Is the point of worship simply to encounter God?By Julie Clawson
I was annoyed with the “worship wars” back in the 1990s. All too often they boiled down to younger people demanding that church be done in a language they understood and older people demanding that since they tithed the most church should cater to their whims (and yes, I heard the arguments stated that crassly numerous times).
These days a theological veneer is imposed on the same arguments (generally by people who accuse those who desire the church to embrace only the cultural idioms of 100 or 300 years ago instead of those of the past 50 years). The arguments typically accuse people of rejecting the forms of church that are the “proper” way of encountering God for the siren call of individualism and novelty. In short: same wars based on personal preference, just new ways of accusing the other side of being wrong.
As I repeatedly encounter these spats in the church, it forces me to ask the question as to what the purpose of corporate worship is anyway. I fully believe that worship can never be limited to just the rituals of church but involves the actions of serving God in the world. Yet I still see a place for corporate worship. What I hear most often is that the purpose of that event is to unveil God — to make God present and known to those gathered in a particular space. The rituals, the prayers, the songs, the sermon, the well-rehearsed actions of the leaders all work together to bring the congregation into an encounter with God.
But this is where I get uneasy. I keep asking myself: Is the point of worship simply to encounter God?
The longer I am part of the Christian faith the more uneasy I get with churches that enact a well-planned performance intended to help people have this encounter with God. Whether it is a timed-to-the-minute contemporary stadium show with a recording-level-quality praise band or a highly orchestrated liturgy with a recording-level-quality choir and organist, I find myself increasingly uncomfortable with the affected voice of the church.
The manipulative nature of the fact that the religious professionals are staging a show intended for me to consume (as I read or sing as prompted) under the guise of enacting the proper form for how God is to be revealed grates on my nerves like fingernails on a chalkboard. For a long time I thought this was just my preferences regarding worship and was reluctant to jump in the fray of the worship wars culture.
But the question kept returning to me: Is worship simply about encountering God, or should it also involve participating in God? Watching a show and being moved to see God seems like a mere shadow of worship compared to making ourselves living sacrifices and being caught up in the work of God’s kingdom come on earth as in heaven. Rehearsing or timing a performance can make for a beautiful experience in the moment, but it leaves me hollow. Maybe it’s because after so many years in the church world I’ve seen too much of the machinations of the men behind the curtain to even be able to see God in such polished performances.
Perhaps that is my failing.
I’ve reached the point where it is only in the messy and faltering attempts to be the body of Christ — to give of ourselves as we are instead of in a role someone expects of us — that I not only experience God but feel that I am participating in God’s work in the world. It’s often elusive and frequently difficult and uncomfortable to live into worship instead of merely consume it, but it is where I can actually see God at work as of late.
Yet as I am discovering, desiring to worship in such ways makes it very hard to continue to exist in the church world that has formed different habits.
Julie Clawson is author of The Hunger Games and the Gospel and Everyday Justice: The Global Impact of Our Daily Choices. She lives in Austin, Texas, with her family and blogs at julieclawson.com.
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