Worlds in Collision, Pt 2 : Worship

To develop a broader vision we must be willing to forsake, to kill, our narrower vision. In the short run it is more comfortable not to do this - to stay where we are, to keep using the same microcosmic map, to avoid suffering the death of cherished notions. The road of spiritual growth, however, lies in the opposite direction. We begin by distrusting what we already believe, by actively seeking the threatening and unfamiliar, by deliberately challenging the validity of what we have previously been taught and hold dear. The path to holiness lies through questioning everything.
M. Scott Peck

The treatment of Jesus at the hands of the authorities and the official paranoia over every radical dissenter in history demonstrates the deep fear of the principalities and powers when the legitimacy of their authority is challenged and a confrontation with the truth exposes the idolatrous nature of their power. Jim Wallis, Agenda for Biblical People, p.106

There is an age when one teaches what one knows.
But there follows another when one teaches what one does not know...
It comes, maybe now, the age of another experience: that of unlearning..

Roland Barthes

I was walking to the small town center near our home this past Thursday afternoon. It was January 27th and unusually warm.

Not long before, around the middle of the month, the mercury had hit -28 C. The world turned to ice, and cars were refusing to start. Suddenly the high winds shifted, and in roughly 24 hours we went from frigid winter weather to spring thaw.. water everywhere, mud slides, ice jams in rivers and streams threatening to overflow their banks. It was not unlike the dream my wife had had in December. She opened the door on a cold winter day and as she watched she saw the day go from white and cold to green and warm. "Suddenly" the Lord brought change, and she heard Him say, "This is resurrection power." Can you imagine living in such a time under such a King?

Relearning Worship

To be or not to be a community is not an option for the church. By nature the church is a community and experiences communion. The question before the people of God is: what kind of community will we be? John Driver, Community and Commitment, Herald Press, 1976, p.21.

Over the past few years I have grown increasingly unhappy with the term "worship," where we use it to refer to an activity, usually the singing of songs, led by a semi-professional musician or music team, in a gathering of believers. I'm unhappy with the word because I can find no reflection of our use in the New Testament, and I think our use reflects our dualistic western worldview.

Consider for a moment how much energy we invest in worship events. In most communities, the Sunday meeting is the highlight of the week. And that meeting is focused around two pieces: word, and "worship."

"Len," you may be thinking, "Get over it. Why do you major on minors?"

Because the imagination of God's people has been taken captive. Walter Brueggemann notes that the key pathology of our time is the reduction of imagination. He argues that,

"The task of prophetic imagination is to bring to public expression those very hopes and yearnings that have been denied so long and suppressed so deeply that we no longer know they are there..

"Isaiah gives his people a remarkable gift. He gives them back their faith by rearticulating the old story. He gives them the linguistic capacity to confront despair rather than be surrounded by it. And he creates new standing ground outside the dominant consciousness upon which new humanness is possible.

"The dominant consciousness must be radically criticized and the dominant community must be finally dismantled. The purpose of an alternative community with an alternative consciousness is for the sake of that criticism and dismantling." The Prophetic Imagination, 1978. See also Walsh and Keesmaat, "Colossians Remixed"

But most believers can barely imagine an alternative future, much less an alternative church. We move toward our ideals, and the words we use reflect a self-understanding that must change before we as the people of God will change. In the west we have filtered all of life through a gnostic and dualistic mindset, and we bring that way of seeing to the Scripture. In effect, we interpret Scripture to make it fit our world, instead of allowing it to interpret us and shape a faithful response.

"the renewal of the church will come not through a recovery of personal experience or straight doctrine, nor through … creative techniques or liturgical worship… The renewal of the church will come about through the work of the Spirit in restoring and reconstituting the church as a local community whose common life bears the marks of radical obedience to the lordship of Jesus Christ. Jim Wallis, Agenda for Biblical People, p.100-101

Worship is not first something we do when we gather, it is not an activity separated from life, it is first and primarily an outworking of the living Lordship of Jesus in human life and expression. Worship is about who we are becoming, and how we express the love of Jesus in all of life.. whether we "walk by the way" or visit a neighbor.. whether we plow a field or visit the sick. It is about His active Lordship over us and over all of life, first personal and then communal and then extending His kingdom into the world in a thousand ways.. We are shaped for faithfulness and then express that god-shape in life. Frost and Hirsch quote Martin Buber in a passage that could substitute for Ro.12:1,2 :

"A "zaddik" (a righteous person) said about the rabbis who "speak Torah" (ie. who interpret the Scripture for others) "What is the sense of their speaking Torah? Man should act in such a way that all his behavior is a Torah, and he himself is a Torah." At another time it is said, "The aim of the wise man is to make himself into a perfect teaching."

The world we live in is not only the domain of Christ, but the world in which the fallen powers are active. These powers have both material and spiritual form. A company or institution may have a culture or "spirit" that continues even after a change in leadership or venue. These powers and spirits pervade all human culture, governments, societies and institutions (Missional Church, p.111). In the quote above, Wallis is making the point that we have submitted to the elementary principles of the world, and not to Christ. Dualism in religious experience is more than the separation of spirit and matter, it is the separation of God or "church" or faith from everyday life.

Let's face it.. for most western Christians worship as "event" is divorced from life, just as "church" is a building and a place. We are not dedicated to living our lives for Christ, to being transformed day by day into His image. "Self" is the center of most of our worlds, and we are more interested in what we have than in Who we know. Furthermore, we lost the connection of worship and justice (Amos 5).

Jesus came preaching the kingdom of God.. but we live in the church age. Perhaps we prefer church language to kingdom language because a kingdom requires a King, and a King demands allegiance. We are so immersed in the Empire that we sense intuitively that it isn't safe to use kingdom language. Instead, we live in the world of "church," a cultural and safe event that rarely challenges the way we live or confronts our market-driven world.

"Len, you are wandering."

No, this apparent digression is very much to the point. "Worship" is about God and Kingdom, about an alternate kingdom with a different ethic, different priorities, and an alternate Ruler of this world. Those crazy theologs are right.. worship is a political event. And perhaps that is why we have made it what we made it, and why we use the language the way we do. It's a lot safer.. isn't it?

In "The Lion, The Witch, and the Wardrobe" Mrs. Beaver describes Aslan to Lucy. When Lucy discovers he is a lion, she is terrified, and she asks, "Is he safe?"

“Safe, who said anything about safe…of course, he isn't safe. But He's good.”

15 Hate evil, love good,
And establish justice in the gate!
Perhaps the LORD God of hosts
May be gracious to the remnant of Joseph.

21"I hate, I reject your festivals,
Nor do I delight in your solemn assemblies.

22"Even though you offer up to Me burnt offerings and your grain offerings, I will not accept them;
And I will not even look at the peace offerings of your fatlings.

23"Take away from Me the noise of your songs;
I will not even listen to the sound of your harps.

24"But let justice roll down like waters
And righteousness like an ever-flowing stream.
Amos 5

Jim Wallis, writing many years ago in "Agenda for Biblical People," reframes worship in the context of justice:

"Thus, at times, Scripture judges the value of worship, the inner circle, by looking at the shape of the outer circle, or the daily obedience it produces. Our worship should spread from the inner circle to the wider circle of our everyday lives as Christians, and our daily speech and acts and attitudes are ordained to be a wider and transformed worship. " (p.110)

Worship that is an event, unconnected from the way we live our lives, is offensive to the Lord. The powers of our age encourage us to keep these things separate. Satan loves oppression and violence and hatred. He loves it when Christians wall off their private lives from lived obedience. Our enemy is best served when we are content with the status quo: content to gather with believers on Sunday, and go about our own business the rest of the week. This may be a pattern in Christendom, but it has nothing to do with biblical Christianity.

So why is worship as an event never described or prescribed in the NT other than in Revelations? Perhaps because worship is to be a quality in our lives.. a quality of submission to the Spirit of God and His kingdom purposes.

If the activity we think of as worship is SO important.. why don't we find it in the early church (book of Acts) or the Epistles? The Ro.12:1,2 passage seems to be talking about something very different (transformation as spiritual worship.. the whole of life given to God), and the 1 Cor.14 passage looks completely different than our gathered experience, with no discernable leader other than the Holy Spirit.

As I walked to the 7-11 on Thursday morning, it struck me that the word is rare in the New Testament because we are looking for the wrong word. What word should we look for, I wondered inwardly? Immediately.. the word "devotion" popped into my head. And then I recalled Acts 2, where the believers were devoted to fellowship, worship and prayer... that's how it goes, right?

42 They were continually devoting themselves to the apostles' teaching and to fellowship, to the breaking of bread and to prayer.

43 Everyone kept feeling a sense of awe; and many wonders and signs were taking place through the apostles.

44 And all those who had believed were together and had all things in common;

45 and they began selling their property and possessions and were sharing them with all, as anyone might have need.

46 Day by day continuing with one mind in the temple, and breaking bread from house to house, they were taking their meals together with gladness and sincerity of heart,

47 praising God and having favor with all the people And the Lord was adding to their number day by day those who were being saved.

Notice that the word "worship" doesn't appear in this passage, a big surprise to some I'm sure! Instead, the word "devotion" is used to mark the entire life of the church.

The community of the early church was marked by these characteristics: they were devoted to four things: koinonia (fellowship), the apostles teaching (instruction for faith and life), to eating together (a family meal as well as the Lord's supper) and prayer. In the midst of these activities we probably would find something like 1 Cor. 14 expressed, where the ministry of the Spirit was flowing among the believers.

But what was most striking to me was the word "devotion." Another good translation of that Greek word is "constanting attending to..." The Lord and His kingdom had their love and their attention. I'm reminded of Kierkegaard's dictum on the pure heart: "to be pure in heart is to will one thing." Listen to the teaching of Alan Hirsch and Michael Frost on the issue of "attention."

"In Judaism, there is a distinct activity called kavanah. It is cultivated in order to maximize the inwardness of our actions. It means to pay attention, to direct the mind and heart in order to maximize the levels of intentionality in our actions. This applies to actions/deeds as it does to the Study of Scripture and to prayer but goes beyond these activities themselves to the notion of attentiveness to God Himself. It is not primarily an awareness of being commanded by God, but an awareness of the God who commands. The focus in kavanah shifts from the deed itself to its inner meaning, the goal being to find access to the sacred in the deed itself. It is finding the essence of the cask, to partake of its Inspiration, to be made equal to the task of fulfilling holy commands. Abraham Heschel says that "kavanah is direction to God and requires the involvement and redirection of the whole person. It is the act of bringing together the scattered forces of the self; it means the participation of heart and soul, not only of will and mind."
      Frost and Hirsch, The Shaping of Things to Come

But is it Us?

Have we have distorted the NT teaching to make it fit our culture?

Could it be that worship and word are the dominant features of our gatherings because they are the most readily manageable for large groups of people? And not only manageable, but extremely difficult to measure any impact.. Could it be that we have allowed our gatherings to shape the church instead of allowing the nature of the ekklesia to shape our lives and gatherings?

The implication and the problem.. we have preferred large and impersonal gatherings to face to face and personal ones.. because we enjoyed the experience. Unfortunately, only a few can participate in large groupings so the medium dictates the method.. When only a few can participate, and given our cultural focus on information and accuracy, we reverted to a professional and educated clergy, thus creating a large and passive congregation. We invented professional teachers and worship leaders because of the constraints of meeting in large groups. We didn't know that our method would then shape our theology.

The cost? We lost a sense of community.. of personal and significant relational connection.. because we insisted on large gatherings as the center of community life. But we lost much more than this.. we lost the growing edge.. we lost people being confronted with their idolatry and hardness of heart.. we lost transformation and discipleship.. and probably we lost the Spirit of the Lord.

A church is not "a large gathering of people who worship together on Sunday." That is the definition of a congregation, but is not the ekklesia.

The ekklesia is a covenanted people on a journey together, a journey to love God, inviting Him to live His life in and through them and expressing His love toward all His creation. It is a people on a journey to know Him and to make Him known.

When this latter kind of community exists, worship as a corporate experience will have a different quality. It will be a response to the goodness and greatness of God.. who he is and what he has done... experientially and not only "objectively," today and not only for a future salvation. It will be the natural outflow of lives filled with wonder and love... it won't require professional leaders or professional musicians.. it will look much like 1 Cor. 14 ..

Service and Sacrifice

The more you see, the less you know,
the less you find out as you go..
I knew much more then, than I do now.
    U2, "City of Blinding Lights"

There is one other thing that strikes me about our use of "worship," and it is the way we attach "service" to the term when we gather. We often here a call to gather for a "worship service."

This phrase is so striking because it is a dark mirror of Ro. 12: 1,2. In that passage, our "spiritual worship" or "spiritual service" is to be remade in the image of Christ. Our entire life is to be given to him as a "sacrifice." His sacrifice was to make a covenant in blood; our response is to die to our self-life and be raised into His life.

The term "sacrifice" has a long biblical history. A sacrifice was laid on the altar in devotion to God. You and I and our lives are to be laid on the altar in devotion to God. When that happens, a fragrant aroma rises to God, and worship begins. "Sacrifice" is at the heart of worship. What a horrible distortion to refer to an event as a "worship service." It strikes me as the worst kind of tokenism. Remember Amos?

"Even though you offer up to Me burnt offerings and your grain offerings,
I will not accept them;
And I will not even look at the peace offerings of your fatlings.

"Take away from Me the noise of your songs;
I will not even listen to the sound of your harps.

Is it possible that the Lord looks at our Sunday gatherings and is not impressed? Could it be that while he loves the heart of those who come to meet with Him, that He is simultaneously grieved at the wineskin we use? Could it be our western dualistic framework has become a stifling environment for truth and life? Could it be that we have not understood the meaning of John 4:23 : "Yet a time is coming and has now come when the true worshipers will worship the Father in spirit and truth, for they are the kind of worshipers the Father seeks."

"Thus, the renewal of the church will come not through a recovery of personal experience or straight doctrine, nor through innovative projects of evangelism or social action, nor in creative techniques or liturgical worship, nor in the gift of tongues, nor in new budgets, new buildings, and new members. The renewal of the church will come about through the work of the Spirit in restoring and reconstituting the church as a local community whose common life bears the marks of radical obedience to the lordship of Jesus Christ.

"Practically, this means a clear recognition that the demands of obedient discipleship will bring us into conflict with the ordinary social values and normal patterns of the world systems which continually seek to fashion us into their image and conform us to their molds."
   Jim Wallis, Agenda for Biblical People, p.100-101

We have all learnt much from the church system. . and now we are trying to unlearn it. There is nothing worth learning in the church system. It's time to be taught by God.

Perhaps "worship" as an event is safe.. and perhaps that is it's greatest problem. We don't usually encounter God at a Sunday event, and if we do encounter Him we encounter only a pale reflection of the Lord Almighty, one who does ask that we change the way we live. Annie Dillard once wrote,

"Does anyone have the foggiest idea of what sort of power we so blithely invoke? Or, as I suspect, does no one believe a word of it? The churches are children playing on the floor with their chemistry sets, mixing up a batch of TNT to kill a Sunday morning. It is madness to wear ladies' straw hats and velvet hats to church; we should all be wearing crash helmets. Ushers should issue life preservers and signal flares; they should lash us to our pews. For the sleeping god may wake someday and take offence, or the waking god may draw us out to where we can never return." (Teaching a Stone to Talk, p.40)

Real Bread.. Real Food

One of the great problems we face.. and maybe we underestimate how serious it is.. is that the environment in which we make these reflections is terribly distorted. Unfortunately, very few of us have experience of church or community other than our distorted and broken one.

Late last year my wife and I had a young couple over for dinner. They were burnt by the system and their faith was at risk.

The young woman commented on our food.. "wow.. real food.. real bread.. how do you do this?" My wife explained that she was raised in a mennonite family where they had their own garden and didn't have much money so they always ate and baked and made their own food.. very little store bought, processed stuff.

This young lady was astonished.. she was raised on processed food and can barely boil water.

Then she was raised and trained in a church system that was all instant action and planned and processed and managed. She has been spoon fed and is used to pre-packaged "food." She has little idea about how the real thing should look, feel or taste.

The nature of the church itself, and the biblical gifts and callings that we rightly understand have been terribly corrupted and mis-shaped by a very broken environment and culture. I'm not sure we can really understand them rightly and frame them correctly and see them function the way they should apart from a reshaped and renewed environment. Part of that journey of reshaping will be recovering a biblical language and the biblical experience of koinonia.

In "Cadences of Home", Walter Brueggemann writes,

"A new church means reformulating the faith in radical ways in the midst of a community that has to begin again. For Ezra, as for Moses, new church starts do not aim at strategies for success, but at strategies for survival of an alternative community. What must survive is not simply the physical community; what must survive is an alternative community with an alternative memory and an alternative social perspective rooted in a peculiar text that is identified by a peculiar genealogy and signed by peculiar sacraments, by peculiar people not excessively beholden to the empire and not lusting after domestication into the empire..."

In order for a new church to be born, we must first witness the death of the old one. Part of that witness is an active process of discernment and critique toward unmasking the powers and calling a fallen church to faithfulness. The authors of "Missional Church" list some of those powers as individualism, technology, professionalism, capitalism (and many other isms.. see pages 111 and 150). Whether we like it or not, our most personal and profound habits of heart are shaped by culture and a church accommodated to that culture. May the Lord give us wisdom as we anticipate His coming.

Amen. Come quickly Lord Jesus. Click HERE for Part 3. For more on the subjects of salvation and God's kingdom vs the Empire visit the Mars Hill website and download "Salvation of our Stuff" pt 1 and 2 (Jan.9 &16). For more on "Colossians Remixed" view part of their targum HERE


i M. Scott Peck, source unknown.
ii Wallis, Jim. Agenda for Biblical People. New York: Harper and Row, 1976. P. 106
iii Driver, John. Community and Commitment, Herald Press, 1976, p.21.
iv Brueggemann, The Prophetic Imagination. 1978. Minneapolis: Fortress Press, 2000. See also Walsh, Brian and Keesmaat, Sylvia, Colossians Remixed.
v Wallis, Ibid., p.100
vi Brownson, James V. The God Who Sent Jesus. From "Gospel in Our Culture Network" "Jesus' union with God flows from his fulfilling the mission which God gives to him (17:4)-when Jesus is united to God's mission, he is united to God; in the same way, the union of the disciples with Jesus and with God flows from their completing the work which he gives them to do. (17:18 "As you have sent me into the world, so I have sent them into the world." And 20:21 "As the Father sent me, so I send you.") And that work which the disciples are to fulfill is centrally to be the new community - to love each other as Jesus loved them (13:34-35).
vii Wallis, Ibid. p.110
viii Hirsch, Alan and Frost, Michael. The Shaping of Things to Come. Peabody, MA: Hendrickson Publishers, 2003. p. 61
ix Guder, Ed. Missional Church. Grand Rapids, MI.: Eerdmans, 1998. p.196ff.
x Wallis, Op Cit. p. 101
xi Dillard, Annie. Teaching a Stone to Talk. Toronto, ON: HarperCollins, 1988.
xii Brueggemann, Walter. Cadences of Home. Louisville, Kentucky: John Knox Press, 1997. p.88.

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