I’m repenting of much of what I’ve long believed about worship (or the lack thereof).
One night last week, after a closing shift at the cafe, I sat down in my study and started to read. It was nearly midnight and I had hopes of making myself sleepy by reading. Then I remembered that I could also pray. Specifically, I could pray the “Prayer at The Close of Day” liturgy from the Book of Common Worship – a short liturgy which I’ve become fond of using as a way to close out my day. But this night something was different: I had no desire to pray. I wanted to read, get sleepy, and go to bed. Then a thought occurred to me which surprised me in its conviction: I should pray now because God is worthy of worship.
Not long ago, such a thought would not have had such a powerful effect on me. I “knew” God was worthy of worship. I “knew” we gathered at church to “praise” God. But, for all practical purposes, I had a much more humanistic perspective on churchy-worship. The feeling I got from a service, the message that I hoped was communicated to the congregation, the service we were sent out to do – all these were priorities for me. Worshipping God because of God’s beauty and worthiness in Godself was something I did, but not during church on Sunday.
That’s not to say I never had moments of genuinely worshipping for the love of God. Tasting a delicious piece of fruit or a good cup of coffee makes me thank God for the beauty of creation. Hallelujah for taste buds. And moments of grace – times when I feel spoken to by a song or something I’ve read – inspire genuine praise in my heart. But these spontaneous expressions of worship have always felt different from Sunday morning church “worship” to me. The gatherings we call worship frankly seem so much more human.
Alexander Schmemann wrote in For the Life of the World that secularism is the negation of worship. “It is the negation of man as a worshipping being, as homo adorans: the one for whom worship is the essential act which both ‘posists’ his humanity and fulfills it” (p. 118). For Schmemann, the human creature exists in order to worship. It is the highest act of who we are. Is this true? Are we really made to worship? Is it the fullest expression of our humanity to give glory back to the God whose image we bear?
Since I “became a Christian” in high school, I’ve pushed against this prioritization of worship precisely because I saw it leading to the negation of mission. In my mind, churches that poured all their energy into maintaining elaborate Sunday services often did so to the exclusion of mission and evangelism, failing to put into practice the Word members supposedly heard in the service. Better, I thought, to privilege mission – even make worship subservient to mission. Whatever happened on Sunday morning only mattered as far as it led to the proclamation of the Gospel and prompted action bearing witness to God’s concern for justice in the world. In other words, whatever happened on Sunday morning only mattered in terms of human response. Schmemann would say I was a secularist even within the church: In reaction against worship to the exclusion of mission, I promoted mission without a genuine attitude of worship. I reacted to one extreme by pushing to the other.
I repent. I still have questions about the relationship of worship and mission: Certainly a worship service should communicate Gospel, even to the unchurched. So how much should evangelism and mission dictate the shape of a worship service? What actually is “missional worship”? Good questions. But the more important question presently is why should we worship? And the answer to that question lies not in my feelings in about or response to a worship service, but in who God is as the only One worthy of worship and who we are in relation to that One.