Present Senses

As great as multisensory worship is, it isn’t the goal

Upon entering the room, you see sunlight breaking through colored windows that depict biblical figures acting out their famous story lines. It’s a breathtaking sight. Higher up, you read holy words with a heavenward gaze.

Finding a seat near the back, you bow your head. The whole scene seems so reverent. Suddenly your nose is awakened by a strange aroma. It’s coming from a smoke-filled censor that’s being swung back and forth by a tall, stately man who’s walking deliberately down the center aisle. His robe is ornate and regal, and bells ring faintly as he walks.

The service commences—there is singing and then something like chanting; then a few hand motions come from the man at the front; then bread and a large cup of wine are revered. Words are important—but also silence. Every one of your senses has been engaged, even overwhelmed.

There is just one problem, a critical one: You don’t understand a word. It’s all in Latin. No one you know speaks Latin.

This is likely what you would’ve experienced every week if you were a Christian in Western Europe about 500 years ago. The worship was multisensory—but nonparticipatory.

Multisensory worship didn’t begin when smoke machines and high-definition video screens arrived on the scene. You could make a strong case from Old Testament descriptions that the worship of Yahweh has always been multisensory.

An Israelite worshiping at the temple would have had to haul his animal to the priest, wash his hands and engage in the bloody, messy act of sacrifice. There were trumpets, rams’ horns, stringed instruments and choirs of singing priests. Incense burned, colors dazzled and bread was broken.

Jewish worship, with its festivals and temple sacrifices, engaged the senses and the ordinary actions of life: walking, standing, sitting, singing, eating, laughing, praying, sleeping. It wasn’t multisensory only. It was also highly participatory.

Paul carries this theme into New Testament worship, urging Christians to offer their bodies as “living sacrifices” as their “spiritual act of worship” (Rom. 12:1, NIV). He uses the word latreia for “worship”—the same word he uses to describe Jewish temple worship, with its ritual and practice of animal sacrifices. The Greek translation of the Old Testament, the Septuagint, also uses this word to describe priestly temple service.

Paul explains that the new “temple worship” is the offering of our whole lives as living sacrifices to God. It doesn’t matter that all five senses are engaged if our lives are not surrendered. Engaging our senses was never the point of biblical worship; presenting our whole lives before God always is.

In fact, our senses are engaged only to make us more present to God. In Baal worship (see 1 Kin. 18), the prophets of Baal danced, cut themselves, screamed and chanted, all to get their god to do something—to make their god more present to them.

Not so with Yahweh worship. Yahweh is already and always present with His people. Yahweh worship is not about manipulating Him into action by our own actions. Neither is it about manipulating worshipers.

The challenge of worship leaders in the age of smoke machines, video screens, worship video jockeys and dueling electric guitars is not to make worship more multisensory. It is to do our best to facilitate a worship that is participatory.

We must find ways to urge our brothers and sisters to give their lives to Him. If we don’t embrace this challenge, we’ll simply be a 21st century version of a 16th century Latin service.

Glenn Packiam is an associate worship pastor at New Life Church in Colorado Springs, Colo., and director of its school of worship.

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