Thousands of (non-sabbatarian) Christians all over the country have at least two things on their agenda this coming Sunday: Church, and the Superbowl.
The Superbowl is one of the most watched sporting events not only in this country, but even around the world. Thousands of Christians will gather for a second time this Sunday to watch the Kansas City Chiefs take on the San Francisco 49ers to prove who the best football team in the world is. And being that the Superbowl falls on this upcoming Lord’s day, thinking on how many Christians will be transitioning from worshiping the Lord to cheering during a game, I wanted to take this opportunity to address something I hear all the time in regards to Sunday morning worship and Sunday night football.
Why Don’t We Cheer for God?
What I hear often is the sentiment that Christians ought to behave in church in a similar fashion to how people behave at football games. Sometimes this is brought up to justify a church worship philosophy that does look like a crowd at a football game. In some churches people dance, people shout, people jump for joy, people cheer. When they are criticized, it is not uncommon to point out how we behave this way at football games, and perhaps God deserves more joy, more cheer, more celebration than a football team does.
Other times its leveraged as a complaint. I have heard and seen people who are frustrated with the lack of emotion and expression at church utilize this argument to spur people on to more cheer. Accusations of idolatry can be leveled. We cheer for the Superbowl, we slap hands, and jump for joy for football, but never for God, and that seems as if we idolize football above God.
Is this a valid point? Should we tone down our love for sports and crank up the dial on our expression at church?
Sports as Idols
Before answering, I need to make an important qualification. First and foremost, I have no doubt that football, or any form of entertainment for that matter, can become an idol. Though I will eventually make the argument that football games are not an accurate standard for Sunday worship, I want to be clear that I am not saying love for football cannot cross a line. It often does in this country. Sports have dominated family life and personal life in many cases in ways with which I can’t see the Lord being pleased. Football often times is an idol.
That said, I think this often repeated comment truly reveals one of the foundational issues between the different sides of our worship wars today. That issue is the place of reverence, and the expression of reverence in worship.
I for one do not see hypocrisy when Christians high five and cheer at football games, but decline to behave that way at worship on Sunday mornings. The true difference between a football game and the Christian worship service is the majesty of the subject in front of us. Football can be entertaining. It can be exciting. However, it is never truly awe-inspiring. People who feel reverential awe at something like football deserve our pity. They have experienced so little of the majesty of God they have become satisfied with so little. The fact is, God deserves more than just celebration, He is worthy also of our fear and reverence.
When you watch a crowd shout and cheer at a football game, you are seeing the manifestation of joy and excitement. But what you are not seeing in that is fear and reverence.
In Scripture, when people encountered the thrice holy God, it very rarely left them high-fiving their buddies. Rather, encountering God left people in fear and reverence. What happened when the Israelites received the Law and encountered the power of God at the mountains?
Now when all the people saw the thunder and the flashes of lightning and the sound of the trumpet and the mountain smoking, the people were afraid and trembled, and they stood far off and said to Moses, “You speak to us, and we will listen; but do not let God speak to us, lest we die.” Moses said to the people, “Do not fear, for God has come to test you, that the fear of him may be before you, that you may not sin.” The people stood far off, while Moses drew near to the thick darkness where God was (Exodus 20:18-21).
What was Isaiah’s experience during his vision when He saw the glory of the Lord?
Above him stood the seraphim. Each had six wings: with two he covered his face, and with two he covered his feet, and with two he flew. And one called to another and said: “Holy, holy, holy is the Lord of hosts; the whole earth is full of his glory!” And the foundations of the thresholds shook at the voice of him who called, and the house was filled with smoke. And I said: “Woe is me! For I am lost; for I am a man of unclean lips, and I dwell in the midst of a people of unclean lips; for my eyes have seen the King, the Lord of hosts!” (Isaiah 6:2-5).
I am not saying these texts are prescriptions for how to worship in the local church. But what I am saying is that the fear and awe of God should have some manifestation in worship. The point is that God is worthy of more than just our expressions of joy and celebration.
Football is pure joy, even though sometimes football games fill you with anger, frustration, and displeasure, emotions we should never feel in worship gathering. But football is never reverential. We never fear football; we never fear a football player. But we do fear God. The Psalmist said it best when he wrote,
“Serve the LORD with fear, and rejoice with trembling” (Psalm 2:11).
This is the standard; this is what Sunday mornings aim for, and what Sunday night football should never become. We serve (worship) and we rejoice on Sundays. No doubt. We are there to enjoy, rejoice, and celebrate. But that is supposed to be tempered by fear and trembling. All cheer and no tremble is not good. All celebration and no fear is not good.
Thus, many Christian churches will not celebrate Sunday morning the way they will celebrate Sunday night… and perhaps that’s actually a good thing. Perhaps more churches need to reconsider whether or not their jumping, cheering, and shouting are appropriate manifestations of fear and trembling.
Striking the Balance
Psalm 2 is not only an important reminder for concert-like worship gatherings. It truly is an important reminder for those coming from a liturgical or reformed background as well. Those settings should be praised for their commitment to fear and reverence. Nonetheless, they must evaluate their worship services and ask if their trembling has driven out all rejoicing. The Psalmist calls for both.
The fact of the matter is that many reverential worship services do fit a stereotype, wherein they have become dry, stiff, and emotionless. One has to wonder if that is an appropriate expression of rejoicing.
The Psalmists also tell us to
Praise the LORD! Praise God in his sanctuary; praise him in his mighty heavens! Praise him for his mighty deeds; praise him according to his excellent greatness! Praise him with trumpet sound; praise him with lute and harp! Praise him with tambourine and dance; praise him with strings and pipe! Praise him with sounding cymbals; praise him with loud clashing cymbals! Let everything that has breath praise the LORD! Praise the LORD! (Psalm 150).
We have to wonder, is stiff, lifeless worship an appropriate expression of “the joy of my salvation”? (Psalm 51:12).
Essentially, what every local congregation needs is balance. I don’t have answers to many of the specifics. What does celebration tempered by reverence look like in every local church? I am not sure I can answer that, and I know it’s not my place to answer that. That is left to the men of God the Spirit has put in authority over those churches. But what I can say is that the Superbowl is not the standard.
So watch your game. Enjoy your friends and your family. Cheer and slap hands. But while you watch, remember, nothing you are seeing there is worthy of fear or reverence. Nothing you are watching compares to the majesty of God, the glory of the Lord, the joy of salvation, or the defeat of devils.