Our worship is connected to miracles rather than to incarnation
Jorge Navarro found Christ amid the difficult life he had chosen to follow. Drugs of all kinds were his daily bread, until one day everything changed. The force that had fueled his down-slide was the same force that fueled his desire to passionately serve the one who called him.
This conversation was conducted by Jaime Lázaro in Spanish and translated to English. Read it in Spanish.
Thirty-five years ago, Jorge, his wife Judith and their child left the beautiful and beloved Mexico to start the New Birth Church in an unfamiliar country. Members of the nuclear family were the only ones who attended his first sermons. The rest is history, because since then, hundreds of people have been touched thanks to the tireless work of this pastor.
The New Birth Church of Wilmington, California, is affiliated with the Southern Baptist Convention and has an average attendance of 450 people.
This was an interesting interview, which suggested some comments and reflective questions:
• Navarro says that our worship is very Old-Testamentary and very Jewish, because it is connected with miracles but not with incarnation. He argues that this is done because of what is in style, the custom, or because others do it. Is it true that our churches follow trends in worship that separate us from our true purpose?
• Navarro does not believe that Christian music exists, explaining that there is a message transported in that vehicle. He says that there is not a Christian “do,” nor a spiritual “re,” but rather that music’s content is important. How can simple melodies bring a sense of brokenness upon people?
• When talking about the feeling of guilt in the person who comes to worship, Jorge Navarro says that this is a form of manipulation. “We have all been involved in this,” he remarked, adding, “What we have to do is approach the throne of grace during our time of need.” Is this an uncomfortable confession that can benefit the practice of worship?
How do you view the musical expression of worship?
I think the term worship, when referring to the act of singing, covers only one aspect because worship is more than singing. Human beings have an innate need to worship as they get to know and experience God; that is when one becomes a true worshiper. And worship has to do with the way you live, with your way of behaving and thinking, with every area of life.
So, why do it in the Church?
Well, the experience of a Christian is difficult to separate from corporate life. The Christian is called to live corporately, and when we come together, we express that supreme admiration.
Does it help to worship in groups?
When we come together as Christians, we express a supreme admiration for the miracle of the incarnation. We are talking about a God who incarnated himself and dwelt among us. Our worship is very old-testamentary, very Jewish. It is not a neo-testamentary worship, which exalts the miracle of God becoming flesh and dwelling among us, maybe because of trends, habits, or because others do it. But I think if you look at the heart of a true believer, their appreciation, affection and admiration of God is due to the fact that he left his throne and came to mingle among us.
When we worship in groups, do we run the risk of having a collective experience based more on emotions?
I think so. The point I am trying to make is that worship is not the act of singing. When we come together as a church, we begin to worship from the moment we say hello to one another. Receiving the Word, giving an offering, singing your joy and praise to God are all acts of worship. To obey and submit yourself when God speaks to you is an act of worship as well. So, I say that sometimes we limit the terms, but I think that emotions have to be involved because we are emotional beings.
What roles do emotions play during the time of worship in the Church?
I think if emotions control the time of worship, it is no longer worship.
How are you careful to not create an excess of emotions?
What is controlling the act of worship? What you feel, or what you believe? What you believe and know is what governs your surrendering, because sometimes you do not feel, but regardless, you are obliged to praise because you are here. But emotion is present, it is like an additive that helps us connect, but should not be the focus of the act.
Can we say that emotions are the vehicle that drives spirituality?
No, I think the soul embodies what we think, what we feel and what we decide to do. So, in those three areas, the soul is involved. The Lord said that many worship and do not know that they are worshiping; we must know that we are worshiping.
What should be the primary disposition of a person that comes to worship? Some claim they come to receive; others to feel; and some come to give.
I believe that giving should be the main disposition. The act of congregating is to come and give in the same way that the wise men went to give. That is an act of worship, because they gave what they had. We come to give the Lord what we have in a corporate manner. Sometimes that is joy, and sometimes it is anguish, sorrows or doubt. The experience of Christ’s body allows us to bring this before God in a way that is easier than doing it alone.
What do you think are the percentages of people who come to give and those who come to receive?
I don’t think I have the ability to determine that. I do not know, but the common denominator is that everyone comes to see what they can get, what will be given to them. They come to receive a message and they come to receive emotions.
Why do they come with this disposition?
Because human beings have a need that seeks to be satisfied, and when it is not properly satisfied, anything works. I think that coming together offers many benefits and helps our lives, but if we focus only on what we receive from the congregation, there will come a time where the congregation will have nothing left to give.
Is that why we see "good" worshipers who do not experience any change in their lives?
Sometimes it is the standard of what is expected of me. People want to see that I am a good worshiper and I play that role, because everyone somehow plays a role in church. It becomes a little game, a “play”, or a drama. So, I play my role as a worshiper, I change my face, expression, tone of voice, I talk to the brothers in a certain way, and when I get in the car with my wife, everything changes.
“You shut up!”
It is not a guarantee of true change to see a “worshiper’s” tangible expression during worship, right?
Right. That is found in all denominations and all religions.
Have we made a mistake in the Church by teaching that the temple is the only place where we can worship?
I think the Church serves that function, but everything that we learn here in the congregation can be put into practice in other parts of our lives. Depending only on time in church hurts the Gospel and the life of the Church, because it can become a mere act in a theater performance.
Or I simply become addicted to that time…
Of course, because you won’t see a three-dimensional growth like the one that Ephesians speaks of; a growth in height, width and depth. This experience is very horizontal.
As a church, do we make the mistake of not being integral?
I think so. It is precisely due to denominationalism why we acquire specific approaches and emphasis.
And we ignore others that are very important?
Yes. Some people say: “To me, the study of the Word”; others say: “Prayer, prayer” and some “Worship”. All of this is in the width. Once you can cover most things, because it’s like shelves where there are several things, then you must develop them. It’s not only about knowing how to win souls, it’s about actually winning them. It’s not only about knowing that prayer has power, it’s about practicing it. It’s not only about learning to worship in a group, but also to learn to be a worshiper in all places. I think that vertical growth is very important.
Do you use different kinds of music according to the ages of your congregants?
At New Birth Church, we have dedicated services to different groups. We have services for youth, adults and children. And the music goes according to ages, because music is a vehicle. And forgive me, but I do not think that Christian music exists, but rather that there is a message that goes in that vehicle. There is music for everything. There is neither a Christian “do” nor a spiritual “re”; music is music, but the content is important, because that is where we are motivated to express ourselves. So, the way a group can express that feeling or desire to worship God will depend on its musical culture. Music is composed of thirteen sounds—7 notes and 6 semi notes; the mixture of notes with silences and times can make all the difference.
Do these notes become holy when they are used by Christian composers?
No. Because -for example- what we call sacred music or hymns in the 70s, such as "A Mighty Fortress Is Our God", which was the Battle Hymn of Martin Luther, was worldly music. He took the music and added lyrics.
Like many of the old popular hymns...
Yes. What happens is that the Church was sovereign over music. The cradle of art was inside the Church; the great musicians were in the Church, and they were the ones dictating trends. But things are different today. We call it sacred music because it represents a certain time; it creates a specific atmosphere, but not exclusively. There is contemporary music that inspires humans just as much as the old hymns.
Do you classify the songs that your congregation sings?
We have the bad habit of calling songs with faster rhythms “praise,” and other slower songs “worship.”
That is not the way it works for you?
We do this out of habit, following the pattern taught by others, but I think there should be no difference. Some music may be very joyful with a profound message, and there is music that can be very quiet and offer a simple message that lacks depth. I've seen people super connected with the Lord with all different rhythms.
Is it possible that the migratory situation that many Latinos face causes them to cling more to God?
We all have different kinds of problems. A woman who did not have a good reputation sat wiping her own tears off Jesus’ feet.Someone said to Jesus that if he knew who she was, he wouldn't let her do that. The Lord said that who is forgiven much, loves much. I think that’s the way to measure things. The more you feel you need God, the more loyalty and faithfulness you will show God.
Is it the desire to be freed from cultural guilt that makes Latinos come to worship?
I think that manipulation through guilt is one of the biggest mistakes that people of all cultures make. Indeed, one of the largest Pauline messages was that we must approach the throne of grace where the vilest sinner, the dirtiest and corrupted can enter. He says, “Come boldly to the throne of grace” at your time of need. The gospel message should be a message of grace; the problem is that we preach a message of guilt and try to manipulate people. We have all been involved in this. I think there has to be a time of reflection where we understand that manipulation through guilt only produces more problems.
Does the heritage of cultural machismo interfere with the process of letting go and abandoning ourselves before Christ during worship?
I think the cross deals with all sorts of problems. The dealings of God and the cross in a Christian’s life is going to be worked at so that we may experience brokenness. It’s hard to explain, but there comes a time when God breaks lives in order to transform them.
Is God watching and feeling satisfied as people worship Him, or is He among those who worship Him?
Well, when you present that scenario, I am transported to the Old Testament, where we have a God who is watching over us. We are ready to take the land and he inhabits the praises of His people. I think that we have to translate this into everyday life. The enemies are definitely no longer just geographical situations or circumstances around us, but rather the moral problems and situations that overwhelm us. For example, when you worry, you’re thinking that something bad will happen, instead of trusting in God and believing that is not the case. It is a decision that you must make. I think the act of depending on God, believing and abandoning your self can allow for a reversal of the difficult situation you are in. The experience they had in the Old Testament, with wars and victories, we have them in our daily lives.
Do you think we can be wrong in our ways of worshiping the Lord?
I think the moment you start looking for a correct or perfect way to worship, you are in danger. I believe that when we speak of worship, we are really talking about a relationship with God. If I try to teach people what worship is, I am already making a huge mistake because there is not one right way to do this. I can have classes for couples, but actually loving my wife is something I have learned to do over the years. My relationship with God develops over time. I feel free to complain to God about many things, as Jeremiah or David did. David was a man who was known for having a Godlike heart, but in parts of Psalms we see a bitter and painful heart reflected in scripture, because David was in relationship, with a personal God.
Do you think that referring to God with masculine language in the Church reaffirms machismo?
Well, God is presented in scripture as the Father, not as Mother. I disagree with the claim that God has female elements, because men can also cry and be kind. Men are made of both steel and silk.
That is as it should be, but there are people who imagine God as their father and see a judgmental God who punishes them...
In fact the first human that referred to God as “Father” was Jesus. He taught us to call God Father. Unfortunately in our Latino culture, the father figure is an absent one. A father fails, breaks promises, punishes and abandons. I have often experienced as a pastor that people relate better to Jesus Christ than God the Father. And though the Word tells us to pray to the Father, their prayers are always to the Lord Jesus, because there is a barrier. I think it is important to increase the way in which we pray to Jesus, to restore the figure of the true Father, and begin to experience true paternity. It is also important to restore the father figure in man’s heart.
Why do some churches that promote more life in the Spirit have more physical expressions in their time of worship?
I think the point is that when we are talking about worship, our sanctuary is the Spirit. We are spirit, soul, and body. With our spirit, we can discern the presence of God, and we can know when we’ve broken that communion with God. The Holy Spirit is the connection. Again, we return to the point that God is Father, Son and Holy Spirit. We need to have a relationship that allows us to know God as all three.
Do you think the time of worship functions as a tool for outreach?
Yes, I think so. Although sometimes it is used to manipulate. There are places where they manipulate an entire range of emotions to generate an experience that appears to be a relationship with God, but in reality, it is a relationship that you are having with the congregation, with the music, with the ambiance.
How do you determine that this is happening?
Well, such environments can be reproduced in other areas and are used by vendors. Many of the things that happen in churches are used in convention sales; people make songs and wrap individuals up in emotions. I’ve been to conventions of companies that have their own hymns and songs. People get excited and crazy for their product.
Do some churches do the same thing?
I think there is something that is legitimate within the Church. For example, within Maoism, they used the entire liturgy of Christian worship, such as testimony and song, they would come to the front of the room and testify on the benefits of Communism.
Do you think the worshipers that visit churches are beneficial or harmful?
I believe that they neither benefit nor harm, because they are traveling and are only there temporarily.
Is it a risk to constantly be inviting someone?
I believe that when the Church is well focused and well founded, there is no risk. The risks come when there is no solid foundation in doctrine. A Christian who is mature can judge and say when something is not right; they can even help people who are focused in a wrong way. But a new Christian will have a hard time discerning something wrong.
Does worship change my heart or the heart of God?
I believe that God never changes. I think being connected to God lets us submit to him. God does not submit to you.
Who benefits, God or us?
We always benefit. But love benefits both of us; a parent watching their child do well is benefited, even though they are not directly receiving anything from the child’s actions. In this sense, God has benefits from the peace and tranquility in knowing that his children are doing the right thing, but it is the human being that is receiving the direct benefit.
Are there any last thoughts that you would like to offer regarding worship in the Church?
I just think that the experience of worship is an integral experience that has to do with everything. In my life, I have gone through different stages. I remember a time when the only books I read and bought were about worship. The point is that we can have corporate worship experiences every moment of our lives. Paul says in Ephesians to ‘pray so that we may know the mystery of his will, which is to bring together all things in Christ.’ God wants me to know the mystery of his will. That mystery is to put order in Heaven and bring order to the Earth. God has chosen the believer to bring that peace. For me, that is the principle of worship, because it is the principle of submission and obedience. I’m not using God to minister to myself and to experience something and become my drug of joy, which is the concept that we have today. But rather, I want to submit to God because that is the mystery of his will. He wants to do that and I want to be a part of that.