The other day, as is my custom, I was talking to about worship with a dear Evangelical co-worker of mine. Though worship can be a nebulous term to describe almost any God – glorifying action, my co-worker and I both held the opinion that the diverse state of worship in American Christianity is more than a little unfortunate. This struck me as strange: it seemed that Protestants with their discomfort with exclusiveness would want to appreciate the variety of ways their congregations worship. However, I realized that the opposite is true: most Protestants I know seem to hold great disdain for “worshiping” activities of their aberrant Protestant brothers. Doubtless there are hard questions we all have to ask regarding worship, and people come down on opposite sides of the issue. Should we be in awe of a fearful God, or run to comforting and forgiving father? Should we make something beautiful, or just passionately cry out – letting the sincerity remind us of our incapability of being worthy? For those of us who have ever squirmed in their shoes at how another person has perceived worship let the question be asked: Can we fail at worshiping?
Here our courage is put to the test, for if we cannot say that there is such a thing as failure than we are cowardly avoiding what it means to actually worship. The truth is that the vagueness of the word “worship” can be an evil comfort, covering our individual inadequacies and that of our neighbor’s. For most people this isn’t a sign of maliciousness or gross incompetence, but of immaturity. We talk as a child to our God, and resent even the idea that we should be more responsible for what we say and how we say it. We can comfortably say that someone else’s worship is “off”, seems to miss an important truth, or we would be uncomfortable worshiping that way; but if this is true we should just say that they have failed (at least in an important way) at worshiping our God.
The strange truth is that what is most frightening about this possibility is not the fear of failing, but the fear of succeeding. Most American Christians are used to worship time being a rather liberating experience, full of the passionate outpouring of their heart. But if there is a successful way of worshiping, effort and examination will be required; turning an emotional time of venting and “laying our burdens at His feet” into work. And your worship time has been transformed into liturgia.
Before we can move to far forward on to what worship is, we must first talk about what it isn’t. When people realize that liturgia has replaced praise song time it is common to start seeing worship as something formulaic. People start gathering the necessary worship ingredients as if they were planning on whipping up a magic potion or spell. But worship is not this sort of scientific or arbitrary magical secret where the Holy Spirit won’t appear unless all the right ingredients are rightly combined. Worship may be a kind of alchemy, because sometimes there are miraculous changes of nature; but even here one may veer of the course. Worship, first and foremost, is relationship. Therefore propriety, consideration, respect, trust, listening, and investment are all essential for good worship.
If you’re like me you remember several times when you broke the “rules” of worship; and you wonder what our precious God was thinking when you unwittingly approached him irreverently. For instance, I dress up for my morning and evening prayers because I am meeting the Queen of Heaven and giving my requests to her and her Beloved Son. Prayer is a relationship – and how embarrassing it is to approach the Queen of Heaven in a manner that would offend her modesty! Unfortunately before I knew any better I did just that; coming to her as a toddler would his mother, completely unaware of propriety.
Certainly there is something endearing about the patient mother and the needy child, and it is a necessary part of our life to come to our Heavenly friends when we are needy. But to mature in relationship is to take responsibility for your part in the relationship, and it is not rebellious independence that leads to respect and propriety for Christ and His Saints, but consideration. There is more to our love for our God than the initial comforting touch, more than just our tears and cries when we are full of perceived need. Our love for God must include dying to ourselves and our feelings, not because God doesn’t care about our feelings, but because fighting through out duplicitous emotions is a necessary part in mature relationships.
Are we failing in worship when we run to God for help? Of course not, but we would be failing if our relationship was distinguished by our juvenile neediness. The hallmark of our relationship with God should be love, and love in its fullness cannot be what C.S. Lewis calls need-love. Love is charity and trust, sacrifice and laughter, conversation and dancing. We cannot get there without painful and conscientious effort.