“You [Samaritans] worship guessing in the dark. We Jews worship in the clear light of day. God’s way of salvation is made available through the Jews. But the time is coming – it has, in fact, come – when what you’re called will not matter and where you get to worship will not matter.” – Jesus to the Samaritan Woman at the well. John 4.
Don’t misunderstand the title. I am not suggesting that it is easy to get someone to attend Christian worship services. Depending on the church and the person you are hoping to get to the service, it may be nearly impossible.
For many years, I worked very hard and intentionally at trying to get people, especially young people, to attend worship services – and had some level of success. As I began to lead in churches, I had the privilege of working with teams to develop worship experiences that would appeal to different groups. Sometimes we did so in the face of pretty serious opposition. But many of us very much wanted to remove barriers that kept people from coming to worship and were willing to pay the price. If people liked organ music, robes, and traditional liturgy, we would try to provide. If people liked guitars, drums, and a laid back atmosphere, we’d develop another service for that. If people worked on Sunday mornings, we’d set something up for Sunday nights. We did some good work, but it was hard work and often left me wondering if it was really worth it. It also tested people’s love for one another. “Loving across our differences” is a wonderful idea but not all church attendees embrace it when it comes to worship variations.
And still, it was hard to get them in the door.
But we worked hard at this because worship was the central practice in the churches I grew up in and the churches I served. For the sake of this article, let’s call them “worship-centered churches”. Most churches are. You can tell if it is worship centered very easily: by paying attention to what is measured. If the church is counting the number of people who attend worship or measuring things against worship attendance (giving per attendee, involvement per attendee, etc.) then it is almost certainly a worship centered church.
The church I serve now is not worship centered. We don’t work hard to get people to worship anymore. We realize we don’t have to. More importantly, we are starting to understand we are not called to. You see, people will worship. The Biblical writers knew this. The prophets understood it. Jesus knew it very well. People will worship because human beings naturally do so. The word worship comes from an Old English word that roughly translates “worth-ship”. When we worship, we declare and celebrate someone or something’s “worth.” Furthermore, it involves devotion. If you look around, you will notice that people actively worship all the time. If they think something is worthy they will worship it. If they do not worship the Most High God revealed in Jesus Christ, they’ll likely worship something or someone else. They may call the something or someone “God” or not. But they will worship. Here are a few common “gods”: Health, Money, Work, Food, Politicians, Rock Stars, Local Heroes, the Military, Celebrities, Nations, Ideologies, Family, Economic Systems, Authors, and Sports Teams.
I used to worship a sports team. I went to Auburn in the 1980’s. On Saturdays, many of us wore orange and blue and worshiped the football team. (Well, they were quite good.) I had friends who told amazing stories about the coaches or particular players. It was very worshipful – and the “services” were amazing. 75,000 strong! We had songs, liturgies, traditions, and literature. People would dress up for the game. They would support the cause with cash donations and volunteer hours. We had creeds. And we had strong opinions about what a true fan was and was not. And if the team lost a few (somewhat rare in those days), we proved our faithfulness by cheering harder (unlike those “fair-weather fans”). Support for the team was a great unifying religion on campus.
Of course there were people who worshiped elsewhere, like the University of Alabama. We were very suspicious of them…
Not to digress, my point is simply this: people naturally worship. (And yes, I still cheer for Auburn!) If people do not worship God, they’ll worship something else. Even atheists worship. Some I know are very passionately devoted and evangelistic in their beliefs – although they might be offended if I told them they were worshiping.
The 10 commandments begin with warnings about worshiping false gods. The prophets of the Old Testaments warned people to stop worship idols and return to worshiping God. Jesus told the woman at the well that someday people would worship differently – “in spirit and in truth.” Something would happen that would help people stop worshiping poorly. They would begin to worship in the right direction. Paul writes that a day will come when “every knee will bow and every tongue confess that Jesus Christ is Lord to the glory of God the Father” (Philippians 2). In other words, someday everyone will stop worshiping the wrong things and worship Jesus.
So logically, we see that the Apostle Paul devoted his life, not to getting people to worship Jesus, but to helping people to imitate Jesus and celebrate what God had done in Christ. Jesus himself didn’t devote too much time to trying to convince people that he should be worshiped. (Although he didn’t stop them when they did so ). Rather, Jesus commissioned his disciples to make disciples. That is what Peter, Phillip, Barnabas, Paul, and the early church worked at: Making disciples.
Because if you make disciples of Jesus, you get worshipers of Jesus. Disciples of Jesus will, in Spirit and in Truth, worship God who is revealed in scripture by the power of the Holy Spirit, whom Jesus called Abba Father, and who loves us more than we could possibly know! Disciples make great worshipers!
This has some pretty healthy implications for worship services, by the way. If you have responsibility for a worship service – you know how much time goes into preparation. You also know the emotional ride that follows the service as people “evaluate the music, preaching, fashion, and atmosphere.” Well, imagine having to spend very little time trying to promote and develop your worship ministry. Imagine your services being aimed at celebrating what God was doing. Imagine your people coming together with a song, spiritual song, or prophetic word! Imagine people sitting up expectantly during the preaching, hoping to hear a word that would help them in their mission or encourage them in their journey to imitate Christ while helping others to do the same! Imagine the time after the service when people say, “how can we put what we heard into practice?”
When I led worship services in churches that were “worship centered”, some of what is mentioned above happened. But it was rare. The services were very organized and somewhat performance oriented – so spontaneity often produced awkward moments. But the services I lead today, it seems to happen more commonly.
Don’t get me wrong – I love the worship services of worship-centered churches. I love – really love – good preaching, good music, and good order. It lifts my soul. But such heavily planned and organized worship services make it challenging to make room for I Corinthians 12-14 style worship gatherings – and our people need those.
So the church I serve now is not worship centered. We emphasize discipleship first – as Dallas Willard put it, we are “learning from Jesus to live like Jesus.” Secondly, we emphasize missional engagement – that is, we look to see where God is at work in the world around us and we try to join in. Then we come together to worship to celebrate what God is doing around us and through us. We’re learning: learning to allow our worship to flow from who we are in Christ; learning to worship in response to what we see God doing; learning (and this is tough for a Presbyterian like me) to allow our services be subject to the leading and guidance of the Holy Spirit! We are learning to make room for holy interruptions. We are learning to expect them! It’s a pretty cool season. But it’s not natural for us yet. Most of us have been in worship service centered churches all our lives. Old paradigms stick, you know.
Candidly, I think many worship-centered churches could find ways to make healthy shifts to make discipleship and missional activity more central. But I should warn you, if you are a church leader and are feeling drawn doing this in your church, be careful. If there’s one thing I learned from all that work on worship experiences, it’s this: People feel very strongly about the way they worship. They are passionate about it, devoted to it, committed to it, and want others to join them in it. You could even say some people worship their way of worship. To mess with that is to venture into the territory of prophets and apostles. It’s good work! But it can be very painful.
Whatever the case, my prayer for you is this: may the Lord guide you on the journey, and may we all look forward to the day when every knee bows and every tongue confesses Jesus Christ is Lord to the glory of God the Father!
May the Lord bless you and keep you!