The Work of Worship
G. Welton Gaddy*
A call to worship God reverberates at the center of a community of faith. Indeed, a congregation of believers that does not summon the public to worship and responsibly enable respondents to meet and interact with God in worship fails as a church. At the core of all that it means to be church throbs the public worship of God. Both the identity and ministry of a Christian church are birthed, nurtured, energized, and sustained in a congregation’s experiences of worshiping God.
So, how are we doing with worship? What is happening in our congregations? Allow me to suggest three questions to which accurate responses will provide important insights into a church’s faithfulness in the work of worship:
- Do our gatherings for worship focus primarily on God?
- Is the most important activity in our experiences of worship that of making an offering to God?
- Do our worship experiences in this sanctuary propel us into compassionate acts of service that take on the nature of worship in the world?
Each of these questions merits careful examination from the perspectives of the Bible, Christian history, and contemporary experience.
*A third lecture, delivered on March 31, 2005, sponsored by the Reuben and Jewell Robertson Worship Endowment.
The focus of worship is God--only God. When properly motivated and authentically committed, Christians gather to worship not to be entertained, not to impress other people, not to build a church, not to promote a program, but to worship God. Should any person, place, or thing replace God as the center of worship, a potential holy activity degenerates into a practice of idolatry.
I often get amused by inquiries made as we approach worship: “Are we doing anything special in worship today? Since not many people will be present for this service, will we alter what we usually do? Are we going to sing any new hymns this morning?” Such questions can suggest an approach to worship that stand apart from a centered focus on God.
A few times in my life I have been a part of a worship experience in which participants included a dignitary such as the President of the United States, a visiting actor or actress of notoriety, or an individual considered royalty. Invariably a terrific amount of excitement and nervous preparation precede the start of such a service. With high expectations, people present whisper to each other, “Look who’s here today;” “Can you believe we are part of a congregation with such an important person in it?” Well, I wonder, what of God? What guest in worship possibly can carry the significance of the only One who merits worship? What difference does it make who else is present, whether or not I like the way another person prays or reads, or how I feel about the music of the hour if I can meet God?
The focus of worship is God.
The most fundamental act of worship is making an offering--the offering of presence, of music, of material gifts, of praise, of confession, of commitment. To engage in worship is to make an offering.
Unfortunately, somewhere at sometime, going to worship to make an offering was replaced by going to worship to receive a blessing. At that point everything changed. Worshipers began to see themselves not as participants in the work of offering worship to God but as spectators for whom the worship of God was performed. Rather than laboring to offer God all in their lives that should be laid before God in worship, service-goers started expecting good performances from persons in positions of worship leadership. The measure of worship became not what I generously give to God but what I get from the music, the sermon, and the rest of the liturgy. Being pleased with the service took on more significance than seeking to please God through the service. Desires related to feeling good replaced a passion for encountering God.
Experiencing worship without making an offering is as impossible as inhaling oxygen without breathing. The two are one. To worship God is to make an offering to God.
That observation raises the question of what kind of offering we should make to God. In that regard, I find most helpful a concept from the great poet Robert Frost. When Frost taught at Amherst, contrary to his likes, the administration required that he give examinations. At the end of a study, to comply with school policy, Frost would tell his students, “Do something appropriate to this course which will please and interest me.” That’s the idea; that’s the nature of an offering in worship! Worship involves giving to God that which is appropriate to God and that which will please God.
To worship God is to make an offering.
The inevitable result of worship is a life in which acts of compassion to people in need become a means of serving God. The energy of worship propels people into the world. Where worship persists with regularity, the boundary between the sacred and secular dimensions of life becomes blurred if not oblivious. Those who see God most clearly perceptively understand the world as the arena in which best to serve God faithfully. A life of mercy takes on the character of meaningful liturgy. Feeding the hungry, forgiving the fallen, sharing wealth, reaching out to the dispossessed, and working for justice become profound means of expressing praise and devotion to God.
That is the nature of Christian worship. But why call worship “work?” The term “liturgy”--that which we do in worship--hints at the answer to that question. Liturgy literally means “the work of the people.” The worship of God is the work of the people of God.
Associating worship with work also points to the importance of discipline and fidelity in worship. Participation in worship often requires great effort--praise that challenges us to find new ways to express our adoration of God; confession that necessitates discomforting self-examination and gut-wrenching declarations of wrongdoing; a pursuit of truth that makes us stretch our minds beyond a level of comfort and open our hearts to the point of rank vulnerability. Effort! Worship demands our attention and requires our involvement even when we don’t feel like it and when attractive alternatives for the use of our time dot our calendars. Worship is work.
Yet, the work of worship is a work of love. Most simply and, in many ways, most accurately described, worship is an experience of loving God. Learning to worship involves falling in love.
Pursue that truth about worshiping as loving. A lover focuses on her or his beloved. No one has to tell lovers to make offerings to one another. Gifts spontaneously and generously flow out of a desire to express appreciation and devotion. Similarly, lovers seek out each other in all places and attempt to live together in ways that bring pleasure to each other. Do you see? The work of worship is falling in love with God; celebrating in public the love that pulsates at the center of your being.
When understood by the language and images of love, the work of worship takes on the appearance of great play-- hilariously shouting praise, sincerely bowing in devotion, eagerly making an offering, joyously renewing commitments, and passionately resolving not to miss a single opportunity to do it all and to say it all again. Worship is holy play.
Examining the quality, integrity, and nature of our corporate life as the people of God, we must inquire of ourselves, “Are we willing to work at worship?” At the same time, though, as lovers of God who delight in expressing that love, we must also ask about worship, “Does anyone want to play?”