On any given Sunday two people may perform the same actions, one worshiping while the other is not. They may sing the same hymns, pray the same prayers, hear the same sermon, and partake of the same sacrament, all the while having the same postures and expressions, and yet only one worships. One may sing a song of praise to the Lord. The other may sing the same song to no one in particular perhaps cherishing thoughts of the upcoming football game. True worship, the kind of worship that God seeks, is in spirit and in truth. Self deception is an ever present possibility. Looking like everyone else doesn’t equate to worship.
Perhaps, we might think, we simply need to be more spontaneous. Prayers, speech and song composed on the spot might seem guaranteed to be genuine. Sadly, our self deception runs too deep for such a guarantee. Like a husband who knows just what nods and sounds are needed to convince his wife that he is listening, even when he is not, so to we can quickly learn how to spontaneously generate what only appears to be worship.
How often do we truly worship? At times, we know we are merely participating in the forms of worship rather than the reality. We conclude that such a state of affairs is a minor sin when, in reality, it’s idolatry. For this reason, I am sometimes impatient when we discuss our forms of worship while ignoring what I believe is the elephant in the room. If we focus on the form without addressing the spirit and truth of worship we will only succeed at generating controversy.
How do we address the real problem? I don’t know how to do that directly. It’s a question of being spiritually awake and examining our own hearts. What I hope might be helpful, however, are the following worship metaphors. None of these metaphors are original with me, though I have found them to be good guides. Metaphors cannot create true worship, but they can remove some of the noise that keeps us from hearing clearly the voice of the Word.
Worship as Performance
At first sight, it might seem that viewing worship as a kind of performance or play is exactly what’s wrong with much of worship today. The thought comes naturally enough. Many of our sanctuaries look much like theaters. People come to be entertained. The worship leaders, pastors and choir put on a show, and that’s why there on what looks like a stage. We do not sell tickets; we do try to fill seats. The service is evaluated in much the same terms as we might evaluate a movie. We want our preachers to be dynamic, the service to be stimulating and, like a play, it should all start and end on time. Participation by the congregation is limited by everything from the seating (there is little room to do much more than stand or sit) to the overall setting. If someone up front does something particularly outstanding, the congregation wants to applaud (though probably won’t). True worship, as a performance, seems about as likely as being able to jump into a film.
That can all change if we view the performance as Kierkegaard suggests in his Purity of Heart is to Will One Thing. Rather than thinking of the congregation as the audience and the worship leaders as the performers, he suggests that we view God as the audience. To worship is to perform for and before God. The performers are the congregation. The worship leaders are, according to Kierkegaard, the prompters. They give us our lines when we forget. Our desire and goal is that God be pleased with what he sees.
At the end of a worship service, rather than asking one another what we thought of the service, we should ask what God thought of the service. Though I’ve read several reviews of plays, I’ve never seen a review that evaluated, or for that matter, even mentioned the prompters. Rather than asking how the preacher or choir performed, each member needs to review his or her own performance. God, our audience, has told us what he is looking to find, worshipers who worship in spirit and in truth.
Worship as Dialog
Most worship services are structured as a dialog. God speaks first. He breaks the dark silence with his wondrous light. We respond. God calls us to worship and we sing praises to him. He reveals his law to us and we weep for our sin and cry out for his mercy. He speaks his love to us through the death and resurrection of his son. He declares his forgiveness. We rejoice and commit to living for him. He teaches us and we bring before him our needs. He blesses us with his good words.
For this metaphor to be useful we must each hear the voice of our Lord on Sunday morning. God has not called us to eavesdrop on someone else’s conversation; he speaks to us. We are called to answer and to encourage one another to answer. He speaks through his Son, through the Scriptures, through the exposition of the Word, through the celebration of communion and even through our love and encouragement of one another. We respond with songs from the heart, prayers of faith, repentance, praise, and love for him and for his people. If we do not hear his voice, we cannot truly worship. If we are not responding to his voice we are like Adam and Eve hiding in the garden trying to cover our own sin.
On Sunday we, as a congregation, are called to meet with God by God. This is an appointment that cannot be missed. The call goes out to all corporately and to each individually.
Worship as Dance
A quick word study of the Scriptures will show that the Bible sees dance as an expression of joy. Great victories are frequently celebrated by dance. Dancing is also contrasted with mourning. There are times when our joy is so full and great that dancing is the most natural response. Worship is a joyful dance. It is a joy that we cannot help but express. When our troops come home in victory we dance. No one needs to tell us what to do. To hear the news, if we understand it, is to want to dance. God has won the greatest of all victories in the death and resurrection of our Lord. On Sunday, we dance.
We can develop this metaphor even further. When we dance our Lord leads and we, as his bride, follow. We move in perfect time to the music as we are led by him and filled with his Holy Spirit. Our dancing is not random; it is given form by the order of worship. God calls us to the dance. He announces the great victory. He heals our hearts and gives us the ability to move freely. Our mourning is turned to dancing. We have not been given an invitation to watch a dance. Those who simply watch soon find themselves in the company of Michal who complained when David danced.
Are we dancing on Sunday? As I look at my own heart I find that often I’m not. We cannot fix this by making changes to our order of worship. That’s not to say that the form of our worship isn’t important. The form, however, is not the central problem. If the words of the new song do not move me to dance, changing the tune will not help much (though as an observer rather than a participant, I may strongly believe that the tune is the most important thing).
When God calls us to worship this Sunday, these metaphors may prove useful. They will, admittedly, break if pressed too far. If used carefully, however, I hope that they give us some tools to worship in a way fit for our King.