I’ve been a teaching pastor for close to 14 years, which means that for a decade and a half, I have passionately and wholeheartedly devoted myself to this thing we call worship. So, when I caught this glimpse of Rob Bell’s interview with Peter Rollins, about his forthcoming book Insurrection, I was intrigued to say the least.
“Christianity promises substantive transformation and, if we’re lucky, some of it might happen in church.” Not exactly a ringing endorsement of this thing I’ve given my life for over the past 14 years. Of course, Bell and Rollins are right. They fairly describe many people’s experiences of both God and “church”, that some of our most transformative moments happen outside of the context of worship. That’s David’s experience in Psalm 19:1-3:
The heavens declare the glory of God; the skies proclaim the work of his hands.
Day after day they pour forth speech; night after night they reveal knowledge. They have no speech, they use no words;
no sound is heard from them. Yet their voice goes out into all the earth,
their words to the ends of the world.
God’s universe has within it the latent potential to be the omnipresent revelator of his glory. God’s desire to reveal himself to, and connect with, his people has never been restricted to the formalization of worship institutions or experiences or rituals. Just the opposite, it was only after Israel’s encounter with God at Sinai that God proposed the construction of their first portable worship facility, in which they were invited to habitually and ritually re-experience His Sinai presence wherever they went.
Fifteen hundred years latter, as Jesus breathed his last, God tore the temple veil in two, from top to bottom. It was not merely an open invitation for all to come unrestrictedly into His presence in worship. It was the symbolical unleashing of His presence upon the entire world. It was God beginning to flood the earth with the knowledge of His glory “as the waters cover the sea,” (Hab. 2:14). Of course, God’s heart is to connect to people everywhere, at all times, that we might “seek him and perhaps reach out for him and find him,” (Acts 17:27).
But there is also something disheartening about Rollins’ diagnosis; a sadness, a sense of loss for the Church. There is something disheartening about acknowledging that most people’s most transformative moments happen outside the context of worship. There’s something inside my spirit (and theology) that longs for worship that breathes life into the end of Psalm 19. Because in the back half of this Psalm David extolls the beauty of God’s Law, something that, at that time, he would have only encountered in the context of tabernacle worship. He lavishes it with praise, describing his encounters with it as refreshing, wisdom- imparting, joy-giving, enlightening, and worship-inspiring. For David, it was his encounter with God, precisely as it was facilitated by worship, that leads him to his inspired moment of earnest repentance:
But who can discern their own errors? Forgive my hidden faults.
Keep your servant also from willful sins; may they not rule over me.
Then I will be blameless, innocent of great transgression (Ps. 19:12-13).
I believe that, biblically, God calls us to more than: “if we’re lucky some of it will happen in church.” I believe that Jesus’ vision is bigger than that. In fact, though the temple veil was torn (and the temple itself destroyed) Christianity is not a temple-less religion. Jesus came to build a new temple, a temple of living stones, Paul and Peter’s metaphor for the nations gathered together in worship (Eph. 2:19-22; 1 Pet. 2:5). I believe that Jesus’ real presence is most fully experienced in the gathering of the Christ-following community (Matt. 18:20).
In fact, that’s the point of the word “ekklesia,” the word that Jesus chose to describe this thing we call “church.” Ekklesia originally referred to the assembled citizens in a Greek city state, gathered together to enact a shared vision of the kind of society–the kind of humanity–they were striving to be. That’s “church”. That’s what worship is supposed to be. And that’s why we have to continually be “an institution that critiques itself as an institution,” especially when it comes to worship.
The rituals, when reduced to mere ritual, “can get in the way.” So, let’s gather for worship in a way that refuses to allow worship to become the institutionalization of “things that were supposed to be life-giving.” Let’s gather for worship as the Christ- following community re-building the temple of God in the world, the place to encounter the real presence of Christ. Let’s come together as the citizens of heaven gathering to enact their shared vision of the kind of humanity we were created to be.
That’s a transformative vision of worship, one to which I can be passionately and wholeheartedly devoted for the next 14 years, and beyond.