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Worship Confession

2012 June 12

I was annoyed with the worship wars back in the 90s. All too often they boiled down to younger people demanding that church be done in a language they understood and older people demanding that since they tithed the most church should cater to their whims (and yes I heard the arguments stated that crassly numerous times). These days a theological veneer is imposed on the same arguments (generally by those who accuse those who desire the church to embrace only the cultural idioms of 100 or 300 years ago instead of those of the past fifty years). The arguments typically accuse people of rejecting the forms of church that are the “proper” way of encountering God for the siren call of individualism and novelty. Same wars based on personal preference, just new ways of accusing the other side of being wrong.

As I repeatedly encounter these spats in the church, it forces me to ask the question as to what the purpose of corporate worship is anyway. I fully believe that worship can never be limited to just the rituals of church but involves the actions of serving God in the world. Yet I still see a place for corporate worship. What I hear most often is that the purpose of that event is to unveil God – to make God present and known to those gathered in a particular space. The rituals, the prayers, the songs, the sermon, the well-rehearsed actions of the leaders all work together to bring the congregation into an encounter with God.

But this is where I get uneasy. I keep asking myself – is the point of worship simply to encounter God?

The longer I am part of the Christian faith the more uneasy I get with churches that enact a well-planned performance intended to help people have this encounter with God. Whether it is a timed-to-the-minute contemporary stadium show with a recording-level-quality praise band or a highly orchestrated liturgy with a recording-level-quality choir and organist, I find myself increasingly uncomfortable with the affected voice of the church. The manipulative nature of the fact that the religious professionals are staging a show intended for me to consume (as I read or sing as prompted) under the guise of enacting the proper form for how God is to be revealed grates on my nerves like fingernails on a chalkboard.

For a long time I thought this was just my preferences regarding worship and was reluctant to jump in the fray of the worship wars culture. But the question kept returning to me – is worship simply about encountering God or should it also involve participating in God? Watching a show and being moved to see God seems like a mere shadow of worship compared to making of ourselves living sacrifices and being caught up in the work of God’s kingdom come on earth as it is in heaven. Rehearsing or timing a performance can make for a beautiful experience in the moment, but it leaves me hollow. Maybe it’s because after so many years in the church world I’ve seen too much of the machinations of the men behind the curtain to even be able to see God in such polished performances.

Perhaps that is my failing.

But I’ve reached the point where it is only in the messy and faltering attempts to be the body of Christ -to give of ourselves as we are instead of in a role someone expects of us – that I not only experience God but feel that I am participating in God’s work in the world. It’s often elusive and frequently difficult and uncomfortable to live into worship instead of merely consume it, but it is where I can actually see God at work as of late. But as I am discovering, desiring to worship in such ways makes it very hard to continue to exist in the church world that has formed different habits.


13 Responses leave one →
  1. June 12, 2012

    I trust you’ve seen this YouTube video that has been making the rounds for a couple of years:

    Your post made me think of it.

    — Tom+

  2. Maria permalink
    June 12, 2012


    I like your question — is encountering God the point of worship? I’ve been struggling with more or less the same question for some years. In my context it isn’t professional or slick performance that’s the problem, but the expectation that if we play the songs enough times we’ll find ourselves in the “presence” of God. (Obviously, a more charismatic tribe…)

    I find myself asking 1) what does this have to do with the rest of my life and offering myself as a living sacrifice. I get the impression I’m supposed to wait until I have a sufficiently “wow” experience to move me to some incredible faithful action. and 2) how come every song is upbeat, victorious, rejoicing, etc? Where is the lament, the gritty reality, the bigger vision beyond the personal that makes the Bible’s prayers and songs so compelling?

    Thanks for a thought-provoking post.

  3. June 12, 2012

    Perhaps you have addressed this in an earlier post, but I’d be curious to hear what your current worship community is like and how what you’ve shared here works out practically in that context. I can relate to your statement: “But as I am discovering, desiring to worship in such ways makes it very hard to continue to exist in the church world that has formed different habits.” and am seeking to learn from the experiences and struggles of others.

    I think you have identified a key question, asking what the purpose of worship is and I agree with your assessment that it involves more than just encountering God through singing some songs (of whatever variety), hearing a sermon (however packaged and however well-delivered), and carrying out the activities commonly thought of as being part of “church.” My pastor gave a lengthy invitation on Sunday for people to be part of the life of the church, but in essence much of it came down to a plea for people to get involved in the ministries of the church, rather than an invitation to participate in God’s work in the world.

  4. June 12, 2012

    This resonated with me. I’m coming from a different angle. In that I went through similar thinking and questioning when I last spent time trying to find a spiritual community that resonated with me.

    Ultimately I put off the search and and only now beginning again with still no full answer to any of that.

  5. June 13, 2012

    Julie, I would say that your discomfort is definitely warrented. In my own phrasing (and off the top of my head) I would say: the purpose of gathered worship is to form us into the church – which then propells us to be the body of Christ in the world. There is no true worship without a turning not only toward God, but also toward each other and toward the world. Some good thinking here. Thank you for that! – Stacey Gleddiesmith

  6. Arthur Pare permalink
    June 13, 2012

    Nice post Julie. I have frequently questioned the Wow factor and purpose of corporate worship. It is not ever about how much it caters to an individual’s specific taste and style. Edification, worship, meeting needs, strengthening bonds, providing identity, providing opportunities – any of these are better answers for the purpose of corporate worship assemblies than entertainment or style. Vertical relationship with God is tied to horizontal relationship with His creation. Corporate worship is a merging of the two components.

  7. June 13, 2012

    I love these questions, Julie. They are right on the money in so many ways, and are very close to the heart of the work I do in my own small way over here in South Africa.

    Here are some thoughts in response, if you’ve got the time:

    1) I’m interested by the connection you make between “encountering God” and a performance mode in worship. In my mind, the moment worship becomes about a performance (as it so often does) we have stopped encountering God. The whole idea of an encounter with God is something that challenges and changes us (like in Isaiah 6, for example). The Scriptures often use sexual language for worship and I believe it is because intimacy always changes us and moves us out of ourselves into union with the other (or, in the case of worship, with the Other). This, by definition, cannot be, in any way a performance.

    2) I agree that worship must connect us with being Church, being moved to work for God’s justice in the world. The problem, I believe, is that worship has come to be seen as an end in itself. We come to worship in order to have an “experience” which makes us feel close to God, but which is separate from the rest of our lives. The biblical picture is very different from this, I believe.
    Worship, as I understand it, is a place in which we gather to learn to be the community of faith, the Body of Christ, a manifestation of God’s Reign in the world. Worship is not where we live our identity, it’s where we learn what our identity is so that we can live it out in the rest of our lives. So, in worship we come to receive a vision of God’s Reign that captures our hearts in such a way that it directs our lives and actions. Then, through the different parts of the liturgy, we are learning the ways of God’s Reign – the words, actions, narratives and symbols that are at the heart of the transformation God wants to do in us. Then, once we have learned and been changed, we can go out to live what we are becoming. We gather week after week in order to allow this process to be continuous, and we go out each week to live into our identity a little more fully over time.

    There is so much more I could say, but this is already a long comment. I add these thoughts in the hope that they help to move the conversation forward in some way. If you’re interested, I could send you a copy of my book that goes into more detail about this view of worship (Brian McLaren was very positive about it, if that helps). If this is sounding too much like spam, feel free to ignore or delete this comment.

    Thanks for your thought provoking posts!

  8. Glenn Hecox permalink
    June 14, 2012

    Great post and insightful responses! As one who plans and writes worship (though some might use the words manipulate or dictate worship), I also struggle with the thoughts raised here and appreciate hearing where others may be with this. Though my title is “Minister for Worship”, another role I play is providing opportunities for our community to serve as the heart, hands, and feet in the world. Meaning, actually go out and serve and not just sit and respond in a worship service environment. However, while people will come to worship, it is a struggle to lead them to serve which leads me to wonder, what exactly is our worship doing and how do I, as a leader, help create worship opportunities that help inspire and teach people to go and serve?
    I appreciate this conversation!

  9. June 14, 2012

    Julie, a good subject, this.

    After days spent reading and writing, in part, about women and their place formal worship and then spending an entire weekend in worship, this subject is close to home right now.

    In the Cursillo movement, worship, including public worship, is a central theme. I just spent three days as the “Palanca” spiritual director on a weekend. Palanca is the Spanish word for a lever or fulcrum and like Archimedes used to boast that if he had a long enough lever and the right place to stand, he could move the world.

    I think moving the world is one of the purposes of public worship, whether it be by a few souls gathered in one place or by a massive community, praying together but spread across the earth.

    If you have taken Hebrew yet you probably know there are two main Hebrew words for worship, shachah for bow-down public worship and avodah which means work, service, ministry, i.e., all-day-long whatever we do worship. I suspect that whenever my avodah/worship gets out of wack with my shachah/worship, then I lose track of what either one is about.

    I am sure you are right about slickness and worship. Worship was never meant to be a show. That one praise song gets at it with the lines, “I’m sorry, Lord, for the thing I’ve made it; becuase it’s all about you, Jesus.” I wonder how often even that song gets lost in “the show.”

    There is a lot of worship as performance today that probably gives people goose bumps but I am not sure it moves the world. I doubt the king intended the kingdom would come or his will be done through goose bumps. The new creation we were talking about on RHE’s synchroblog is way bigger than that.

    Great topic. God bless!

  10. July 7, 2012

    I’ve experience many of the same troubling questions and wrestling regarding today’s meaning of “worship”… I too feel uncomfortable with the “performance” bent of most of it – both contemporary or traditional. May we find peace in our wrestling.

  11. December 10, 2015

    So much info in so few words. Tostloy could learn a lot.

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