Wednesday, December 05, 2007

Worship That Turns Us OUT And IN

In his excellent book, The Message of the Living God, Peter Lewis says “Worship turns us out as well as in”._ That is how it should be, but I’m not convinced its the case for a good many of us. Our corporate worship turns us further in and hardly out at all. But perhaps you are wondering what Lewis is getting at and where I’m going with this topic. Two points will set us in the right direction. Firstly, we should think of worship in comprehensive terms: the totality of our lives being lived to the glory of our Creator God (Romans 12:1-2). Even when Christians come together for corporate worship, for instance on a Sunday morning, worship includes other elements besides singing, e.g. reading the Bible, preaching, praying, communion etc. all with the purpose of enabling us to engage with the Triune God. Secondly, there is a connection between the worship of the people of God and how they participate in the mission of God.

Now listen to the hard-hitting analysis of the theologian, Donald Bloesch, as he writes about worship in the modern church:
Much of modern religion turns the soul inward rather than directing it outward to the crying needs of society. Modern Evangelicalism has shamefully adapted to the therapeutic society, which makes personal fulfilment the be all and end all of human existence. An eros spirituality, the desire to possess God and his blessings, predominates over a spirituality of the cross, a willingness to serve both God and our neighbour in God’s world._ (2001:55).

I admit to feeling disturbed when I visit churches and sit through a two hour service of corporate worship without hearing a single mention of “the crying needs of society”? There might be some mention of the wider world in the sermon, but the songs and prayers and it would seem, the whole approach to worship, cultivates a spirituality that is almost exclusively focused inward. A quick survey of Amazon will show how popular the themes of worship and spirituality are for modern Christians. But we need to ask whether or not our spirituality - shaped in no small way by the corporate worship patterns in our churches - is serving to strengthen our engagement with the society that surrounds us or simply contributing to a more inward looking church?

The closest you get to a definition of worship in the New Testament is in Hebrews 13:15-16:

Through Jesus, therefore, let us continually offer to God a sacrifice of praise - the fruit of lips that confess his name. And do not forget to do good and to share with others, for with such sacrifices God is pleased.

These verses are essentially telling us that true worship cannot be divorced from the way we live and serve others. Worship consists in these two sacrifices: adoration and action. Its not that one is sacred and the other secular. Both are part of our worship - in both we live for the glory of God. I’m drawing here on the work of Miroslav Volf, and in an essay entitled “Adoration and Action” he establishes the essential link between worship and our calling to be missional communities that impact the wider world.

There is something profoundly hypocritical about praising God for God’s mighty deeds of salvation and cooperating at the same time with the demons of destruction, whether by neglecting to do good or by actively doing evil. Only those who help the Jews may sing the Gregorian chant, Dietrich Bonhoeffer rightly said, in the context of Nazi Germany._

The Bible does not recognize a spirituality that is only concerned about adoration. The Great Commandment, too often divorced from the Great Commission, tells us to love God with heart, soul and mind, and to love our neighbour. On the other hand, there are Christians who are passionate about social justice, serving the poor, fighting corruption, caring for the environment, and doing a whole host of other good things, but who don’t see the connection between these things and a biblical understanding of worship; who don’t recognize the necessity of punctuating their lives with regular times of corporate worship; and there are churches and pastors that may say ‘amen’ to such socially minded believers, but who continue to encourage a pattern of corporate worship that “turns the soul inward”. But action that does not flow from a life of worship - a life that in its entirety is offered to God as a living sacrifice, that is sustained by regular attentiveness to God’s Word and is assisted by and accountable to, the company of God’s people - will not be the kind of action that is sufficiently God-shaped, that reflects His character, or that necessarily bears lasting fruit to the glory of Christ.

I am deliberately setting out two extremes - on one side the Christian who is so keen to adore God that they ignore the world, and on the other, the Christian activist, so keen to save the world that they ignore God. My main concern in this article is with the former, but the latter sets particular traps for busy evangelicals who love to embrace techniques and strategies, to make plans, set goals and count the numbers. Modern Christians, as J. I. Packer points out, tend to make busyness their religion. We admire and imitate, and so become, Christian workaholics, supposing that the busiest believers are always the best._ Adoration requires action and action requires adoration and worship embraces both. And therefore living this life of worship will require living in that rhythm we were created to enjoy, and recognising that, “Without adoration action is blind; without action adoration is empty.”_

In the early centuries of the church one of the major factors in the spread of the gospel is said to have been the quality of the worship in the church. The totality of peoples’ lives, including their corporate gatherings, were distinctive and compelling.

Alan Kreider, in “Worship and Evangelism in the Early Church”_ provides examples of the distinctive Christian witness of the early Christians. One of these examples is from the life of Bishop Cyprian of Carthage.

Hot on the heels of severe persecution during 250-251, there came a great plague. It was a dangerous situation. Wealthy pagans were getting out of Carthage, but Cyprian remained. Taking Matthew 5:43-48 as his text, his preaching persuaded the Christians to stay in Carthage rather than save their own skin - not even to put their own survival first, but to love those people who had recently been persecuting them. So, the Christian community stayed in Carthage, they loved their neighbours and their enemies, nursing and caring for Christians and pagans alike. The result: not only did the relatively small Christian community survive, but they had a higher survival rate than their pagan neighbours. And those pagans who had been loved and cared for by Christians became more open to the gospel.

How were Christians, under such pressure and persecution able to live that way? Kreider says it was because of their worship. This was worship that over time transformed pagan people who had come to faith in Jesus, making them into distinctive people who lived in such a way that individually and corporately they looked like Jesus Christ. This is what made them and their message so attractive and compelling. The corporate worship of the church was transforming believers so that in situations of tension, danger and difficulty they were able to react, not like pagans, but like Jesus.

Kreider says these early Christians would want to ask us some questions:

At work or at home... are you known to your neighbours? Are you known as members of a superstitio, a deviation from the norms of accepted behaviour? Are you distinctive because of Jesus, whose teachings and way offer you perspectives and ways of living that are new? And how about your congregations? In the way that they function and worship, are they becoming communities of peace and freedom which are evidences of the truth of the gospel?... in your worship, what do your rites (for you all have them) say about your churches’ beliefs and priorities? Are your rites strong and living, enabling you to address the issues that really trouble your communities? Do you evaluate your worship primarily by how it makes you feel, or by the extent to which it shapes your character - as communities of faith and as individual Christians - so you look like Jesus Christ?

Peter Rowan
September, 2007.

1 Peter Lewis, The Message of the Living God, The Bible Speaks Today, (Leicester: IVP, 2000), 327._2 Donald G. Bloesch, “Whatever Happened to God?” Christianity Today (February, 5th 2001), 55._3 Miroslav Volf, “Worship as Adoration and Action: Reflections on a Christian Way of Being-in-the-World”, in D. A. Carson (ed), Worship: Adoration and Action (Carlisle: Paternoster, 1993), 211._4 James I. Packer, Keep in Step with the Spirit, (Leicester: IVP, 1984), 98._5 Volf, (1993), 209._6 Alan Kreider, “Worship and Evangelism in Pre-Christendom.” The Laing Lecture, 1994, in Vox Evangelica, (Vol. XXIV, 1994)._7 Kreider, (1994), 30.

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