Worship is Active Work, Not Passive Consumption

liturgysermonseriesslideOne time I overheard a conversation between two people who were discussing their churches. From what I could pick up, one went to a church within the mainline denominations and the other went to a non-denominational church. The topic of their worship services came up and the man who worshiped in the mainline congregation was describing what sounded like a service that included a lot of ritual (think a traditional Methodist or Episcopalian service – it seemed to be along those lines). His friend said, “Well, that sounds nice but I don’t believe in all that ritual and, what’s the word, liturgical stuff. We don’t do that at my church.”

Oh, yes you do.

Every worship service has a liturgy. The word “liturgy” at its core derives from Greek which is translated “public work.” Another way to say it is, “the work of the people.” Further derivations of these words become “minister.” All of this to say, the work we do in the public setting of the worship service is a liturgy. So, it does not matter what the name on the sign of the church says, all churches have a liturgy.

It’s in keeping with this notion that all worship services have a liturgy and the origin of the word that I bring this next point: The word worship is a verb. The definition is, “to show reverence and adoration for (a deity); honor with religious rites; to take part in a religious ceremony.”

Worship is meant to be an active means of grace. It’s meant to be more than sitting idly in the pew or singing with very little effort. We are called to give our entire being to the worship of God, to engage all of our senses (yes, even taste, by means of Holy Communion) and our intellect into pouring our praise for and awe of God. We should engage our passion into worship and find joy in the worship of the risen Christ who died and rose again for us.

But I do want us to remember something: Worship, liturgy, is work. Work is not always fun and work is something we do in order to accomplish an important goal. Work also means that we often have to do things that are not our preferred way of doing them. But even more important than having our preferences met is knowing that we direct our worship to and only to God.

Worship is, indeed, work, but it’s holy work and work that we do for God. Do we take it seriously? Do we remember that worship is an active engagement of our entire being and not just a passive activity we do our of sheer obligation or tradition? We must be honest with ourselves and ponder these questions for ourselves and act accordingly.

Perhaps what needs to change is not the style of worship in our churches but our attitudes toward worship. Worship is work and the work is not done by us for us.

Worship is work done by us for God.

What Does Worship Really Mean?

worshiphim“Worship is when all God’s people get caught up in love and wonder and praise of God. It is not the performance of the few for the many.” – Dr. Ben Witherington III

Several times, I have mentioned here that I have had a sense that we, as the wider Christian church, need to get back to our roots. The decline of Christianity in the western world has led to an almost panic-like push to find the best ways for the church to do what it has been doing for about the last 2,000 years. Some say we should get back to using a traditional style of worship service while others say that we should put aside ancient rituals in favor of contemporary styles of worship. Some say that worship means having an organ and a preacher wearing a robe and stole while others say that there should be the feel of a rock concert and that the preacher should be wearing a flannel shirt and skinny jeans. The church is good at a lot of things and having debates such as these seems to be one of them.

Let me go ahead and state that this is not about advocating for traditional or contemporary worship. This is not about robes or skinny jeans or whether any of these things are right or wrong. Instead, this is about us remembering that worship is not about us. Worship is not for the people sitting in pews or chairs. Worship is not to please any person at all.

Worship is about God and is for God.

When we get bogged down in these debates, we lose sight of the real point of why we gather together and sing, pray, hear a message, and depart to serve. Regardless of what music or liturgy is present, the worship service can often take on the feel of a performance meant for the entertainment of the congregation. If this is what worship becomes, we’re doing it wrong.

The quote at the top of this post is from my New Testament Intro professor from a lecture he was giving on the theology of worship. Dr. Witherington was essentially telling us during this lecture that we worry so much about what we get from worship or what others get from worship. The thing we ought to be most worried about, however, is what God receives from our worship. Is God receiving our adoration and praise or is he receiving lip service in favor of self-serving, feel-good acts within the walls of the church?

Church, we have lost our way.

Scripture is filled with instruction on how we are to worship. One of my favorite passages on worship is Psalm 150. “Praise the Lord! Praise God in his sanctuary; praise him in his mighty heaven!” There and elsewhere is nothing about the style with which we worship or about worship being primarily for us. We need to remember this.

Another source of instruction on worship is courtesy of Methodism founder John Wesley.

“In divine worship, (as in all other actions,) the first thing to be considered is the end, and the next thing is the means conducing to that end. The end is the honour of God, and the edification of the Church; and then God is honoured, when the Church is edified. The means conducing to that end, are to have the service so administered as may inform the mind, engage the affections, and increase devotion.”

— John Wesley, from his commentary on the Roman Catholic catechism

Should the church and those who make it up be built up? Of course. One of the things that worship should do is to draw us closer to God and make us think. Worship should give us the spiritual food that we need to go out and serve God in the world. But first and foremost, worship should be about and for God, directed at him as the primary reason and audience of worship. It’s alright to prefer a certain type of music or a certain preaching style but the first consideration that should be made about worship is whether or not the worship is directed to and dedicated to the glorification of God.

In the end, the how does not really matter as much as the audience. The audience is not us! The audience of worship is God. We need to remember that worship simply is not for us and that our preferences on music, the color of the carpet, and whether or not there are hymnals or projected lyrics should not matter in the end. Unfortunately, we seem to have allowed “worship wars” to take over. We have lost our way.

We need to get back to our roots.

Cancel Christmas?

one-does-not-simply-cancel-christmasPerhaps I’m still somewhat naive and idealistic to this whole ministry thing. I say that because, to me, some things should just not be up for debate. One of those things is having worship on Sundays unless some sort of unusual situation – such as snow emergencies which close the roads, and the return of Christ – occurs which forces the worship service to have to be cancelled. Doing so is something I would never do flippantly and without a very good reason.

Perhaps out of this acknowledged idealism and naivety, I was reading a forum for clergy on Facebook and I was shocked to learn than many of my fellow clergy were planning to cancel worship on Christmas Sunday due to the holiday.

Say, what?

The excuses (note that I did not say “reasons”) given mainly centered around anticipated lack of attendance. And then someone said this:

Guess my priorities are wrong, then. We are not having a Sunday service on Christmas, at my request. If we had one I would be unable to be with my family for Christmas – some of whom I am only able to see every year or so. I’m single and my only family live a distance away.

Again, perhaps I am idealistic but in my opinion those of us who are called to pastoral ministry are also called to make sacrifices in order to answer that call. We are considered set apart for a reason. My parents and siblings and all of my wife’s family live a great distance away and we are sacrificing time with them so that we may worship Word made flesh. I’m sure there are at least a few people in each congregation who would love to cancel worship for any number of reasons but I could not in good conscience do such.

I make no apologies for thinking that canceling worship under the guise of “family time” communicates to the world that we are willing to give in to the whims of the world and celebrate not by worshiping but by celebrating as the world does. In short, many clergy and congregations have forgotten who we are and whose we are.

And yet, these people have the audacity to question why the church in America is dying.

When we cite “family time” as the reason to cancel worship on a holiday, we neglect our calling to gather as the family of Christ to worship and celebrate. Christmas is one of the highest and holiest days in the Christian church. If worship is scheduled on this day, there is absolutely no reason to cancel it so that families can spend an extra few minutes with their trinkets.

A clergy colleague relayed this story:

A couple women chewed out the cashier for saying “Happy Holidays” instead of “Merry Christmas”…I was sitting next to them as they had many conversations including one about Christmas morning…

“I can’t believe our church is having services on Christmas morning…My husband has to hand out bulletins…Why don’t they just cancel it? I mean really…”

Me (inserting myself into their conversation): “Yeah, I just hate it when Jesus gets in the way of Christmas….Merry Christmas, right?” (they took their things & left, calling me a Christian name on their way out.)

Fellow pastors, such is our fault when we willingly cancel worship so that secular Christmas celebrations can take priority over worship as the body of Christ. The same people in the story above are the ones who scream the loudest about “keeping Christ in Christmas.” If we really mean that, we must put our money where our mouths are, unless we, like the two above, are simply giving lip service to Jesus.

Not to mention that not everyone has family to be with during the holidays and will find comfort with their church family. How dare we cite “family time” as a reason to cancel worship when we have such people in our midst.

Fred Day, the General Secretary of the General Board of Archives and History for the United Methodist Church (who I had the pleasure of meeting and getting to know on the Wesley Pilgrimage in England this past summer), said this about Christmas worship:

Early Methodists in England and America saw [Christmas] as less illicit and more a golden opportunity to save souls. They viewed the increasingly popular, sometimes rowdy feast day as a prime-time for the pulpit: “Always avail yourselves of the great festivals (of the Church of England) by preaching,” says John Wesley in the Large Minutes. The unique opportunity Methodist preachers were to seize, like Christmas, is evident in a 1798 commentary on Wesley’s words: “Shall the men [ sic] of the world have carnal festivals on their birthdays and we not communicate the birth of the Lord.”

Let’s heed the words of Wesley and get back to our roots!

Yes, I’ve been on my soap box about this and very outspoken. Having worship on Christmas Sunday is something that I feel should not even be up for debate – simply, we should have worship even if it’s just the pastor and the pianist. If the church wants the world to remember why we celebrate Christmas, we must practice what we preach. It’s time for us to remember who we are and whose we are. Anything less just means that the culture of the world really is influencing the church rather than the other way around. Let’s not be party to such. We’re called to be better than that.