Worship services could actually be keeping us from worship. Sound impossible?
Peter Rollins, in his book Insurrection, suggests that it’s actually very possible. In the Old Testament, God pointed out to the nation of Israel that their worship was not acceptable to him. They were going through the motions of worship, but they weren’t actually worshiping him.
Consider what God said in Amos 5:21-23:
“I hate, I despise your religious feasts; I cannot stand your assemblies. Even though you bring me burnt offerings and grain offerings, I will not accept them. Though you bring choice fellowship offerings, I will have no regard for them. Away with the noise of your songs! I will not listen to the music of your harps.”
And then there is this in Malachi 1:10:
“Oh, that one of you would shut the temple doors, so that you would not light useless fires on my altar! I am not pleased with you,” says the LORD Almighty, “and I will accept no offering from your hands.”
Clearly there were times when Israel’s worship was detestable to God. What if our worship is also?
This past Sunday I started a summer sermon series called Our Growth Process, through which we’re looking at how disciples of Jesus can grow to be more like him. Last week I suggested that the foundation to this Growth Process is to learn to focus on the Kingdom of God. We have for too long focused on church, on church buildings and systems, whereas Jesus taught about his Kingdom. People who want to grow as disciples of Jesus focus their lives on Kingdom of God, and how it enters our lives and world, transforming them. So where do we begin? With worship.
But what if the way we do worship is focused on the church rather than the Kingdom? What if worship is actually keeping us from the transformation that God wants to bring in our lives? Rollins thinks it could be. But why? And is he right?
In Romans 12:1-2, one of the earliest followers of Jesus said this:
“Therefore, I urge you, brothers, in view of God’s mercy, to offer your bodies as living sacrifices, holy and pleasing to God—this is your spiritual act of worship. Do not conform any longer to the pattern of this world, but be transformed by the renewing of your mind. Then you will be able to test and approve what God’s will is—his good, pleasing and perfect will.”
Paul says we should offer our bodies as living sacrifices, but sacrifices are usually dead. A sacrifice could be an animal. A grain offering. Money. All dead stuff. A sacrifice is also that which is given over to something or someone else. In this case, Paul says we are the sacrifices. We are not dead, but alive, and thus when we offer our bodies as living sacrifices we give our lives over to God, such that our lives are used the way he wants. Paul calls this our act of worship.
That might sound like a lot. In fact, it is a lot. Giving up of our entire life over to God? What more could there be! Is God asking too much? Paul says it is reasonable for us to give our lives as living sacrifices because of God’s mercy. The word “therefore” at the beginning of verse 1 points back to chapters 1-11 where Paul goes into detail explaining how far God went to show us mercy. He gave his own son out of love for us. Jesus gave his life to us. So therefore it is reasonable that we give our lives back to him. This is worship.
Too often we look at worship as what we do in a church building for an hour or so on Sunday. Paul’s teaching in Romans goes way beyond that. When you give your body as a living sacrifice, you are striving to worship the Lord all day every day. How in the world do we worship all day every day? Is Paul suggesting that we need to be singing praise songs nonstop? That we need to listen to sermon podcasts every day?
A few years ago I was at the gym running on the treadmill listening to music on my phone. A praise song came on, one of my favorites, and right there in gym pounding away on the treadmill, I was praising God, even getting emotional about it. Is that what Paul meant? I certainly don’t listen to music every time I run. In fact, I almost always run without listening to music. And in my car I prefer to listen to podcasts or books on CD. So I have to confess that I don’t sing or whistle or even think about worship music all day long. How about you? What could it possibly mean to give ourselves as living sacrifices?
When I think about people who get connected to Faith Church, Sunday morning worship is most often where it starts. We’re very glad for guests on Sunday morning. We’re happy when people continue to attend worship. But there is a serious concern if people only worship on Sunday morning. Being a living sacrifice means that we need to move on to a life of worship. So attending the Sunday morning worship service, while very important, is not enough to qualify as a genuine disciple of Jesus.
In Matthew 7:21-23 Jesus gives us a sobering warning about this:
“Not everyone who says to me, ‘Lord, Lord,’ will enter the kingdom of heaven, but only he who does the will of my Father who is in heaven. Many will say to me on that day, ‘Lord, Lord, did we not prophesy in your name, and in your name drive out demons and perform many miracles?’ Then I will tell them plainly, ‘I never knew you. Away from me, you evildoers!’”
Jesus is referring to people who looked outwardly like true disciples. People can come to worship services and look outwardly like true disciples. But Jesus says that though those people looked good, they clearly did not have what was important! They did not have what mattered, and he says “away from me.” What is scary is that those people thought they were good to go. They assumed that Jesus should accept them. But they were wrong.
Likewise, our worship services are not enough. If all a Christian does is attend worship services they do not have the kind of relationship with Jesus that he wants. This is why worship services can be like a security blanket, as Peter Rollins says. I’m going to rely heavily on what Rollins says in the discussion below.
Rollins asks us to imagine the scenario of a child with his blankie accidentally wandering into a room full of adults who are strangers to him. But he has his security blanket and feels safe. The child does not feel fear that should normally be there. In his mind, he feels okay. Why? His blanket is providing an emotional safety net.
Take away the blanket and the child doesn’t gain new information or discover something that was being withheld. He now feels the fear that naturally rises up within a child when they are in a room full of adults whom they do not know. The blanket, Rollins says “enables the child to consciously accept a situation without experiencing the psychological horror of it.”
Here’s the twist: the blanket is not the problem. The blanket is the solution to the problem! The blanket allows the child to cope in a potentially overwhelming scenario. So the blanket, the stuffed animal, the pacifier, the thumb-sucking are all helpful. They are not bad things.
But they can become bad things, can’t they? What will happen if we allow the child to have them too long? The child can remain in a state of immaturity, Rollins says, and find it difficult to function in social situations as he grows.
Anything can be a security blanket. And we adults can have them too. Do you have one? Something that is acting as a security blanket keeping you from growing mature.
Worship services can be like a security blanket! Rollins asks us to imagine a worship leader one Sunday leading a congregation through songs that express doubt, anger or abandonment. He says that a healthy, mature congregation would embrace the honesty, the doubt, the frustration expressed in the music and thus bring them closer to the reality of the Cross. But if those songs created an anxiety in the congregation, we realize that regular happy worship is acting as a security blanket, protecting the congregation from experiencing the pain of the Cross.
It is possible then to imagine a church where the worship service is actually a security blanket protecting the worshipers from truly experiencing discipleship to Jesus. In other words, Rollins says, we can affirm the Crucifixion without having to feel it. We are able to look at the Cross from a distance without ever needing to enter into a direct participation with it.
Much of contemporary church resembles a drug that prevents us from facing up to the suffering and difficulty that is part of life. In the Great Depression, film worked this way. Despite the poverty across our nation, theaters were packed, showing films about gangsters, comedies and musicals. They offered people a way to escape their dire reality for a few hours.
Is worship a security blanket for you?
To investigate this a bit, ask yourself what qualifies as good worship? When you leave a church worship service, and you think to yourself “worship was great today!”, what was it about that worship service that made it great?
Loud music? Vibrant, hand-clapping? Or maybe you prefer quiet music? Hymns? Maybe it was just that you got to sing one or more of your favorite songs?
Perhaps what made it good had nothing to do with the music. Was it that you got to see your friends? Maybe someone encouraged you. It could be that the prayer time was meaningful.
Of course it could be the sermon. When I hear the words, “Good sermon pastor!”, I ask myself, Why did that person think it was a good sermon? What is really behind those words?
Could it be that the person was thinking “Pastor, that was a good sermon because you said everything I agree with.” Or maybe they were think “I’m afraid of the way our country is headed, and you preached conservative values.” Maybe it was “Your sermon encouraged me.”
In all these situations, though, is not the worshiper just affirming what makes them feel good? By classifying it as “good worship” has the worshiper not just revealed that their approach to worship is consumeristic, whereby they the worshiper get to pick and choose what constitutes “good worship” and thus remain unaffected by it?
John Wesley once preached a sermon where likened this to being “Almost Christian”. In an Almost Christian, nothing is missing is terms of our actual beliefs and practice; nothing is missing but participation as disciples of Jesus. An Almost Christian is like the difference between a critic and a lover. A critic is one who studies something very deeply. A critic knows the minute details. But a lover is different from a critic. A lover is committed with his or her life.
Rollins says that when we come to worship, we participate in it either like a lover or approach it from a distance like the critic who examines every detail, observing whether or not it is “good worship” while remaining distant from its transformative power.
So our worship can be like a security blanket, keeping us from getting the real thing. We can sing songs, worship God, hear a sermon, give money, pray, take communion, and we can walk out of here thinking “that was good worship; that is what God desires!” We can worship on Sunday thinking that one hour of enacting religious rituals is the worship that God wants. But God wants so much more. Organized gathered worship in this room can leave us thinking that we have done our duty.
But true disciples of Jesus will not want worship to be a security blanket that keeps us from deeply experiencing the life transformation that God wants to work in our lives. Instead disciples of Jesus will want worship services to invite Kingdom transformation in our lives and help us to worship God as Paul said in Romans 12:1-2, with our lives, to offer our bodies as living sacrifices.
So here are some suggestions for how to move beyond a Sunday morning only kind of worship:
Keep God close. Make prayer a habit. Practice the presence of God. On Sunday morning part of our goal of singing songs and praying and hearing God’s word is to have an encounter with the presence of God. But do we walk out the doors of the church and forget about the presence of God? If so, then make it your goal to practice the presence of God 24-7. But how?
Habits. In worship we learn habits that we can continue throughout the rest of the week. The habits of daily prayer, daily reading, daily worship.
As Paul says in 1 Corinthians 6:19-20, “your body is the temple of the Holy Spirit.” God does not live in a temple like he did in the Old Testament. You are his temple. He is with you! You can experience his presence everywhere you go! And you should! Develop a practice of the presence of God.
Second, see all you do as an act of worship. In 1 Corinthians 10:31 Paul says that “whatever you do, do it all to the glory of God.” Even when you eat or drink. Even work. Even laundry. Cultivate a habit of work as worship, of play as worship, school as worship. Think about the most boring, mundane, disagreeable task as worship. Think about the incessant flow of emails, text messages and phone calls. Think about how grumpy that can make you. Think about all the diapers you change, all the fights you break up, all the weeds you pull in your garden. All of that can be done as an act of worship.
One lady at Faith Church said, “I would like to do one thing that doesn’t get undone that has to redone.” The dishes. The grass. Cleaning the windows. They all need to be done. And you do them today and they will need to be done again tomorrow. If you do laundry two days each week, that’s over 100 times per year. Thousands of times in your life. Ever feel frustrated by the seeming endlessness and hopelessness of these tasks?
Can you transform that frustrating attitude into worship? Yes, you can! Those small repetitive tasks are vitally important. To transform them into acts of worship starts by confessing a poor attitude, and the purposefully inviting God to change your mindset. This transformation may require the help, the accountability of friends. It could involved getting the help of one who has made progress in this area. How did they change their mindset about the dishes? About email at work? About the mundane tasks that have been disagreeable for them?
In conclusion, I don’t want anyone to think that worship is primarily what happens in a so-called sanctuary or church meeting room on Sunday mornings or whenever or wherever your congregation gathers for worship. What happens there is only good and acceptable to God to the degree that through this worship our lives are transformed, so that we worship him with our whole lives. That’s what being a disciple of Jesus is about. You cannot be a disciple of Jesus if all you do is worship him in a worship service.
I urge you then to examine your life. What we do for an hour or so on Sundays is to be preparing us to worship through the rest of the week. What about you? Are you more than a Sunday morning worshiper?