My Anglican Tradition class is winding down, and there are a couple more thoughts I want to share in the next couple of weeks. Here is one: In one of our class sessions we were asked to respond to the following statement: “The first purpose of our worship is to please our Lord and Savior, Jesus Christ,” and also the question: “Is there any other purpose to our worship?” I hope my response enhances your own worship experience.
The first time I heard this statement about worship was when I read it in Ben Patterson’s excellent book, “The Grand Essentials,” sometime in the early 1990s. In fact, Patterson went so far as to say that when we call ourselves the “audience” in a worship service, we are committing the sin of blasphemy by presuming to take the place that God alone deserves to have. Those were powerful words then, just as they are now. According to Patterson, the focal point of our worship experience is, or should be, God. I believe it was also in this book (though I could be wrong) that I read about a vicar of a very small village parish somewhere in England, and when no one showed up for church one day, the vicar went on with the service, knowing that the only audience that mattered was in attendance.
Reading this idea back in the 1990s changed the way I as a congregant approached the worship service. Instead of eeking out a couple of hours of laundry or other chores before church, I began early Sunday morning to think about meeting God later that morning, and how I would not just be talking about him (through song, etc.) regarding his greatness and majesty, but talking to him, expressing my deep feelings of love and devotion. The amazing thing was that when I approached worship in this way, I actually grew more in love with God, appreciated him more, became more devoted to him, and therefore more relaxed in sharing his love (in words and deed) with others throughout the week.
Rereading these chapters in Patterson’s book now, as the catechist (lay leader) of our baby Anglican church in Placerville (Resurrection Anglican), I find more jewels. Speaking of tuning our senses to hear and see, drawing a comparison between work and worship, Patterson writes: “We have to recover our sense of God’s presence in our work in the world. But we won’t until we recover a sense of his presence in the work we do in the sanctuary. He is as present in the liturgy of the world as he is in the liturgy of the sanctuary…but it is in worship that we tune our spirits to hear and see him amid the noise and bustle of work.” What a way to view the liturgy! Not only is this “ritual drama” a means of worshiping God…the liturgy helps us to experience God, who is very and ever present in the Word and Sacrament that we so carefully prepare.
There’s more of course to this idea of God being present in the liturgy and receiving our heart-felt honor and praise and devotion as we follow along with the movements of our worship service. But the quote above also goes a long way to answering the question: Is there any other purpose in worship, besides giving God glory?
God is not changed because of our worship, but we are transformed by it, if we approach worship with an open spirit. Over time (like water’s action on rock) we can become more loving toward others, more giving of our time and money to works of service, more able to see God in our careers/vocations and thus better able to perform our daily work activities “as unto the Lord” rather than for our bosses, ourselves, or in grumpy resentment. So, a secondary purpose of worship, or result of worship, is our own transformation to become more like Jesus Christ, the object of our worship. (For more on this, see also “You Are What You Love,” by K.A. Smith.)
A third purpose of our worship service is welcoming the stranger to join with us in prayer and worship to the Most High God. With each reading of Leviticus and Deuteronomy I am impressed with God’s concern for the stranger and foreigner, seen in the instructions pertaining to how the Israelites should treat those individuals in their midst. Herod’s temple even designated an area for the Gentiles who were visiting Jerusalem during the many Jewish festivals, as well as other times of the year. I don’t think it is too far of a stretch to see our own church buildings and grounds as a virtual extension of the Court of the Gentiles…and our own worship services as an open door for the stranger and foreigner to the Christian faith to visit, in order to “taste and see that the Lord is good.”