If I were to ask you why you were here this morning, what would you say?
Would you talk about the importance of community in a church? Or maybe you would mention something about loving the music. You could talk about how much you miss church when you aren’t here, or perhaps you would talk about refilling your soul. Or you might even mention not wanting to miss the riveting sermons.
Whichever those answers speaks to you, they all have one thing in common: we are the center of those answers. We usually come because of how it makes us feel, or what we get out of it. But as Reformed Christians we believe that the heart of worship is all about God.
Our own book of Order says "We are gathered in worship to glorify the God who is present and active among us – particularly through the gifts of Word and Sacrament." Because the focus of worship isn’t us, it’s God.
Soren Kierkegaard, a Danish philosopher in the 19th century, spoke about worship using the analogy of a drama. "When we come to worship God, we generally feel as though the preacher and other ministers are the performers and God is the subject of the performance and we as the congregation are merely the audience…but this is a terrible misunderstanding of worship." He is describing a consumer-oriented approach, focused more on what we receive than what we give.
It’s like the old joke. While driving back home from church one Sunday morning, the mother said, "The choir was awful this morning." The father commented, "The sermon was too long."
There was silence for a bit then their seven year old daughter piped up from the back seat, "You have to admit it was a pretty good show for a dollar."
When we focus on the idea that the congregation is the audience in worship, we have the same expectations that any audience might have for a show. Did I like the music? Did I feel like the scriptures were understandable? Did I find the sermon engaging and thought provoking? How well was this experience tailored to me?
But worship isn’t something we go to experience. It’s something we go to do together. Every single person in the congregation is part of worship. It’s not something that you come to watch, but something you come to participate in. And this dates back to our biblical roots. In Hebrew, the word used for worship means "a bowing down." For the Hebrews, worship was a verb, something you did. The same idea is behind the New Testament Greek word for worship which means "to serve." Worship is an action, not a show.
We come here to offer praise and glory to the one who has given us everything! We come to offer our prayers to God, to try to understand better how God is working in our lives. We don’t come here to be served, but to serve God. So on days when we don’t really feel like church, it helps to remind ourselves that it really isn’t about us, but about offering our very best to God.
It’s a mistake however to think of God as having a passive role in worship this morning.
Kierkegaard goes on to say, "Authentic Christian worship is just the opposite. We, the congregation, are the performers. The preachers and other ministers are the directors of the performance and God is the audience." While he is right in refocusing worship away from the congregation and back to God, God is far from a passive audience. In our own definition of worship we talked about God as a present and an active participant. Worship is for God, but God also participates!
Because the Reformed tradition has long talked of worship as a meeting between God and the people of God. We come here to offer praise and glory, and also to learn of our own roles in our relationship together.
Worship is our work together, which the Reformation gave back to us by allowing people to worship in their own language and give voice to their own prayers and songs. Worship is our work as the people of God together listening and responding to what God has to say to us.
That’s why prayer is the heart of worship whether it is spoken, sung, held in silence or done through movements. There are so many ways to pray and all of us draw us closer in worship, and many people’s favorite is through music.
In worship, music is never presented as a performance for the congregation but as an offering of praise, thanksgiving, penitence, or petition to God. While worshipers are often caught up in the beauty of the music or the words, the purpose is not to bring attention to the musicians or singers but to point to the Creator who makes all things beautiful and enables us to be creative as well.
That’s why we tend not to clap in the church, because clapping is a response to a performance, and music offered in worship isn’t a performance. When a musical piece particularly moves you, calling out Amen is far more appropriate. It is after all, another form of prayer to God. By calling out amen, you are joining in on the prayer.
Don Hustad, a prolific writer and seasoned worship leader, has suggested, somewhat whimsically, that a banner should be displayed over the entrance to any place of Christian worship reading, "Warning: God Is Here!" Our worship as Reformed people is not only about God, it is a direct response to God. As worshipers we must always remember that God is truly present, active, and involved in our worship, and that our worship is a response to what God has done, is doing, and is about to do in our lives.
Worship is so rich and deep because it’s not about just us. It’s about our relationship with the God who loves us, now and always. Whatever your reasons for coming to worship today, know that God meets you here to worship with you and empowers you for the days ahead. Thanks be to God! Amen.