One of the gifts of being asked to reflect with a group of people about a particular topic is that it motivates me to think about that topic.
Recently, I was asked to think with a smart, committed group of Christian school teachers about the topic of worship. I have spent a lot of time participating in, thinking about, and leading worship. What do I have to say about worship?
The first thing I think about worship is what worship is not. Worship is not:
- a public lecture to impart information about God
- a seminar on how to live more effectively
- a community building exercise
- a pep rally to motivate people to deeper commitment
- an evangelistic crusade
- an instrument used to do something to anybody
Any or all of these things may be a component in any worship service. But none of these things is the fundamental purpose of Christian worship.
The purpose of Christian worship is to enable a community of people to gather and join Jesus in the work that Jesus is doing.
What is the work Jesus is doing?
The work Jesus does is the work that, according to Matthew’s Gospel, he did on the cross.
At that moment the curtain of the temple was torn in two, from top to bottom. (Matthew 27:51)
Jesus came to pull back the veil that appears to separate human beings from God. Jesus came to reveal the reality that Gerard Manley Hopkins expressed in his poem “The Grandeur of God” when he wrote:
The world is charged with the grandeur of God.
It will flame out, like shining from shook foil;
It gathers to a greatness, like the ooze of oil
Crushed. (Gerard Manley Hopkins (1844–89)
The purpose of worship is to enable space so that we might see the reality expressed by the Psalmist in Psalm 139 when he asks the question:
Where can I go from your spirit?
Or where can I flee from your presence? (Psalm 139:7)
and then answers his own question affirming that,
If I ascend to heaven, you are there;
if I make my bed in Sheol, you are there.
If I take the wings of the morning
and settle at the farthest limits of the sea,
even there your hand shall lead me,
and your right hand shall hold me fast.
If I say, ‘Surely the darkness shall cover me,
and the light around me become night’,
even the darkness is not dark to you;
the night is as bright as the day,
for darkness is as light to you. (Psalm 139:8-12)
How do we do that? How do we make space for others to safely enter in and discover that God is present everywhere?
In John 4 Jesus has a conversation with a Samaritan woman. When the conversation becomes a little uncomfortable for the woman, she throws out a bit of theological bait in an attempt to divert Jesus from his piercing examination of her life. She states,
‘Our ancestors worshipped on this mountain, but you say that the place where people must worship is in Jerusalem.’ (John 4:20)
Unexpectedly, Jesus takes the bait and replies,
‘Woman, believe me, the hour is coming when you will worship the Father neither on this mountain nor in Jerusalem….the hour is coming, and is now here, when the true worshippers will worship the Father in spirit and truth(John 4:21, 23a)
But he hasn’t really taken the bait. He has simply asked the woman to go deeper. Jesus’ point is that life is not so much about what we do as it is about who we are. It is about living in “spirit and truth.”
The same is true for worship. Worship is not primarily about technique. It is not about how good our music is, or how great the sermon may be. Worship is about the human heart. And the only way to work on the heart is to work on the heart of the person who is working.
What is the heart condition of the person organizing and leading worship? Has the person who is leading the worship come to offer an open heart to God? Has the person who is leading worship come to worship?
You can not get to the right place starting in the wrong place. Vital worship starts with the inner life of those in leadership and then expands to the heart condition of every person engaged in the particular act of worship. Every participant has the ability to contribute to the vitality of the corporate worship experience by the depth of his or her engagement with the presence of God in the midst of the community.
All life is permeated by the divine mystery of God’s presence. When we gather intentionally to open our hearts to that presence, our awareness deepens; our consciousness of God expands. This seems like a worthwhile endeavour to commit to once a week or so.