The word "worship" locks us into veneration and ritual; there's a better way to express faith
Should we incessantly and ritually venerate a monarch? I wondered that as I participated in the centuries-old liturgy—aided by a bone-rattling pipe organ—in a gothic church building during an early morning worship service.
Later that same morning, while standing with my family in a suburban mega church, engaged in what I call rock ‘n’ roll worship, I was struck by the same question. Though the forms and styles were centuries and poles a part, they were the same in essence: monarch veneration.
Is this the best we can do, I wondered? Does this capture the essence of our faith? Does it reflect what the Bible points us toward? Is there something we are missing when we opt to use worship as the central image and activity in our gathering, scattering communities of faith?
Worship is the thing most of us point to as the central descriptor of Christian faith and practice. We quote the first assertion of the Westminster Shorter Catechism--"The chief end of man is to glorify God and enjoy him forever"--and assume that worship is the essence of this duty or imperative (I'm not sure how we get "worship" from "glorify" and/or "enjoy"). But, I think church leaders and Christian influence peddlers miss the point when they fixate on worship.
The exaltation of impassioned worship gatherings in churches in recent years--whether a renewal of ancient liturgical forms or contemporary emotive gatherings that all but discard form--is pointed to as a step in the right direction. We've considered it a step away from self-exaltation, shallowness, and self-righteousness; a step toward a more mature, robust Christianity. I'm not so sure about that.
Whether contemporary or ancient in expression, worship, as the primary descriptor and focus point of Christian faith has lots of baggage--baggage that Jesus seemed to be pointing his followers beyond. Granted, there may be some authentic understandings and expressions of worship, but most of what I've heard described, seen enacted, and read about is sub-Christian or pre-Christian.
This is part of the baggage of worship: its very etymology and core images are rooted in veneration of a deity by subjects who are trying to please, appease, or move the deity to assist them in some tangible way. As such, worship predates the Bible.
Most of the Old Testament passages and images reflect such worship, with some modifications. The OT begins with a simple, profound image of Abraham walking by faith with God--something the Apostle Paul would reassert. But, rather quickly, the OT builds layer upon layer of staged, sophisticated worship ritual centered in the tabernacle and temple. A few exceptions are found in the Old Testament prophets, like Amos, whose spirituality moves away from the tabernacle/temple cultus to a lived relationship expressing tangible social justice.
Jesus of Nazareth offered an eclipsing experience of faith and direct relationship between people and God. Yet, less than a century after Jesus, the church began returning to ancient, pre-Christian worship patterns and built form and ritual into a highly-regulated system. Ultimately, great cathedrals as worship centers accentuated this system.
Reform movements have usually tried to reformulate worship as part of their agenda. The Society of Friends is one striking example. But those of us who are beneficiaries of Martin Luther's reforms have found ourselves, after a generation or two of simplicity and freedom in worship, returning unwittingly to more ancient conceptions and patterns of worship.
Please do not mistake me: it is not relating to God personally and/or corporately that I am questioning here. Instead, I challenge the nature and manner in which we express, confirm, celebrate, and bear witness to that relationship.
To the point: as long as we use the word-image of worship, we will ultimately live backward and downward to its limited and limiting meaning. If we are to live and become the people--personally and corporately--that Jesus beckoned us to be, perhaps we should consider moving beyond worship as the descriptor of who we are and what we do.
In short, God does not demand worship. God does not need to be worshiped--not as we think of a deity being appeased or impressed, not as groveling subjects bowing to a powerful potentate, not as fearful people giving required honor, not as obligated people dutifully fulfilling prescribed rituals. God is not like that, nor does that reflect the essential nature of the relationship Jesus models and invites us to.
Jesus clearly points his followers beyond worship when he addresses the Samaritan woman at the well. She worries about appropriate places, right rituals of worship and her place in the scheme of things. "A time is coming and has now come when true worshipers will worship in spirit and in truth," Jesus assures her. Enough of the old stuff. Enough groveling. Enough about distance and appropriate places. Enough squabbling over worship rituals and patterns. Jesus offers something more profound: be in relationship with God and one another in spirit and truth. "That's the kind of 'worship' God seeks," he says.
Jesus tried again and again to move his followers beyond worship. Abide in me, he said, just like I abide with the Father. Think in terms of friendship, not servants, he said. Think in terms of love, he said. Think about a relationship in terms of personal counsel. Or, in terms of yieldedness and mutuality.
Clearly, the direction he repeatedly points to is something beyond what we typically reflect and do on Sunday morning--whether we're in a Catholic cathedral, following the Book of Common Prayer or lifting our hands as we sing full-throated while a rock band blasts out the latest contemporary pop-worship favorite.
I propose an alternative word and image in place of worship. Try "communion." We're at the table. We're invited--us and billions of our fellow humans. Still, it's accessible and intimate and participatory. There's mutuality and learning and growth. We're talking together. We're breaking bread. We're drinking from the common cup. We're being nourished in body and soul.
Communion is full of relational meaning. There is awe and humility with the One in whose presence and companionship we find our footing and purpose, to be sure, but that doesn't call for subservience or dramatic fawning. There is Otherness, but it is completely empowering.
[This image doesn't work if, by communion, we reinforce exclusivity, priestly hierarchy, obsessive scrupulosity, or warring divisions over the meaning of Eucharist. Think more organic, more relational, more mutual than that.]
I can imagine that folks indoctrinated in Calvin-based traditions will find letting go of worship as the primary or core descriptor somewhat threatening. Ancient images of worship are part and parcel with the Westminster and Swiss reformer's conception of spirituality. But, to me, it's worth focusing more on the words, patterns and invitation of Jesus than hanging on to traditions that might serve well up to a point but become limiting to the life and relationship that the living Word points toward and makes possible.
Moving into a communion-based focus also empowers an engagement with life's difficulties, the world's challenges and a Christian's witness in it in a more direct way. While worship should move us there, more often than not, worship, by its very historic meaning and image, keeps us focused in the cult, inside the walls. Though there are notable exceptions to this pattern--a few describe worship more as what happens outside the cult than what occurs inside it--the predominant pattern is that folks end their worship when they walk outside the church doors.
If you insist on sticking with worship as your modus operandi of relating to God, then I can only hope that what occurred to Isaiah as he worshiped in the temple will happen to you. Isaiah 6 tells of a vision that transformed Isaiah, changing him from a mere repetitive worshiper into a turned-inside-out, spirit-and-truth prophet. He moved from worship to communion--with God and his community. Isn't that the point?
Oh, by the way, see you in worship next Sunday.
John Franklin Hay
Indianapolis, Indiana, USA