Friday, 26 July 2013

What is Worship?

Compline at Binsey Church, Oxford
I sat in an ancient church with no artificial lighting the other evening and said Compline, a Monastic form of prayer for the ending of the day, along with seven other people.  It was divine. I am about to go to the New Wine (Christian knees up) festival at The Royal Bath and West showground, along with 10,000 other people. A bit noisier though no less divine.

What is worship? It's an exercise in my own preferences isn't it? It's what people do in church on Sundays while the rest of their life goes on completely unaffected, isn't it? It's just people singing or being silent. It's really just being in the quiet of an evening outdoors, looking at a sunset...Simples. 
Worship on the bridge at
Whitchurch on Thames?

It's possible do all these things and more without reference to God, though. But you can also do them all with God at the centre - in an intentional 'long obedience in the same direction' (one of the best definitions of discipleship I've come across) and that makes all the difference.

Adrian Plass wrote 'I must confess that I have both enjoyed and suffered an enormous amount of worship of many different kinds during my travels over the last few years' (Why I follow Jesus, p. 23). 

I know what he means. Is there anything more depressing than hearing someone say: 'I don't get much out of the worship'. Isn't there something suspect about this approach? At the same time, worship that is genuinely dull, unthought through, unfocused and boring is inexcusable. How can this supreme activity for which humans were created be less than properly spiritually nourishing?

At some point or another all of the following statements about worship have been said to me (or read by me) in varying ways by Christian and non Christian. You may agree/disagree or 'none of the above'.

a. Proper worship has to be spontaneous.
b. Proper worship has to have structure.
c. Liturgy constrains the Spirit.
d. Repeating songs over and over is banal.
e. Anything written before 2010 is out of date.
f. Victorian hymns have more content.
g. Songs in which Jesus is described as 'lovely' are rubbish.
h. Only subjective words can express our devotion to God.
i. Candles are more honouring to the Almighty than drums.
Candle in Ffald y Brenin Chapel

j. Organ music is not biblical.
k. God is primarily found in silence.
l. God is found in the 'intimacy' of 45 minutes of singing with a band.
m. Worship should be fun.
n. The only acceptable worship is social action.
o. Robed choirs who process divert attention from God.
p. You need to call down the presence of God explicitly.
q. God is already fully there when we gather.
r. You should not address the Holy Spirit directly.
s. You can sing 'Holy Spirit, we welcome you'.
t. My garden is my church.
u. I'm worshipping when I walk the dog.
v. Liturgy should be relevant to people.
w. 'Demotic' liturgy (= of the people) is lamentable.
x. Worship leaders must be 'anointed'.
y. You can worship best when alone.
z. Worship is corporate.

So what makes worship 'worship'? Adrian Plass cites two negative experiences of worship and two positive. Interestingly they bear no correlation to whether the worship
was modern, ancient, wordy, simple, up to the minute, spontaneous or structured, for a few or for hundreds, let alone what kind of building each occurred in. 

In one negative experience, he went to a church where everything seemed slick and organised, especially the overhead projected lyrics and amazing band; but underneath there were seething divisions within the leadership and poor relationships. In another, spontaneity was an excuse for lousy preparation; the leader was flustered and chaotic, but was 'letting the Spirit lead', so that was 'OK'.

In two positive experiences, a Cathedral Easter celebration, Prayer Book style, was sublime; in another, a Pentecostal service in an impoverished downtown area was simple but real, despite the cheap guitar and squeaky violin.

Defining 'acceptable' worship may be very difficult, even (perhaps especially) for those who have to prepare and lead it, week in, week out. Save that it be 'in spirit and in truth' (John 4) some questions which may be signs we're heading in the right (or wrong) direction:

Does it have heart and soul?
Is it welcoming?
Is it theologically deep? 
Is it real?
Does it connect with the rest of life?
Does it help me think 'Christianly' about what's going on in the world?
Does it warm my heart?
Does it challenge my preconceptions?
Is it welcoming to others?
Is there space for waiting on God?
Are we bringing our whole selves to it?
Are we smiling?
Are we laughing?
And, simply, is it God focussed?

You will no doubt have other indicators. At some point we have to take the focus away from our own preferences and onto what God might require (i.e. our whole lives). The vision of St John's 'Revelation' is of endless worship across all cultures with the Lamb at the centre. 

No Power Points that break down; no arguments about hymn books; no choruses in G that no one can sing or hymn number boards that no one can reach; no dirges written by miserable Victorians; no liturgical commission, preservation societies or someone up front with a massive mic saying 'I don't want the focus to be on me...'

Revolutionary thoughts indeed.


  1. As a scientist I worship most deeply when I stand in silence in awe of God's creation. I worship least when there is noise.

  2. Great blog...good to be honest about worship. What you say is both encouraging and challenging. thank you :-)