Two people meet one another on the sidewalk. Their eyes meet. Will they greet one another, encounter one another, or only pass by silently?
One person extends her hand, the other responds. They shake hands, embrace.
“How are you getting along?” he asks.
“Fine,” she responds. “And you?”
The handshake, the embrace, the traditional words of meeting are a ritual that enables us to meet one another. Without the ritual, without the familiar, predictable pattern, we might not risk the meeting. We would not know how to come into the presence of another. The ritual helps us overcome the distance between the distance between us. It ends the separation.
The church also has a pattern of familiar words and actions whereby we are enabled to meet both other people and God. You might think of our Sunday morning worship pattern as a drama, a drama of meeting. On Sunday we follow a script–a pattern of words and actions that begins, moves from one act to another, and then comes to a conclusion.
Who are the actors in this drama of worship? The minister, the choir, the organist or pianist, and the ushers? This makes the congregation the audience. Is that the way it ought to be? No. The congregation are actors in this divine-human drama. We are not to come on Sunday morning as if we were going to a movie or play, as if we were coming to passively watch the stars act their parts. We are there to join together in prayer and song. We are the actors rather than the audience.
Our worship leaders, like your minister, choir, organist, and ushers, are to help us worship, not to worship for us. They are there to invite us to sing, to cue us when it is time to kneel or pray or speak, to lead us so that we can all join together with one heart and voice in the praise of God. When we experience Sunday worship as a time to walk in, flop down in our seat, and passively watch someone else meet God, we have not experience the fullness of Christian worship.
Why do we have a set pattern for our worship services? Why do we often print an order of worship in our bulletin that you follow on Sunday morning? Why does your church usually worship in much the same way every Sunday? Because it is easier to gather for worship if we have some predictable pattern, some familiar pattern that brings us together.
If you sing a solo, you can “do your own thing.” You can sing in your own style and temp. But if you are in a choir, if you want to make music with more than one voice, you must get together. Everyone follows the same set of notes, sings the same words. Private, solitary meetings with God have their place. But congregational worship, usually Sunday mornings, is a group time, it is a time for meeting, gathering in the body of Christ, joining together with one voice and coming before God.
To that end, we sing hymns together because it is fun to join our voices in shouts of praise. We pray together because our deepest needs and highest joys are generally those we share with others and so we now join with others in sharing those needs and joys with God. We listen to God’s Word together because the gospel is not simply addressed to us as solitary individuals but as the body of Christ. We respond to the Word by saying a creed because our beliefs are not simply the private thoughts of our hearts but are nurtured, corrected, expanded, challenged, and supported in fellowship with other Christians in the church. This is why we generally find it helpful to have a pattern for our Sunday worship–so we can get it all together.
You hear your voice, raised with others in the congregation, singing the hymn. Now, you feel that a veil has been thrown back. You see what you were unable to glimpse in your work-a-day, Monday through Saturday world. It is as if heaven comes very close to you and a new, wondrous world has been opened to you. You are able to say with your wondering ancestor Jacob, when heaven’s ladder was lowered to within his reach, “Surely the Lord is in the place, and I did not know it.” (Gen. 28:16).
So much of the time in church is spent using words like “should,” and “ought,” and “must.” Sunday, we keep a burden of greater responsibility on your shoulders, the day when we gather and the preacher tells us what we ought to do.
The “service” that we offer to God, but worship is also the service that renders to us. While we are busy praising God, God is responding to us. Faith is a gift, not our achievement. As we are praising God, we are being formed into God’s people. We are practicing the presence of God in way that, as God becomes more apparent to us on Sunday; God is surely more available to us on Monday.
Why do we do it? We do it because we are in love. The modern world teaches us to ask, of every event and relationship, “Now what good will this do me?” The modern world teaches us to make ourselves the center of the world. We have no more important project than ourselves.
Christian worship is counter-cultural to all this. We do it, not primarily to “get something out of it,” but to give something to it. We do it because we are in love.
Try this example. You are walking hand-in-hand in the park on a beautiful spring day. At some point, you lean over and kiss the one with whom you are in love.
Now, if someone asks you, “Now what good does that do you? What good do you get out of it?” It would be stupid question to ask. Gestures like kissing, hugging, are the actions of lovers. We do it out of love. We do it, not “to get something out of it,” but rather to offer something to the one with whom we are in love. Christian worship is a lot like that.
“All who believed were together and had all things in common; and they sold their possessions and distributed them to all, as any had need. And day by day, attending the temple together and breaking bread in their homes, they partook of food with glad and generous hearts, praising God and having favor with all the people. And the Lord added to their number day by day those who were being saved.” (Acts 2:44-47)
“This is the day which the Lord has made.” (Psalm 118:24). Let us rejoice and be glad in it.
Make a joyful noise to the Lord, all the lands!Serve the Lord with gladness! Come into his presence with singing!Enter his gates with thanksgiving, and his courts with praise! Give thanks to him, bless his name! – Psalm 100:1-2, 4.
William H. Willimon
Be sure to register to attend “Costly Discipleship” with The Rev. Dr. Peter Storey at Canterbury UMC, March 23, from 10:00 a.m.-2:00 p.m!