With the Father and the Son he is worshiped and glorified. (The Nicene Creed)
Why does the church waste its time worshiping and glorifying God?
Let’s face it. Lurking just under the surface, even among people who go to church on a regular basis, that’s the question.
It’s reflected in the habits of the average American:
In 2019, 34% of Americans attended a religious service at least once or twice a month. That fell to 31% in 2020 and 28% in 2021. The decline in regular attenders didn’t lead to a rise in sporadic attenders. Those who attend a few times a year remained flat over the last three years. But those who never or seldom attend church rose from 50% to 57% of Americans.
It’s reflected in what people say.
I go when I need to.
There’s nothing in it for me.
Would you like for me to bring you communion? No, thanks, I’m fine
And it’s even reflected in the passages of Scripture that people cite. Especially, Micah 6:8:
What does the Lord require of you
but to do justice, and to love kindness,
and to walk humbly with your God?
The implication being, God doesn’t care about worship. God cares about me being a good person.
The problem, of course, is that the Bible also talks about worship.
We are commanded to keep the sabbath. Mary and Joseph go to Jerusalem to offer sacrifices at the Temple. They lose Jesus there after a major festival. And the early church, rather than replace worship in the synagogue with worship in the Christian community, actually worshiped twice a week: first in the synagogue on the Jewish sabbath and then among themselves on Sunday.
What possessed the church to hold onto both an emphasis on mercy and an emphasis on worship?
Did one point of view triumphed over the other? If so, then why didn’t the winners edit out the other point of view? Was each group unaware of the other point of view, and an independent editor decided to keep both? Then what do we do with the contradiction?
I doubt that either of those views is accurate. The more likely explanation is that the contradiction is overrated and the context in which both passages appear helps to explain the difference in emphasis. Let me explain:
When the worship of God takes its appropriate place in the lives of Christians, it is not an end in itself. The journey inward leads to a journey outward.
We learn that we were made by God. We learn that we were made for relationships with God and with others. We learn that fulfillment and peace are found in making ourselves available to the purposes of God. The church – the body of Christ – our families, our communities, the places where we work – these are all places where we seek to be an instrument of God’s blessing: by offering a word of hope or encouragement, by meeting the needs of others, by giving of ourselves and our wealth, by offering love where animosity dominates.
This is affirmed, over and over again, in the liturgy that structures our worship. In Rite One, for example, our worship begins by reminding us of the words of our Savior:
Hear what our Lord Jesus Christ saith:
Thou shalt love the Lord thy God with all thy heart, and with
all thy soul, and with all thy mind. This is the first and great
commandment. And the second is like unto it: Thou shalt
love thy neighbor as thyself. On these two commandments
hang all the Law and the Prophets.
These aren’t throw-away lines. They aren’t there to take up space. We are reminded that our worship is all about God’s mission in the world, which is the healing of relationships – with God and with one another. That is why every service ends with words of dismissal: “Let us go forth to love and serve the Lord.”
When the prophets cast doubt on the value of worship and remind us that we are “to do justice, and to love kindness”, it is not because worship is a waste of time, though it is often contrasted with the command to do justice and love kindness. They draw the contrast because – in the context that the prophets wrote – the people of God had forgotten why they worship or because the lives that they lived were at cross-purposes with the truths and values that they affirmed when they worshiped.
If you have ever wondered why people are so deeply wounded by hypocrisy in the church, this is why. Hypocrisy is an ever-present spiritual challenge for all of us. Parents who pride themselves on being loving can be abrupt and unfair. Spouses who pride themselves on patience and self-sacrifice can be impatient or grudging in their behavior. All of us can fail to live up to the standards that we have for ourselves and others. It is difficult, if not impossible, to live lives that are completely congruent with our values.
But when we fail to live out of the vision that is enshrined in our worship, we don’t just raise questions about our own integrity, we raise questions about the integrity of God’s promises. And nothing does more to kill hope than to be the victim of God’s people.
My daughter witnessed this when I worked in Jerusalem as Dean of St. George’s College. When I challenged the way in which donations to the college were being used, I inevitably incurred the hostility of some of the people that I worked for, and my daughter had a ringside seat.
After a year of that behavior, we were watching Dr. Quinn, Medicine Woman, which was one of her favorites; and one episode featured a wild-west poster, offering a reward for a man wanted for “fraud”. Lindsay wanted to know what a “fraud” was, and I explained that it was when someone pretended to be something that they weren’t in order to take advantage of others. Without a beat, she responded, “Oh, you mean like the church.”
As long as she was home, she went to church because I did. But when she graduated and went away to university, that stopped and she didn’t go back until she was deep into her thirties. That’s just how damaging our behavior can be.
That is why we pray a prayer of confession every Sunday. And this is why we don’t exchange the peace of Christ until we have said that prayer and received God’s forgiveness. Though it can be very hard to remember when we are hurt by the church and its people, we may represent God, but we remain sinners in the need of God’s forgiveness. So, our worship not only celebrates what God does, but it also underlines our dependence on what God does, pointing beyond us, to what only God can do.
But it needs to be said that this is also why it is not enough to do good or be nice. Why it is not enough to vote the right way, belong to the right political party, or vote in the right fashion. In fact, these are not God’s goals at all and had they been God’s goals, then he got started several centuries too early – because those are features of modern democracies and they constitute modern innovations.
Doing God’s will requires that we become more and more deeply connected to God and becoming more deeply connected to God requires repentance, amendment of life, and a daily affirmation of our dependence upon the grace of God. All of it made possible through worship.
A modern Christian conceit is that we should hide our devotion to God. More than I care to remember, I have heard people quote St. Francis of Assissi: “Preach the gospel everywhere. If necessary use words.” Meaning, I assume, love others, don’t worry about all the troubling details of the Gospel.
Apart from the fact that Francis never said anything quite so stupid, it is also untrue. No, we should never say, “I will show you love, if you promise to become a Christian.” But the fact of the matter is that we as Christians love others as Christ loved us. And we cannot remind ourselves – or others, -of that often enough.
It is thanks to Christ that we are obligated to love others. It is thanks to Christ’s example that we learn how to love. And it is thanks to Christ that we understand the goal of love lies in the healing made available in Christ alone.
The journey outward without the journey inward provided by worship is fraught with just as many abuses as a journey inward without a journey outward. No one is more dangerous than the Christian who has little or no experience of God but who is confident that he knows what God’s will is for the world.
Church history is filled with examples of people like that. Tyrants who made their own laws, called them God’s laws, and judged others by them. People who offered themselves up as prophets, claimed special insight into the will of God and created abusive communities organized around themselves. People who masked their prejudices as the will of God and insisted others agree with them.
The great martyr and theologian, Dietrich Bonhoeffer saw this first hand in the Germany of 1939 to 1945. He witnessed the way in which the Nazis distorted the church’s message to serve their goals. He watched church leaders run from their responsibility to stand up to their Nazi overlords. And he watched communities of so-called everyday Christians cooperate with Nazis by remaining silent and shrinking from their moral responsibility to speak out.
But their failure wasn’t just a failure to act. As Bonhoeffer noted, it was also a failure to ground their lives in worship. Writing to the church of his day, he argued,
It is not we who build. Christ builds the church….We must confess he builds. We must proclaim, he builds. We must pray to him, and he will build… Do what is given to you, and do it well, and you will have done enough.
Save us from lives of worship that are devoid of discipleship,
Save us from schemes for living that are devoid of worship.
We too easily abandon one or the other,
Freeing ourselves of the obligation to act on our faith,
And the constraints of your will that we discover when we turn our attention to you.
Deepen our understanding of your ways,
In worship and in life,
That we might serve you now and always.