A good question: What is worship for?
Each month we ask one question and get four answers. This month: What is worship for?
‘Worship finds its deepest meaning in the Cross’
For the Christian, the whole of life is worship – even unconsciously – perhaps being concentrated in private prayer and in church services. Indeed, it could be said that worship reaches a climax in the Sunday service, when the community of Christians share together in the praise of God, and in the seeking of God’s will – although, as the theologian PT Forsyth insisted, all prayer is common prayer, even in the privacy of one’s own room. And yet, perhaps for most of us, worship is at its richest when the community of the faithful share it together: Singing together, praying together, and proclaiming and listening for the Word of God. Preaching, of course, is not instruction in the sense of telling people how they should behave and exactly what they should believe. Preaching is, or should be, the communication of mind with minds, waiting for the Holy Spirit to reveal the very mind of God in Christ, inspiring and strengthening us to go back to the world, to continue worship as witnesses.
I have always been unhappy with church worship that begins with the prayer of confession. It makes me feel as though God might be some angry, punishing monarch, before whom we must grovel and, only then, receive any favours. I would always begin worship with words and a prayer of confident approach; confident approach to the God who loves us like a father and mother, whose first concern is for our wellbeing. Confession is always appropriate in worship, but it is the confession of children who know that they are loved by a parent who will never let them go, however much hurt they cause…
Alan Gaunt is a hymnwriter, poet and a retired United Reformed Church minister
Understanding context is a critical first step in interpreting Scripture, and plays an equally important role in understanding early Christian worship. We tend to view things in the past through the lens of our own time, place and circumstance, rather than understanding the culture of earlier times. Eastern Orthodox Christianity claims that our liturgical worship has a direct continuity with that of the early Church, never having gone through the Enlightenment or the Reformation. So why is that important or unique, and what’s the context?
Let’s start with a simple fact: A very large percentage of people in the Roman Empire were illiterate, and an even larger percentage of Christians were, as they came from lower classes in the first and second century. Additionally, there was no printed Bible. That helps explain the use of frescoes in the Jewish Temple and even in synagogues. This practice moved into early Christianity and then became more structured in the art form we now call iconography. In the absence of reading, visually understanding the story in the frescoes and icons taught the faith. Here, the visual sense was addressed and the result was learning and a deepening of faith.
A second example is sacramentality as part of the early Christian worldview. One’s worldview is the way one explains and interprets the world, and by extension, how one applies that view to life. Early Christians, like those around them, lived in a pre-Enlightenment world wherein one could commune with and experience God in creation. They understood that inasmuch as the Kingdom had come in Christ, that Kingdom and the divine could be experienced in this life. Thus the Christian life is a sacramental life. That explains the central role of the sacraments in Orthodox worship – they are not symbols, but actual acts of spiritual engagement and communion. Thus the Eucharist, the “sacrament of sacraments,” becomes both life-giving and central to the sacramentality of life. That sacrament is physically experienced through taste and consumption, and thus additional human senses are engaged…
Ben Williams is an Orthodox Christian and author of Orthodox Worship: A living continuity with the Temple, the synagogue and the early Church (Light & Life, 1990)
‘We invite God into the midst of our neighbourhood’
I think worship should help us, as people in community, to sustain and deepen our relationship with the Divine, so that we become more open to God’s healing and transforming grace. Forms of worship may range from solemn gatherings using ancient liturgies to informal services aimed at toddlers and their caregivers, and from making a joyful noise to waiting for God in silence. Worshippers may express gratitude or sorrow, feel awestruck, comforted or challenged. Indeed we may leave at the end of a service without having felt very much at all – as in any relationship, there may be patches which lack passion and require perseverance instead.
Yet, I believe there are certain common threads which run through this diverse tapestry. To begin with, worship has both a personal and a collective dimension. Even in the largest gathering, each of us is intimately known and loved; we are never mere extras on a set. Yet no act of authentic worship is a purely private matter in which individuals pursue our salvation in isolation, if that were possible. We are connected at a profound level with the worldwide Church, past, present and future.
What is more, we invite God into the midst of our neighbourhood and world, filled with beauty but also sorrow, sin and the shadow of death, so that we and our communities may be refashioned and God’s kingdom come on earth as in heaven. If we find ourselves pursuing a privatised spirituality (“Jesus is mine alone”), even in others’ company, something is seriously wrong.This does not mean that every service should explicitly promote some form of social action. The very fact that we gather in the name of, and offer allegiance to, One greater than any government, party and corporation, who welcomed the impoverished and marginalised and held out hope of new beginnings, is in itself political…
Savi Hensman is a writer and also works in the voluntary sector; she worships in an Anglican church in London
The Westminster Shorter Catechism of 1647 declares that the “chief end of man is to glorify God and to enjoy Him forever”. Worship is the very purpose of our lives.
John’s vision in Revelation 4-5 paints for us a wonderful picture of worship and its importance. We see that worship is about centring ourselves on God. Everything in heaven is centred on God sitting on his throne. Worship centres us on God’s authority, power, beauty and love. Worship realigns us to God’s plan and purposes. Worship gathers us, for it is not something that we do on our own. Instead, we are gathered around God’s throne as brothers and sisters in Christ. Unlike so much of our lives, worship is not about us and our wants or desires, musically or otherwise, it’s about joining with the rest of creation to glorify and enjoy God.
Worship also reveals God to us. You cannot truly look to God, without responding in awe and adoration. You cannot look to God and not be humbled. God is the only being in the universe worthy of eternal worship. Consequently, the four living creatures around the throne cannot stop from saying: “Holy, holy, holy, is the Lord God Almighty, who was, who is, and who is to come,” (Rev, 4:8). They are so centred on God, circling the throne, that their response can be nothing else. They cannot not worship. They cannot be distracted. They cannot not give God their all. Similarly, the 24 elders cannot stop themselves from falling down in worship before the throne, taking off their crowns, and declaring God’s praise (Rev, 4:10-11). Worship reveals God’s beauty and love to us afresh and draws us deeper into God…
Matt Stone is a minister in the Norwich Area group of United Reformed Churches
This is an extract from the November 2014 edition of Reform.