The heart of worship
Worship is so integral to the life of the church that when we say we are “going to church,” what we most often mean is that we will be attending a worship service. Worship is mentioned in Scripture, from the first book (the difference between how Cain and Abel worshipped God in Genesis 4, Noah and his family worshipping after the Flood in Genesis 8:20-22, and more) to the last book, where much of Revelation is a vision of heavenly worship. Clearly worship is important. But what is worship?
Worship includes proclamation of God’s Word, yet worship is more than Scripture lessons and a sermon. For some people, music is their favorite element of worship; yet even for music lovers, worship is more than a collection of songs. We pray during worship, yet worship is more than prayer. People need to gather for worship to happen, yet worship is much more than just a meeting. Clearly worship is more than the sum of its parts.
“The heart of worship, at least for Jews and Christians, is the celebration of God,” wrote John E. Burkhart in his book “Worship.” “True celebration of God is quite festive, sometimes almost playful, and conspicuous in its gladness as it takes delight in what God is about … Such worship celebrates God, the God known by prophets, psalmists, and apostles, and by multitudes of Jews and Christians, for whom worship is not a duty but a privilege, not a burden but a delight. Worship gladly celebrates the God whose character is caring and sharing, the God who is indecorously gracious.”
Crucial for faith
People of faith have realized for millennia that in worship, we remember who God is and who we are to be as God’s people. Worship was crucial to the first Christians. The Acts of the Apostles describes the early days of the church this way: “The believers devoted themselves to the apostles’ teaching, to the community, to their shared meals, and to their prayers. A sense of awe came over everyone. God performed many wonders and signs through the apostles. All the believers were united and shared everything. They would sell pieces of property and possessions and distribute the proceeds to everyone who needed them. Every day, they met together in the temple and ate in their homes. They shared food with gladness and simplicity. They praised God and demonstrated God’s goodness to everyone. The Lord added daily to the community those who were being saved” (Acts 2:42-47).
This passage describes an amazingly vibrant community life, including worship. They met together every day in the Temple for worship, and most likely their home gatherings were not only shared meals but also a home-based worship service that included celebrating Holy Communion. They were following Jesus’ direction during the Last Supper to share the bread and the cup “in remembrance of me” (Luke 22:14-20). The apostles understood the importance of worship for each individual believer and for the nascent community. It was together as a worshipping, praying, sharing, learning, serving community that they were able to continue the work of Jesus Christ.
John Wesley also believed that worship was crucial to the Christian life. Wesley was concerned that people grow spiritually. He wanted Methodists “to evidence their desire of salvation” by keeping the General Rules, three easy-to-remember guidelines for the Christian life: (1) Do no harm. (2) Do good. (3) Attend upon all the ordinances of God. These ordinances of God are also known as means of grace or spiritual disciplines, practices that help us to grow spiritually. Wesley understood these means of grace to include “the public worship of God; the ministry of the Word, either read or expounded; the Supper of the Lord; family and private prayer; searching the Scriptures; [and] fasting or abstinence.” Wesley understood that worship, including participating in Holy Communion, is vital for spiritual growth.
When I served as a pastor, I generally started planning worship months in advance. In some churches, I worked with a team to design worship services, while in others I designed alone. I found planning that far ahead allowed time for ideas to generate and kept me from simply drifting to a passing interest.
On a few occasions, events changed my plans at the last minute. The death of a teenage member in a car accident shifted worship plans in one church. And the terrorist attacks on September 11, 2001, radically changed the worship design for the following Sunday. I had a sense that members of the church were thirsting for some way to understand the events that were shaking our world, and that most likely others in the community who rarely attend a worship service might come. I wanted to be sure that we would remember who God is and who we are to be as God’s people in light of what was happening.
So I scrapped the planned worship design. We sang hymns reminding us that God loves our nation and all the world: “God of the Ages,” including the words asking God to “lead us from night to never-ending day; / fill all our lives with love and grace divine”; “America the Beautiful,” with the final stanza’s words “O beautiful for patriot dream that sees beyond the years / thine alabaster cities gleam, undimmed by human tears”; and “This Is My Song,” which calls for Christ to be lifted up and for hearts to be united and concludes with the words “O hear my prayer, thou God of all the nations, / myself I give thee; let thy will be done.” At the end of the worship service, we joined in singing “Let There Be Peace on Earth.”
We prayed. At the beginning of the worship service, we joined in a prayer I wrote using images from the hymns: “O God of the ages, we come here today with heavy hearts, for we have witnessed evil this past week. We are torn by anger, fear, sorrow, hatred, compassion, and hope. O Lord of all the nations, remind us that goodness is stronger than evil, love is stronger than hate, light is stronger than darkness, and life is stronger than death. Strengthen us to trust in you and to live as your people. We pray in the name of Jesus Christ, the Prince of Peace.” At the end of the worship service, we united our voices in the Prayer of Saint Francis.
And I preached. Near the beginning of the sermon, I said, “We have all asked ourselves so many questions since we first heard the news: How could something like this happen? Who would do something so horrific? Why would anyone do this? How do we respond to this evil? That last question — how do we respond to evil — strikes at the heart of who we are.” I mentioned that our natural tendency is to respond in one of two ways: either to give in or to seek revenge. I then lifted up a third way to respond to evil: the way of Jesus. I said, “Jesus fought evil, but not by using the tactics of evil. Instead, he lived a profoundly different kind of life.” Jesus fed the hungry, forgave those who betrayed him, loved his enemies and was a peacemaker. I reminded people that the way to defeat evil is to live as followers of Jesus Christ.
Did that worship service on September 16 remind everyone present who God is and who we are to be as God’s people? I don’t know for sure. But I do know it reminded me. Worshipping with brothers and sisters in Christ that Sunday was what I needed during that confusing time.
The focus of worship is God. Yet worship also affects us. Worship has the ability both to inform us and transform us. When we worship, we remember who God is and who we are to be as God’s people. One of the blessings at the end of worship suggested in The United Methodist Hymnal states, “Go forth in peace. The grace of the Lord Jesus Christ, and the love of God, and the communion of the Holy Spirit be with you all.” May it be so.
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