Worship as Education, Experience or Praise?

“Every conception and form of liturgy that focuses on man will eventually degenerate into intellectual or psychological manipulation.”

More from Jeff Meyers on The Lord’s Service.

Worship as Education?

Another segment of the church believes that the Sunday service ought to be for the purpose of communicating truth. Education is the chief end of worship. Churches that have this emphasis tend to degenerate into lecture halls complete with overhead projectors and armies of note-taking members. Presbyterians and Bible churches often fall into this error. The sermon is elevated out of all proportion as the key element of worship. Education is the primary goal.

Nothing else is of much importance in the service. Most of what comes before the sermon functions as “pre-game ceremonies” for the main event. People may like to sing, and singing may make them feel good, but they have not really thought through what purpose, if any, hymns and songs ought to have in the overall structure of the service—besides preparing the congregation emotionally for the sermon.

Worship as Experience?

There are others who emphasize the experience of the congregation in worship. They believe that the Sunday service ought to produce some kind of beneficial emotional response in the people. Many liberal churches fall into this category. Religion is reduced to sentimental and pious feelings. Pastors smile all the time and read poems from the pulpit to help the people feel good about themselves. For those who have embraced this philosophy of worship (a kind of liturgical Pollyanna-ism), the focus of the church is anthropological—that is, on man. I recently phoned the office of a church whose biblical orthodoxy is questionable and heard the following answering machine message: “Remember God loves you just the way you are!” Actually, God loves his people in spite of what they are, through faith in Jesus Christ. At all costs, people must leave the service feeling that they are O.K. and believing that everyone else is too. Christianity is reduced to religious sentimentalism. In modern American church services, edification is cut loose from its doctrinal moorings and is blown about by every humanistic, trendy gust of psychological and sociological silliness.

Worship as Praise?

I tried but couldn’t think of a suitable synonym for “praise” that begins with an “e”! From this perspective the purpose of worship is to gather and give praise to God. Churches that emphasize praise as the goal of worship often style their services “celebrations.” All of those passages that call believers to “ascribe” or “give to the Lord the glory due to his Name” can be marshaled in support of the truth that the corporate service is a service of praise (Psalm 29:1-2; 96:7-8). This fourth conception of worship is much closer, but still not quite adequate to express the fullness of biblical worship. Certainly there are numerous passages that exhort us to “Praise the Lord” and to “worship” him. I would caution you, however, that in many cases the word “worship” has not served us very well. It is not the most helpful translation of words used to designate “bowing down” or “prostrating oneself” (e.g. Psalm 95:6). For example, when we are called to “prostrate” ourselves before God, this does not exactly correspond with the way we use the word “worship.” To fall down before God is to allow oneself to be lifted up by him. It is to give one’s self over to the Lord’s service. In effect, falling down before God puts us in the position to be served by God. Much more, therefore, is often going on in these passages than merely ascribing “worth” or “praise” to God.

Often the giving of praise or glorifying of God is set over against the worshiper’s expectation of receiving anything from God in church. Worship is what we give to the Lord, we are told. I will examine the one-sidedness of “worship as praise” in the next section as well, but here let me say that not only is the super-spiritual-sounding assertion that “we just gather together to give praise to God taking no interest in what we might get from him” unbiblical, it may also easily slip into doxological hubris. Presbyterian pastors and theologians are particularly vulnerable to this distortion of the purpose of worship. The slogan “we gather for worship to give not to get” has become something of a Reformed shibboleth. We love to beat other evangelicals over the head with it. It makes us feel superior. As if we don’t go to church because we need anything! We Reformed Christians go to church to give God glory and honor. As I hope to show, this kind of thinking is extremely dangerous.

For us, as creatures of God, there can be no such thing as “disinterested praise.” We simply cannot love or praise God for who he is apart from what he has given us or what we continue to receive from him. We are not his equals. The notion that pure love and worship of God can only be given when it is unmixed with all thoughts of what we receive, has no biblical grounding. To be sure, it sounds very spiritual and pious. It even comes across as self-denial. In fact, however, there is no such worship in the Bible for the simple fact that we cannot approach God as disinterested, self-sufficient beings. We are created beings. Dependent creatures. Beings who must continually receive both our life and redemption from God. Our “worship” of God, for this reason, necessarily involves our passive reception of his gifts as well as our thanksgiving and petitions. We cannot pretend that we do not depend upon him. We will always be receivers and petitioners before God. Our receptive posture is as ineradicable as our nature as dependent creatures. We must be served by him.

Recognizing this is true spirituality. Opening oneself up to this is the first movement in our “worship,” indeed, the presupposition of all corporate worship. It is faith’s posture before our all-sufficient, beneficent Lord. Praise follows after this and alone can never be the exclusive purpose for our gathering together on the Lord’s Day.

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Obviously, there is some truth in each of these four perspectives. A Christian service that does not proclaim the Gospel to the lost (and saved!), engage the emotions of the congregation, teach God’s word, and ascribe to God praise and honor will likely be a distorted, dangerously truncated service. All four of these opinions, however, err to the extent that they reduce the purpose of the church to one of these dimensions. Moreover, those who embrace one of the first four purposes tend to see the Sunday service as primarily a technique for producing a particular effect on the members of the congregation, either on their will, mind, or emotions. All four of these dimensions—evangelism, preaching, edification, and praise—in and of themselves are important. They each have their proper place in the worship service. But the overall purpose of a biblical worship service should not be reduced to any one of them. Moreover, the purpose (and practice) of our Lord’s Day worship service must never degenerate into an attempt to engineer or manipulate some desired effect in the congregation. Worship must not be understood as a technique. “As C. S. Lewis said, ‘The charge is feed my sheep not run experiments on my rats.’ When worship is reduced to a pep rally for the pastor’s latest crusade or to a series of acts that contain the minister’s own hidden agenda, our concern for worship is called into question” (William H. Willimon, Worship as Pastoral Care [Nashville: Abingdon Press, 1979], p. 17). Every conception and form of liturgy that focuses on man will eventually degenerate into intellectual or psychological manipulation.

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