Thoughts on Worship (Part 1): What Worship Is Not.

Worship has been on my mind a lot lately, as I spend these first few quiet (lonely) days in my new office.  No one seems to be on campus, other than the many wonderful behind-the-scenes folks who keep ONU’s campus looking so beautiful, and a few classes that are in session.  So, I’ve been spending some time thinking about the coming school year, and specifically Thursday morning chapel worship.  Since the time I was offered this position, I’ve done a lot of listening to people on campus, asking what they think about the chapel.  And the one topic that has come up, time and time again, is worship.  Something is “missing,” or something is “off,” or something needs to be done.  The numbers tell part of the story—like many ministries and churches, chapel has seen a decrease in attendance over the last few years.  Part of that is because of a wider trend in American religion, and among emerging adults, to be sure.  But there is a sense that a truly dynamic chapel worship would appeal to more students, and would increase those ever-elusive numbers.  In order to understand a thing, sometimes we have to understand what it is not.  So I want to spend some time thinking today about what worship isn’t.  (Later, I’ll write about what it is.)

One question that keeps coming up in my mind is this—What can we do in worship that will increase attendance?  The answer is—Absolutely nothing!  Worship isn’t meant as the solution to the crisis of dwindling numbers.  The way we worship is an integral part of who we are, and it will certain nurture and grow our members spiritually, but it is not meant—it never was meant—to be our sole means of discipleship and spiritual formation.  Discipleship and spiritual formation, along with outreach and evangelism, are what will help grow our worship attendance.  (More about those topics at another time!)  So, I would disagree with those who say that one “style” of worship or another is the key to growing a worshiping community.  I have known churches that worship in a very traditional, almost ancient, style, that have grown by leaps and bounds, and I have known just as many churches that worship in a totally cool, contemporary and down-to-earth style that are doing the same.  Worship “style” doesn’t determine growth.

Another thought that often attaches itself to worship is that worship “feeds” the congregation.  When people leave a church, they often say that it was because the worship wasn’t “feeding” them.  I have seen a lot of people come and go from worshiping communities in the course of my ministry (I’ve even helped some of them go in a manner that was healthier for both them and the community).  A few times, people have said to me that worship in the community which they were leaving was not “feeding” them.  Then, as we dug deeper into their story, they revealed that the real issue was that they had a conflict with another congregant, or with the pastor, and that worship wasn’t “feeding” because they couldn’t go to worship without focusing on the conflict they were having.  Worship isn’t meant to “feed” us, and when we do think that worship is our main (or only) source of being “fed,” then we have a very poor spiritual diet!  Imagine only eating once a week, and then only on fatty and sugary foods that satisfied you for an hour and then quickly left your system.  If you’re going to worship only to be “fed,” you’ll never be filled with the Spirit of God—at least not completely.

A third thing that worship isn’t is entertainment.  If you’ve been a part of the Christian community  through any part of the last few decades, you’ll be at least somewhat familiar with what have been called “the worship wars.”  Each side on this battle (there are more sides than the false contemporary/traditional, by the way) sees the other sides as promoting worship that is merely “entertainment.”  And I can see where those arguments could be valid.  I’ve been to high masses and Eucharistic worship during which people talked through the whole service, until the bells were rung at the consecration.  And, I’ve been to more than my fair share of “worship experiences” that were more about the worship band’s latest album than about worshiping the living God.  So, let’s all admit that all sides have transgressed in this manner, and let’s move on.  Worship isn’t entertainment.  It isn’t meant to be entertaining.  Although there may be enjoyable moments within worship, those moments are not the reason we worship.  John Wesley addressed this way of thinking in his sermon “The Duty of Constant Communion.”  Writing of the sacrament, he said:

Reverence for the sacrament may be of two sorts:  either such as is owing purely to the newness of the thing, such as men naturally have for anything they are not used to; or such as is owing to the love or fear of God.  Now the former of these is not properly a religious reverence, but purely natural.  And this sort of reverence for the Lord’s Supper the constantly receiving of it must lessen.  But it will not lessen the true religious reverence, but rather confirm and increase it.

Applied to worship, the above passage points out that our feelings about worship—whether or not we are “entertained”—don’t matter as much as the fact that we are worshiping the God of creation, the Holy and Divine Trinity, Three in One.  That alone should be the focus of our worship, not whether or not the choir was in top form or the worship band’s lighting was effective.  Those elements of worship are important—more on that  later, too—but they are not the main purpose of worship.

Check back again soon to see some thoughts on what worship is. But for now, in the comments section below, or on Facebook or Twitter, let me know what you think—is there something you’ve come across in your experience that worship is not?