Sunday 29 January 2017

Worship For Life

This article was first published in the November 2016 edition of EG, the quarterly magazine of the London Institute for Contemporary Christianity.

I’m not that old (no snickering at the back, please), but even I can remember when the big question about worship was what type of musical instruments were allowed to be played in church. Drums were a definite no-no, but were tambourines okay? Or guitars? Even now, when we think about worship, what often comes to mind is a particular style of what takes place when Christians meet. Or we talk about ‘having a time of worship’ where the ‘worship’ is the ‘singing’ part before the sermon.

This being the case, it might come as something of a surprise to hear what the Bible says about worship. What light does it shed? One place to begin is with the words used in the Bible to describe worship.

A vocabulary for worship

As David Peterson helpfully shows, it turns out that the words usually translated as ‘worship’ in our English Bibles have very little to do with music or singing. What, then, do they involve?

Worship as honouring God

One group of words means ‘to bow down’. It’s used for the gesture of homage people show to kings or others in authority. Applied to God, worship is an expression of submission to him, as in Psalm 95:6 – ‘Come, let us bow down in worship, let us kneel before the Lord our Maker’.

Worship as serving God

A second term is the ordinary word for ‘serve’, which describes the relationship between a servant and a master, and which is applied by extension to our relationship with God. For example, echoing the language of ‘serving’ God used throughout Deuteronomy, Joshua challenges the people of Israel towards the end of his life: ‘choose for yourselves this day whom you will serve’ (Joshua 24:15).

Worship as revering God

Another set of words has to do with revering or fearing God. The motif of ‘the fear of the Lord’ is found throughout the Bible’s wisdom books and elsewhere too, describing a deep respect for God and his ways.

From a biblical perspective, then, acceptable worship is not primarily a matter of praising God in music and singing, or of taking part in particular ceremonies. It involves honouring, serving, and revering God – in every sphere of life.

A story of worship

Beyond the particular words used in the Bible is the story told in the Bible. To tell the story of the Bible is to tell a story of worship.

The first human beings enjoy the unmediated presence of God, walking with him in the sacred space of Eden. Because of sin, that relationship is marred and breaks down, with Adam and Eve banished from the garden. But God in his grace sets about restoring it. Men and women may still draw near to God’s presence and enjoy relationship with him, but only through priestly mediators and on the basis of sacrifices offered in a tabernacle or a temple.

In due course, as the story reaches its peak, Jesus comes and declares that he is the temple, the place where God dwells, the meeting-point between God and humans, the place where sacrifice is made. Worship is now centred on Jesus, the great High Priest, the one whose death inaugurates a new covenant with God’s people. In this new covenant, worshippers offer their bodies as ‘a living sacrifice’ (Romans 12:1) and bring ‘a sacrifice of praise’ to God (Hebrews 13:15). No longer does the glory of God fill bricks and mortar. The church, the whole body of Christ’s people, indwelt by God’s Spirit, is now the place of God’s presence.

Then, as we come to the final page, we discover there is no need for a temple in the New Jerusalem, for ‘the Lord God Almighty and the Lamb are its temple’ (Revelation 21:22). That’s where the story ends, with God’s people forever enjoying the glory of God’s presence.

Above all, the story of worship is a story of grace, as we trace the acts of God on behalf of the people of God and our response to God in lives of worship.

A life of worship

It should come as no surprise that the Lord of the whole of life requires worship in the whole of life. In the Old Testament, we see it in regulations that touch on every aspect of daily existence, in psalms which embrace the highs and lows and everything in between, in prophets who call for justice and mercy as well as sacrifice and singing. As Deuteronomy 10:12-13 captures it, all of life was to be an expression of service to the Lord:

‘And now, Israel, what does the Lord your God ask of you but to fear the Lord your God, to walk in obedience to him, to love him, to serve the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul, and to observe the Lord’s commands and decrees that I am giving you today for your own good?’

The Old and New Testament stand together on the necessity of whole-life worship, as Paul makes clear in Romans 12:1-2 – where bodies, minds and wills are offered in service back to God.

It thus becomes clear that worship embraces both what we do when we gather at set times with other Christians and what we do when we’re scattered the rest of the time on our everyday frontlines. Authentic worship takes place in a rhythm of gathering and scattering – like the regular breathing of a healthy body, like the back-and-forth movement of a well-played accordion.

Importantly, moments of gathered worship are not merely a platform for our individual expression of worship upwards to God, but the place for the Spirit’s downwards transformation of us. And it is our immersion in the life of the gathered church that forms us and equips us to be God’s people in everyday life.

So, singing is crucial after all! And so are the intercessions and the offering and the sermon. The very act of gathering expresses our identity as those called out of the world to be a people who serve God. Even the seemingly trivial and potentially awkward practice of greeting one another acknowledges that we are present not simply as individual worshippers but as the family of God. We sing God’s praise and give thanks for his work in the world. The preached word brings us face to face with Jesus and his power to equip us for everyday life. The taking of bread and wine nourishes us as we take our place in the story of his redemption of us and all things. We pray for the Spirit’s empowerment of each other in daily living and witness. It’s practices like these carried out faithfully and regularly that nurture our identity as God’s people and enable us to align ourselves more closely with his purposes for the world.

Here is where worship and mission flow into and out of one another. From the opening call to worship to the final blessing, God commissions us back into the world as stewards and disciples, equipped and shaped for the callings he has laid on us, in the various places we find ourselves, and in a way that the glory will belong to him alone.

Going Further

Rhythms of Grace: How the Church’s Worship Tells the Story of the Gospel
Mike Cosper (Crossway, 2013)
Shows how the gospel story shapes the church, and how the rhythm of gathering and sending continues to tell the story as God’s people in the world.

Encountering God Together: Biblical Patterns for Ministry and Worship
David G. Peterson (IVP, 2013)
A helpful reinforcement of worship as an engagement with God on the terms he proposes and in the way he alone makes possible.

The Message of Worship
John Risbridger (IVP, 2015)
A rich and wide-ranging set of biblical expositions on ‘celebrating the glory of God in the whole of life’.

The Whole of Life for Christ: Enriching Everyday Discipleship
Antony Billington & Mark Greene (IVP, 2015)
Worship is one of several themes explored in this book. Produced in partnership with Keswick Ministries, the seven Bible studies offer individuals and groups the opportunity to explore whole-life discipleship more deeply.

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