Worship In The Alternate Society

Royal WasteIn her book, A Royal Waste Of Time, author Marva Dawn lays out a vision for Christian worship. I read this book when I was in seminary, but recently picked it up again. Like so many things I read in seminary, I really didn’t give this book the attention it deserves.

I want to give you a quote from the book, and then I want to comment.

In the midst of our post-Christian culture, the true Church must be a similar sort of parallel society. We gather together in worship to speak our language, to read our narratives of God at work, to sing the hymns of the faith in a variety of styles, to chant and pour out our prayers until we know the truth so well that we can go out to the world around us and invite that world to share this truth with us. In our worship, we are formed by biblical narratives that tell a different story from that of the surrounding culture. Since we thereby come to know the truth that sets us free, we are eager to share that truth with our neighbors’ thus our worship must equip us for that mission with a deep vision of the extravagant splendor of God. Rather than being “a vendor of religious goods and services” that cater to people’s tastes, the Church is called to be “a body of people sent on a mission.” (p. 334)

We come to worship bringing praise to God, according to the words and methods prescribed to us. We go to worship to hear from God as he speaks to us through the Word and Table. Worship is not a blank slate we need to fill with ourselves. It is the time and space where we wait to hear from God and reflect to Him the truth He has revealed to us in Jesus Christ. In doing this, we are shaped and formed by the words we hear and say.

The words we say in worship matter. They must overflow with truth. It is not enough to sing a particular song because we like it. It is not enough to view our various activities as simply a way for me to express my positive feelings for God. Worship can be expressive, but it must also didactic. That is, worship serves the function of teaching and forming, and the words we use must have content and meaning. We learn how to address God properly by hearing properly expressed. We do not walk into a church knowing how to properly approach and speak to the eternal, holy, Creator God. We must be taught how to do so.

To Marva’s point: it is a mistake to treat worship as the place and means to evangelize the lost. Worship is the place where believers come together to be formed into Christ-likeness so we can go into the world as a testament to the gospel. As far as I can tell, nowhere in the history of the church was worship viewed as primarily a meeting for the evangelization of the lost until we come to revivalism in America.

In this way Christianity must offer an alternative society, not a sub-culture, but a different society. We should enter into the worship experience of that society knowing we are entering into a holy experience. The difference is in focusing on God’s immanence verses experiencing his transcendence. Typical Evangelical worship involves the familiar God. Jesus is my buddy, or worse, Jesus is my lover. I am advocating a worship that is keenly in tune with God’s otherness. Yes, through Christ, God became like us. He became close to us, but we must not lose his otherness. We approach the throne of God boldly in worship because through Christ we don’t need to fear, but this does not mean that God is tame only that through Christ His wrath is turned away from us. We must enter worship with a sense of awe. It is a good thing to remember his holiness, power, and glory in worship.

I suppose I’ve come to a place in my life where I am rather tired of Jesus of modern worship. He isn’t the Jesus I see in scripture. He is like me, but he isn’t very much like God. I want a worship that has Christ squarely seated on his throne, and me in proper, humble relationship with that glory.

I want a robust worship that forces my eyes off of myself and my interests and onto the holy otherness of my God. We should be very concerned when we hear others say they are bored in worship. I recently read something by J. I. Packer where he says that of course we will be bored when we enter worship looking to get an expressive experience out of it. When we enter worship to take instead of to listen and reflect, we will miss the point every time.

We come to worship to be shaped and changed. We are formed by what we do and say. The type of worship we practice will determine the kind of Christians we will be. But what happens when we mold our worship in the image of the world? How will we be different? How will we represent the transcendent? How can we call people to the higher things of God when what we do simply looks like a sanitized version of what they see everyday?

I’ve written a fair amount about worship, our hubris, and what a liturgy could look like for us. I am deeply concerned that Evangelism’s selling out to the pragmatism of getting butts in the pews stadium seating has created a worship devoid of any rich meaning, and will create shallow and ill prepared Christians. But the Church has a deep and old heritage of worship we can find in the Great Tradition of ancient liturgy. There is a pattern for worship established in the early church and continued until very recently, and it is time for a recovering of that treasure. We don’t have to copy it wholesale, but we must draw on the past to find our present renewal.

If you are reading this, and you are a member of my church, you need to know that this is exactly what we are trying to do in our worship. The recitation of the Apostles’ and Nicene creeds, the increased amount of scripture reading, and the corporate confessions of sin are all part of that Great Tradition, and we need them. We need them to remind us that we are part of an alternate society that is very old. We need them to remind us that worship is not about me and my desires, but about God and what he has said and done for us. We need them to be reminded that worship is not a blank sheet of paper I have permission to fill with my whims, but it is the time and space when we come to be refreshed and renewed through hearing again the good news of our sin and Christ’s redemption.

Worship should be the time when we come to listen first and speak last.