My doctorate is in liturgy and homiletics. My written project focused upon adding contemplative practices to the modern worship service using the format utilized in the contemplative community of Taizé.
I chose this path because I felt that current “worship” is mainly geared more toward us rather than toward God. I had heard the phrase, “doesn’t meet my needs” way to often. Worship is not primarily about our “needs” but is about our being with God who said, “let us make living beings in our image” (paraphrase mine).
As a pastor, I found that those in the administrative leadership in the denominations I served put emphasis on those things they felt added to the denominations financial and numerical survival. They would preach, teach and expect directly or indirectly that big is better. The size (attendance) of a gathered group was the primary indicator of success not on the spiritual growth of believers.
Also, there is an emphasis on the consumer (customer) mindset. This supports the “need” factor that has produced a failure to include practices that would build a community into one in which the heart of God’s compassion dominates producing the fruit of grace. There is a strong push to provide for people with what they want more than what God desires.
The Apostle Paul warns Timothy about this human tendency. “For the time is coming when people will not put up with sound doctrine, but having itching ears, they will accumulate for themselves teachers to suit their own desires, and will turn away from listening to the truth and wander away to myths.” (2 Tim. 4:3-4 NRS)
In order to worship as an individuals without the focus being on individualism there should be four elements in our lives as believers included whenever possible to produce genuine worship.
First there must a faithful commitment. By faithful commitment I mean there must be a commitment to God that has a higher value than any other aspect of our lives. It is very easy for ritualistic activity and social tribalism to be thought of as “worship” when God has stated what God expects worship to be, a giving of our totality to our loving God. “You shall love the LORD your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your might.” (Deut. 6:5 NRS) Jesus reiterated this in His discussion with the lawyer over the greatest commandment. “He said to him, ‘You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your mind.”(Matt. 22:37 NRS)
When we worship we need to do so with the intent to live our lives as God’s people doing those things which God expects. Our worship should flow out of our righteousness. It should acknowledge when we fail to do this bringing about a true sorrow for sin and a desire for forgiveness with a renew of our commitment.
Worship is not about the right music, the right rubrics, the right rhetoric or right ritual but the right relationship in which we seek to place God where God belongs, in the center of our hearts and lives. If this condition is not met then our worship is not worship at all.
Second, there must be focused remembrance. God gave the people these instructions concern God’s decrees, commandments, and actions:
“Keep these words that I am commanding you today in your heart. Recite them to your children and talk about them when you are at home and when you are away, when you lie down and when you rise. Bind them as a sign on your hand, fix them as an emblem on your forehead, and write them on the doorposts of your house and on your gates.” (Deut. 6:6-9 NRS)
It is through remembrance of all that God has said and done that we find our purpose and our meaning in life. The ability to remember and reflect gives us an anchor for out faith. Our faith is not a blind faith. It does not require us to believe “just because.” Our God is a revealing God, an acting God, a God who is found in circumstances and events. We have Scripture that reminds us of God’s action in the past and God’s promises for the future.
Jesus, in his last act with his disciples, gave them this sacrament, “Then he took a loaf of bread, and when he had given thanks, he broke it and gave it to them, saying, “This is my body, which is given for you. Do this in remembrance of me.“” (Lk. 22:19 NRS)
After spending a good portion of my life as a pastor of churches that made preaching to be the unofficial sacrament of the church, I have become more convinced that focusing on the Eucharist as the central element of weekly worship is vital to having true worship. There is a deep theology in the practice of the presence in the meal, the remembrance that continues the presence of Jesus within the community. Yet, again, because so many church members have not been properly instructed on the real purpose of the remembrance reality of communion, many do not find participating important. Such a spiritual poverty has damaged the spiritual vitality of the church.
Third, there must be sincere praise. This praise must come from within a heart of gratitude and not simply from a catchy tune or theatric performance. And while music should have an important part in worship, that music should be a tool for deep internal expression of love and trust in God. Public prayers should focus on God’s actions and human response more that asking for intercessions and individualized desires.
Again, praise itself should be founded upon remembrance and promises. It should emphasize faith even when understanding is not grasped. It should honor mystery and promote assurance rather than certainty which is never promised nor expected of us by God.
Fourth, there must be hope founded in cheerful confidence. Even in times of challenge and difficulty there should be confidence. Even in times of persecution and fear there should be confidence. God can be trusted. Jesus is our blessed hope. Jesus is the same yesterday, today, and forever. Jesus will return. We need to be confidently ready and express this readiness as we worship. If any of these four elements are missing, we should be asking ourselves, other members, and our leaders why?