Sunday, September 12, 2010

Stepping Back

Sometimes it’s just a good idea to take a step back and look at what we’re doing in worship. We can get lost in the details of picking hymns or writing prayers or crafting sermons and lose sight of the larger picture.

There are at least two overarching perspectives to be considered when we ponder the event, the “happening” that we call Christian worship.

Corporate Worship

One is the fact that Christian worship is always corporate worship—a group experience. The Church is essentially a “gathering” of people, those who are “called out” from the general population of humankind, the “ekklesia.” We assemble in “congregations,” from the Latin for “gather together.”

At no time and in no place is the Church more the Church than when gathered at the hour for worship on the Lord’s Day.

There are those who get nervous about such assertions because they think they reject the authenticity of individual prayer, or even suggest that Christians have no solo access to God. On the contrary, understanding worship, all worship, to be corporate, supports the notion of personal prayer.

When we were in the initial stages of planning the Daily Prayer book, we each were assigned a prayer book to use for ourselves. For most of us, this would be a one-person exercise. The one I used was Christian Prayer: The Liturgy of the Hours, published by the Catholic Book Publishing Company in 1976. It is an impressive, if ponderous, 2000-page resource. I used it for more than six months, morning, midday, evening, and night.

I remember clearly one morning sitting at my breakfast table reading aloud the morning service, when there came over me the “aha” realization that I was not doing this alone, that somewhere in many places there were others praying the same prayers, reciting or singing the same psalms, meditating on the same scripture. My little breakfast-table worship was part of the Church’s worship. So it is with every Christian who prays or reads the Word in scripture—that single person is with the whole Church at worship.

One implication of this is, however, that solo prayer or praise without the shared experience of worship with others is on thin ice. It is in the community of God’s people, gathered by God, that we find support and encouragement to bravely open ourselves to the Spirit, submit ourselves not only to God, but to one another “in the Lord,” and welcome change and renewal for our lives. Without that community to hold us upright, our privatization of prayer is in jeopardy of dropping into self-righteous self-service, a self-centered “me-and-God” attitude hardly worthy to be called worship.

Divine Initiative

We’ve got to get over the notion that worship of Almighty God is a really good idea that we dreamed up. It’s not our idea at all. It’s God’s.

Here’s that New Testament word for Church again: “ekklesia,” referring to those who are “called out” by God to be God’s own people, summoned by Christ to be his disciples.

This is why we use a Call to Worship at the beginning of our services, words from Holy Scripture summoning us to come together and praise God. This is clearly not our summons, it is God’s.

If the local custom is to begin the Sunday morning gathering with announcements, there would appropriately be a welcome from the worship leader to all, especially visitors, newcomers. This should not be given from the pulpit or lectern, but from the aisle among the people, in order to distinguish it from God’s welcome in the Call to Worship, spoken from pulpit or platform.

It’s important to remember this Divine Initiative. We don’t come on our own motivation to worship in order to reach out to God. Flip that around. We come to worship because God has already reached out to us in Jesus Christ, and called us to come celebrate that glorious fact.

A good part of Christian liturgy is remembering (anamnesis) what God has done in order to be more alert to what God is doing in our lives, in our world. God has taken the first step in accomplishing our salvation in the Incarnation, the entrance of the Divine into human form, into human history. In the birth, life, ministry, death, resurrection and ascension of Jesus Christ, God has called us, claimed our lives. Because of what God has done in Jesus Christ, we know God’s persistent presence with us, within us.

Our worship, then, is response to the Divine Initiative, a ritual of common remembering and thanksgiving, renewed commitment, and celebration.

These are two broad but critical matters to keep in mind about worship, yet I’m sure you can think of others equally as important. Drop me a comment or two.

1 comment:

  1. In our market-driven, busy lives it is so easy to lose sight of why it is we worship. Your article today is a wise reminder. Thank you, Don! I suspect if we kept these precepts in mind as we plan and participate in worship not only would our worship be much different but our lives would be also.


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