Worship: Not Just Words and Music in Church

This past Saturday at our service I found myself leading the singing on an impromptu basis because our song leader was unable to leave a crisis on his farm at the time (and it was too late to warn me before I left home). This reminded me of my Boot camp days at CFB Cornwallis, N.S. in the early 80’s, when the only place we were allowed to go on Sunday morning was to the chapel for a church service. I always liked going to church, so I always got there in plenty of time to sign up to do the day’s reading or, if some other eager beaver had gotten there ahead of me, to lead the singing. Since I rarely knew the songs, the organist had to beat the tune into me just in time for the service. I always knew how many songs or readings there would be, because that is how the Roman Catholic Church functioned through the ages. It still seemed to work.

In the introduction to Robert Webber’s book Worship Old and New he recalls a visit to a church that advertised as follows, “we follow an early church model of worship with full congregational participation and involvement.” True to their ad, they danced together from the entrance to their seats (which faced each other). They listened to “the Word of God read from a lectern… After each Scripture reading a Tibetan gong was rung… we meditated on the words we had heard. After the sermon, which was preached sitting down (an ancient custom), the congregation was invited to respond. One by one the people stood and responded. Some asked questions and received answers. Others spoke of needs met or awakened…” The members then danced together again to the table, passed the handshake of peace and partook of the bread and wine, and danced around the table. This was followed by a congregational light meal, served at the same table. [p. 11]

We do not do things quite the same way at Wascana Fellowship, but there are some elements that regular attenders would recognize in the above description because they fit in with who we are and our comfort level with both change and tradition.

I have 12 books about worship in my personal library. I acquired most of them while attending Seminary and Bible College classes with the word “worship” featured prominently in the title. Some of them are about theology of worship, while others are more along the lines of “how-to” books. They throw around expressions like “liturgy is the work of the people,” and “revelation and response.” I do not intend to demean the very important theological reasoning that accompanies worship of the Almighty God, but some parts of the Biblical record make me wonder if we have our priorities straight regarding worship.

For one thing, there are many definitions of worship. Chaplain Mike of InternetMonk.com defines “corporate worship” as: “a meeting with God in the name of the Lord Jesus Christ, in which a congregation of believers, in response to God’s revealed character and acts, presents offerings of…

    confessions of faith
    confessions of sin
    prayers of petition and intercession
    vows of obedience
    readiness to hear and respond to God’s Word.

These are certainly things that most mainline churches do during their worship services, but are these all there is to worship, even “corporately”? To be fair, he has a broader definition of worship that I fully agree with and will discuss later. [The entire post is worth reading if you are interested in worship as a congregation.]

What I am looking for is the book that describes what worship is for the “ungathered” community of faith. What I see mostly in churches is the notion that worship is community prayer, song and (sometimes) dance. My real question is this: What did Abraham do to worship? Isaac? Jacob? Jesus? Paul?

Abraham did not seem to be musically or poetically inclined, but when God asked him to leave his country and family, he obeyed. It wasn’t just words and music. It wasn’t about a celebratory gathering. It was about trusting God enough to do what God asked. At this point, several in our group began noting that Jesus and His disciples did not seem to be very musical or artistically inclined (though they did sing one song together on the night before Jesus died). Those sorts of things do not figure prominently in the Gospel accounts or Acts, or even in the Epistles.

There is one thing missing in Chaplain Mike’s list above. Somewhere near “vows of obedience” in his list should be something called “actual obedience”. Beyond the promise must come the accomplishment of the promise. I suspect that Jesus is much more impressed with obedience without promises than promises without obedience.

This is where Chaplain Mike’s broader definition of worship comes much closer. “In its broadest sense, we worship God whenever we faithfully respond to his grace and live for his glory (1Cor 10.31). Paul also uses worship language to describe our total response of faith to the Gospel (Rom 12.1-3).” The only problem we in our local community had with this definition is that the word “grace” has been so distorted as to be almost unintelligible to the lay member. As Marion (more or less) put it, “‘Grace’ seems to be a theological catch-all term that seems to mean pretty much everything about what God does.”

David Peterson, in Engaging With God, says, “Worship in the New Testament is a comprehensive category describing the Christian’s total existence. It is coextensive with the faith-response wherever and whenever that response is elicited. Consequently, ‘our traditional understanding of worship as restricted to the cultic gathering of the congregation at a designated time and place for rite and proclamation will no long do. This is not what the New Testament means by worship.'” [p. 18-19] He is correct, but can’t we put it in a few ordinary words that regular folks can get the feel for?

For the purposes of the ordinary non-theologian, a better definition is one that Andrew E. Hill, in Enter His Courts With Praise says, “Schaper best captures… worship as a Spirit-led reaction to what we believe God has said and done” (p. xix, emphasis mine). Unfortunately, Hill then proceeds to fill out Schaper’s useful definition into yet another theologically verbose one.

In other words, daily “Christian living” and “worship” seem to be two words for the same thing. We worship as we respond to God’s lead in Jesus Christ through the Holy Spirit, whether at home, work or gathered as the church. We worship each time we respond appropriately to what we believe God (by Jesus through the Spirit) has said and done.

It not just about the words and the music. It’s about the inclination and the follow-through in every part of our lives that is touched by God and His revelation to us personally and as a group of believers.

Abraham left his country to go to a place God would name later. Noah built an ark. David trusted that God would save him from Saul. Prophets said challenging things to governments that got them beaten and killed. Christians have been and still are being killed for acting on their belief that Jesus Christ is the Lord of All. Every one of those things is worship, if we have the eyes the heart to see it.

In what ways will our lives be lives of worship?


About John Valade

I facilitate and teach in Wascana Fellowship. I have been married to Wanda since 1984. M.Div. from Briercrest Seminary, SK in 2011 and B.R.E. Canadian Bible College (now Ambrose University College) in 2000.
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