By: Gordon MacDonald
If the world makes it through another century, it is likely that church historians will look back upon our time and suggest that we were passing through a time of reformation in the pursuit of worship. And this should not surprise us, for in a larger world bent on the sensational and the technological, the human spirit inevitably begins to cry out for a deeper sense of connection with the Source of all life.
And what will be said of this reformation in worship? That this was a time when the content and style of worship music changed. That this was a time when the purpose and method of preaching was altered. That this was a time when worshippers took into account that worship was focused on God and not the advancements of self-interest. And, finally, that this was a time when worship was understood as a pathway for drawing the unchurched in the direction of the gospel of Jesus Christ.
The truth is that 21st century people yearn to be exposed to the glory of the everlasting God. They seek an experience of grace in which there is assurance of forgiveness and realignment with Jesus Christ. They desire prayer which is substantial, preaching which calls them to higher levels of thought and activity, and music which enlivens the soul. In worship there is an expectation of a divine encounter in which one will recover freshness of spirit, clarity of truth and guidance, and energizing hope.
When the Christ-follower gathers with the congregation, he/she comes in from a tough world of work, study and even leisure. Some would-be worshippers are likely to bring fatigue, disillusionment, regret, anger, and deep sadness with them. At the same time others will bear the rush of success, accomplishment, and joyful mood. The rest will be somewhere between these two extremes.
The purpose of the church when it worships is to focus on God—not on ourselves whether it be our quest for solutions or sensation—to rehearse what we know about Him, what He has said to us, and what He has done in the past and is doing in the present and (it must be added) promises to do in the future. One might dare to suggest that worship and its eucharistic elements of events such as The Lord’s Supper and Baptism are moments of supreme intimacy when the Bride (the church) celebrates her remarkable union with the Groom (Christ himself). No one should underestimate the power of the words: “where two or three are there together, I (Christ) am in the midst of them…”
After visiting churches in many parts of the world, author Philip Yancey asked, “Why do so few Christians appear to be enjoying themselves in their worship?” The question is worth our attention. For while worship is considered to be a form of work (liturgia=work), it was always intended to be the highest form of work, an exhilarating, renewing form of labor that leaves people filled, not depleted, renewed, not more deeply trapped in dissatisfaction, more internally certain, not confused.
Worship comes in a thousand forms. No one way suits all. We are drawn in our expressions of exaltation and celebration by our cultural backgrounds, our personal structure of temperament, our progress in the spiritual journey. But while we cannot set forth rigid patterns of worship, we can make some statements about what genuine worship should accomplish:
- Worship should draw a sharp contrast between the kingdom of this world and the kingdom of heaven.
- Worship should focus on the living God and His revelation of Himself as the Father, Son and Holy Spirit.
- Worship should bring to our consciousness the acts and the character of God.
- Worship should call the worshipper to repentance—a confession of sinfulness in contrast to God’s righteousness and a resulting sense of forgiveness and restoration.
- Worship should cause the worshipper to inventory his/her benefits in life and give thanks.
- Worship should provide a chance for one to see his/her work in the perspective of the kingdom and give from the profits of labor.
- Worship should make the worshipper feel prayed for in terms of personal needs.
- Worship should refine the perspective of people so that they see and pray for world events in light of the Kingdom purposes of God.
- Worship should offer encouragement and insight from the preached Word.
- Worship should send people back into the “streets” of the world with a renewed sense of energy, confidence and purpose.
How would one know that a church, over the long haul, is achieving this number one purpose of “magnifying” or worshipping God? Some possible answers. It would be a church whose people have learned the unusual ability to be reverent when God is said to be especially present among his people in the worship event. It would be a church whose people have come to regard the time of worship as the highest point in the week and who have realized that this is an hour that one cannot afford to miss. It would be a church in which people have learned the spiritual art of thankfulness, the humility of sorrowful confession of sin, and the inestimable joy of giving. It would be a church where there is an appreciation of the wise mixture of the new and old forms of adoring God with creed, ancient hymn, liturgical prayer joined together with contemporary song, provocative drama, and solemn silence.
How would one know on any given Sunday that a church had genuinely worshipped? Again, some possible answers. People who seemed tired when they came would leave with the unmistakable sign of excitement on their faces and in their step. People who came with regret about issues and experiences of the past week would leave reminded that they are forgiven and given new starts. People who came greatly burdened with the cares of life would leave feeling confident that they had been prayed for and that God had heard. People who came confused and discouraged about the future would leave with the assurance that God has spoken into them with certainty. People who came feeling lonely and diminished would leave feeling that they were part of a divine family. And people who came excoriating themselves because they were so naïve about faith would leave confident that they had learned something substantial about God that would make a difference in the way they would choose to live life.
Gordon MacDonald is the former Senior Pastor of Grace Chapel in Lexington, MA, and author of numerous books including, Ordering Your Private World.