The worship event

It happened again. I sat through worship. The music was good. The liturgy was a standard Reformed/Presbyterian one. The sermon was Biblical. Yet there was no energy. I felt like an observer.

Public worship is an event. Our culture likes events. We have sporting events, event centres for concerts and conventions, and event calendars. Many events today are spectator activities. We go to see what others are doing. Those watching a sporting event might cheer for their team, but they are not playing the game. Because of this non-participatory nature, we don’t need to be there. We can watch it on TV or on our devices and cheer, even though it is not the same as being at a live event.

Liturgy

The Reformers objected that worship had become a spectator sport. The priests did the work. The choirs sang the songs. The people watched and listened. The Reformers called for a return to “liturgy,” which means “the work of the people.” Let’s call for liturgy today.

Church liturgy does not require all doing the same thing in every church every Sunday. We are aware of the danger of repeated patterns becoming meaningless rituals. The greater danger today is “traditional” and “contemporary” passive patterns of worship. Our singing becomes the cheering of the crowd, not the interactions of participants. When we act in worship, it is with minimal effort and often unclear meaning.

For meaningful worship, liturgy provides structure to participate in community and leaders to help us act.

Covenant renewal

The event of worship is covenant renewal. God partners with us through covenants. We need renewal because covenants get broken or forgotten. When covenant is forgotten, we are either alone or in conflict, in a world of alienation or confrontation. Worship calls us out of that world to return to covenant with God and humanity.

God created us for partnership with him and each other to develop his world. When that world became grievously broken, God made a covenant with all creation and staked his life on it with the sign of the rainbow (Gen. 9). Again God staked his life on his covenant keeping when he walked between the dead animal pieces before Abram (Gen. 15). Then God asked Abraham to actively entrust his future to the promise (Gen. 17). God covenanted to create a new people and new way of life (Ex.19-24), and he covenanted a priesthood to help his people in their sins (Num. 25). God covenanted leadership for his people through the line of David (2 Sam. 7).

God calls us to respond. Moses called for renewal in Deuteronomy before Israel entered the Land, and Joshua made the call again in the Land. The Prophets were agents calling for covenant renewal. The New Covenant in Jesus Christ is all these renewed, expanded and empowered.

In worship we enter into covenant renewal, into the new covenant, into God’s long story, promises and purposes. This is a meeting with the Lord (YHWH, his covenant name) of history and with his people then, now and everywhere.

Action

We are called to do worship, to participate, to act. If public worship is only information, there is no need to come. Read instead. If worship is only personal, don’t come. Take a walk alone and reflect on God instead. If worship is covenant renewal, you need to come to meet God and his people. Participate.

The challenge for worship leaders is to help people act, to do liturgy. The event starts with God’s initiative, with God’s greeting, with God’s grace. Help us appropriate that grace into our broken and forgetful lives. Lead us in responding to that grace in prayer, praise and practice.

Worship has engaged us aurally in music, verbally in words and visually in the arts. We need more kinesthetic worship. We can use our bodies to respond, not just our minds. What is the covenant renewal meaning of standing, sitting, kneeling, coming forward, shaking hands, lifting hands? How can offerings be joyous covenant participation, not just a way to pay the bills, or something to be embarrassed about? Can we recover processions? What would it be to participate bodily in the Lord’s Supper? Let us, the people, engage the Word with our hearts, heads and hands; ears, eyes and our whole body.

The event of active covenant renewal will have outcomes. We will come out of worship changed, renewed, reinvigorated for life as God’s people acting for renewal in a broken world.

Author

  • Dr. Thomas Wolthuis is a CRC pastor serving as the English pastor of the Chinese Church of Iowa City. He has been a campus minister, institute president, professor, pastor, and church planter. His Biblical Studies podcasts are at www.geneva-ui.org.

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