Spirit-Led Worship: Handling Snakes With Safety
“And then he told them, ‘Go into all the world and preach the Good News to everyone, everywhere. Anyone who believes and is baptized will be saved. But anyone who refuses to believe will be condemned. These signs will accompany those who believe: . . . They will be able to handle snakes with safety'” (Mark 16:15-18 NLT).
Please erase from your mind the image of some backwoods congregation of tooth-deprived, overall-clad people dancing jigs, drinking strychnine from mason jars, and staring down diamondback rattlesnakes as they lift them to the Lord in a most ill-advised sacrifice of praise. This article is not about that at all. That kind of snake handling is for the history books and public television. The kind of snake handling I want to address is urban and slick, post-modern and media savvy. There are snakes in our churches: snakes in pews, on the platforms, and in the conference rooms. They lie in wait in our abundant weeds, sensing the heat of the innocent heart, ready to strike and inject their poison. Since they are not all rattlers, they seldom give a warning, but they can be detected, their hiding places taken away, and their God-given use restored.
Effective Snake Handling
The first method of safely handling these snakes is not to be one of them. When snakes handle snakes, they just breed more snakes. Is it logical that an organization full of strife and backbiting, gossip and infighting, abuse and misuse of God’s people reflects a leadership style that promotes these things? If organizations really do take on the characteristics of their leaders, we must first clean the snakey-ness from our own hearts. Do we lead by the principles of the Kingdom of God or those of the kingdoms of men? James, the Lord’s brother, pastor of the Jerusalem church, puts it this way:
Who is wise and understanding among you? Let him show it by his good life, by deeds done in the humility that comes from wisdom. But if you harbor bitter envy and selfish ambition in your hearts, do not boast about it or deny the truth. Such “wisdom” does not come down from heaven but is earthly, unspiritual, of the devil. For where you have envy and selfish ambition, there you find disorder and every evil practice. But the wisdom that comes from heaven is first of all pure; then peace-loving, considerate, submissive, full of mercy and good fruit, impartial and sincere. Peacemakers who sow in peace raise a harvest of righteousness. (James 3:13-18 NIV)
The contrast between wisdom from above and that from below, as exhibited by leaders in the church, is stark. From above comes a leadership style that is impartial, sincere, pure, peace-loving, considerate, submissive, and full of mercy and good fruit. From below comes a style full of envy and selfish ambition, which brings about disorder and every evil practice. From above comes a field sown in peace and producing a harvest of righteousness. From below comes a weed-infested tract with a mixture of wheat and tares that only the angels of God can sort out, a breeding ground and sanctuary for snakes.
Weeding Out The Kingdom
The second method for safely handling snakes is to remove their hiding places. Snakes rely on stealth. They strike from the shadows, from the overgrown gullies and hedgerows next to the well-worn paths. Jesus warned us about weeds. He said that many of us would receive the Word and start growing in the Lord but the cares of this life and the deceitfulness of riches would grow up around us like weeds and choke us, not to death, but to strangle the fruitfulness from our lives. A church full of immature believers is a field overgrown with these weeds. In every patch of weeds, the enemies of God wait like snakes to strike the passer by. Until the day the angels “weed out” the Kingdom of God we will have weeds in the church. But, when we preach and teach and pray the Word of God, when we seek the Lord’s face in public worship, and when we gather at the altars of the church, the Holy Spirit tills the good soil of our lives, bringing forth a crop of grain instead of weeds.
As leaders, if we submit to the blade of the Spirit in our lives, we can also lead the saints who are in our charge in private and public worship. We can no longer expect private worship just to happen as a matter of course. The “worries, riches and pleasures” of life have choked the time for daily private worship in this post-modern age. We need to lead our people in reclaiming the ancient practices of private prayer: morning and evening prayer; fellowshipping with God through the praying of Scripture; prayer in and by the Spirit; confession of sins, of the Word of God, and of the ancient creeds and confessions of the church; and finally listing of needs and petitions
People want to pray; but many are at a loss for a method of structuring their time with God. As leaders, we can help with that, but not in a legalistic sense of bringing condemnation on them–they already feel guilty enough. Condemnatory leadership is “snakey” leadership. What we can do is provide devotions, prayer books, and Scripture reading plans. The ancient maxim that “the rule of prayer is the rule of faith” is still true today. Lives of faith and integrity are the result of faithfulness to integral prayers. We can lead them through the Christian year in private prayer. The seasons of Advent and Lent are especially good times for clearing the weeds out of our lives.
Public worship should be weed-pulling time, as well. Paul said that if we would spend time beholding His glory, we would be changed. As we give thanks, proclaim praise, express adoration and commitment, and pray together, we are beholding the Lord’s glory, and we are being changed. To hear the Word of God proclaimed under the unction of the Holy Spirit is also transformational. The Holy Spirit has long used altar times of deep individual and corporate prayer to reveal the glory of Jesus to those who would seek His face. The celebration of the Lord’s Table is called a means of grace, and it really is that. While we do not believe we are saved because of what we do at the Table, we certainly believe that God’s sustaining grace flows to us as we participate in the remembrance of the Lord’s death and resurrection, and express confidence in His soon return. We actually renew the New Covenant at the Table.
My deep conviction is that the classical Christian acts and sacraments of worship retain great power to kill weeds in the church. Instead of a new invention for the twenty-first century church, we need the ancient plow of the Spirit to break up our fallow ground. We need the sharp sword of the Word of God, to slice like a scythe through our overgrown souls. Snakes simply have too many hiding places when our fields are unkempt.
We need to kill the snakes–not the people of course, but the intrusions of Satan in our ranks. The opening chapters of the Bible show us how the old serpent works. He tempts with enticing words. He distorts the truth of God. He casts doubt on God’s character and motives and certainly on the Word of God. He appeals to the hungers of the human heart. He deceives the saints of God. In addition to ridding our churches of the weeds that offer shelter to snakes, we need to deal with the snakes themselves. By these snakes, I mean the leadership and relational habits that the organization follows. They come down from the top, and they include the following:
- Will we tell the truth or handle the truth?
- Will we lead people or control people?
- Will we love people or use people?
- Will we chose spiritual weapons or the weapons of the flesh to fight our battles?
- Will we seek consensus among the church family or allow strife and argument?
If we will model, as well as teach, the principles of the Kingdom of God, biblical standards of conduct, and Christ-likeness, we will kill the snakes among us.
The church won’t be weed-less until Judgment Day. Snakes will continue to hide among us. By attending to the things of God the way we know we should, however, we can make it more difficult for snakes to flourish in the church.
Dr. Steve Phifer received a Doctorate in Worship Studies from the Robert E. Webber Institute for Worship Studies. He has taught at Valley Forge University and Southeastern Assemblies of God University. For many years he was the Worship Pastor at Word of Life Church in Alexandria, VA.
More of Dr. Phifer’s materials can be found at stevephifer.com.