Franciscan monks process in the Church of the Holy Sepulchre, Jerusalem. Courtesy Abraham Sobkowski via Wikimedia Commons.
Why do followers of Jesus make worship a priority? The answer is actually not so simple as one might imagine.
Is it a nice addendum, a window dressing to our private devotions and Bible study? Is corporate worship an aesthetic experience tacked on to the “real” discipleship of service and witness? Is our praise and preaching, our confession and communion really just a nice – but ultimately optional – show?
Fr. Andrew Stephen Damick takes on this line of thought, from an Eastern Orthodox perspective, in a post which I would commend to your reading. He notes,
Worship is reduced to preparation for the “real” Christian life, which is about Christian character, helping people, etc. Thus, worship is where we sort of plug back into the charging station so that we can go out and do the “real” Christian stuff.
How often do we talk about worship in just this way – as a shot of espresso to give a jolt to our “real” life of service and work – and not as a priority of Christian faith? We talk about worship “feeding” us. We drive home from worship reflecting on the day’s sermon as if we are judging an episode of Big Bang Theory or Scandal: “That one didn’t really do it for me” or “Wow! Today was a good one.”
Moreover, how many Christians treat worship attendance as something that is only important when there are no other options? Studies show that while the numbers of those claiming Christian faith are relatively stable, worship attendance continues to decline in frequency even among church members. (Carey Nieuwhof outlines some reasons for this here.) For even serious disciples, worship seems to be sliding down the scale of importance.
Sometimes we denigrate worship out of a kind of inverted piety. For instance, I’ve seen the Richard Rohr quote to the right making the rounds on social media of late. Leave aside that all of these three points are false dichotomies. The first line actively discourages worshipping Jesus in favor of “following him on his same path.” This is precisely the kind of move Fr. Damick notes: a supposed priority of witness, of Christian action, over worship.
The problem with this is that gathering to worship is a significant act of worship itself. The word “worship” comes from “worth-ship,” that to which we ascribe worth. By gathering to worship, we show our neighbors, our children, our friends that God has worth. As I outlined as part of a larger argument about online communion, Christians have noted for centuries that simply gathering for worship is itself a crucial act of worship. Fr. Damick strikes a similar chord:
So the most significant witness a Christian can offer is actually his worship, because it is that worship which is the height and purpose of the Christian life. How he treats others (and all other forms of non-worship activities) is important, but it is important because it points people toward worship.
Christianity is not reducible to activism. Worship doesn’t support witness. Witness supports worship.
Quite simply, worship is the incomparable priority for the people of God. The gathered community of praise and thanksgiving is not an option or an addendum; our purpose in corporate observance is not merely to an “experience” of enjoyment or fellowship or a jolt to our private spiritual journey. We worship in this life to prepare for unceasing praise which will shape our lives in God’s Kingdom.
I close by revisiting the Rohr quote above. The choice is not between worshipping Jesus and following Jesus. We worship Jesus because we follow him, for who else has the words of life? (John 6:68) Besides, we may find, as the disciples on the road to Emmaus discovered, that when walk with Jesus, we are drawn to worship almost without knowing it. After Jesus’ resurrection, Luke tells us in Acts 2:42
“They devoted themselves to the apostles’ teaching and fellowship, to the breaking of bread and the prayers.” (NRSV)
Note the early devotion to worship as both word (“apostles’ teaching”) and sacrament (“the breaking of bread and the prayers”). To be a follower of Jesus is inextricably bound up with worship – not listening to music in one’s car, or communing with nature, or meditation – but seeking the Triune God together through communal praise.
From the very first days of the Christian movement, disciples have assembled (“ekklesia“) for worship. What chiefly separated Christians from their pagan neighbors was not loving the poor or forgiving each other. What made the early Jesus movement unique – and thus, from time to time, a target of the Empire’s violence – is that they gathered to worship a carpenter who died and was resurrected. They prayed to him, they sang about him, they read about him, and they ate his body and drank his blood (which is why some pagan critics said the early Christians were cannibals). The worship of God in Christ through the Holy Spirit was a priority.
In the coming century, as increasing Western secularism, spiritual individualism, and a growing reliance upon technology for community conspire to make corporate worship less attractive, it’s possible that the primary distinction between a disciple of Jesus and a lukewarm believer – or between a follower of Jesus and the spiritual tourist or mildly theistic activist – will be the priority of worship.
Perhaps we are already there.