, but forget the God who is the same yesterday, today, and tomorrow.

It’s about God’s presence, not the form!

During the years when the Brownsville Revival was going strong here in Pensacola, people would come from all over the country, and yes, all over the world, to see what God was doing at Brownsville Assembly of God. They would observe the music, the order of service, the style of preaching, even the prayers and personal ministry, and then they would go home. Some understood that God was not necessarily going to work everywhere in precisely the same way. But many went home and tried to duplicate the “Brownsville experience.” The folks on the platform could say, “Don’t go home and try to duplicate Brownville. Pray and listen to what God has to say, and do that!”

Some people couldn’t get past the form. Their golden calf was a band with guitars and drums, a sequence of songs, a style of preaching and prayer. When God didn’t show up, they pretended. They danced around their golden calf.

Worship is about you in community with others worshipping and communing with God. It is not about the particular form. You may find a particular form most helpful, but that’s not the definition of worship; it’s just the way worship works for you. Others may find that communion with God through other music and other forms. The key is to be watching for God. In order to do that, you have to get your eyes off the golden calf, whatever that is for you.

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