What is Worship For? Part 2

[September 19, 2013]

Yesterday I wrote on “What is Worship For?”, but I forgot to answer the question. I said that it is not the time for evangelism, and shouldn’t be designed with non-believers in mind. But what is it for?

Worship is for God; we could expand that and say worship is for believers to offer to God. But even once we’re clear that worship is the work of the believing community, there’s a possible confusion. We might think the purpose of worship is to give believers a good worship experience.

This is subtle, because a worship leader might think the best way to worship is to arrange the songs and other elements to move and inspire worshippers, who will then turn whole-heartedly to God. In fact, that might sound like exactly what worship is supposed to do. But it’s another mis-direction. It leaves us focused on the process inside the worshipper, instead of on God.

In the first place, this is manipulative; it makes the hour of worship a process imposed on churchgoers, aimed at directing their thoughts and emotions into the right channels. People can usually sense when they’re being manipulated. Men, especially, hate to have their emotions tampered with, and I expect this is a reason most congregations are predominantly female, and we assume that women are more religious than men are (though that’s obviously not the case with conservative varieties of Islam and Judaism).

I recall a chapel service at a Christian college where two girls with guitars were leading the audience in a hymn that featured the line, “I lay my head upon his chest.” Every time that line came around, the male professors near me would just stop singing.

But some people might actually like this focus on their worship experience, feeling that it’s appropriate for churches to serve their preferences, just like restaurants do. Church-shopping is common, as people sample many different churches in their search for the one that feels best. Unfortunately, the church that feels most comfortable is not the one that will challenge you. We are called to deep change, transformation in Christ, and the hard work of overcoming the poison of habitual sin. If you search till you find a church that feels just right, it’s likely to reinforce you as you already are.

A focus on the worshipper also burdens him, because it means worship succeeds or fails based on how he feels. He can look around during a hymn and notice others who look moved or inspired, while he himself feels nothing. He wonders if there is something wrong with him. Maybe his faith is too weak; maybe God has rejected him. Since the general mood during worship is upbeat (except for those times everyone is directed to be serious instead), the person who comes in feeling less than chipper will know that good manners requires holding it in. Church-time can come to seem very artificial. When you’re worried or sad it’s painful to be around happy people. Singing a hymn about how God takes care of me when I’m sad doesn’t really help.

I got an email this morning from a person who said he attended a church meeting where one of the newer leaders wanted to remove the Creed and the general confession from the Sunday service, because they were a “turn off.” This led to a discussion of the purpose of worship, and he said that, for him, it was about “alignment.” In worship he comes into the presence of God, and is lined up with him, so to speak. In our daily lives we turn away from God through our anxieties and temptations; our attention is scattered in all different directions. In worship, as we face the Lord, we are brought into right order with him.

This alignment is like what happens to a steel needle when it is brought into contact with a magnet. When the needle is manufactured it’s not magnetic, because the atoms inside are pointing in all different directions. But when the needle is touched by a magnet, those atoms begin to turn. They become aligned as the magnet is; they become magnets themselves.

When we are thus aligned with God we are made one with him, transformed by his power. We don’t just become like him, in a superficial or analogical way; we actually become bearers of his presence, as the Burning Bush was filled with fire.

My correspondent wrote that, while he was describing this process during the meeting, he said, “I speak the ancient words” of the liturgy. That’s a potential complication. In churches where the tradition is to put worship together almost from scratch every week, the authority for that worship resides in the pastor and worship leaders. Its depth is limited to the depth of their own wisdom, insight, and prayer life. Liturgical churches simply have an advantage here, because they don’t have to generate the content of their worship. The ancient liturgies still exist, and some churches have never stopped using them for all 2000 years. The Orthodox Divine Liturgy is like a rack railway, one that is designed to climb a mountain. I can get on the train on Sunday morning, and it will carry me all the way to the top. It doesn’t matter whether I have emotions about worship or not; the Liturgy itself does the work.

As I said, this is more complicated for churches with a tradition of assembling the worship service new each week, but that does give you the freedom to try out the ancient prayers and services. They can be found in books and on line. I think it is less successful to just stick in a few ancient prayers here and there, because you’re not wise enough to be an editor of those ancient texts; but if that is all you can do, it’s still something.

Years ago I met a young woman who told me she attended “the Celtic service at the First Baptist Church.” When I did a double-take she said, “The Boomers want a contemporary service, with rock music and all, but the young people, of course, want something more traditional.” They had located ancient Celtic prayers via the internet and were worshipping with vestments, candles, and incense (until the smoke alarm gave them too much trouble).

One thing that surprised me after I became Eastern Orthodox was that there was far less emphasis on believers being united with each other in worship. Previously, the prayers and hymns about communion were all about community. Now, they’re about the power of Christ’s presence in the sacrament and my unworthiness and unpreparedness to receive it. Communion does unites me to other worshippers, of course, but the understanding that the bread and wine really become Christ’s Body and Blood push other thoughts to the side.

I should clarify that I’m not recommending a return to the worship styles and hymns of a few decades, or a century, ago. That’s still a part of the culture we inhabit today, and it’s probably not disruptive or challenging enough to make a difference. Worship from thousands of years ago, from entirely different languages and cultures, has more of a chance of shaking you up.

Finally I have to ask, to what extent is worship supposed to teach the faithful? The Orthodox liturgies and prayers are full of meaty content, apparently intending that worshippers will understand and remember it, and not designed solely to glorify God. If you imagine that you were an illiterate peasant 1500 years ago, about the only time you would hear the scriptures would be during worship. The icons on the walls would serve as a picture bible, presenting the important scenes of bible and church history. The worship experience—the embroidery, incense, vestments, jewels and so forth—would be the most beautiful thing you encountered all week. Since everything is set to music, you can take it with you, and bring it to mind during the week. Some of the more important prayers are sung three times. We learned our ABCs by singing them over and over, and we learn church history and theology the same way.

I’m always impressed, on the Sunday of the Fathers of the First Ecumenical Council, at the amount of detail the hymns give us in describing the heresy of Arius, the arguments against him, and even  his miserable end (he went into an outhouse and, it sounds like, exploded—yes, we sing even about this). We’re not singing these things in order to inform God about it. It must be intended to teach worshippers history and theology that they should know.

Likewise, it is right that there be a sermon or homily expounding the day’s scripture readings. Another ancient practice is the Kiss of Peace, the moment when worshippers greet each other with a holy kiss; it appears already in St. Paul’s letters. So having insisted all this time that worship ought to be directed to God, I must admit that some elements teach and inform worshippers as well.

With that allowance, however, we still must answer the question “What is worship for?” with “Worship is for God.” We need to worship God, because it puts us in right “alignment” with him. God doesn’t need our worship; God doesn’t need anything the human race can offer. But when we drift from him we become scattered and confused. Worship brings us before our Creator, the only source of love that is worthy of the name. The more we focus on him alone, forgetting about ourselves, the more we will be healed.

About Frederica Mathewes-Green

Frederica Mathewes-Green is a wide-ranging author who has published 10 books and 800 essays, in such diverse publications as the Washington Post, Christianity Today, Smithsonian, and the Wall Street Journal. She has been a regular commentator for National Public Radio (NPR), a columnist for the Religion News Service, Beliefnet.com, and Christianity Today, and a podcaster for Ancient Faith Radio. (She was also a consultant for Veggie Tales.) She has published 10 books, and has appeared as a speaker over 600 times, at places like Yale, Harvard, Princeton, Wellesley, Cornell, Calvin, Baylor, and Westmont, and received a Doctor of Letters (honorary) from King University. She has been interviewed over 700 times, on venues like PrimeTime Live, the 700 Club, NPR, PBS, Time, Newsweek, and the New York Times. She lives with her husband, the Rev. Gregory Mathewes-Green, in Johnson City, TN. Their three children are grown and married, and they have fourteen grandchildren.

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