Class, Day 1: The Purpose of Worship

A question: What is the purpose of worship?

Go ahead, take your time.

When our professor asked this question on the first day of our Worship class yesterday, I have to admit, I drew a blank, and I’m not sure my tablemates did any better. We consolidated our four answers into this sentence:

“To encounter and experience God, whether individually or corporately, by allowing ourselves to enter into his presence through a variety of methods.”

Meh.

It wasn’t bad, but it seemed to be lacking something.

Our professor spent most of the afternoon talking about the woeful inability of most churches to determine whether their worship sevice is working. He then offered this sketch of the theology of worship:

  1. Who God is
  2. Who we are
  3. Transforming who we are into who God is

The New Testament speaks little of worship – which is interesting, considering how much effort certain traditions undergo to emulate New Testament worship. Instead, the opening decades of the church saw worship that looked a lot like Jewish worship because these were mostly Jews using the Hebrew Bible as their scripture.

So the Old Testament provides the definitions we use for worship, and when it describes God, it uses the word “holy” more than any other. “To be holy is to be the Other, to be distinct, to be different. The opposite of ‘holy’ is ‘common.'” The most common phrase in the Writings of the Hebrew Bible (the Wisdom literature) is: “the Holy One of Israel.” (All otherwise-unattributed quotes are from my professor.)

But the prophets develop an oxymoronic view of God. While holiness implies separation, the prophets describe God as “the Holy One in your midst.” “God suffers with, because and for his people.”

So who are his people? That’s the second part of worship, who we are. In worship, he argued, we should make a habit of saying: “You are God. I am not. I am blind. I do not understand. I am unworthy of what you have freely offered.” He believes a regular time of public confession should be a staple of worship services and does not think highly of the fact that the free-church tradition has eliminated or tokenized public corporate confession in its Sunday services. “Worship is an encounter between a holy God and an unholy people. The only response is to give up.

“Worship is for waving the white flag,” he said. “Then God acts, changing the unholy and making us holy.”

That’s the third part.

“The purpose of worship is to form the people of God in such a way that we see the world the way he sees the world.”

Worship should give us God’s eyes. We ought to be formed over time into the body of Christ – seeing how Christ sees and serving how Christ served.

Because the theology of New Testament worship is largely based on the Hebrew Bible, we can learn much from the prophets, who spoke frequently about worship when it had run off course. He specifically cited three of my favorite passages.

Isaiah 1:13-17:

Stop bringing worthless offerings.
Your incense repulses me.
New moon, sabbath, and the calling of an assembly—
I can’t stand wickedness with celebration!
I hate your new moons and your festivals.
They’ve become a burden that I’m tired of bearing.
When you extend your hands,
I’ll hide my eyes from you.
Even when you pray for a long time,
I won’t listen.
Your hands are stained with blood.
Wash! Be clean!
Remove your ugly deeds from my sight.
Put an end to such evil; learn to do good.
Seek justice:
help the oppressed;
defend the orphan;
plead for the widow.

Amos 5:21-24:

I hate, I reject your festivals;
I don’t enjoy your joyous assemblies.
If you bring me your entirely burned offerings and gifts of food—
I won’t be pleased;
I won’t even look at your offerings of well-fed animals.
Take away the noise of your songs;
I won’t listen to the melody of your harps.
But let justice roll down like waters,
and righteousness like an ever-flowing stream.

Micah 6:6-8:

With what should I approach the LORD
and bow down before God on high?
Should I come before him with entirely burned offerings,
with year-old calves?
Will the LORD be pleased with thousands of rams,
with many torrents of oil?
Should I give my oldest child for my crime;
the fruit of my body
for the sin of my spirit?

He has told you, human one, what is good and
what the LORD requires from you:
to do justice, embrace faithful love,
and walk humbly with your God.

The prophets in each case argue the technical aspects of the worship simply don’t matter – the songs, the offerings, the feasts, the prayers – it’s all worthless compared to how the congregation treats the poor, upholds justice, opposes oppression and loves others.

“A holy God encountering an unholy person and turning them into part of God’s community changes who we are and how we see others. God is concerned that our eyes see the people God cares about.”

Instead, we talk about worship only in the technical sense, he said – whether that song was sung well, whether the prayer sent a chill down our spine. For us, good worship is worship we like; “meanwhile, blocks away, there are people who have no food to eat and no roof over their heads. I don’t think God gives a damn whether we liked it if there are are people who need help that we are not helping.”

We think church is a place, he said, where we sing and praise and, afterward, ask how we’re doing and tell each other everything’s fine.

“But it’s not fine. I’m not fine. You’re not fine. And the world’s screwed up. But God has empowered us and given us eyes to see. Isn’t that what worship is for?”

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One comment on “Class, Day 1: The Purpose of Worship

  1. Another passage that reminds me of these thoughts is Romans 11:33- 12.

    I’ve come back to these kinds of thoughts a few times this year, mostly due to a friend of mine, who uses very specific language when referring to intra-congregational activities. I think it’s interesting and I’ve talked with him about it a couple of times. This reminds me so much of him, I though I’d share some of his thoughts.

    For him, “Going to church,” of course sets up too much the notion of “the church” as a place, rather than a group. For a lot of us, that’s a pretty common devotional lesson.

    But he also doesn’t like using the term “worship service” because he doesn’t feel it’s representative of the worship or the service God expects of us.

    He always calls it “meeting together” or (as a noun) “the assembly.” It helps him redefine the purpose, so he’s free to concentrate during that time on building up his brothers and receiving encouragement. Routine “church activities” like “Bible class,” the common elements of a “worship service” and “strictly” social activities like a meal all do in different ways.

    It gets him away from the idea that he’s doing any of those things “for God,” and by extension of that idea he challenges himself to structure the rest of his week to fit the “for God” part so that “the assembly” is by comparison a nice little break. He feels that kind of context fits better both with passages like the ones you have here, early church tradition, and the role he feels service plays in Christian life.

    I guess I would hesitate to add that he’s not really a stickler for what anybody calls these things, but changing his own wording helped him redirect his focus in a way he thought was good.

    As I think about it, it also takes off a lot of pressure by breaking the tie you mention between feeling a certain way and pleasing God.

    Anyway, all that to say I’ve been looking forward to your worship-class-related posts because of having thought about a lot of these kinds of things fairly recently.

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