We’ve got our collective knickers in a twist when it comes to worship – and to make the point I’m going to indulge totally in caricatures – which will therefore offend absolutely everyone. So here goes some inarticulate, random thoughts…
Many in the more conservative churches have reacted against those less so because of the latter’s apparent ‘obsession’ with meeting at church, and even more narrowly, with singing. And to be frank, there is certainly an unrealistic, if not unhealthy, assumption that worship is just a matter of what we do when we meet in a formal church setting (or even just a small proportion of the time we meet). Because i think visually, here is a visual caricature of this position. In a nutshell, we live our lives, pottering and bumbling along – but when we meet together, and start singing, we find then that we are worshipping God (in white).
It’s easy to find bits in the Bible which reject such a caricature, where the assumption that meetings alone are sufficient to keep God happy. Take an example like Amos 5:21: I hate, I despise your religious feasts; I cannot stand your assemblies. Etc.
The reaction of many conservatives is to make a great point of insisting that when we meet, we are being equipped in order to worship God during the rest of the week. We meet in order to learn about, to pray for, to encourage one another, for the slog of living it out. It’s tough out there. We need all the help we can get. And of course, it is easy to find all kinds of biblical justifications for this view as well.
The bible’s songs function in so many ways – but there IS a sense in which they are there to bring mutual encouragement – Paul makes this point in Ephesians 5:19, where we are to ‘speak to one another with psalms, hymns and spiritual songs‘. Therefore, there’s almost a wince when people talk about church meetings as worship.
And the problem, very often, is that we fall into the absurd extreme of implying that we are worshippingforthe whole week, EXCEPT when we are together in our meetings. Worship is what we do in life, except when we go to Church!!
Paul is quite clear in Romans 12:1-2 that worship is the whole of life – the apostle deliberately uses the language of the Temple system and applies it to all believers for all of life. What this must surely mean is that worship, at the very least, includes what we do in our formal meetings as well as everything else. So note how Paul goes on in Eph 5:19: Sing and make music in your heart to the Lord, always giving thanks to God the Father for everything, in the name of our Lord Jesus Christ.
And in a great phrase of Augustine that Eugene Peterson quotes, ‘A Christian should be an alleluia from head to foot‘.
Now this is all by way of introduction to its wider context in Eugene Peterson’s fascinating book Long Obedience. I’ve restarted my old regime of walking around Regent’s Park most days of the week, listening to audiobooks – and am listening to this book at the moment. This whole subsection completely jumped out at me – a challenge to take God’s command to worship (in its true sense of the word) seriously. And this is a challenge that comes regardless of our inclinations and feelings… It is a reminder that duty is not necessarily a bad thing…
Another reason Christians keep returning to worship is that it nurtures our need to be in relationship with God. Worship is the place where we obey the command to praise God: “To give thanks to the name of God – this is what it means to be Israel.” This command, to give thanks, runs right down the center of all Christian worship. A decree. A word telling us what we ought to do, and that what we ought to do is praise.
When we sin and mess up our lives, we find that God doesn’t go off and leave us – he enters into our trouble and saves us. That is good, an instance of what the Bible calls gospel. We discover reasons and motivations for living in faith and find that God is already helping us to do it – and that is good. Praise God! “A Christian”, wrote Augustine, “should be an alleluia from head to foot.” That is the reality. That is the truth of our lives. God made us, redeems us, provides for us. The natural, honest, healthy, logical response to that is praise to God. When we praise we are functioning at the center, we are in touch with the basic, core reality of our being.
But very often we don’t feel like it, and so we say, “It would be dishonest for me to go to a place of worship and praise God when I don’t feel like it. I would be a hypocrite.” The psalm says, I don’t care whether you feel like it or not: as was decreed (RSV), “give thanks to the name of GOD.”
I have put great emphasis on the fact that Christians worship because they want to, not because they are forced to. But I have never said that we worship because we feel like it. Feelings are great liars. If Christians worshiped only when they feel like it, there would be precious little worship. Feelings are important in many areas but completely unreliable in matters of faith. Paul Scherer is laconic: “The Bible wastes very little time on the way we feel.”
We live in what one writer has called the “age of sensation”. We think that if we don’t feel something there can be no authenticity in doing it. But the wisdom of God says something different: that we can act ourselves into a new way of feeling much quicker than we can feel ourselves into a new way of acting. Worship is an act that develops feelings for God, not a feeling for God that is expressed in an act of worship. When we obey the command to praise God in worship, our deep, essential need to be in relationship with God is nurtured.