Open the Gates, Open the Book, Open the Altars
The Incredible Importance of Public Worship
by Stephen Phifer
Go through, go through the gates! Prepare the way for the people; Build up, build up the highway! Take out the stones, Lift up a banner for the peoples! (Isaiah 62:10, NKJV1).
It does not get much worse than this. A pastor friend was preparing to preach the funeral of a suicide victim from his church. The man had attended and participated in worship, heard inspiring sermons, and had been invited to the altar, but he ended up destroying himself. I knew my friend would be tempted to think he had failed this man.
Like each of us, the victim was responsible for his own choices. The forces of hell had attacked him, his own unchecked inner drives mauled him, and the void in his vacant spirit where Jesus should have lived did him in.
As I prayed with my friend on the phone, I realized the power of public worship. This case broke down, ending in a tragedy that will stalk the survivors the rest of their days. But, as the pastor continues to conduct service after service, opening the gates of worship, opening the Book, and opening the altars, who can tell what tragedies he will prevent? How many wives will not have hidden bruises? How many husbands will never have to suffer a wife’s infidelity? How many children will never know a parental blow struck in anger or an abusive parental word that pierces the heart? How many addictions will be broken and how many more will never get a stronghold in a life? How many raging, hormonal compulsions will find rest at Calvary? How many thirsting souls will drink so deeply of the waters of the Holy Spirit so a heavenly vocabulary is released? How many lives will discover their divine commission and order life around the call? How many will find Jesus for the first time? For the last time? For this time? God only knows.
King David fasted and prayed, but was unable to save the life of the child who came from his sin with Bathsheba. When the boy died, the king got up, washed his face, and went on. The next child was Solomon (2 Samuel 12). Likewise, the pastor who has suffered a loss must arise and wash his/her face and go on worshiping.
God’s power flows in the routine of daily private worship and weekly Lord’s Day public worship. Numbers sometimes distract us. We think they accurately measure the results of our efforts. It simply isn’t so. The accounting in heaven considers things we cannot see: people who foiled Satan’s plans by routine discipleship and the internal spiritual victories to which they will never testify. Such things go unreported here, but they are heralded in heaven.
It is time for us to have confidence in the power of public worship in spirit and truth — the whole service — congregational worship, preaching, and altar call. The whole service is no less than the hope of mankind and of the community to which God has called us.
Pentecostals do not generally think in terms of means of grace, but this is what a worship service really is — a means for a hurting mankind to find the healing grace of God. When we worship Him, King Jesus walks among us while we are praising, preaching, and praying. He is in the room with us to preach the gospel to the poor, to bind up the brokenhearted, to proclaim liberty to captives and recovery of sight to the blind, to set at liberty those who are deeply bruised by the binding oppression of hell and to proclaim the wonders and opportunities of this day of amazing grace (Luke 4:18,19,22). He is there because we have gathered in His name and because He dwells in our praise and makes our place of worship His throne room (Matthew 18:12; Psalm 22:3). Public worship is a means of grace for the contemporary church and for the world. That is, if we make the way clear for Him.
There may be hindering stones in the highway of the Lord. If we are mired in a form of godliness that is vacant of power, we have work to be done. Leading worship is not a process of making something happen — to think this is a strong delusion that leads to the pride, possessiveness, and paranoia of the cult of personality. Leading worship is letting something happen. The Lord wants to be among us. When His people want to be with Him, leading worship is largely a process of ministering to the Lord and then getting out of His way so He can minister to people. Anointed musicians provide worshipers with a set of songs designed to release their passion for God. The pastor presents the message from the Word he received from the Lord. Together at the altar, they lead the congregation in a prayerful response to that Word. This is what I call Worship / Word / Altar. I believe this is the great contribution of classical Pentecostalism to the church at large. When we do these things, King Jesus walks among us. Like the bent and broken woman in the Scriptures, hurting people press through the crowd to touch the hem of His robe (Matthew 9:18–23).
I have confidence in the calling on my life to lead worship in partnership with my pastor. I believe in the importance of what we do together. Thus, we need to keep it pure, free from self-centered ambitions, petty power struggles, and confusing clashes of culture. We need to keep the focus on Jesus, not on methodology or technology. In the words of Isaiah: “Go through the Gates!” The gates are the ancient gates of thanksgiving and praise. The Psalmist said that if we lift up the ancient doors, the King of Glory will come in (Psalm 24:7–10).
“Prepare the way for the people.” People come to God through the revelation of His Word. When preachers prepare and present a word from God under the direction of the Spirit of God, they are finding a highway for God to travel into the hearts of the people.
“Build up, build up the highway!” The holy lives of the people of God are a highway for the Lord to travel through the lives of our people into a world that needs Him. Jesus said believers would function as salt and light to a bitter and dark world (Matthew 5-7). The job of the worship leader and preacher is to build this highway with prayer as the leveler, truth as the paving stones, and experience for the signs along the road. Quality worship songs and preaching constitute portable carriers of doctrine. Songs and sermons put the mysteries of God into understandable forms, metaphors, phrases, and memorable tunes.
“Take out the stones.” The essence of worship leadership both by the pastor and the chief musician is the removal of hindrances to the flow of the Spirit. Ineffective music, mindless routines, boring preaching, and the lack of corporate prayer are hindering stones in the roadway. They must be removed.
“Lift up a banner for the peoples!” Jesus is our Banner, our Victory. If we lift Him up above music, methods, and our mega-personalities, He will unify the church, tearing down walls of hostility between the competing cultures, just as He did at Ephesus (Ephesians 4:1-18). The power of the Spirit flows when our goals are the same as His — to exalt the Lord Jesus, to edify His church, and to move in a fitting and orderly way. When pastors preach the gospel with this unction, signs, and wonders follow because Jesus walks among us.
There will be losses but there will also be victories. We will see some triumphs right before us, and others we will hear about later. We may never know about some victories because they involve things that were prevented from happening. With confidence in the means of grace, let us open the gates, open the Book, and open the altars.
1. Scripture quotations marked NKJV are taken from the New King James Version. Copyright Â© 1982 by Thomas Nelson, Inc. Used by permission. All rights reserved.