We all like to eat, don’t we. I mean, just consider this great covered dish meal that we have just finished, and all these fellowship meals that we have enjoyed each Wednesday. Many of us are looking forward to next week when we will enjoy our Thanksgiving feasts (a day that begins a season marked by a tendency to overeat as much as anything else). Eating is a good thing, I mean, we need the nourishment to give us the energy to do the things we all need to do, right?
Yes. Eating is a good thing. Yes. It gives us the energy we need to do what’s set before us. The trouble becomes, though, when we carry the attitude about eating into every other aspect of our lives. Suddenly the value of anything becomes what we are getting out of it, whether or not it is feeding us. An especially troubling area where we have taken this attitude is “worship.”
Somehow, somewhere along the way, we developed the notion that worship is about us. It’s not a recent development. It has been around as long as I have been in the ministry…sadly, it was an attitude that I had before I entered the ministry. What am I talking about? I am talking about the almost innumerable times I have been told over the last twenty-two years, “I used to go to church at (fill in the blank church)” or “I used to come to worship” or “We need to change something, pastor,” “I wasn’t/I’m not getting fed.” We’ve made worship about what we get out of it…it somehow has become about us…about our getting fed…and when we don’t get fed at one church, we either start complaining or we start church hopping. The trouble is, my brothers and sisters, that this notion about worship is not only wrong, it is blasphemous, because it makes us the focus of worship.
We need to refocus and rethink our attitudes about worship. In the membership class that I lead, when we talk about worship, we turn to a reflection from a 19th century Danish theologian and philosopher, Soren Kierkegaard. Kierkegaard, using the model of the theatre, proposed that too often we think of worship is that the pastor, choir, musicians are the actors, God is the off-stage director, and that the congregation is the audience. He called for churches to rethink that understanding. He suggested that true worship is found when we understand that those up front leading worship are the directors, the congregation are the actors, and God is the audience.[i]
The problem with making worship about getting fed…with considering ourselves, as members of the congregation, the audience…is that it is making the central focus of worship not God, but us. The focus of worship can never be about us.
A big clue about how wrong it is to make worship about us, about getting fed, should be the pitfalls.
First, to make worship about feeding the people, the congregation, is a prescription for failure. Why? Because we are all picky eaters. Let me give you some examples from what could be any church.
There is the question of traditional hymns versus contemporary Christian music…there are more churches than you could possibly imagine where that is an ongoing battle. One group really likes traditional…the other group really likes contemporary. Both say they are not fed by the other.
There is the order of worship. Some like the sermon in the middle with everything from our prayers to our affirmation of faith to the offering and communion coming as a response to the Word proclaimed. Others would rather keep the sermon at the end, where there can be an Invitation during the final song and then everyone goes home. Each claims that the other does nothing for them in worship.
Then there is the question of screens or other visual enhancements of worship. Some, particularly visual learners, claim that the screen illustrations or “props” in the chancel area help them more fully delve into the sermon…others claim it is a distraction.
If you want proof that feeding the congregation by trying to make everyone happy is the wrong route to go, forget all of these other things and simply be the one in charge of the worship space’s thermostat.
Another pitfall is that making worship about being fed, leads to worry and anxiety on behalf of those leading worship…because it becomes about performance. Not only is there worry about whether or not the matriarch or the patriarch of the church will like what is being served as worship…or whether or not it will attract the younger crowd…there is simply worry about performance, whether our efforts will meet the approval of the connoisseurs of the congregation. What if I mess up? What if I forget what I am supposed to be doing? What if someone laughs at me? (All of this worry stems from a whole different sermon and that is that often we are not as gracious as our loving God.) This is why when I talk to a group of children or anyone getting ready to help lead worship, or offer a program in worship, that they need to remember that what they are doing is not something they are doing for their parents, or grandparents, or friends, or even the congregation, whatever they are doing, they are doing it as an offering to God
It is not about what music we do or do not like. It is not about what order of worship we do or do not use. It is not about whether we have screens or not. It is not about whether the preacher delivers a moving message or not. It is not about us. It is never about us. It is, always has been, and always should be, about God.
True worship is about turning the entirety of ourselves over to God. It is about gathering with our brothers and sisters and turning our attention, not toward ourselves, not toward our brothers and sisters, not even really toward those leading worship, but together turning our attention to God.
It is about, as Jesus told the Samaritan woman at the well, worshipping God in “Spirit and in Truth.” It is about, whether we like the music or not, singing to God with all our heart and soul and mind and strength, praising His Name. It is about baring our very souls before God in prayer, offering God thanksgiving for the innumerable blessings He has poured out upon us, and, at His invitation, casting all our burdens at His feet, and leaving them there. It is about opening up our hearts and our ears to hear the Word of God, regardless of how eloquent or how poorly the person proclaiming the message is. True worship is about emptying ourselves in the presence of God.
And you know what, my brothers and sisters…if we do that…if we truly empty ourselves before God…offering God all that we are. Then we will, surprisingly, find ourselves filled. As a friend of mine from Biscuitville put it once, when we were discussing worship, “It is not about getting fed, but if we aren’t getting fed, it may be because we are holding our mouths closed.”[ii] For you see, we all come into worship full—full of struggles, full of happiness, full of confusion, maybe just full of ourselves. God is already here. If we hold our mouths and minds closed, maybe because we don’t like the way things are or for some other reason, we remain full of all we brought in…leaving no room for God to pour himself into us. However, if we open and empty ourselves—through prayer, praise, and hearing, seeking to worship God rather than get fed, emptied, we have made room for God to fill us with Himself…and we depart, fed and full.
In the Name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit. Amen.
[i] A Disciple’s Path, pg 56
[ii] Carolyn Kendrick