Calvary Unplugged: What Is Worship?
There are 13 folks signed up to leave October 8th for our second Calvary trip to El Salvador. Just this past week, on Wednesday night, the group met to talk about making firm plans. Organizing the discussion was (are you surprised?) Carol Blythe, who was one of the participants on the last trip. Truthfully, Carol’s observations and advice were helpful, but I had to laugh as she described what we would expect on the Sunday that we’re in El Salvador. She said, “It’s a lot of church. Church in the morning, church in the evening, church sitting in a circle under a tree in the afternoon. Just get ready…it will be a long day of church!” She made it sound like something people might not like…! Well, we’ll be visiting several partner churches, so naturally we’ll attend multiple services, but Carol gave this warning a couple of different times. The whole discussion made me think about what we’re accustomed to when it comes to worship.
It’s not several services all Sunday long and a bunch during the week…it’s one hour on Sunday mornings…about three times a month in a good month for those of us who are really pious.
Or, it’s attending when we can.
Or making it for the high holy days—Easter, Christmas, etc. (I checked on Urbandictionary.com and there is actually a term for this: a “C&E Christian”.)
Or, for some it’s finding God in places totally other than the church. In fact, I believe there are many people who would say they are “worshipping” today on a golf course…or boat…or beach.
I will admit that I have a bias toward communal Christian worship—employment and all that—but I just can’t help but think that the regular, organized worship of God has taken a less and less relevant role in the lives of most Americans. You have heard me say this before, but there has been a considerable shift in social expectations with regard to church attendance, and by church attendance I mean attending these Sunday morning events we like to call…worship.
Well, our lives are very busy. We’re increasingly individual in our pursuits. And nobody thinks you’re really that bad of a person if you don’t attend church. The societal push to be part of a worshipping community has considerably lessened and I think we just might have forgotten what worship means…why we need it as a regular part of our lives…why we must not relegate it to an unimportant, backburner, secondary part of our schedules.
And I’m not just saying this because I really love my job.
I did some reading this week on social trends related to worship and read some thoughtful essays about why it is we don’t prioritize worship as a regular activity.
One of them I experienced myself this week when I got a new phone. My old phone died and it was time to move on…do you know that I can do almost anything on my new phone? Watch movies, listen to music, find the cheapest gas…. It’s true, we live in this minute-to-minute, full color, flashing screen culture, in which we have become accustomed to being constantly and perpetually entertained. We’ve come to expect suspense and intrigue all the time; we want to feel enthralled, we want to laugh, to be emotionally engaged somehow…all the time. And, we get bored really easily if things aren’t entertaining enough.
Can you imagine how hard it is to worship for all those poor people whose pastors tell lame jokes?
And we can’t help that this addiction to constant entertainment bleeds over into worship sometimes. We want excellent music that we love to hear and sing. We want our worship leaders to be professional and prepared. And I don’t know about you, but I want a concise, brilliant, engaging, life-changing sermon that lasts approximately 12 minutes but no more than 14 because then I might start to lose interest!
So what happens when we show up at church on Sunday with the expectation that we will always be entertained? That God needs to appear and put on a show that will keep us on the edge of our seats? Is that really the worship of God?
Another trend in that might confuse us when we try to think about worship is that we live in a culture in which we are all trying to be…repaired. That is, if we didn’t know it before, as we grow into adulthood we soon find out that we all—every single one of us—grew up in a dysfunctional family. Can you believe it? And, really, not that I am arguing the fact that many of us have become more aware of a need for healing and growth, because as you know I am all for excellent therapy. The problem comes when we begin to see the church or the worship of God as something whose sole purpose is to fix what’s wrong with us, to make us feel better, to solve our problems, to make us happy.
Geez, and I thought just preaching an engaging sermon every week was a tall order!
It’s not wrong to turn to God when we have a crisis or when we’re in need of healing, of course. But what happens over and over and over again is that people are propelled to come to church, to attend regularly, to make regular worship an important part of their practice…when they’re in crisis experiencing crisis in their lives.
Why? Well, of course, to find healing or resolution. Sometimes when the hardest situations of life hit us, we don’t know where else to turn except to something higher than ourselves. And that’s an important way that many people find their spiritual path.
The trouble comes when we begin to think of the practice of worship as a band aid that will fix what ails us. Because sometimes life is really hard… but sometimes it’s not. And when worship becomes something we attend to only when times are hard, then we are not really doing the work of worship, of encountering God…are we? We’re just using God as an easy fix when we’re desperate. I know that sounds kind of harsh, but friends, that’s really what’s going on when we pick and choose and selectively engage in worship just when we need to feel better.
Another trend that has messed with our understanding of worship is the cultural trend toward polarization. Everybody has this challenge in their worshipping communities, but I think we might have it a little worse-off in this big political city—what do you think? It’s so easy, in our culture, to get political about almost anything. And, as people of faith, we walk a fine line. We know, of course, that our faith informs our political involvement. But problems arise when we make the shift from our faith as impetus for action to our faith as an excuse to promote a certain ideology or candidate or even a specific issue.
Hear me clearly: we act in the political realm with the motivation of our faith. There’s no question about that. But when these political, social, or ideological positions become our reason to gather together, then we are not really worshipping God. We’re being an organization that advocates for an important issue…which is very nice, but it’s not worship.
There can be a real tension…how do we act boldly with the impetus of our faith and still keep our focus on the central purpose of our worshipping community? How do we remember that we are called to come together to worship God with our minds and our hearts and our actions, even as issues come and go and as we agree and disagree about various things?
When worship becomes a political or ideological rally, then we’re kidding ourselves to even call it the worship of God.
A fourth trend, and this may be the most insidious, is the undeniable fact that we live in a consumer culture. We are victims of a very sophisticated marketing culture that has convinced us that we should always be served and satisfied. If we’re not, then we’ll move on to something better, thank you very much.
This happens in worship—at church. I am looking for a church that has really great children’s programs. I want worship where I feel moved! I like a one hour service. I need to see evidence of successful social programs to feel good about investing. The sermons are way too boring. I like drums in worship! Whatever it happens to be…you’ve probably heard and all of us have thought something like that. Fix me, entertain me, satisfy me…when we come to worship with those objectives, we’re adopting an arrogance that flies in the face of what worship is meant to be at its core. We are not approaching holy God in a set-apart experience of worship. It’s more like going shopping. At the mall. Moving from store to store, checking to see who has the cutest stuff at the best prices. Is this the way we believe we should interact with eternal God?
You see the challenges we’re facing?
We’ve forgotten what worship really is; we’ve been distracted by the influences of our culture that color the way we look at the church. And when we lose sight of real, authentic worship, we run the risk of forgetting where God belongs in our lives. That’s how important worship is.
And I’m not just saying that because I love my job.
Since we’re really mixing things up in worship I am going to do something quite different than usual this morning. I’m going to give you three points to take away. In alliteration. I told you we were going to mix things up.
The first occurs to me when I hear the beautiful words of Psalm 100…make a joyful noise to the Lord. Why? Just because we belong to God, God made us, it is in our very core to lives our lives in response to God’s creative love. Life gets really busy really quickly. It’s very easy to forget that we are people created to live in response to God’s love for us. And that’s what worship often is: an act of response, for the purpose of acknowledging our awareness of God’s goodness. When we set aside time to worship God, we are living in response to God’s goodness, our lives are reflecting the Psalmist’s beautiful words…give thanks to God, bless God’s name. God’s steadfast love endures forever, God’s faithfulness to all generations. That’s good news. We need worship because there is something inside the core of who we are that needs to respond to God.
As we know, however, God is not just a far-off object of our adoration. We believe that God lives in relationship with us, constantly calling us to stay in communication, to live our lives in engagement with the work of the Spirit. When we worship together…carve out sacred time and place to encounter God, we’re making room for relationship. We heard the beautiful words of Mary’s Magnificat—her prayer of praise in response to the news that she would be the mother of the Savior. In that moment of worship, Mary acknowledges the relationship that has formed and changed her, the ongoing encounter with God that molds and shapes her life.
When we worship, that happens to us, too. Time and space to listen for God offers us the place and possibility of clarity, revelation, direction. It’s what happens in relationship! We grow, we change, we move forward, we redirect…but living relationship takes attention; it takes time and effort. Worship is attention to relationship with God, life-giving relationship with the God of the Universe that deserves our commitment, don’t you think?
My third “R” today is remembrance. We are people who tell a story of faith, and in this cold, hard world, where sometimes we wonder if God is even paying attention, and we need to remember. We need to gather with others who know the story; we need to tell the story again and again; we need to teach it to our children; we need to discover it again for ourselves. We need to remember. And, this is not something that’s new to just us.
All throughout the biblical tradition, worship has always been a way to remember God’s faithfulness, to mark the God’s action, to recall God’s promises. In the Hebrew text you can read over and over of the Israelites utterly dependent on God, needing so desperately to remember their story of faith. One example you are familiar with is Jacob, who was feeling desperate and at the end of his rope, who was on the run from his brother Esau who wanted to kill him, and who lay down to sleep with his head on a rock for a pillow. He had a dream—a dream in which he heard God saying these words: “I am the Lord, the God of Abraham your father and the God of Isaac; the land on which you lie I will give to you and to your descendants; and your descendants shall be like the dust of the earth, and you shall spread abroad to the west and to the east and to the north and to the south; and by you and your descendants shall all the families of the earth bless themselves. Behold, I am with you and will keep you wherever you go, and will bring you back to this land; for I will not leave you until I have done that of which I have spoken to you.”
That dream reminded him of God’s constant love, attention, and involvement, even when he felt as desperate as could be, and Jacob needed more than anything to remember. So, when he woke up the next morning, he got to work piling rocks into a big pile to make an altar—right there where he had that dream, right there where he remembered that God was with him…that he was not alone.
Jacob built an altar to mark a place, and an experience. And we desperately need to do that, too. We do that through worship. Because life is tough and we might forget that we believe God is faithful. But when we worship, we act in remembrance. And we desperately need to remember, too.
We could have talked this morning about the content or style of worship, the best acoustics or music, the most up-to-date strategies for writing liturgy. But all of those things are secondary to creating authentic, meaningful, committed worship that is a response to God, that engages in relationship with God, that remembers, tangibly, the promise of our faith.
See what I mean about worship being necessary? At the risk of sounding like a guilt-inducing revival preacher, I want to say today that worship is not another social obligation among the many busy entries in our calendars. If we are people of faith, then we need regular worship as part of our lives…life-giving, life-changing encounter with God. Worship: we need it. Amen.