Stretching more than 9,600,000 square feet, the South China Mall in Dongguan, China is the biggest shopping mall in the world, housing more than 2,300 stores. Open in 2005, it holds some of the most unique attractions that a mall has ever offered, such as a go-kart racing track and a roller coaster. It's even separated into international zones with accompanying cuisine and regional attractions, complete with an enormous sphinx near Egypt, an Arc de Triomphe in France, and canals with gondolas running through Italy.
By 2008, this massive and costly venture was basically dead. It was deemed a "ghost mall," with over 99 percent of its stores vacant. The company that opened it sold it for pennies on the dollar, and even though in recent years it may be showing signs of life as new owners aim for middle-class rather than upper-class visitors, for almost a decade it was a documentary film subject for its epic failure and was rarely accessible to the general public.
Can you imagine the size of that structure? It's basically twice the size of the Mall of America in Minnesota. All that effort into its construction, and only three years later it lay dormant. It took longer to build than it did to collapse. It's an object lesson in Jesus's warning of the failure to count the cost of a project before beginning (see Luke 14:28).
Many larger churches have been subject to a similar decay on a spiritual level. Despite the latest technology, lighting, and good sight lines, spiritual conditions verge on bankruptcy. It makes me wonder what people are really coming to church to do.
When you come into the house of God to worship, fellowship, and be fed by the Word of God, do you truly worship God? Yes, you may know the words by heart and sing the harmony in perfect pitch. You may even close your eyes and lift your hands, but that does not mean you are worshiping God; it simply means you know the motions.
If I could paraphrase Matthew 6:5 through the eyes of a worship leader, I would emphasize not being like the rest of the world, which tries to be noticed for its talents. That goes for singers, musicians, and worshipers. Even though you may be surrounded by a thousand other people, do your best to get alone with God.
If you are attempting to get noticed, then you have your reward: a few pats on the back from people near you on how well you can sing melody; however, true worship is a matter of the inner adoration of a person towards his Maker, not a series of outward actions. God has never been one to look at the outer man or woman. He would rather hear the pitchy heart of a servant than the lungs of a gifted but pretentious world-class vocalist.
When Samuel was evaluating David's older brother, Eliab, to be Israel's new king, God interrupted his search, telling His prophet, "Do not consider his appearance or his height, for I have rejected him. The Lord does not look at the things people look at. People look at the outward appearance, but the Lord looks at the heart" (1 Samuel 16:7, NIV).
Before David, Saul had been king, and from the world's point of view, he had it all—the height, the looks, even the people's adoration. But that was not what the Lord was interested in; He was concerned about Saul's heart, and that heart proved to be trouble. When we say God looks at the heart, the same could be said for worship. The Holy Spirit is not impressed by who you know or what record you sang on; He wants your focus to be on heavenly matters.
On the outside, you may look like you are the best there is in your congregation. You may be twice the singer the person next to you is, you may have the best training and attractive songwriting ability, and externally, you seem to have it all together, but if your focus is anywhere other than on the King of Kings, your praise looks no different to God than the great South China Mall: hollow, deserted, and empty.
The Bible is clear that God is not impressed with heart-barren or thoughtless worship. He once called a defiant Israel's praise mere noise, and neither their worship nor prayers were going to be listened to until they learned the meaning of justice and grace (see Amos 5:23-24).
When you're singing at church, don't just read the words off the screen; absorb them, make them your own, and sing them for God alone. If you don't think you can sing, sing anyway! The Bible says, "Make a joyful noise unto the Lord" (Psalm 100:1, KJV), not the perfect sound. Completely surrender to the Holy Spirit. If He says kneel, kneel. If He says lift your hands, do so. If He says clap or sit down, do it. There is freedom in Christ, and I know He desires intimacy more than imitation.