Any church is greatly defined by it's corporate worship time. The church may have wonderful ministries that touch its community and focus on making disciples, but typically it's most frequent activity with the most participation is the Sunday morning gathering. Frankly, this is what most people think of, if they think of church at all. They think of that hour or so on Sunday morning when people get together in the church house, store front, or auditorium and have a meeting - typically involving some mixture of praying, singing, giving, observing the ordinances of baptism and the Lord's Supper and listening to the preacher.
Regardless of the tradition, formula or style, what's important about that meeting is that it be God-centered and authentic. We often fixate on the form of worship with little thought of the substance of worship. Questions about form and method are important questions to ask, but ones about substance are more important. Furthermore, it's only when we understand what worship is, can we begin to make sure that the content and style of our gatherings are in focus.
So, what is a the very heart of the worship of God? Well, it's not what we usually want to talk about. It's not the preaching, although rightly preaching the Word of God is critical. It's not the music, although music is a God-given means to express praise. It's not about style - liturgical, traditional, high church, low church, or contemporary. It's not about what we do, although we will do something when we assemble. (I'll address that in part 2)
At the heart of worship is what we are not what we do. Instead of seeing Sunday morning as a time in which we check into a worship event, we need to see Sunday morning as a time in which worshippers have the privilege and joy to gather to proclaim and praise together.
When you look into the Old Testament and observe the worship of Israel, the key idea that emerges is consecration. Consecration refers to the act of persons or items being separated for God, to be considered holy and belonging to God. When we understand the heart of worship to be a consecrated life, then we have the proper understanding of worship. A biblical awareness of consecration keeps us from reducing worship to a weekly event.
If you glance through the book of Leviticus, you'll encounter the word and idea of consecration repeatedly. Consecration was expected in regards to the priests themselves, to the items in the tabernacle, to moral standards for daily living, to special gatherings and celebrations, and to a host of other instructions and regulations. Throughout the Old Testament the emphasis was upon the priests and the people being consecrated before the Lord.
In other words, people were to be set apart and holy for service to God. The particulars of the Old Covenant are not important (e.g. dietary laws, temple worship, sacrifices, feasts, etc.), but the essence of what God required throughout it all is important. He required consecrated people. And when the people were not consecrated, their acts of "worship" were not merely empty, but offensive to God. The prophets reminded the people of this when the people's lives were not consecrated, but they still went through the motions of offering "worship." David knew this in his prayer in Psalm 51. God's great concern was with the disposition of his heart and obedience, not his sacrifices.
Now, fast forward to the New Covenant in Jesus. We see that the form of worship undergoes dramatic change, but the heart of it remains the same. In the greatest and fullest explanation of the Gospel, the Apostle Paul describes the heart of the worshipper in his letter to the Romans. In the first 11 chapters he had beautifully and skillfully unpacked what the followers of Jesus have received by the grace of God. Believers had been saved from God's wrath through faith in Jesus, freed from the deadly grip of sin, given the righteousness of Christ and made spiritually alive. At the beginning of chapter 12, Paul begins describing what every believer's natural response should be to such a marvelous grace.
"Therefore I urge you, brethren, by the mercies of God, to present your bodies a living and holy sacrifice, acceptable to God, which is your spiritual service of worship. And do not be conformed to this world, but be transformed by the renewing of your mind, so that you may prove what the will of God is, that which is good and acceptable and perfect" (Romans 12:1-2 NASV).
Permeating these verses is the idea of Old Testament consecration. Paul likens our lives in Christ as being a consecrated sacrifice to God - one that is living, holy and acceptable. In other words, we are to present to God a consecrated life, and this life is our worship (or service). Worship at its root is what we are before God, not merely what we do in a gathering. When you consider what Paul says here about how a consecrated life is the essence of worship, then a few things become much more clear.
First, we understand that only a genuine believer can be a real worshipper. Paul is urging those who believe ("brothers"). An unbeliever may be in the gathering of the church on Sunday morning as a guest, but he cannot be a worshipper. He might even participate by singing along and listening, but he is not worshipping. This truth has tremendous importance for how we understand the purpose and design of our weekly gatherings.
Second, if our gathering time on Sunday is to be truly God-centered and authentic, then I must enter into that time as a consecrated follower of Jesus. I have to give up this notion that I can conform to this world Monday through Saturday, then come into the church house for an hour on Sunday and rub a little "worship" on my life and keep it Christianized. Understanding God's call to a consecrated life will help me not to compartmentalize my life into my "regular" time and my "church" time.
All my time is His time. All my life is service to Him. All of me belongs to Him. All of me is dedicated to His will. All my life is worship. This is how my activity during the gathering on Sunday morning stays authentic and finds acceptance with God. This understanding and emphasis is what we are most typically missing in our worship gatherings. It's not about what I get out of the worship experience; it's always been and always will be about what I bring and present to my God.
When I grasp that worship is fundamentally about a consecrated life to God, then my whole disposition changes about the corporate gathering of believers on Sunday morning. I don't evaluate worship by whether certain forms and elements of the service were served up to my liking. Suddenly, it's not about any of that stuff. It's about my life before a holy God and the joy of corporate confession of faith and praise to the One who is worthy.
Of course, there are the practical considerations of what a congregation actually does together when it meets. Again, it's not that those are unimportant or insignificant details. They are actually very important. But we have to get the main thing right first. When we know what worship truly is, then we can put together gathering times that both keep God at the center, keep the experience authentic, and is sensitive to those who are seeking. Once we have nailed down what worship is, then we are ready to engage how to best plan and conduct our weekly gatherings. We now have a compass to guide us concerning what we should do and what we shouldn't do.
That's where we'll pick up in part 2.
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