Worship is not something we do at church; worship is an attitude of life that should influence all we do including, but not limited to, what we do when we assemble as a church community. Romans 12:1-2 records Paul’s admonition: “I urge you, brothers and sisters, in view of God’s mercy, to offer your bodies as a living sacrifice, holy and pleasing to God—this is your true and proper worship. Do not conform to the pattern of this world, but be transformed by the renewing of your mind. Then you will be able to test and approve what God’s will is—his good, pleasing and perfect will.” Worship, then, is the commitment by a person of his or her entire life to God, as an ongoing display of self-sacrificial worship.
Worship is also reflected in Colossians 2:23-24, where Paul writes, “Whatever you do, work at it with all your heart, as working for the Lord, not for human masters, since you know that you will receive an inheritance from the Lord as a reward. It is the Lord Christ you are serving.” Commonly people see worship as adoration or perhaps even prostration, bowing and fawning over the one worshiped. God is less interested in our bootlicking or servility, which often become insincere or mindless; God isn’t looking for toadies who abase themselves for personal advantage. Instead, he prefers us to work, not for ourselves, but for God and to his honor and glory. My labors, indeed, everything I do should demonstrate I am serving God with my life, that is, a “sacrifice of worship.”
To me, this suggests that worship is first highly personal before it is corporate. If an individual believer is living passively and selfishly, is not fulfilling his own unique purpose, and is not utilizing the gifts God has provided for his or her calling, then his worship is empty. It is in discovering gifts, purpose, calling, and God’s ongoing provision that we gain an appreciation for what he is doing in and among us, which then becomes the basis of dynamic worship. Have you been part of a church or meeting where people gave testimonies of their conversion, often many years ago? Do they make you wonder what God has been doing for them lately? That would be a little bit like my telling my 85-year-old mother that I’m so grateful that she gave me birth, over 63 years ago, without mentioning the many things that have occurred over those years, including the $50 check she sent me last week!
So how does all that related to so-called “church services.” Personally, I hate that people have become accustomed to calling our regular Sunday gatherings by that label; it readily confuses otherwise clear meanings. In what manner are Christians “serving” God on Sunday mornings? How is spending an hour, or maybe two, singing and hearing a sermon serving God? What, if anything, are believers serving God when they sit and participate, largely passively, in what generally comes from the front of the assembly? Are they “serving” Him worship? I suspect that is the usual idea, but it’s not really what God is looking for. It becomes far too much like bootlicking and fawning and not nearly enough like demonstrating our reverence or adoration for God in everything we do! I don’t see much evidence of our thankfulness and appreciation for what he does while we are serving him with our very lives, perhaps because many of us are not!
Permit me to be a bit extreme, for a moment. I wonder if we need encouragement and opportunity to share from our life with God between Sunday gatherings. Sermons that are what one lady described favorably by saying “You’re not preaching; you’re meddling,” still remain easily general. I had an Inter-Varsity Christian Fellowship adviser begin every meeting with me by asking, “How is your quiet time?” All that ever did was make me uncomfortable. Still,we need to convey to each other that our calling as believers is or should be evident in our daily life. Culture and certain common ideas have led to a division between the sacred and the mundane that does not exist for the believer; all of our lives are holy, dedicated to God and to serving him and his people—holy janitors, holy cooks, holy plumbers, holy teachers, holy doctors, holy secretaries, holy mothers, holy fathers, holy engineers, holy tutors, holy broadcasters, holy basketball players, and holy flight attendants, to name a very few of the many holy careers, occupations, pursuits, and interests in which believers spend their time. What does it mean to be Christ-like in them? How do we express godliness as we work, and how do we make every occupation a holy calling? How do we encourage each other to do so as we come together in Jesus’ name? How do we begin to move from the superficial, “put a verse on it” kind of spirituality to one that needs no label but is evident to all? How different would our experiences be if I Corinthians 13 guided our actions outside as well as inside the fellowship of believers, and how different would that make our worship?
Some today suggest that nothing that happens in a typical American congreg ation on Sunday is what God wants. I’m not quite in agreement. Rather I suggest that what believers ought to do when they come together should be a result of what that have been doing the rest of the week. Being led to sing songs that an individual may or may not enjoy, often with highly amplified “worship leaders singing and playing so loudly that a participant cannot even hear his own voice reflects little, except by chance, of what may have been happening in that individuals life. Personally, I enjoy traditional hymn singing in harmony, choirs, and organ music (what my pastor just described as “granny music!”); given my background and tastes, that is the music that inspires me, the music that feels worshipful to me. I can appreciate other kinds of music, but they do not reach my heart in the same way; but I also recognize that others are moved by their own preferences, histories, and tastes.
How do we sort all that out? Indeed, it is fair to say, “But wait! The music isn’t for you but for God.” While true, in a sense, the choice of music is clearly not determined by God’s preferences, as no one knows what they are or even if he has any. What he wants is our hearts, souls, minds, and physical strength all expressing our devotion to him; he wants us to honor him both with our verbal, musical, and unspoken expressions when we come together and with our activities as we live in the world from day to day. It is those daily activities, their challenges, our coping with difficulties, as well as our successes that ought to fill our expressions when we come together. Our worship then will be a corporate tribute to God’s faithfulness to us, not only in his grace that saved us, but also in his day to day equipping us for our service to him. Unfortunately, few of our supposed times of worship allow much of that.
I have long wondered about the phrase “worship leader.” I don’t quarrel with the intent, but I fear the execution is so narrow. I once had an elder lecture me on how it was my job, as a pastor, to create an “feeling of worship.” Really? What does worship feel like? Do our feelings determine the legitimacy of worship? Granted, our all-knowing heavenly father is perfectly aware of how we feel, but is my worship only valid if I have the right feeling? That seems almost the opposite of bodies offered as a living sacrifice, and feelings are notoriously hard to control. Is a worship leader like a cheer leader, planning and directing a rally of praise and music to God? Perhaps that is not far from the mark, but I find that they rarely have that effect on me. I wonder how many others feel differently. I suspect that much so-called “contemporary worship” is not better at inspiring worshipful feeling than traditional worship, revival meetings, or Roman Catholic liturgies in Latin. Furthermore, all of those styles of worship share one major characteristic; they involve a small active cadre of leaders and a largely passive body of followers who may or may not actually be following or participating with their whole persons.
While I believe that music has always been and always should be part of organized, corporate worship, I know some who find much of what churches are doing to be immensely dissatisfying. Personally, I can’t express my own adoration and praise if I cannot hear myself sing! I have enjoyed contemporary worship songs, but some just as easily become “vain repetition” as songs of a different style or age. The same elder wanted a feeling of worship while also expecting the same program to be welcoming to visitors. That sounds more like entertainment than worship, and we generally fail at that, too. Those who are unchurched or little churched are not likely to find much that is familiar or appealing to them on Sunday morning; rap and metal are a long way from even contemporary worship songs. Of course, that problem arises from the unwarranted assumption that outreach depends on bringing people to church to be evangelized and from the peculiar notion that a single one-hour gathering should serve to satisfy both God’s desire for worship and his mandate for evangelism.
Personally, I’m convinced we have everything all upside down. I am disappointed in the collapse of Christian music into a nearly single style, leaving diverse expressions for radios, iPods, and personal choices outside of church. Who decided that worship is best expressed in the present dominant style? In attempting to appeal to a younger generation, we’ve evolved a style that appeals to neither young or old. Does anyone but those most closely involved in organized worship? I asked a group of kids in a Christian school choir what kind of music they preferred for listening, and I was appalled out how many of them listened to music far from Sunday morning worship and, indeed, far from the Christian message as well! I have a friend who enjoys jazz. Is there a place in corporate worship for jazz? I’ve sung some amazing masses written by the Bach, Schubert, Brahms, and others, as well some that were quite modern if not avant-garde. Could those provide valid expressions of worship?
What about spontaneous responses from the congregation? Is a room filled with “Amen” and “Preach it, brother” more worshipful than one that kneels for prayer? Is standing to sing more respectful to God than bowing in prayer? Does raising one’s hands, clapping, or stomping one’s feet create reverential awe? What more appropriately shows the “fear of the Lord,” stunned silence or screaming? Does a prayer with eyes closed get a better hearing from God than one with eyes open? I find it somewhat amusing to hear people rejecting “stale tradition” as they create new traditions that easily become just as stale; the heart of worship is not in the form but in the substance, a substance that resides in the soul of each worshiper.
Much that passes for worship strikes me as requiring that I accommodate myself to what others plan and provide for me. I actually have a rather extensive background in music and enjoy many different styles, but I know that some prefer a more limited variety. Age certainly makes a difference in tastes and preferences, as does ethnic background. I’m of the opinion that people should be allowed and, in fact, encouraged to express their worship in forms familiar and enjoyable for them; I believe that we all should be willing to welcome and participate in worship that arises from all parts of the community, not just from the leaders. How else may we truly satisfy the message of Colossians 3:16-17? “Let the message of Christ dwell among you richly as you teach and admonish one another with all wisdom through psalms, hymns, and songs from the Spirit, singing to God with gratitude in your hearts. And whatever you do, whether in word or deed, do it all in the name of the Lord Jesus, giving thanks to God the Father through him.” While this need not be regarded as restricted to Sunday mornings, I believe those gatherings need to allow a greater “one another” aspect that most currently do.
Over the last few years, I have grown more and more aware and committed to an awareness of the value and individuality of each person and his or her uniqueness and singular giftedness. That stands in marked contrast to the conforming influence of the opposing world system; as noted by Paul above, we are not to conform to the pattern of this world, but be transformed by the renewing of our minds. Our challenge as both leaders and people is to encourage the expression of that individuality, not suppress it in one-dimensional formats. For me, this is a piece of a larger need to grant people the space to follow their own unique call to creativity and service and stop trying to create a one-size-fits-all sort of community. I was part of a church for a time where the senior pastor, his associates, and a group of interns all looked and sounded alike; I don’t believe God even wants us all to look and act like Jesus! While Christ-likeness is clearly the goal of our spiritual development, especially in regards to becoming holy as he is holy, our individual development should take us in as many different directions as there are individuals with respect to calling, career, interests, preferences, enjoyment, and personal styles. Christ intends to bless us all through the rich variety he has created in his Body; attempting to force all those diverse blessings into a shape determined by a small group of leaders impoverishes the us all.
Suppose a congregation has a cello player. Cello music is hardly the stuff of contemporary worship, but the player is part of the community. The gifts and skills of the cellist ought to have expression in the worship of that community. I believe a country singer, an operatic tenor, and a rapper each have potential to bless their fellow believers. I love black gospel music as well as Bach chorales; I rarely hear either in the church. Why should only those who “fit” be allowed to share their gifts? Does poetry have a place in corporate worship? Drama? Story-telling? Dance? Visual art? I doubt there are many groups who know each other well enough even to begin to enjoy the broad kind of worship expression that they could…and should!
Much of the “worship service” is actually training, but is training worship? Of course, for the called and gifted teacher, utilizing the gift in the proper spirit is, for the teacher, an act of worship. I’ve known for some time that my gift is prophetic, applying the word of God to the times and challenging God’s people to obedience. I can be a fairly dynamic speaker, and I can be a shepherd to God’s people; I apply those gifts to my work as a tutor, especially with refugees and international students. I wonder, though, if there’s a place for me and my unique gifts as just a member of a congregation, or am I only permitted to serve as a paid professional? While I don’t see myself as one who would stand and say, “The Lord is telling me, in this moment, that someone here needs to hear this message.” Rather my gifts tend to create challenges to believers in general regarding Biblical ideas that we have overlooked, neglected, or simply twisted nearly to their opposite. Lately, my gift has even taken on an almost missionary dimension as I’ve become concerned about our duty to love and serve those in our communities from other countries, recognizing that all such work need not be done overseas.
I wonder how much more we’d gain in our church bodies if we listened more to each other and made a priority of encouraging people to speak as the Lord leads them. The goal is not to create chaos but to hear what God has to say. I have, for many years, thought we had turned Christian living into a “white collar,” intellectual model, since that is the nature of most pastors and their education, even though they often lead many who are “blue collar” get-their-hands-dirty kinds of folks. Not surprisingly, such leaders attract a largely female congregation where men often struggle to stay awake and interested in what happens on a Sunday morning. I don’t believe the answer is more sports and pop culture stories or more activities like “Super Bowl Sundays.” The spiritual expressions of a plumber, a waitress, or a truck driver are valuable and will often more easily connect to others with similar backgrounds; white collar types must learn to value and learn from their blue collar brothers and sisters, as well as vice versa; I suspect the aversion of some to books and multisyllable vocabularies arises from sensing that only those are considered valuable or effective.
Is the “gospel” simple? One dear lady insisted that I should focus only on the “simple gospel.” I fear she didn’t want me spending time on meat when she preferred milk. Is theology “deep?” I’ve heard preachers who spoke in sonorous tones and droned on about something, but I doubted they were any “deeper” than books written by theologians who seemed less profound than obscure in their expression. Is supralapsarianism incredibly important to my personal spiritual development? Look through a systematic theology textbook, and you will find lots of unfamiliar terms and definitions. On the other hand, presdestination comes straight from Paul and Romans 8.
One Sunday, after I had skated carefully around the minefield of the Bible’s teaching on alcohol, one of my elders said, “I have a feeling you don’t have a problem if people drink wine with dinner,” something I had carefully avoided saying outright. This same gentleman, a retired owner of the local gas station, had finally decided, after many years of believing he couldn’t afford doing so, to close his business on Sunday; afterword, he openly stated that his business had instead improved! Here was a man I could teach, but he was a believer who also had things to teach others. He had been a leader during a church split, so he came to fear conflict and sought to gloss over necessary conflicts that needed resolution; eventually, though, he came to recognize that some differences require separation, not accommodation.
I Corinthians 12 and 13 describe how the Church is designed to operate. With many different gifts, like the many members of the body, the Church, and each congregational expression of it, should accept and make use of each individual part for the benefit of the whole. Just as the individual is to offer itself in sacrificial worship, so too should the Body; just as each should work as unto God, together we also work, each contributing his part, to honor and glorify God. This is worship, of which the corporate expression whenever the Body comes together is merely a part; yet I believe that corporate expression should follow the same principle. In other words, on Sunday morning, we should also be prepared to accept what every part contributes, whether great or small, both seemingly important and that which is easily perceived as less important.
I also think we must be wary of quality distinctions. With the prevalence of communications media—TV, radio, Internet, and recordings—people easily begin to feel that only a polished, professional kind of music or teaching is good enough, leaving a disturbing impression that wisdom comes in a perfect package. What nonsense! As much as I prefer good grammar, I know that a person with poor grammar and little formal education may be wiser than a Rhodes Scholar. A child’s insights may stun us adults with its profound insight. Joy expressed by a mentally handicapped person may stir cold hearts where a more accomplished communicator fails to bring a smile. What is best is the source, our perfect, omniscient, and all-wise God, regardless of the vessel through which he chooses to express himself.
I have also found myself disagreeing with both sides of the argument regarding spontaneous versus carefully planned activities, from prayer to church gatherings. In my opinion, neither is the superior position. A carefully organized presentation can be confusing, uninspiring, or lifeless; a spontaneous expression can be rambling, obscure, or just ignorant. No one invited in advance to speak should plan on ad libbing; instead, a presenter should accept that the Spirit may take what was previously planned and alter by his will. We should be willing to listen when it seems clear the Spirit is the one speaking. The key is not the choice between planned and spontaneous but the presence of God’s Spirit.
Even that phrase, “God’s Spirit,” must be used carefully for the words may so easily be appropriated to justify what is simply a human preference. While I have argued for the encouraged participation of all members of the body, it is the consensus of the body that proves the ultimate presence of the Spirit. I Corinthians 13 follows I Corinthians 12 for this reason; God’s teaching on a multiply-gifted body of many members was followed by a crystal clear reminder that love must be the ultimate cohesive force. In love we respect each other, are patient with each other, forgive each other, and so on; but without love, we are little more than self-important windbags! I am saddened to note how many such type-A, egotistical, gasbags provide less than loving leadership for many congregations. With so many small churches (reportedly half of all churches having 75 members or less), congregations need the wisdom of the whole body, not a dominant personality, especially one that moves on after a few years. Indeed, even a small congregation may find it has the gifting it needs as long as it doesn’t limit itself to just paid leaders. Does that include what is necessary for genuine worship? I am persuaded it does, as long as we don’t restrict our comprehension of worship as highly professional, mega-church type staged performance.
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Well, I have ranted on a bit, but I have 2 final remarks to share. First, I speak from some degree of training, knowledge, and experience; I have a seminary degree, pastored one church for nearly 10 years and served as an interim in 3 others, and my whole life has been spent in ministry. I’ve sung in choirs since high school, including a college glee club, community choruses, and several church choirs; I have directed several choirs and taught choir in a Christian school. I also studied music theory and music history in college and took voice lessons for several years. One thing I observed far too often is that music, worship, and tradition are powerful forces in the church and often disruptive ones. Christians use the language of the spirit and obedience, but it often disguises strong personal preferences that people may not even recognize as such. Too many leaders have spoken with “thus saith the Lord,” when the Lord indeed did not!
This leads to my second observation. No word characterizes God relationship with us and his requirements more than grace. We, his creatures, are flawed, fallible, and forgiven; his requirements beyond saving grace are rather few. Nothing could be clearer than the Great Commandment which is his first and primary desire for us, event thought Christians have been mucking around putting other things first since before Paul wrote I Corinthians 13. I believe what I’ve written here is a faithful expression of what worship is and should be, but I have no doubt that God is pleased with expressions of worship that speak from the hearts of his people, even if they are not what I’ve described. That’s grace, God’s grace, and a fundamental reason why I worship him. I am convinced that grace, too, must characterize our worship, far more than any particular style or content. What could be more suitable for a God of grace than grace-filled worship?