why worship?

Prayer in the Church of Reconciliation at Taizé
Why do Christians gather to worship? In a time when gathering in public to worship God is increasingly out of fashion in North America it is worth considering why this communal practice is crucial to Christian life. For, if we are not careful, we can easily begin to imagine that worship is meant to serve those who show up. We are such well-schooled consumers that, without realizing it, we begin to assume that worship exists to meet our needs. Then our worship planning focuses on the consuming congregation, aiming to send home satisfied “Sunday shoppers.”

But Christians do not gather to worship in order to have their needs, wants and desires met. We gather to worship because in Jesus Christ we have discovered that God is above all of our so-called gods. The temptation to worship false gods is always lurking at the door of Christian life. In Matthew’s telling, it is the final test that Jesus faces in the wilderness.  When invited by the devil to “worship me” Jesus responds: “Away with you, Satan! For it is written, ‘Worship the Lord your God, and serve only him.’” (Matthew 4:9-10)

The English word “worship” means “to give worth.” Christians worship the God met in Jesus Christ because this God alone is worth our lives and our service. In other words, Christian worship is, first of all, an act of obedience. We worship the One who we serve. We are, first and foremost, servants of God – ministers of Jesus Christ. This is our primary identity. Above and beyond national loyalty, political partisanship, denominational affinity, even family bonds we are God’s servants. It is the reason we call it a “worship service.” Worship is in service to God.

This seems an odd counter-cultural claim in a culture that celebrates the freedom of the individual to have no master but oneself. Yet, for those with eyes to see, there is no life free of servitude. As Bob Dylan sings: “You’re gonna have to serve somebody.” Worship turns us back to the One who is worthy of our attention, our gifts, our days. In worship we give our lives and life together to God only to find that in doing so we become truly free.

It is not by accident that the persecution of Christians regularly targets worship: churches are burned or bombed, worshipers are threatened or attacked. Worshiping the God met in Jesus leads Christians to live a different way of life, not always willing to serve our over-lords (whether in the nation, the workplace or the family). Worship is the place and time when we remind ourselves and others that it is our intention to be a servant people – a people called out to love and serve God and, therefore, to serve the neighbors (and strangers and enemies) God in Jesus commands us to love.

Of course, intention and reality are not always the same. Christian worship can, itself, become an idol – a false god demanding our service. Worship wars between those labeled “traditionalists” and “seeker-friendly” can blind us to our common calling: worship in which the eyes and hearts, minds and souls of the gathered people remain focused on the Servant God revealed in Jesus Christ.
When University Hill Congregation sold its building three decades ago and rented access to a worship space for Sunday mornings it was said that the congregation had been “reduced to worship.” But this reduction did not lead to a weakening or a thinning or a loss of gospel flavour. Instead, this reduction to the primal activity of worship revealed the powerful heartbeat of a newly energetic life. Like so many Christians before us, in our weakness we discovered once again that God, not our plans or programs or buildings or ideas or innovations, “is the source of your life in Christ Jesus” (I Corinthians 1:30).

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