THE PRIMACY OF WORSHIP IN THE LIFE OF THE CHURCH

THE PRIMACY OF WORSHIP IN THE LIFE OF THE CHURCH

THE PRIMACY OF WORSHIP IN THE LIFE OF THE CHURCH

C. Welton Gaddy*

Sometime back I discovered an interesting phenomenon from the romanticism of Europe in the seventeenth to nineteenth centuries.  A popular feature of the courtly parks and grounds commonly filled with exotic animals was a hermit–actually an ornamental hermit.  People felt that a holy-looking hermit made a great contribution to the inspiration coming from a pastoral scene.

            Hermits for adornment were in such demand that employers ran advertisements seeking individuals to fill this position.  One such ad from the eighteenth century described Charles Hamilton’s stipulations for the hermit job in Pains Hill Park, Surrey:

The Hermit must remain in the Hermitage for at least seven years.  He shall be provided with a Bible, optical Glasses, a Footmat, a Prayer-Stoll, an Hour-Glass, and with Water from the house.  He is to wear a Camelot Robe and must never, under any Circumstances, cut his Hair, his Beard, or his Nails, nor shall he leave the estate of Mr. Hamilton or speak with his Servants.

Pretty impressive, don’t you think?

            Now, here is the aspect of this whole story that fascinates me most.  If no living hermit could be found to adorn an area, then a life-size hermit figure would do just as well.  A piece of writing from 1793 described the Bayreuth Hermitage in Germany:

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*A second lecture, delivered March 30, 2005, sponsored by the Reuben and Jewell Robertson Worship Endowment.

 

Nine mossy Fathoms of Wood…The Fathoms surround a Hermitage, which – because not a Soul at Court had the Makings of a live Hermit–was entrusted to a wooden one, who Perched within, silently and sensibly, meditating and reflecting as much as is possible for such a Man.  The Anchorite had been provided with a few ascetic Tomes, which fitted him properly, admonishing him to mortify his Flesh…

            Literature from this period comments on how ladies and gentlemen of the court strolled through these grounds and experienced shivers of inspiration running up and down their spines as they gazed at the solitary pious figure–a mystical, hooded hermit made of wood–an ornamental hermit!

            Great goodness, what a propensity people have to settle for show rather than substance.  But, of course, that is not a phenomenon confined to ancient European romanticism.  We delight in great promises even if there is no fulfillment.  We splash attractive paint on the facades of empty, rotting buildings.  We hire public relations agents who can make a little look like a lot.  We want things to appear good even if things are not good.

            Now, I must make a confession.  When I first read this, funny were it not so true, account of ornamental hermits, I thought of church worship services.  My mind went to work, playfully if not deviously.  Here is a way to solve a lot of problems in a lot of churches--wooden worshipers.  Why, there would never be any empty seats.  We could control everything that happened.  The worship service would always look good.  If we just could recapture the ancient art form that produced life-like wooden monks, we could fill our worship centers with wooden worshipers.

            You laugh?  Such an arrangement would provide for some of the major functions that people assign to a place of worship.  Think what impressive pictures we could get for our brochures.  If the photographer did not shoot too close in and catch some splintery protrusion from what should be a human neck, the place would look impressively full.  And, we would never have to worry about a low attendance Sunday again.  Wooden worshipers never leave the place, so they do not have to remember to return.  What a touch of class.

            What is wrong with this image?  I can think of multiple benefits from such an arrangement.  Everyone would be prompt.  Services never would be interrupted by people coughing, rustling papers, whispering, or shuffling their feet.  No one would complain that the organ was too loud or the sermon too long or the choir too lofty or the temperature in the room too uncomfortable.

            Surely, this would work in the church.  The show is the thing, is it not?  Why we even want corpses to look lifelike.  We want to see the parade even if we never get to the circus.  Though we may miss the messages and meanings of Christmas and Easter, we do not want to be deprived of tinseled trees and flickering lights, the lilies and the rabbits.  We will settle for a lot less than what is real if it only can seem real.

            Well, enough of this hyperbolic talk.  I hope that you are almost ready to shout, “Stop.  This is a waste of time.  I hope you are on the verge of walking out.  Better still, though, I trust that you are eager to declare, “This is not right” and then to give yourself to a consideration of the nature and primacy of worship in the church.

            What is wrong with the concept that I have suggested?  Whether we can articulate it or not, we know that show cannot satisfy the requirements for worship, that real worship involves far more than ornamental participants, that worship is as essential to life as breathing and as life-giving as breath.  Worship involves people.  Let me explain.

Worship is a Personal Response to the Call of God

True worship is a voluntary act of the willful praise of God by persons created in the image of God and devoted to doing the will of God.  My favorite definition of worship was penned by the beloved New Testament scholar William Temple, the former Archbishop of Canterbury:  “Worship is the submission of all of our nature to God.  (That says it all, but Temple elaborates.)  It is the quickening of the conscience by (God’s) holiness, the nourishment of the mind with (God’s) truth, the purifying of imagination by (God’s) beauty, the opening of the heart to (God’s) love, the surrender of will to (God’s) purpose and all of this gathered up in adoration, the most selfless emotion of which our nature is capable and therefore the chief remedy of that self-centeredness which is our original sin and the source of all actual sin.”

            Notice that Temple described worship as a holistic act–the entirety of and individual is involved; all of the senses take part in worship. 

            That means that those who plan to worship should consider strategies for assaulting the senses.  Remember that striking line in “Phantom of the Opera” – “suddenly the senses abandon their defenses.”  That should happen in worship as the totality of our personhood communes with God.

            Try asking these questions in worship planning:

            How will this experience of worship make people feel?  No one should ever leave a service of Christian worship devoid of hope.  Even a service built around the disturbing theme of world hunger and concluding with a challenge to involvement should not create un-relievable guilt.

            Do worshipers feel loved, cleansed, inspired, grace-full?

            Will this service of worship cause worshipers to think?  Jesus deliberately altered the Hebrew test on loving God to add an emphasis on loving God with our minds.  Worship can strengthen people’s mental commitment to serving God.

            What will worshipers see in this service?  What images in the service will remain with worshipers to feed their reflections on the hour and to guide their steps in the days to come?  Acted parables, floral sermons, sacramental actions, and danced commitment impact worshipers in significant ways.

            What will worshipers hear during this experience of worship?  Probably a choir, likely a sermon, but what else?  Will the prayers of the hour appeal to the ears?  (The great preacher George Buttrick once told me that he spent more time writing his pastoral prayers than he did writing his sermons!)  What sounds can reinforce the theme of a particular service?

            What sensations of taste and scent will be present?  Think of the power of departing from worship still able to taste wine and bread that make you think of the love of God and the gifts of the Christ.  More can be tasted with meaning–honey, bitter herbs, a matter like manna.

            What does worship smell like in this service?  Prophets spoke of sweet smelling sacrifices and sacrifices repugnant to holy nostrils.  What about the scent of a new baby, fresh cut wood with which to build a house for a homeless family, or incense that calls to mind holiness?

            During this time of worship, will worshipers be able to sense the holy by their touch?  Touching the roughness of a wooden cross on Good Friday elicits a different spiritual reaction than touching a satin fabric on East morning.  Worshipers need opportunities to touch water again and remember their baptisms.

            Worship is a holistic personal act on the part of all members of a congregation.

            Through public worship always can be enhanced by private worship, public worship can never be replaced by private worship. Congregational worship is primary.  All authentic worship on the part of an individual inexorably moves that individual toward compassionate involvement in community and conscientious participation in public worship.

            Worship is laced with freedom; it is a voluntary act on the part of an individual.  Of course, God, the all-powerful sovereign of the universe, could assure worship by mandating an exaltation of the divine nature and manipulating people to guarantee praise.  But that would be little more than divine puppetry--a ventriloquist-like throwing of the divine voice through wooden mouthed dummies; a kind of cosmic marionette show with God pulling all the strings and forming all the words.  That is not worship!

            God calls us into worship, leaving us free to obey or disobey the divine call.  God desires people gathered for worship--not a collection of robot-natured look-alikes that boringly beep out praise, not an assembly of ornamental Christians ever so proper but ever so stiff necked and hard hearted.  God summons into worship stammering, stuttering, pilgrims; frustrated, frightened believers; awkward, inexperienced disciples; ashamed, burdened sinners.  The God who exults in the worship of these kinds of people is not looking for a good show but for freely and sincerely offered praise.

Worship is a Congregational Gift for the Glory of God 

The congregational worship of God is the most important activity of the church.  The worship of God is an absolute necessity for the people of God.  Worship is a gift of response to the invitation of God who in the act of redemption demonstrated that every disciple should live as a member of a community of faith.  Biblically and historically, the worship of the church and fellowship within the church are inseparable.  You cannot build a church on worship alone, but you cannot have a church apart from regular experiences of meaningful God-directed worship.

            Congregational worship has only one purpose--to give glory to God.  When worship has any goal other than that of giving glory to God, those involved run the risk of practicing idolatry.

            I have been helped immensely by imagery from the great Danish philosopher Søren Kierkegaard who came to the disturbing conclusion that worship in his time was more like a theatrical experience than a spiritual experience.  In a theater, actors, prompted by people offstage, perform for their audiences, the people in the seats in front of them or around them.  Kierkegaard found that ministers were viewed as the on-stage actors, God as the off-stage prompter, and the congregation as the audience.  The image was wrong, the great philosopher concluded.

            In authentic worship, the actors are members of the congregation.  The prompters are the worship leaders (ministers, choir, instrumentalists, readers, soloists).  The audience is God!  The image has no exceptions.

            Worship has only one purpose just as worship has only one audience.  Any alternative--worship expressed in any other context, extended in any other relationship, offered in any other direction--risks idolatry.  God alone is worthy of worship.

            Serious problems arise and distortions develop when worship is understood functionally rather than theologically. Any confusion of purpose in worship must be avoided, every temptation toward utilitarianism rejected.  We worship God in order to give everything to God, not in order to receive anything for ourselves.  Worship is not convened to grow a church, to pledge a church budget, to enlist volunteers for a program, to meet attendance goals, or to solve some institutional problem.  Worship exists only to praise God, to give glory to God.  A major shift for the worst occurred when people started going to worship to get a blessing rather than going to worship to make an offering.

            Once that understanding of worship is clear--that the singular audience in worship is God and the singular purpose in worship is to give glory to God--the observation can be made that the consequences of such worship benefit believers-- individually and corporately.  Nurture for faith and growth in faith result from faithful worship.  Conversely, apart from worship, singers forget why they are singing, ministers lose the strength required for ministering, and disciples are devoid of discipline.

            One day over lunch Carlyle Marney recalled a conversation with his 75 years old father. His dad said, “I wish I could go back to the first day I became a Christian and start all over.  My faith would be firm.” Much surprised by the statement, Marney said, “Daddy, I would have bet my life it had always been firm.”  “No,” the father replied, “It’s been shot full of doubts.”  Then Marney asked his father how he had kept going, how he had held on, what had caused him to continue in faith.  The older gentleman explained, “My faith would be alright if I could get to the meeting.”

            Yes, the meeting, the worship!  We were created for worship.  It is the singular most important function of the church.  Regardless of how good a church is at anything else or everything else, if it becomes lazy or sloppy or manipulative in its worship, it fails at its central task.  The church is to exist as a homeland of the soul into which people come for worship that gives glory to God, pleases God, and thus allows them to be the people Whom God created them to be. 

Worship is the First Dimension of the Service
To Which God Has Commissioned Us

Rightly understood and properly expressed, the worship of God results in service to God’s creation and ministry to God’s creatures.  The popular gospel song “Turn Your Eyes Upon Jesus” misleads us; the lyrics tell us that when we turn our eyes upon Jesus, the things of this world become strangely dim.  Wrong!  That is not the witness of scripture or the nature of worship.  To see God more clearly in worship is to see ourselves more realistically and our world more compassionately, and to be propelled toward service in the world.

            Sequence in ministry is important.  We begin in worship, end in worship, and participate in worship at regular points along the way.  Apart from regular experiences in worship, evangelism can be reduced to rhetorical persuasion or psychological manipulation born of the conviction that the weight of responsibility for another’s conversion to Christianity is solely on our shoulders.  Mission is devoid of content when divorced from worship.  Without worship, social action is without sustenance.

            We cannot perpetually remain in a service of worship, and we should not.  And, no reason exists to replace live participants in worship with mannequins stacked in pews to make a house of worship look full.  Moments come when the sanctuary should be empty.  Worshipers are needed elsewhere-- in a classroom, in a hospital ward, in the streets, beside a person who is hurting, with a group involved in social action, before a city council deliberating welfare policies.

            Within worship we discover the vision that informs service and find the strength for faithfulness in pursuing that vision.  Meditations on the bread of life inspire us to take all kinds of bread to people who are hungry.  Studies of Jesus calming a storm or silencing a demoniac send us out to soothe the tumultuous forces that rack our friends and tear up our communities.  Regular attendance in a house of worship causes loving attentiveness to the housing conditions of people around us.  Worship oriented to God’s nature awakens us to God’s passion for justice, peace, liberty, and grace and enlists us in causes to make those values real.

            To those of us committed to worship is given the awesome privilege of translating belief into behavior, faith into faithfulness, and moral convictions into social actions.  Wooden worshipers, ornamental Christians cannot do that.  But that is not our identity.  We do not come together for a show.  The purpose of our gatherings is not to be a part of a touch of class.  Our calling is to worship God, to give ourselves to the highest priority of being a part of humankind, and to make a difference for good in our world.  Let no one ever confuse the worship of God with entertainment, a good show, or ornamentation.

            At the center of my lectures to you on worship resides a solid conviction of the singular importance of worship--the centrality of worship--in our lives individually and in our life together as congregations.  Those who penned the old Westminster Shorter Catechism got it right a long time ago.  The chief end of a person is to praise God and enjoy God forever.

            A story passed along by John Killenger brings this presentation to a close.  A guest was preaching in the chapel service at America Baptist Theological Seminary in Nashville, Tennessee--a great pulpit in which to preach and a wonderful fellowship in which to worship I know from experience.  The president of the seminary, who doubled as the director of the choir, was presiding.  On this particular day, when it came time for the anthem, the president explained that he had been out of town and the choir had not been able to rehearse.  He apologized for the lack of an offering from the choir.  The rest of the order of worship was followed until near the end of the service.  The guest preacher engaged the congregation with a powerful sermon.  Killenger said it was a high and holy moment.  Worship was palpable in the room. As the preacher sat down, the president/choir director jumped to his feet, motioned for the members of the choir to stand, and said, “Let’s sing it now.”  And sing they did.  Killenger remembered, “The song rolled up the roof and got thicker and louder and louder and more and more joyous until you almost couldn’t breathe in the room.  And when it was over the director smiled meekly and said, ‘We couldn’t have done that before.’”

            That is worship, the power of worship--worship that makes an offering to God; worship that engages all of our lives with God through media that we can embrace, understand, and share with God and with each other. 

            The seminary president’s comment about the choral presentation is our comment about life.  Once we have known real worship--its centrality in the church and its vitality in our experience--we say of our lives, “We couldn’t have done this without worship.”