Tuesday, November 23, 2004

Dumbing down and dressing down: Why worship God?

(for serious relection before Advent!)

Why ought human beings to engage in the worship of the Lord God, Creator, Redeemer & Judge? Why should men and women see it as their vocation to call upon the Name of the Lord God and praise that Name?

If one listens to what is being said and what is written in the supermarket of American denominations – as well as in the less intense arena of British religion - there are several answers given as to why human beings do/ought/should take part in “worship services”. Here are five of them.

One answer is “to create community”, a “community of faith” and a “community of celebration.” Here the coming together to sing, pray and listen is seen as combating alienation, individualism and an inadequate view of self-worth. In the presence of God, it is believed that there is affirmation and healing for all.

Another answer is “to prepare for mission” -- to be a mission-shaped church, to be a people who obey the command of Jesus to go into the world to preach the Gospel to all the creation.

A third answer is “to becoming a caring people” -- to be transformed through the songs, prayers and ritual into a people who care for those in need and learn to love their neighbor as they love themselves.

A fourth answer is “to teach & learn the Faith” – in the context of word and song to offer and to receive instruction in the Christian life, in faith and morals.

A fifth answer is “to bring the world to God and God to the world” in order to discern what God is revealing through what is happening in the world, to those with ears to hear and eyes to see.


It seems to be the case that the average type of “worship service” is designed by the leadership in a congregation to fulfill a given purpose which it is knowingly or, in some cases, subconsciously committed to. It could be any of the above, a combination of two or more of them, or yet other possibilities.

Usually, if not uniformly, the type of service relates clearly to the general theological and cultural position of the leadership and membership – e.g., many evangelical churches see worship as preparation for mission & evangelization, for to them the primary purpose of the church is to evangelize and fulfill the great commandment of Jesus; and many liberal churches see worship as an essential aspect of the discovery of God in the world as we know it, for to them God is revealing Godself through contemporary events and culture.

But what if Worship is an activity that exists primarily for no human, practical purpose, however exalted and noble that human purpose may be?

What if Worship exists for the sole purpose of addressing God, adoring and praising God, confessing sins before God, offering petitions and intercessions to God, and all for the unique purpose of bringing honor and glory to God alone?

Let us be clear: If the purpose of worship is wholly for God’s sake and not for our sake, this does not mean to say that in practice there are no benefits that flow from genuine worship. If a people meet with God to worship him in spirit and in truth, then such a people over time is changed, sanctified, inspired and fortified by the unique experience. And such a people will therefore – even in their weakness and imperfections -- be those who will have the desire to seek to glorify their Father in heaven through good works and mission, and by being his ambassadors in daily living.

But – and this is an important question -- is the church in the West able any longer to construct and offer worship that is pure and consecrated and which has only the one purpose of seeking in the Spirit to please the Triune God in his holiness and glory?

Is the church so affected by the dumbing-down of standards in all areas of human endeavor that it is incapable of rising above offering a worship service that is designed only to fulfill a human purpose?

Is the church so affected by the leisure industry that it sees worship as merely an exalted form of a leisure activity?

Has the church so lost the sense of the pursuit of excellence that it does not feel the need to seek after the One who is most excellent, the Lord of Glory and Grace?

No ulterior purpose!

In contrast to what is found in the West today, I close with a description of what awed Russian diplomats saw and felt when they first experienced the Divine Liturgy at Byzantium immediately before the Orthodox Church was invited into Russia.

“What impressed them as onlookers about the Liturgy was precisely ITS UTTER LACK OF AN ULTERIOR PURPOSE, the fact that it was celebrated for GOD and not for spectators, that it sole intent was to be before God and for God, pleasing and acceptable to God….”

O that this could be said of a few, better many, of our western churches today!

I dare to suggest that in the Anglican Way the celebration (in spirit and in truth and in the beauty of holiness) of the historic, classic Liturgy for the Lord’s Day -- Matins, the Litany, the Order for Holy Communion and Evensong -- also has no ulterior purpose for it is offered to God, the Undivided Trinity of the Father, the Son and the Holy Ghost. However, those who so offer are blessed by God as they are drawn into union and friendship with Him.

The Rev'd Dr. Peter Toon M.A., D.Phil. (Oxon.) November 23, 2004

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