What is Worship?
In their book, "Pagan Christianity", Viola and Barna challenge much of the existing church structures, including church buildings, choirs (and their robes), preaching sermons, and even the existence of pastors. It's a thought provoking book, and if I agreed with their fundamental premise, I'd agree with their conclusion. Their premise: because the early church was devoid of so many things we embrace today (buildings, pastors, robes, preaching), we should also be devoid of them.
As one who's been involved in a house church and now (for 13+ years) a growing 'institutional' church, I'll go on record as disagreeing with their premise. The structures of the first century church, perfect for the birthing of God's new movement, perfect for the Roman Empire of the day, can just as easily become inflexible, life choking constrictions as the subsequent innovations of any century. Robes? Paid pastors? Building? They can, should be, and in fact often are (by virtue of the events of history), held or disposed, for the good of Christ's testimony. So let's all relax and realize that house churches and churches with formal titles and payrolls can both be infused with life, or utterly dead and devoid of spirit. The presence or absence of glory depends not on the wineskin, but the wine.
This brings me to the main point of this post, which is to ask the question: What is the true wine of worship? Like the Barna book, a great deal of discussion about worship seems to center around wineskins: music style, arrangement of chairs or pews (or debate about chairs or pews), and whether the ambiance of the gathering makes one feel good, or convicted, or introspective, or ... whatever.
These elements largely miss the point. I'd argue that our collective gathering on Sundays primarily has three objectives:
1: We gather to declare the reality of God - through singing, teaching, recitation of creeds, and praying we are literally ascribing worth to God, which is what the word worship actually means. It's important to note that these are declarations, not requests. In other words, we don't gather to seek God, because He's already here. He's already resurrected. He's already inaugurating His new reign. Hope, forgiveness, and divine life, are realities we declare, not things we seek. This is no small distinction, because ascribing worth leads to joyful and exuberant declaration, rather than introspective supplication. The former is rooted, by faith, in what God has already done and said. The latter, I fear, is sometimes rooted in our doubt as to whether we're really 'enough' for God (good enough, sincere enough, holy enough). Thus, if we pray enough, seek enough, express our longings enough, maybe God will show up. This is misguided because God can't show up any more than he already has.
2: We gather to hear - the declarations of song, prayer, confession, and the taught word, are not only offered by the community, but also received by it. In other words, we're collectively testifying of the reality of Christ's life and work, and both individually and collectively receiving that declaration. There will be many times when the declaration will confront our wrong thinking, or believing, or living. The declaration will expose sin, requiring confession and repentance. The declaration will impart hope, requiring a reprioritizing of our lives. The declaration will invite participation in God's story, as we learn what it means to live out our days as citizens of the new King.
3: We gather to respond - because we hear, we must respond. Romans 12:1-3 declares that it's the offering of our lives that is the distilled essence of worship. This is powerful. If I sing, listen to the sermon, take notes, say hi to a few people, but don't allow the declaration of God to altar my priorities, financially, sexually, or otherwise, then I'm not really worshiping at all. If I sit but don't serve, using my gifts to participate in God's story, then I also miss worship (granted, of course, that there are seasons when my acts of service might be confined to caring for small children, or aging parents; however the point is that real worship means serving, using my gifts to make the invisible God visible in this world).
Barna's book reminds me of the discussion Jesus had with the woman at the well in John 4. "On which mountain should we worship?" she asked. Jesus said (in my own paraphrase of his answer), "Though your religious leaders argue about which mountain is valid (just like Barna draws a fighting line over buildings, choirs, pastors, and so much more), we who constitute the trinity don't really care about such things. We care about whether you're worshipping in spirit and truth. You can do that on this mountain or that. In a house church, or a mega-church. With a vestment robe or a bathing suit at a beach baptism. Come on people - don't miss the point. Worship is nothing more than declaring the truth of who God is - listening to our own declarations, and responding with repentance, service, and the offering of our lives."
What are your thoughts about what constitutes true worship?