Two Kinds of Worship?

One of the things I like about Christian theology and practice is that it is always evolving. Sure, certain absolutes remain constant, but lots of the periphery change and I believe the reason why the Christian faith has endured (and in fact flourished) over the centuries is because of its cultural adaptiveness.

So, when I write in this blog, I’m not trying to provide static answers and manifestos. I appreciate that my own thoughts will change and be challenged, as much as I seek to challenge and grow the mindsets of others.

If you’ve read my earlier posts on defining worship, you will see that I take a very broad view of what worship is. The definition I like the most is Harold Best’s, which says that worship is “continuous outpouring”, meaning that our whole life is our worship to God.

I thought that was pretty progressive, until I came across James MacDonald’s writings in the November 2012 issue of Worship Leader Magazine. In his article, “Unashamed Adoration”, MacDonald says this:

We are frequently told that making a meal for your family or cleaning your car or helping your neighbour are all acts of worship. When these acts are the outgrowth of our love for God and are done to demonstrate that love, I would agree that they are “worshipful”, but technically they are not worship. I’m not seeking to parse meaning with undue rigour, but we need to be precise in our definitions if we want to accurately embrace the very purpose for our existence. Worship is the actual act of ascribing worth directly to God. Worshipful actions may do this indirectly, but when the Bible commands and commends worship as our highest expression, it is not talking about anything other than direct, intentional, Vertical outpouring of adoration. While that does not have to be put to music, it does have to be direct in order to rise above the “worshipful” and actually attribute worth to God…. Worship is mind, emotions, and will engaged in whole-person ascription of worth.

Nothing brings glory down in church as quickly and as powerfully as when God’s people unashamedly adore God’s great Son, Jesus Christ.

I like the distinction McDonald makes between “worshipful acts” and “worship”, with “worship” being something requiring intensity, intentionality and vertical-focus.

Just the other night, I was trying to describe what we were going to do for Global Day of Worship and how some time during our “worship”, we should have a time of giving. I had to make inverted comma signs with my fingers when I said the word “worship” to delineate between musical praise and taking the monetary offering. And then the thought occurred to me that I might need to use “air ponies” (as Gloria in Modern Family puts it) every time I want to describe intentional praise as distinct from lifestyle-worship just in case anyone misunderstands me. At that point in time, I thought whether an excessively broad definition of worship might make the term meaningless and unusable.

So perhaps, much can be said for MacDonald’s position in taking us back to a more rigid (and what I had thought was a less progressive) definition of worship. What do you think?

Defining Worship Part 2

Today, I want to finish up what I started a month ago when I introduced Harold Best’s definition of worship in my post Defining Worship. In that post, I extracted Best’s definition, being that worship is “the continuous outpouring of all that I am, all that I do, and all that I can ever become to God”.

Here I want to unpack that a bit further.

First, the concept of continuousness. Best says in Unceasing Worship (p 18):

Worship does not stop and start, despite our notions to the contrary. Once we place emphasis on specific times, places and methods, we misunderstand worship’s biblical meaning. Worship may ebb and flow, may take on various appearances and may be unconscious or conscious, intense and ecstatic or quiet and commonplace, but it is continuous.

I want to pause here and consider the idea of “unconscious worship”. Most worship leaders will implore you during worship times on Sunday to “give your full attention to God”. This is a question of intensity and focus. But what happens when you go to work on Monday and have to think really hard about how to solve a client’s problem, or to draw up a design or to write up a complex formula? In my experience (and I’m being honest here), I don’t often think about God. When I am drafting a legal contract, I am don’t sing “Then sings my soul, my Saviour God to Thee…” whilst I am typing “Subject to the payment of rent, the Landlord leases the Premises to the Tenant” etc. I think my head will explode! And my secretary will think I’m nuts!

But that doesn’t mean I’ve stopped worshipping because as I have said elsewhere on this blog, your work is also worship.

So worship changes intensity, it ebbs and flows, but it never stops. It’s continuous. I like the idea of “unconscious” worship!

Next, is the concept of outpouring.

Outpouring implies a direction. You pour into or towards something. Overflowing is different to outpouring. Overflowing happens in every direction. When you fill up a bucket to its brim, it overflows everywhere. But pouring out has a sense of intention.

I was having a conversation with a friend the other day who said that if you look at how adherents of other religions worship, you can take away all the external trappings (like clothing style or music) and it wouldn’t look too different to what Christians do on a Sunday. This is true. The difference (and the key one) is one of direction, because as I have said before, everyone is worshipping something or put another way, nobody does not worship. The basis of that difference is being to able to answer the question why the Christian God is deserving of our outpouring more than any other God. That’s too big a question for me to deal with in this post, but hopefully one day I will be able to give a strong cogent answer to my friend (I suspect I may actually not give her a concrete answer, but we will probably ask a series of questions and come up with the answer together!).

Of “outpouring”, Best says this (p 19):

It implies lavishness and generosity: when I pour something, I give it up; I let it go. Dripping is not outpouring; there is space between the drops. But in pouring, the flow is organically and consistently itself. In spite of a mixed simile, pouring is seamless.

The lavishness and generosity of outpouring is illustrated in the Gospel story of Mary and the alabaster box (which I have looked at elsewhere on this blog). But here, I like Best’s comment about “giving up” and “letting go” the most. Worship is about surrender. When you worship, you are really surrendering your whole life to God, or as Paul puts it in Romans 12:1, offering your whole life as a living sacrifice.

The thing with pouring, or with sacrifice (for that matter) is that once the act is done, it is irretrievably done. You can’t take it back. You have either poured it out, or you have been consumed by fire. There’s no going back to the way things were. How we continue in that process is by the grace of God, knowing that God never lets us out of His hands once we commit our lives to Him.

Lastly, worship cannot be self-contained, as Best says, “even when it barely dribbles out”. In the story of Mary, the Gospel writers say that the whole house was filled with the fragrance of Mary’s worship. In this sense, worship and witness are really one comprehensive reality.

Okay, now enough of the big, complicated ideas.

Let me reduce this into somewhat more simple terms: Worship is like being married to someone. If you haven’t tried it, you should give it a go! The fact of marriage means that you give priority to your wife. Sometimes this is conscious, sometimes not. Your daily routine reflects that priority. You always come home to her; you have time for her (even though you have a lot of other things on your plate) and you share your whole life with her.

Sometimes, you give fuller effect to that priority. For example, you would like to watch the cricket (actually this is a bad example because I abhor watching the cricket!) but you decide to spend some quality time sipping tea with her and chatting about your day. You might call this “quiet time” (I know, I couldn’t help chucking in a religious term). Still more intensely, there will be times when you pay especial honour to her, and everything you do is about her: you write her a card saying how beautiful she is, what a great person she is, you buy her dinner, you give her flowers.

But yet, there will be times when you don’t pay her enough attention. You do things that make her upset. You’re inconsiderate. You put your own desires above hers. (Okay, I am talking about myself, but using the “you” pronoun gives me a sense of solidarity with the rest of you). That doesn’t mean that I stop being married.

And that, my friends, is very much like our worship.  It makes me wonder whether this is why the New Testament church is often described as the bride of Christ.

At the end of the day, worship is relational. When we enter into relationship with God, we have changed the direction of our worship from ourselves, from other gods and things which seek mastery over us, and we are now directing our worship towards God. It doesn’t always feel like we are worshipping, or that God is at the centre of it all, or that God is even close to us, but that’s okay. At the end of the day, we’re coming home again.