Spiritual Disciplines: Worship
2 Corinthians 3:7-4:6
I want to spend this fall preaching on the matter of spiritual disciplines – the building blocks of the life of faith. Spiritual disciplines can also be called “spiritual habits,” though “habits” is sometimes used in a negative way by people.
“Oh, I wouldn’t want to do X too often – it would just become a habit.”But until X becomes a habit, you’re just playing with X, whatever it is. And to get the value out of it, you must do it until it becomes second nature to you.
Growing in Christ – becoming spiritually stronger – requires practice, regular practice. Worship is the first of the spiritual disciplines, and worship needs to be regular -- must become a habit -- in order to do one much good. The same is true of our physical habits or disciplines. How many of you have had this discussion with your doctor?
DR: You need to exercise regularly.I see some of you nodding your heads. Well, we could have the same discussion about spiritual exercise, and the first, most basic one of all, is to worship. Worship brings you closer to God, makes you stronger in your faith, helps you find peace and strength when you need it, and develops both your love-relationship with God and your love-relationship with your fellow worshipers. If you want to grow spiritually, then the first thing you need to do is go to church -- regularly.
PATIENT: I . . . exercise!
DR: What sort of exercise do you do?
PATIENT: . . . . Stuff.
DR: What did you do THIS WEEK?
PATIENT: Oh, I’ve been busy this week.
Now, we all know this, but over the years, we’ve changed somewhat to make it easier on ourselves. Used to be, in order to call yourself a “regular worshiper,” you had to be in church at least 40 Sundays a year; even then, giving yourself one Sunday a month off would have been considered just slightly this side of slacker-dom, but we’ll count it. Ah, but today, if I were to ask any group of people in most churches, “how many of you are regular worshipers,” and then tracked the actual attendance of those who raised their hands, you’d find that nowadays, across many denominations, you can call yourself a regular worshiper if you’re in church no more than twice a month. That’s not even half the Sundays in the year, since twice a month is only 24 Sundays, and there are 26 Sundays in a half-year; but then, those 5th Sundays don’t count anyway, don’t you know?
From my point of view, I’m happy that anybody shows up on Sunday, and I swore years ago that I wouldn’t gripe at people for not coming more often, but folks, it’s like everybody complaining how fat they are, when they haven’t increased their calorie intake, but neither do they do they work as hard or play as hard as they did 20 yrs ago. It’s the regularity – the keeping at it -- of their exercise that counts, not the fact that they sometimes still do it. And spiritual flabbiness and spiritual tiredness result from letting other things crowd out the regular habit of worship we once had. Oh, we’re busy that week – that month – that year. We’re all busy, busy, busy, which means that maintaining your spiritual health is more difficult now than it used to be – but that’s the world we live in.
Wanting to be spiritually strong while neglecting your spiritual disciplines – and blaming how busy you are for your spiritual malaise – is just the same kind of lame excuse you offer your doctor, right before he tells you, “Hey, it’s your choice" (which is doctor-speak for "if you don’t change your habits, you're gonna die").
Not that all the blame goes on the Christian for not attending worship as one should. Church leaders are also to blame for some questionable changes. They know that regular worship is important, but what they do in that worship service has changed a bit. For one thing, Protestant worship has gotten incredibly talky. And I'm not just talking about preaching, which has mostly gotten shorter over the years; though still, preaching in the Protestant tradition has so eclipsed everything else that when people say to me as they’re shaking my hand on Sunday morning, “good service,” I always wonder if they aren’t using “service” to mean “sermon.”
In traditional Protestant worship, everything else exists only in vestigial form; the sermon crowds everything out. This is particularly true in such settings as the Boy Scout camp chapel service, where it is all too likely that no congregational participation -- even prayer -- will be done; some guy will just stand up and start talking at us. Back in church on Sunday morning, that, too, is changing, but not necessarily in a more healthy direction.
We’re all so informal in today’s world, and people presiding over worship – laypersons as well as clergy -- are all so chatty these days. Note that I certainly welcome people expressing their feelings and observations when they’re up front (we called those “testimonies” back in the day) but when everybody has to share a joke or a story as they come up front, it can get to be a little like a TV talk show. It's as if everybody is trying to "warm up the crowd." (By the way, clergy gathering are really bad about this. The worst examples of worship leadership are often in services where several clergy are presiding together.)
Meanwhile, what is called “contemporary worship” approaches more the coffee house style. The “worship leader” – usually a musician or the lead singer of the “praise band” – chatters and blathers his or her way through the first 20 or 30 minutes of the service, talking between songs, doing what I would call preaching. Every now and then, the worship leader will say, in exhortation, “Just worship – just worship,” to which I am always tempted to reply, in exasperation, “Just get on with it.”
I’m tellin’ ya, we cover up the living Word with our wordiness. It's like we don’t trust God’s ability to speak directly to us, without our telling you what he’s saying and what this means, and how you’re supposed to experience it. It’s like we’re afraid of silence. Like God'll miss his cue if we don't keep talking. We get in the way: like someone standing in front of the window, we cut off the light that comes from outside, and cast everyone in front of us into shadow. Worship ought to be transparent, a face-to-face encounter with God, but we make it opaque. Meanwhile, out of pride – or out of our own lack of confidence in God – or just a desire to “put seats in the seats” -- we have made worship into a performance – which it is, but in which we have switched all the roles.
Now, there are three roles in any performance: the performers, the audience, and the director, right? And if you ask most people in church, who plays what role in worship, they’ll say that obviously, they’re the audience, and the people up front – preacher, musicians, and so on – are the performers. This reduces God to the role of director, standing off stage, whispering our lines to us. Which is the problem: this understanding moves God off stage, out of the picture.
But the theology of Christian worship says clearly that the people are the performers, who come to offer their worship to God, who is the audience, the one who receives and approves their work. That means the people up front, except in those cases where they temporarily speak to the people on behalf of God or to God on behalf of the people, are merely the director, the prompters, the people who make it possible for us to act together purposefully as a group, instead of individually as part of a crowd.
And in our obsession over our performance, we get all het up over what I can only call “performance values” – the quality of the sound system and the lighting and where people stand. What isn't techie becomes just -- choreography. Now, don’t get me wrong; doing things well is important, but it’s so easy to get lost in the footlights.
Years ago, we had a young woman just out of High School as our accompanist in our little church in Lynnville. She came from a big church in Boonville and she was worried over when she should take communion or do other things that everybody was doing. When could she slip away from the keyboard and not let us down? I said, "Kristi, in the small church, participation counts for more than performance. It really doesn’t matter if the music stops for a moment so that you can offer yourself as everyone else is doing. God loves you, too, and so do we."
And so, what is it we’re supposed to get out of worshp, anyway? How, exactly, does it build us up? Well, worship is an encounter with God – face to face – in which our relationship with him is straightened out and strengthened. We see him as he is, while sharing ourselves as we are – something only possible in an environment of trust and love; but then, trust and love are the essence of this relationship. Meanwhile, our encounter with God changes our encounters with each other. Our relationships with each other are straightened out and strengthened and we begin to see others as they are, and show ourselves as we are – in trust & love.
Paul writes in 2 Corinthians,
For what we preach is not ourselves, but Jesus Christ as Lord, with ourselves as your servants for Jesus' sake. For it is the God who said, "Let light shine out of darkness," who has shone in our hearts to give the light of the knowledge of the glory of God in the face of Christ.That’s what worship is. It is our face-to-face encounter with God in Christ, and at our best moments we see the light of his glory, with nothing between ourselves and him, and this renews us and fills us with joy.
Sometimes, what the preacher or liturgist or musician is doing can conduct us into that encounter, in which case we forget them – they are as a clear pane of glass. But since that is hard to do all the time, it becomes very important for those “up front” to remember to get out of the way and let God meet with those who have come to seek him. For it is him they have come to meet, not us, and it is in the encounter with him that lives are healed and the weak are made strong and new hope begins.
We come to find the light of the knowledge of the glory of God shining in the face of Christ. And when we turn our gaze toward each other, as we do from time to time in the service, why then, we see the light of Christ shining in their faces, too – and know that they see it shining in ours. As it shone in Moses’ face when he spoke directly with God – which is what Paul started out addressing in this passage, and in explaining how we who know Christ have a clearer vision of God than those who only knew him through Moses, he writes,
And we all, with unveiled face, beholding the glory of the Lord, are being changed into his likeness from one degree of glory to another; for this comes from the Lord who is the Spirit.Our encounter with God changes us. And you can see it happen, not only in your life, but in the lives of those around you. And the more regularly you do it, the easier it is to find again that moment of re-creation where God fulfills your hope and makes all things new.
I was once talking with some folks at a former charge about taking communion to shut-ins. In my seminary, we never bothered to explain how to do that, or how much of the whole service you should offer “on site” to say that ya did it properly. And I also find that we don’t spend a lot of time in the church, teaching people what to say to God or what they should expect to hear from God when they come forward to take communion. So, I asked this one woman (she was in her thirties or so, I guess, and she grew up Lutheran, where her liturgical tradition was drilled into her fr a very young age), and she said something I thought profoundly important. It all didn’t matter to her. She said, “As soon as you begin saying the words, I'm there."
She had been well taught in her private and her public spiritual habits, and as soon as she recognized the communion liturgy, the habit of a lifetime enabled her to drop everything else to the side and attend to Christ: ready to meet him, to offer herself, to receive him, to become what he desired and she needed to be, ready to listen for the voice of God. That's spiritual maturity, folks, and you don’t get that way overnight, nor by attending worship in a haphazard manner.
We need to help each other build the habit of regular worship in our lives, so that we can come to see the Face of Christ: in bread and wine; in song and prayer; and in the faces of those we meet with here.