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Worship is … [3 things worship is]

Part Two — Read Part One entitled “What Worship is Not”

Sending and gathering, and the choices we make in both, reflect our relationship with God, our life of worship in community, and our neighborly love and compassion.

Worship IS praise and glorification of God

God’s purpose, according to Revelation, is that people of all nations would come to love, obey, worship and glorify the living God for all of eternity…When Revelation pictures every creature in the whole of creation bringing honor and glory to God (Rev 5: 13), we see the ultimate goal of the Missio Dei in which the church is caught up.

Dean Flemming, Rediscovering the Full Mission of God:  A Biblical Perspective on Being, Doing, and Telling, Kindle location 244.

Brent D. Peterson rightly notes that “God’s creation of people to become one by the Spirit as the body of Christ has one goal, one end, one purpose—doxology, the praise and glory of God” [Created to Worship, 17]The purpose of worship is  not for participants to “feel something” or even to leave with a feeling of having “been fed.”  In contrast, the kenosis (emptying, surrender) modeled by Jesus becomes our posture of worship; that we empty ourselves as living sacrifices (Rom 12:1) before God.  In worship we seek more of God and less of ourselves.

Worship IS gathering of family

Heal us and we shall be healed, help us and we shall be helped, for you are our joy…All by myself I was praying these ancient lines that were exclusively framed in terms of “we” and “us” and “our people” (as is the Lord’s Prayer, of course). A few days later I attended a large Christian worship service. There, the focus of every song was on God and me: “I love you, Lord, and I lift my voice” … “Just as I am, without one plea” … “Here I come to worship, here I come to bow down.” Hundreds of us were worshiping side by side, a sea of voices resounding together, and every one of us was pretending to be all alone.

–Lois Tverberg, Walking in the Dust of Rabbi Jesus: How the Jewish Words of Jesus Can Change Your Life, Kindle location 828.

The individualization of worship plays out in many ways, one of which is the songs that are sung.  The shift from hymns to praise music brought with it a shift from singing about God to singing to God.  At the same time lyrics on slides removed the musical notes from view and with it congregations that sang in parts. Last Sunday I sat in a service where at least half of the people in the room didn’t sing at all.  None of these things in an of themselves are the problem, but rather reflect “Jesus and me” form of Christian practice.

“The process of being a Christian,” writes Peterson, “must be learned in community” [Created to Worship, 28] He is right, but I would go even a bit further. One of the things I appreciate most about Asia, is the way in which church is viewed as even more than community—it is family. The sharing of the gospel, writes Dean Flemming, “leads to establishing transformed, worshiping and obedient communities of faith. It is a call to belong and behave, as well as to believe. God’s people are to live their life together “in a manner worthy of the gospel of Christ” (Phil 1:27) [Rediscovering the Full Mission of God, Kindle location 2705.]  The community that lives life together is, in a very real way, a spiritual family. As family, when it comes to “indigenous expressions of worship and community,” writes Leonard Sweet, “participation trumps excellence: all geese are swans” [So Beautiful, Kindle location 4310.] Active participation in the family is to be valued above performance excellence.


Worship IS a transforming process

…this transformation is not so much about going to church every Sunday or reading our Bibles daily. It is not about saying prayers a certain way or singing the right songs. All these things can be important parts of worship if we allow them to shape us and focus us into the type of people who then go into our world and make choices that bring life and love rather than death and hatred. This is where McManus’s words ring so true. The acts we traditionally attribute to being worship prepare us for the spiritual act of making choices!

–Rob A. Fringer and Jeff K. Lane,  Theology of luck : Fate, Chaos, and Faith, Kindle location1551.

Our lives are defined by the choices we make, and the choices we make are very much determined by the kind of people we are, and the kind of people we are is very much shaped by the family or community of which we are a part. Walter Brueggemann wrote that “Sabbath is a bodily act of testimony to alternative and resistance to pervading values and the assumptions behind those values” [Sabbath as Resistance, Kindle location 394].  The choice of true worship—Sabbath—is to a choice to resist the values and assumptions that bear down on us in every other part of our lives.  Peterson writes that in worship we become more “fully human…to have one’s will and desires aligned with what God wills and desires for creation” Rediscovering the Full Mission of God, Kindle location 394].  In other words, worship transform humanity into people who reflect the image of God.

For Peterson the entirety of worship, but particularly the sacraments are divine-human events and encounters in which God heals individuals to become more fully human… gift to the church for communal worship that serves as a command and promise” [Created to Worship. 151]. The sacraments serve as symbols and reminders of what God has done, what God is doing, and what God will do in the life of the Church, the Body of Christ.  Of importance is a reminder to all the Church that God has, is, and will send out his people into the world.  “God breathed in the church [and] the church is sent empowered by the Holy Spirit to be doxologically (in praise) broken and poured out before the world” [Created to Worship. 151].  Sending and gathering, and the choices we make in both, reflect our relationship with God, our life of worship in community, and our neighborly love and compassion.

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Worship is not… [3 things worship is not]

Worship is at the heart of the Church, flowing directly from its identity and purpose.  It is both a responsive event, as we respond to all that God has and is doing, and a formative event, as we are shaped and formed into the people who are and will continue to carry out the Missio Dei as the Church gathered and the church scattered.

In thinking through what a theology of worship ought to look like, I do so from with varied images in my mind. There is the image of the church in which I was raised, now comprised of an increasingly aging congregation struggling with changes in society and changes in the church.  There is also the image of my current stateside home church—a large, fairly wealthy congregation with creative “worship environments” that run with clocklike precision and professionalism.  Finally, there is “J”, a young chuch planter in Asia who meets weekly with one new Muslim-background-believer (MBB) and his friend, who is not yet a believer, to read Scripture, discuss it, pray together, and encourage one another. What is worship and what should it look like?

I often tell people when I am stateside that the rapidly changing U.S. context is increasingly similar to my rapidly changing Asian context.  In fact, the principles of ministry in each setting are virtually identical, even as the way they are carried out certainly vary a good deal. As we begin to think through what a healthy theology of worship ought to look like, it seems, there are some basic principles found in all three of the above images I have shared as well as around the globe (even as a snapshot of worship in each location will certainly reveal many variations). 

Debates over what worship is and what it ought to look like often reflect any number or theological (both practical and theoretical) misunderstandings and shortcomings because the way we approach “worship” in the local church setting flow directly from our understanding of the church—its purpose, place, and identity. Three important aspects of such a poor theology of worship center around three important ideas of what worship is not.

 Worship is NOT performance and music

Why is it…that the church’s worship and liturgical life is not more Refrigerator Door and less Rembrandt? Hillsong’s Darlene Zschech is a Picasso of praise music. Matt Redman is a Rembrandt of praise music. But why does every praise song have to be a Hillsong, Integrity, or Maranatha production? Why can’t we feature creativity that looks and feels more like a refrigerator door than a copycat “classic”? Why can’t we embrace more kitsch and schtick and less slick?

—Leonard Sweet (Kindle, 4299)

There is an important difference between pursuing excellence in worship and pursuing excellence in performance.  The aging congregation mentioned above sings with gusto and enthusiasm, although the song leader had a mediocre voice at best and most of the congregants are off tune.  It’s not a great musical performance but it’s excellent worship.  The large, wealthy congregation, by contrast, enjoys concert-level-quality musical performances on a weekly basis; so good, in fact, that many enjoy the music silently rather than join in.  When J meets with his MBB friends on Tuesday morning, they sometimes don’t sing at all!

It is important to note from the beginning that worship cannot be reduced to a level of performance excellence while at the same time refusing to acknowledge the dangers of being either too concerned or too unconcerned with the actual carrying-out of the worship experience.  To go a step further, is it easy to notice that often times in the local church, the definition of “worship” often centers around music. Music is one means by which we can worship, but music is not, itself, the definition of worship. 

 Worship is NOT marketing and evangelism

…being missional is not a matter of taking overseas short-term mission trips, of having a program of missions, or of changing the style of a worship service.

Schwanz and Coleson, Kindle 374

Being missional—embracing Missio Dei and living it out in our world—is one of three core values in the Church of the Nazarene, the church in which I was raised and still call home. For many local churches in the recent past, one of the key questions asked with regard to worship planning was “What can we do to get more people in the seats?” (Or something of that sort). Getting new people in the doors of the church and providing them a “worship experience” that would keep them coming became a priority and was thought to be part of the way in which the Great Commission was being fulfilled, according to Brent Peterson in Created to Worship.  Worship, however, “becomes less than it ought to be anytime our focus shifts from love and honor for the Almighty to an event designed to attract the masses” (Peterson, 20).

The worship time and space of the local church is not the primary (or ideal) space in which the people of God ought to engage the “unreached” or “unchurched” world around them. Sure, some people may be attracted to the authentic and meaningful worship in which the church engages, but this is not the primary purpose of worship. If we plan our worship for the purpose of meaningful and authentic worship of God these things may well happen. We might even pray that such things would happen.  But if we plan our worship with the “outsider” as our primary target, we will likely miss the mark of meaningful and authentic worship of God.

 Worship is NOT outcomes-based

Worship is not about our feelings. Jesus, in his ministry, often confronted religious leaders and those who held religious authority and power.  Of primary concern, according to Robert Fringer and Jeff Lane, in Theology of Luck, was that “Israel’s religious rituals have become actions meant to appease God so God will overlook their sin…they are not actually worshiping God, because their motivation is not love or relationship but selfish gain (Fringer and Lane, 655) In short, whenever worship turns from God to me—what I want or what I get out of it—then it ceases to be worship. If I only worship when I feel good, or as a means to help myself feel good, then I have strayed far from its true meaning and purpose.