Imagine how they felt. For four hundred years, ever since King Solomon finished building the grand Temple in Jerusalem, the Israelites had enjoyed free and rich worship in their land. David had successfully defeated most of Israel’s enemies, he had made all the preparations for the Temple and the worship to take place there, and under Solomon’s reign the kingdom flourished.
On the day of the Temple dedication many years ago, hundreds of Levitical singers joined with 120 trumpeters in the Temple courts as they made themselves heard in unison in praise and thanksgiving to the Lord: “For he is good, for his steadfast love endures forever” (2 Chron. 5:13). And ever since then, elaborate rituals of worship according to God’s instructions took place there for the benefit of all the people.
Yet false worship from the pagan nations crept into the land, and as a direct result of this terrible breach of God’s law, the kingdom split in two. Even then, faithful Israelites were able to worship God freely, and regular Temple practices continued.
That all changed in the early sixth century bc. Nebuchadnezzar swept into the land, and after several defeats and deportations, he finally destroyed Jerusalem, including its magnificent Temple. The Israelites now found themselves in a strange land. They no longer had their own culture, protected from foreign influence. They no longer had the Ark of the Covenant, their altars, or their Temple. They no longer had their worship.
Imagine how they felt. How could they take up their lyres and sing the songs they once sang in the splendor of that great city? How could they worship their God according to his instructions when they didn’t have the tools he required? How could they rejoice in his steadfast love when they were surrounded by their enemies? They were captives in Babylon; they had no reason to sing.
Instead, they sat down and wept.
Although the circumstances are certainly not exactly parallel, Christian worship in the West faces many of the same challenges as this tragic account of Israel’s captivity. Emperor Constantine’s legalization of Christianity in ad 313, and especially the establishment of Nicene Christianity as the state religion of the Roman Empire by Theodosius I in 380, created the conditions for what has come to be called Christendom—the union of church and state in the West such that Christianity and the West became almost synonymous. In fact, many of these early religious leaders envisioned Christendom as the New Israel, erecting ornate sanctuaries and altars, establishing a priesthood, and developing elaborate worship liturgies reminiscent of the Hebrew worship of old.
This situation persisted for hundreds of years, and while it was theologically problematic and led to many errors that resulted in need for Reformation, in the kind providence of God it did create some benefits. The most significant of these is likely the fact that free worship of the true God was permitted and even expected across the empire. The fruit of these freedoms is particularly evident in the Reformation worship traditions. With significant theological errors confronted, Reformation traditions of various stripes were enabled to perpetuate free and open God-centered, Bible-saturated worship.
Yet once again God’s people were taken captive. This time, however, the invasion was not by a pagan nation but by secular philosophies, ideas that questioned the supernatural and placed their trust fully in human autonomy and reason. These influential philosophies had begun to emerge much earlier, but during the eighteenth century they came to dominate thought in the West, putting to an end the impact Christian worship had enjoyed for hundreds of years.
The people of God once again found themselves in a strange land. But this time, many of them didn’t even notice.
Such is the context for what I address in this book. By all accounts Christendom is dead, and unbiblical beliefs have progressively permeated western thought, expectations, and culture. So how should churches respond to this seismic shift in their relationship to an increasingly post-Christian culture?