One of the great opportunities we have in these unprecedented times is to ask, “what lessons should we be learning?”.
There are lessons to be learned just about everywhere: how to strengthen our health system, how to better care for the elderly, how to make low-paying jobs worth more than the emergency response benefit, and how to respond to the brutality and injustice shown to other people made in the image of God.
And, as people in whom the Spirit of God is at work, we must also ask “what is God saying to the church in this time?”. We know from his word that God always works some ultimate and eternal good out of even the most dire human circumstances, as long as we love him and follow where he leads.
While God no doubt has many lessons for us, one jumps out at me this morning: why do we worship?
Struggling to Connect
For a lot of us, Sunday mornings had been a comfortable routine for as long as we can remember: familiar songs, familiar words, a well-worn pew in a beloved building dedicated to the glory of God and the worship of the church, familiar faces and the warm welcome of people – brothers and sisters – you know would be there for you, to celebrate with you when you’re happy, and to lift you up when you’re weak.
And, of course, we’ve done the best we can: by the grace of God we’ve managed to stay connected on Sunday mornings, to stay connected by phone and now dropping in on one another all week long. We’ve kept calm and carried on; we’ve made do as best we could. And, thanks be to God, we’ve become more visible and more involved in our community than we have in years, with more parishioners volunteering in new and different ministries every day of the week. We’ve had people digging in and learning to study the Bible as a message that applies to our lives today, and we’ve had people asking hard questions and inviting God’s gift of healing into their lives, not just for their bodies, but doing the greater work of healing the memories that hold us down.
It one way, the pandemic has been good – this is our moment, and we’re stepping up, boldly, in the name of Christ.
But, if I’m being honest, Sunday mornings have been hard, and I say that as a priest whose work is the worship of the church.
It was one thing when the weather was icy and cold, but if I’m being honest, the idea of talking to a camera, or even setting up church on the lawn, just doesn’t “do it” for me. I can only imagine what it’s like on the other side, watching on a screen in your living room, or batting away flies outside under the sun. If I’m honest, one of the thoughts that crosses my mind is, “I don’t get much out of this”… and I’m sure I’m not alone.
It’s ok for us to admit how we’re feeling: God is truth, and He knows the secrets of our hearts anyway. But once we name our perception, our task as disciples, as students and apprentices of Jesus, is to learn to see things as God does.
What is worship?
I think all of us naturally think about worship as something for us. We come to be fed, we come to learn, we come to feel the support of our church family. We come to sing uplifting songs. We come looking for something familiar, something stable when the world is spinning, something that will fill us up to face the week ahead.
In short, we come to worship because of what worship gives me.
So then, when I don’t feel like I’m getting anything out of it, it’s easy and even natural for me to excuse myself and choose something that feels more beneficial instead.
Indeed, an entire generation has done that, as churches everywhere have grey heads and young families, but very few in the middle, usually because they “got more” out of some other option for Sunday morning.
But in this time of revaluating everything, if we stop and listen to God’s word and the faith of his church, we learn a hard lesson: worship isn’t about us.
If I get fed, if I learn something, if I come away refreshed and ready to face the week ahead, those are added bonuses: but they’re not the point.
Worship, rightly understood, is only every about God – he is the one and only worthy of all worship, he alone is worthy of praise, and he not only deserves but commands that every knee will bow and every tongue will confess that Jesus Christ is Lord, and not just once in our lives and not just when we feel we need him, but that He would lay claim on one day each and every week as we proclaim the resurrection, eat the bread of heaven, and tell one another the old, old story, for the cares and concerns of the world cause us to forget so soon.
Even the word “worship” is all about God. It means “to ascribe worth”, to declare that the thing we worship is worth our time and our talent and our treasure. Worship has nothing to do with how I feel or what I get out of it – in fact, any time my thoughts or my excuses circle back to me, I can be assured that I’ve been held captive by the sin of pride, as I’ve allowed my understanding of the world to have me and my feelings at the centre.
Worship is not something we do or something that feeds us; worship is what we give. Our task, as God’s people, is to ascribe to the Lord the glory due his name; to bring and offering and come into his courts; to bow down before him not for what he has done for us, but simply because He is God and we are not; He is powerful and we are weak; He is merciful, and we stand in need of mercy before the one who knows the deepest secrets of our hearts.
It’s a hard message, especially if we’ve been doing it backwards most of our lives. But I believe it’s also a wake-up call.
A Biblical Understanding
Worship becomes so much clearer if we turn from our familiar patterns and look with fresh eyes at what God says in his word.
In Abraham taking his son Isaac – a story that should rightly challenge us and raise all sorts of questions – we see the realities of worship laid bare.
God called Abraham to worship him upon the mountain of the Lord; to present himself along with his son – the son Abraham had longed for in his old age, the son who literally represented everything Abraham had in the world, and his entire hope for the future.
It’s truly painful to read – I can’t even imagine the grief in Abraham’s heart as he brought all of his hopes and dreams, bound up in the person he loved more than anything else in the world, and carried to the Lord.
But, Abraham said, “we will go over there, and we will worship”.
That’s Abraham’s act of worship – no uplifting songs, no fuzzy words of comfort, no goal of being filled up for the week ahead. Rather, simply and only because God is God, Abraham shows us what it means when we say “I surrender all”.
Abraham says (in his actions) ‘I will worship, I will give God the honour and glory due his name, even though it looks like it will cost me everything. I will worship, not because of what God gives me in return, but I will ascribe God’s worth simply because God is worth it.’
And, of course, we know God doesn’t desire burnt offerings; as we see with Abraham, the only sacrifice truly acceptable to the LORD is the one that the Lord provides. But that’s the point: if God is worth it, if God is who we say he is, then worship is nothing short of our being willing to give him everything we have, and more than that, everything we love.
I can guarantee that nothing about Abraham’s walk to worship that morning made him feel good; it certainly wasn’t what he wanted to be doing. But the call to worship is just that: a weekly reminder that “I surrender all” really means surrendering all; to weekly take ourselves off the pedestals we build and return to the Lord, not for our benefit, but simply because God is worth our time and our effort; to weekly remind ourselves that God alone has been our help in ages past, and in spite of the work of our hands, he alone will be our hope in years to come.
What about worship?
So, if you’re like me, and Sunday morning on a screen, or on the lawn just doesn’t do it for you, or even if the thought of returning to the church building without any singing or greeting one another doesn’t seem like something we’d get much out of, it’s good for us to name that.
We should name how we’re feeling, but then we need to call it like it is.
We aren’t Christians because we enjoy church services. We’re Christians because we said “I surrender all”, and God said “come, my child, and feast at my table”, and then “go, make disciples of all nations”.
We need to confess our frustration, and remind ourselves, time and time again that we worship simply because God is worth it. As Paul said in Romans, we come obedient to the command of God, and present ourselves – surrender ourselves, laying ourselves down as willing servants before a gracious master.
Of all the lessons to learn from COVID, this is a lesson that we – the Church – have needed to learn for generations, and it only continues to show God’s wisdom that he could use something as awful as a pandemic to help us see how the sin of pride and individualism has even infected what we do on Sunday morning.
The reality is, whether we’re online or on the lawn, whether we’re back in church or away at the cabin, worship isn’t something we do for our benefit. Whether we’re in our pews, on vacation, or watching in your pyjamas with your morning coffee, God commands us to keep the Lord’s day, gathering with even one or two others to proclaim his greatness, to offer ourselves and all that he’s given us, and to tell the old, old story to our children, to the world, and to ourselves, for we forget.
By the grace of God, sometimes it builds us up. Sometimes we leave re-charged. And sometimes, let’s be honest, it’s a chore, especially toting young children along on a sunny day after a stressful week. But whether it’s in the pews, online, on the lawn, or by yourself with your Bible and a prayerbook for 15 minutes at your campsite in the woods, when it comes to worship there should only ever be one question: is God worth it?
…And it’s only after we say “yes” that we realize the great blessings he has in store for all who follow him.
Looking for help structuring worship at home or on Sundays away from church during these strange times? Check these out!
Home Prayers (PDF) from the Book of Alternative Services
Forms of Prayer to be Used in Families (PDF) from the Book of Common Prayer
 For a helpful discussion, see John Piper at Desiring God.