When I say that worship is ‘about God and for us’, I mean that the worship of God is intended to form us, individually and corporately, into the nature and character of Christ. The modern worship movement has twisted this to say that worship is “about us and for God” as if there is anything we can give to God that he, in any sense, needs. As a correlative, the worship becomes ‘about us’ in the sense that, instead of the body of Christ worshiping together, the service become 100 individual (or however many ‘worshipers’ are present) worship services, each focused on their own individual sense of ‘expressing’ their love of God. The focus of worship is not, can never be, ourselves. The only focus of worship is God. It is only then that we can be truly formed into the likeness of Jesus. – Comment by Les Lamkin on Let’s Phase Out the Worship Leader
Call to Reject Me-Worship
Worship is not for God’s sake. It’s for ours. God needs nothing from us. We have nothing to add to God’s glory. It’s not that God is a narcissist who needs some ego stroking from us every so often. It’s not that God needs intimacy with us in order to be truly happy.
No, worship is not for God, but it’s about God and God’s story. A story that most churches don’t really tell. A story that many of us don’t know particularly well after a few generations of me-worship. But it’s a beautiful story of a beautiful Creator-Redeemer that, over time, will form us increasingly into God’s likeness.
Robert Webber describes the nature and purpose of worship with a rather bold statement: “God is not the object of our worship.” He explains:
The real underlying crisis in worship goes back to the fundamental issue of the relationship between God and the world. If God is the object of worship, then worship must proceed from me, the subject, to God, who is the object. God is the being out there who needs to be loved, worshiped, and adored by me. Therefore, the true worship of God is located in me, the subject. I worship God to magnify his name, to enthrone God, to exalt him in the heavens. God is then pleased with me because I have done my duty.
If God is understood, however, as the personal God who acts as subject in the world and in worship rather than the remote God who sits in the heavens, then worship is understood not as the acts of adoration God demands of me but as the disclosure of Jesus, who has done for me what I cannot do for myself. In this way worship is the doing of God’s story within me so that I live in the pattern of Jesus’ death and resurrection. My worship, then, is the free choosing to do what Paul admonishes us to do: “Offer your bodies as living sacrifices, holy and pleasing to God-this is your spiritual act of worship. Do not conform any longer to the pattern of this world, but be transformed by the renewing of your mind.”
I wonder if this contemporary inversion isn’t one of the reasons worship attendance has declined among confessing and practicing Christians. In the midst of demanding lives, in a culture where church attendance is no longer compulsory, the fact worship is mainly presented as a place for self-expression makes it less of a priority. What we do in worship often arises from the desire to be relevant according to the themes and sensibilities of our culture, and inadvertently triggers a holy bait-and-switch scenario. At some point, what was once relevant becomes old hat, and the excuses for skipping out on worship begin to come rather easily:
“God knows my heart. He will understand if I miss.”
“I can worship God anywhere. I don’t really express my worship through singing, anyway.”
“We need more family time!”
“The kids are so busy with sports, but we always watch a sermon on TV.”
These excuses flow out of a seeker-sensitive me-worship, but fall flat when we get the worship syntax right: it’s about God and for us. If we were to truly understand that worship is about what God has done, instead of what we can do for God, corporate worship would naturally demand a much higher priority.
From Me-Worship to Authentic Doxology
If we properly understand worship as about God and for us, there will be a few common themes.
Worship will be participatory. Me-worship arises from the culture and naturally drifts toward either entertainment or self-help. In both cases, the role of performer, played by either musicians or speakers, is emphasized, and the role of the congregation is minimized. Conversely, true worship arising from God’s story cannot help but be more liturgical, interactive and communal. There will be a script for the congregation to follow. Music will not be a performance, but will depend on the voice of the people. God’s story will be proclaimed by all through Scripture, prayer, and song. Sacraments will be administered. Simply put, worship won’t be something that is done to the congregation, but that will be done by the congregation.
Worship will be more impressive than expressive. Me-worship is about expressing my story. True worship is about being impacted by God’s story.
Worship will look backward and forward. Me-worship is primarily contemporary, looking ultimately for cultural relevance. True worship looks back on God’s actions in human history, and looks forward to their ultimate completion in Jesus Christ.
Worship will not be about our felt needs, but our personal and corporate sanctification. Just because worship is for us doesn’t mean it’s meant to satisfy our every desire or tend to our individual felt needs. It’s about being renewing and reshaping us as God’s people into a the image of Christ, so that we can be the church of God for the whole world.
Worship will not be preferentially-based. Me-worship says churches need to offer varying services to attract and engage different people. True worship calls the church to worship together as people shaped by God’s story, not as people with one particular musical taste.
The music will not be “the worship.” Me-worship uses only modern music as jesusy opening act. It is entertainment to draw people in and give them a sense of Divine presence and an extended time of emotionally satisfying self-expression. And, of course, to warm them up for the
main act sermon. True worship uses music, both old and new, to strengthen and unify our corporate proclamation. The entire trajectory of the liturgy, from the gathering to the sending out, is part of the people’s worship.
The sermon will be de-emphasized. Me-worship leads to sermons that are primarily focused on how to help people figure out life’s problems. Sometimes these are blatantly self-referential. Other times, they offer a more noble pretense, like strengthening marriages or controlling anger, but ultimately focus more on our own story than God’s work in the world in the name of relevance. (The topical sermon series is a notoriously fertile breeding ground for me-worship.) True worship allows the whole congregation to proclaim God’s Word, and for sermons that are uncompromisingly Christian; that is, robustly theological and explicitly narrative in nature, so that they, point to the work of Christ, proclaim God’s story anew and afresh, and provoke us to unite ourselves as kingdom people with a common purpose.
The Eucharist will be the focal point. In me-worship, God’s presence is supposedly ushered in through music, and the hook (the selling point, the “next step,” the “keys to victory,” the “take home,” etc.) is found in the sermon. True worship always points to the eucharistic celebration as the natural culmination of the proclamation. It is at bread and wine that we clearly and truly find the presence of Christ and see the awesome reality of incarnation. Without the Table, worship is ultimately frustrated and incomplete. As Christ is broken and poured out for us, so we are poured out as God’s people into a thirsty creation.
In the words of Stanley Hauerwas, “Jesus is Lord, and everything else is bullshit.” Church, it’s time to cut the bullshit. The bullshit of narcissistic, self-referential me-worship is killing us, and most of us don’t even realize it. It’s time to focus on retelling and reenacting God’s story until it becomes our own, so that we can carry the reality that “Jesus is Lord” into every corner of creation.