Tuesday, May 31, 2011

Faulty Assumptions

From time to time we do well to step back and take a long look at what we’re up against when we talk about “the renewal of worship.” Drifting around among the folks in the pews are assumptions that cause considerable mischief. They’ve been around for some time, generations perhaps, and if left unchallenged will thwart every effort to make sense of worship, understand it logically, not to mention theologically.

So here are the assumptions I hear people make that are faulty in one way or another, and how they need to be corrected and directed from their errant ways. They are in no particular order of priority—none is more wrong than any other.

“Worship is strictly between me and God, so I don’t need to be in church.” I had a parishioner who, with tongue firmly planted in cheek, admitted he’d been playing golf rather than coming to service the previous Sunday. His self-justification went something like, “I can worship God on the golf course just as well as here.” To which I replied, “While I’ve heard plenty of theological language on the golf course, it doesn’t seem quite the same thing.”

What is missing is the community of faith, the assembly of people around the grace of God. Worship—all worship—is a corporate activity. And we learn about the collective character of Christian worship by experiencing it with others. Even when we are separated for a time, our individual prayers are rooted in the gathered prayers of our faith community, wherever that may be. This does not mean that worship is not personal—even when we are gathered in prayer, our peculiar joys and concerns are lifted to God.

“Worship is at my initiative, when and how I want.” Lots of folks think that it’s all up to them whether they need to worship God or not. It’s their choice, and they call all the shots.

Of course, they’ve got it all back end forwards. God is the one who takes the initiative, who in sheer indiscriminate grace calls us to be God’s precious people. We respond. Our response takes place only when we acknowledge God’s invitation to worship. It’s easy for any of us to slip into this one, as though our response is because we’re good people and that makes us God’s people.

“Worship is where I go to feel good.” Feel-good worship is available in lots of places these days, and there’s always the temptation to try to lure people through the doors with a soft sell approach. It’s free on television. The good news is peddled without demands, requirements, expectations or anything that suggests change or improvement of actions or ethics. The old saying is absolutely true: “Good preaching comforts the afflicted and afflicts the comfortable.” The Good News of Jesus Christ carries in it the bad news of repentance and renewal. The Gospel is a challenge, no doubt about it.

“Worship in my tradition is the right/only way to worship.” Of late, we Christians have tended to tuck ourselves tightly into our own ways of doing things. We ignore other Christian sisters and brothers who do things differently because we secretly think we’ve got it down right, and, well, they have the right to do whatever they want. The evaporation of ecumenism among local churches has not allowed us the privilege of sharing worship and learning from one another. So the church is afflicted with a kind of liturgical chauvinism, and our worship falls into the pit of pride.

“Worship is relaxing because someone else does everything.” There are folks who think that the worship leaders and presiders do all the work and they can put their feet on the handlebars and coast. For them, worship is a passive affair. Such an attitude toward worship is a sure prelude to boredom. If anyone is looking for worship to be entertaining, they will not themselves be involved in the liturgy (translate: “Work of the People”). Worship done well is an active experience for one and all.

“Worship is just one of many things a church offers—I do other things, and that’s enough.” So what the gathered people of God do on a Sunday morning is just one item on the list, and if someone teaches children, or engages in a service project for the church or community, they have license to skimp on worship attendance.

What is askew here, however, is that worship is The Core Activity of the church, from which all other things get empowered. Teachers learn by their own worship what they are to teach others. Servants are motivated to serve by the risen Christ who serves them at the Table.

Well, this is a start. I suspect that there are more faulty assumptions about worship that need to be exposed. If you have some to add, or other examples of these, please comment.

1 comment:

  1. Thanks for this post, Don. It covers a variety of the answers and reasons I hear for not attending weekly worship.

    Sometimes I think they don't realize worship IS the work of the People... that God, not the congregation, is the audience. Perhaps we clergy are a bit to blame for this? If we don't make what we are doing (and why) explicit how are the people to know?

    As for me, I can adore God alone, silently, in my heart. I can pray and sing by myself. But I would not describe this as practicing my Christian faith. For me, Christianity must be communal. Jesus didn't send people out alone, but in twos. When Jesus healed people, it was to return them to their community. As disciples, we must be with (or comprise) the two or three gathered in His name.

    I'm thinking this would be a good idea for a sermon in September when the pews fill again. Thanks for the idea!


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