[September 18, 2013]
A pastor in the UK wrote me asking, “What is worship for?” He said that his denomination was encouraging pastors to make worship more “user-friendly” in order to attract new members, and that this initially seemed to him a reasonable evangelistic strategy. A scripture cited in support of this approach was Acts 15:19, “We should not trouble those of the Gentiles who turn to God.” But as he read this scripture in context, it looked to him like it was written of people who were already Christian believers, and would not be required to accept Jewish practices. It didn’t address the case of people entirely outside the faith. He wrote to ask, “Who are church services for? Believers or unbelievers?”
It sounds like you are already approaching the answer, that in the Scriptures (and through church history) worship was intended to be worship. It was aimed at God, in adoration and supplication, not at attracting non-believers, or even at giving fellow-worshippers a good worship experience. This focus on God was the case until very recently; now our immersion in a consumer economy has led us to think of everything in terms of appealing to potential customers. We are so mentally saturated in advertising that we have come to think of ourselves and our faith as products that need to be persuasively sold.
That’s how worship gets redirected from the Lord to outsiders, who have no ability yet to understand or respect Him. The church becomes an organization that is primarily occupied with planning a billboard, because the most important goal is to capture non-believers’ attention. When someone responds to a billboard and becomes a member of the community, he discovers that he has joined an organization that — is planning a billboard. The main goal of members of a church is to attract more members to the church. It’s like Ponzi scheme.
In the Scriptures worship is directed to God, not to anyone on earth, not even to other worshippers. It is certainly not directed to people who don’t yet love and respect our Lord; in fact it should be expected that our worship will be unfamiliar, perplexing, and mysterious to them. In worship we focus on Him, and those who don’t yet see Him just won’t be able to grasp it. It’s appropriate that outsiders not understand what is going on. It’s appropriate that they don’t immediately get it. But they can see that the worshippers take it very seriously, and that they really believe God is present and hearing their prayers. That kind of worship is in itself powerfully compelling, and has its own magnetic pull.
This strikes a very different note than what we experience in our daily lives, which is so thoroughly devoted to attracting consumers, and desperately obsequious and silly in that pursuit. This seriousness of purpose strikes a very different note, and the fact that non-believers can’t immediately grasp what’s going on communicates a truth in itself.
Even for us worshippers, the focus is still on God, not each other. It is like a circle of friends who make up a string quartet. The four of them might come together in a living room for an evening to play the music they love. The bond between them is strong, and their community is a beautiful thing. But they don’t focus on each other, or the community they share, and there is no outside audience. They are focused on the music; they are trying to make the most beautiful music they can.
In this analogy you can see how the false division often cited about worship, that it is either casual or formal, falls away. Though they greatly enjoy playing this music, they don’t do it in a casual way; they take seriously the work involved, and strive to do their best. On the other hand, they don’t behave in a fussy and formal way, either. They aren’t self-conscious, as if they were trying to impress a human audience. It’s not a performance. Their whole heart and attention is directly engaged with the goal of creating beautiful music.
Worship ought to be as beautiful as we can make it, for God gave Moses very demanding instructions for worship, with very expensive elements: gold, jewels, embroidery, and incense. These were extravagant requirements for people who were refugees, wandering in the desert and living in tents. But even then the beauty of worship was a priority. Beauty affects us in ways we barely recognize. It opens our hearts. God required, and deserves, the greatest beauty we can create. But in the midst of beautiful worship we don’t have to be stiff and self-conscious. Great beauty and natural, joyous behavior are not opposites; we experience how they go together when we attend a wedding reception, or a big family dinner on Christmas.
Of course, the analogy to the quartet breaks down in that they are focused on the music, but worshippers’ focus is not on worship, but on God. Worship is not a performance. It is not entertainment. It is not advertising. Worship is work, as the Bible-Greek word leit-ourgia, liturgy, shows; it is “the work of the people.” We undertake this work as members of a vast community, going back to those instructions to Moses thousands of years go. We are responsible to continue that worship and pass it on with all the seriousness and beauty it deserves. We offer this worship as transitory place-holders, striving to doing it as well as those before us did, and those after us will do. Our eyes are fixed on the Lord who receives our worship.
If, instead, we focus on attracting outsiders, it will feel to them like every other advertising pitch they encounter. The church can never compete with the world when it comes to entertainment. The world can give them more enjoyable diversions than we can, and can do it without requiring them to leave the house on Sunday morning. If we are successful in attracting people to the church on the basis of fun and entertainment, we’re guilty of false advertising, for Christ promises us nothing in this life but a cross. But if we worship with whole-hearted focus on God, they will see something they encounter nowhere else in their lives. They may not at first see Christ, but they can see that we see something, and that gives them something to think about; that’s how faith begins.