Faith In Real Life Blog
Why Church?: “Why Worship?”
Rev. Vernon Gramling
Decatur Presbyterian Church
June 22, 2023
1 Make a joyful noise to the Lord, all the earth. 2 Worship the Lord with gladness; come into his presence with singing. 3 Know that the Lord is God. It is he that made us, and we are his; we are his people, and the sheep of his pasture. 4 Enter his gates with thanksgiving, and his courts with praise. Give thanks to him, bless his name. 5 For the Lord is good; his steadfast love endures for ever, and his faithfulness to all generations.
We began FIRL by asking why we worship? The first set of responses actually were directed to the question why attend worship? This, of course is a different question. Worship is not limited to church attendance, and church attendance may or may not lead to worship. Today, I will follow the groups’ lead and discuss the motivations that bring us to church attendance and follow with some of the theological underpinnings of worship.
Perhaps unfortunately, church attendance is often more of a discipline and a habit than it is a hunger. Many of us started attending worship because our mothers told us to. That said, whatever the motivation, worship has been central to the participants in FIRL. There was a pragmatism and pastoral awareness to attending worship. As Catherine Carter put it—”I’ve done it so long, I don’t know how to do Sunday without it.” Mimi put it more strongly. “Worship is the highlight of my week. Besides that, I need the people.” Even without the ability to articulate why, attending worship was recognized as centering and nurturing. It captured a sense of meaningful connectedness and tradition. Nesie Williams said it was an opportunity to praise God, to feel gratitude, to confess and to provide another chance to start over again. Mary Lynn commented that liturgy helped structure and organize her worship. It kept her mindful of dimensions of worship she might leave out.
Different elements of worship attracted people differently—but far and away the most prominent was Music. Music was a vital part of worship for many. Music touched a deeper part of us. Music provided a language that superseded words. It allows connections to God and each other that do not need to be explained. As often as not, music provided the experience of worship. Singing together bonds people. It provides a base for community. People rarely argue when they are singing together. (Afterwards, perhaps, but during the experience of music in worship, we touch the waters that feed all wells). Ken Graff described attending a gospel music performance where, as he put it, “There were no racial divides that day. I was treated like a friend and a brother.” RG simply says, “I came for the music and stayed because of the friends.”
Unfortunately, these experiences of worship are hard to translate to people who do not worship. Church is viewed as old fashioned, irrelevant or worse, rigid, hypocritical and judgmental. The modern version of “I can worship God on the golf course” is “I do not need church to be spiritual and loving.” When we lose the underpinning of worship, we lose the ability to talk meaningfully about it. It becomes a ‘because it feels good’ explanation rather than the clear identification of our faith.
Here are a few thoughts framed in ordinary daily encounters that give me direction when I think about the ‘why’ of some of the elements of worship.
1. Praising God. I asked our FIRL groups what do we mean when we say we ‘Praise God’. It is an extremely familiar phrase, but the silence was deafening. God is such a big concept that it is hard to talk about God in ordinary terms. Yet that is exactly what the Incarnation allows us to do. The theological concept of the Word becoming Flesh allows us to realize that God can literally be found in day-to-day encounters. God is not just a list of ‘Omnis’—omnipotent, omnipresent and omniscient. That is an image of God that is awe inspiring but not one that is very relatable. We worship a God who is Love, who loves us and who teaches us how to love. That is an incredible faith claim but it is central to our faith. The most important thing we can experience in life is to receive love. The most important activity of life is the receiving and offering of love. These are the fundamental principles around which we organize our living. We gather each Sunday to lift up these beliefs, to worship such a God and to experience such a God. Worship reminds us of our deepest beliefs and helps keep us focused upon God’s work—loving one another as we have been loved.
2. Thanking God. Gratitude. If, even for a short time, you have felt deeply loved, you cannot be the same person afterward. The experience may wear off but you have had a taste of transformation and of salvation. I am paraphrasing Betty Cousar but she describes reading an article in which the words “I find the person who can find the grace to say thanks can survive the worst that life can bring” leapt off the page to her. An ‘attitude of gratitude’ allows us to live life differently.
3. Prayer of confession. When we confess together, we touch our universal sinfulness—which simply means we lean toward selfishness and self-centeredness. We turn away from mindfulness and regard. Paradoxically, our turning from God binds us together as creatures in need of love and direction. None of us is better than another. Our shared humanity includes the reality that it is difficult to love people we know much less people who are outside of our circles.
4. Assurance of Pardon. We live in the promise that God loves us in the full knowledge of our failings, inadequacies and sinfulness. This allows confession to be the doorway to grace rather than a shame-filled scolding. That kind of love is so foreign to our ordinary relationships, we need to be reminded of it every week.
5. Affirmation of Faith. Our faith is corporate, not individual. Written by others in our tradition, we repeat the words others have used to express our faith. Such words serve to remind, to teach and guide us in the difficult task of loving in a secular world.
6. Scripture and Sermon. It is difficult to read the Bible. Its context and imagery are largely foreign to our ears. It helps to hear the ‘original’ (though such a thing does not really exist—the best we get is an approximation) and to hear how someone else has interpreted it. That said, one of my favorite quotes is from a famous author who was giving a sermon in a large church. Paraphrasing, he said he would not speak long because he could not remember ever listening to a sermon all the way through. But that was ok since ‘not listening’ provided him with the opportunity to daydream about God. The spoken word is very important in our tradition but in real life, we absorb only a small part of what is said. But fortunately, it is often the case that we hear what we need to hear.
7. These, and the remaining elements of worship, focus us, instruct us and allow us to live Godly values (translate, loving) in a world in which we are just as likely to be viewed as naive, dismissed and/or ridiculed. Most of us have no idea that our faith requires us to live lives that will always fall short of human need. If being ‘enough’ is how you measure yourself, don’t be a Christian. Likewise, we are asked to make major decisions with inadequate information. If you need certainty, don’t be a Christian.
8. Benediction. We are gathered in worship to be scattered in the world to live the values we celebrate. At the end of the day our worship in a church is what enables us to love in the world.
Standing for love in a ‘me’ world is swimming upstream. We cannot do it alone. We need focus, instruction, reminders and each other to ‘hold fast to that which is good.’
Worship in order to experience God. Worship to learn about God. Worship to serve God. Or, Live like you are loved. Live like love matters. Live like love will prevail.
Let it be so.