To worship means to attribute worth; to respond to the worth of another, in such a way that their worth is affirmed. And for worship to do that, it must cost the worshipper something of themselves. King David expressed it like this: “…I will not take for the Lord what is yours, or sacrifice a burnt offering that costs me nothing.” [1 Chronicles 21:24] Now, I find David an ambiguous role-model for worship; but in this regard, he stands in continuity from the costly worship of Abel – whose worship ultimately cost him his life – to the widow Jesus commended for giving more out of her poverty than all that the wealthy gave out of their riches. Indeed, God himself worships us – affirming our worth; which is God-given in the first place – by, ultimately, giving us his One and Only Son. [If you find the idea of God worshipping us problematic, it is worth recognising that he only Commands that his people don’t give anyone or anything greater worth than they ascribe to him; worshipping itself isn’t prohibited, as recognised, for example, in one form of the Anglican marriage vows, in which the husband promises to worship his wife.]
So, for my worship of God to be genuine, it must cost me something. This is not about earning anything from God, but about responding to his costly worship, as well as his inherent worth. And here is the rub: when I am asked to participate in singing choruses, or hymns, as the primary expression of communal worship, I am asked to offer worship that has cost me very little. And that, I find, is not only dishonouring to God, but, over time, harmful to me.
Beyond the songwriter – who may not even be part of the singing community – and the musicians; when everyone else can only sing along; the majority are giving the Lord what belongs to a minority, not what is theirs. The musicians may be representing their community as well as themselves; but the wider community is distanced, relegated – and in danger of becoming consumers of worship that is meant for another. I certainly believe there is a place in the life of the church community for coming-together to sing; but when that becomes the dominant, even sole, expression of worship each time the community comes together, I – along with many others – am uneasy, less-and-less happy to go along. I am happy to sing – especially at the major festivals of the Church year; especially if I am singing songs produced within my own local community…because to do so is to honour – to appropriately worship – the Church, and my song-writing friends, and to worship God according to their gifts is to identify together as the family of God. But when we sing time after time after time, we devalue both sung worship itself, and every other possible expression of worship arising from the community, the gifts and abilities and loves God has scattered amongst us.
I cannot play a musical instrument, compose songs, follow musical notation, or even sing in a way that most people find pleasing. But I can write reflections; I can take photographs that speak to me of God, and offer them back to him; I can…And I don’t want to insist that everyone should worship in a way that is authentic to me, but, as members of the body of Christ, I would wish that we could all contribute…
[On a practical note, my wife suggested to me the other day that participatory worship was all very well for creative people like me, but not for mere mortals like her. But we are all created in the image of a creative – Creator – God: when Jo made a (Nigella recipe) Tunisian Jewish vegetable stew this morning (and I helped prep the vegetables), which we will eat with couscous at our communal lunch tomorrow, both the preparation and the eating are expressions of worship; likewise the Easter-cake, decorated with a crown-of-thorns-and-text-of-John-3:16-border and central gold cross, that our friend Amanda made, and we ate, recently.]
Unlike many who are involved in the ‘emerging church,’ who have generally tended to opt for small-sized-only church in order to allow for full contributory participation, I am committed to church community being expressed in several concentric sizes – family, clan, tribe, to borrow from Old Testament language. But I’m not convinced that even the larger-sized gathering of the church requires a lowest-common-denominator expression of worship.
To follow Jesus involves worship; requires of us communal worship. But singing – whether the hymn-sandwich or the worship-block; whether Wesley, or Kendrick, or Redman – as the principle expression of worship is a cultural form. And for me it feels, increasingly, someone else’s culture imposed on me. In contrast, ‘alt. worship,’ drawing on the historical resources of the Church, contemporary culture and technology (as Wesley et al did in their day), and the diverse gifts God has given to his people – and restoring the Eucharist to a central place in worship, often in its original context of a shared meal – gives me fresh hope. One day, today’s ‘alt. worship’ may be ‘main-stream,’ and (whether that turns out to be so or not) my children will have to re-interpret worship so that it comes from their heart. But that is what Jesus is looking for: not one expression of worship as opposed to another, but worshippers who worship in spirit and in truth.
emerging church , contextualisation , worship , alt worship