Purposeful Worship

Have you ever stopped to wonder why we worship? What’s it for? It’s the most salient feature of church life; in fact, people often use “church” as shorthand for “worship.” If someone says, “Let’s go to church this Sunday,” for example, it’s shorthand for, “Let’s assemble at the customary place for gathered worship.” But why would we do that?

The Bible isn’t as helpful as we might think. It tells us about people who worship (the first such example, Abraham and Isaac at Mt. Moriah, isn’t very encouraging). The Bible tells us who to worship (God, and only God, Deuteronomy 5:6-10). It instructs us how to worship: Psalm 95, for example, tells us to sing, to kneel, and to bow down. Jesus foretold the coming hour, already here, when true worshipers would worship the Father in spirit and in truth (John 4:23). But why do we worship?

A book I’ve been reading recently is Mark Labberton’s The Dangerous Act of Worship: Living God’s Call to Justice. His thesis is that worship helps us live out our faith in daily life. It wakes us up. “We need true worship to clarify true danger,” he writes. “We need to meet God in order to know what’s worth fearing and what’s not.” And, as the Proverbs goes, “The fear of the Lord is the beginning of knowledge” (Proverbs 1:7).

Much of what passes for debate about worship today, Laberton argues, is really about distractions. Should we use a drum kit or an organ? Is singing led by a robed choir or by a grungy-looking worship leader? Should we use hymnals or Powerpoint? Questions like these are usually just fancy ways of asking what people like best.

True, our questions about worship sometimes go beyond personal preference. We wonder how to be relevant to a transformed culture. We struggle to preserve the best of what we have inherited from the great saints who came before us. And we Presbyterians live by (and, in the past few decades, die by) Paul’s dictum in 1 Corinthians 14:40 that “all things should be done decently and in order.” These are valid concerns, but even they may not help us, because they don’t help us know what’s worth fearing and what’s not.

True worship connects us with the true and living God, the God Moses encountered at Sinai in the burning bush, the God Moses hid his face from, the God who heard the cry of his people and came down to deliver them (Exodus 3:1-8). Worship aligns us with God’s saving purposes. The prophet Micah reminds us: “He has told you, O mortal, what is good; and what does the LORD require of you but to do justice, and to love kindness, and to walk humbly with your God?” (Micah 6:8). James described true worship this way: “Religion that is pure and undefiled before God, the Father, is this: to care for orphans and widows in their distress, and to keep oneself unstained by the world” (James 1:27).

Does that happen to you when you come to church on Sunday? Are you reminded of the only thing any of us need to fear? Does our worship increase your desire to be part of God’s work in this world? My prayer for this church is that our worship will be dangerous that way. What do you think? I’d love to hear your thoughts!

(Cross-posted to the Desert Hills Presbyterian Church website.)