How congregational worship times show and shape us as followers of Christ
By Cory Seibel
One of my key responsibilities as a worship pastor is to plan our church’s weekly worship gatherings. This is no simple task. Thoughtful attention must be given to how Scripture, songs, prayer, the spoken word and other creative elements will be woven together to help the gathered congregation participate meaningfully in worship.
But that isn’t really what makes the task of worship planning a challenge. In recent years, the clash between conflicting styles and preferences within local congregations has caused Sunday morning worship to become the focus of much controversy. As I plan our worship services each week, I am continually reminded that I do so in the midst of this complex environment. At times, dealing with this mix of competing expectations seems like an impossible task.
What’s the point?
In light of this challenge, it is essential that I, together with everyone who plays a role in planning and leading worship gatherings, never lose sight of our true focus. This focus, of course, is God. The living God must always be at the center of our worship. As we come together each week, our energies should be invested in proclaiming God’s deeds, celebrating God’s character, remembering God’s promises, glorifying God’s name and responding to God’s gracious initiative with thanksgiving and surrender. As I plan and lead worship services, I must not allow myself to become so preoccupied with others’ expectations that this central focus is overshadowed or undermined in any way. Worship is not about us, but about God.
That being said, when we gather together there are some very important things that God desires to see happen in us. While worship is for God, God also intends for our gathering together to be to our benefit (Eph. 5:19; Col. 3:16; Heb. 10:19-25). However, the truly important things that happen during our worship services may not at all be the sorts of things we’re concerned about.
While we may sit in the pew and gauge whether or not our preferences are being satisfied, there are deeper things to which God invites us to be paying attention. First, I believe that God would have us consider the fact that through our participation in our weekly worship gatherings we show who we are. Second, whether we realize it or not, the truth is that our participation in these weekly gatherings helps to shape who we are.
Showing who we are
What do I mean when I say that we show who we are as we participate in worship? Quite simply, as we engage together in the activities of the worship service, the reality of how we are living our lives as followers of Christ gains expression (Luke 6:45). Through our prayers, praises and testimonies, the substance of our life with Jesus is communicated. In what we express and the spirit in which we express it, the things that matter to us are revealed.
Yes, at times the things we express outwardly during these gatherings aren’t actually an accurate reflection of the reality of our hearts. However, even in these times, our true inward condition is revealed before God. God knows when we are simply going through the motions, when our hearts are apathetic and cold or when we are driven by self-interest. These things are no surprise to him. He already is fully acquainted with the truth of our inner selves (Luke 16:15; I Thess. 2:4).
Nonetheless, God takes the integrity of our worship very seriously. He is not particularly impressed by even our most extravagant offerings of worship when they are divorced from lives that reflect his purposes and character in the world (Micah 6:6-8). Thus, as we enter worship together, we should take very seriously what our worship demonstrates about the reality of how we are living.
Shaping who we are
In addition to this, I suggest that our participation in worship gatherings actually helps to shape us. How exactly is this so? In recent years, Westerners have developed a growing appreciation of the fact that our lives are story-formed. As humans, we make sense of our existence and experiences by locating ourselves within a larger story. This seems to be a fundamental human need.
In reality, we are immersed from birth in a world that offers us a number of such stories. These stories may be provided by our culture, our ethnicity or our nationality. Regardless, we tend often to be unaware of the shaping impact that these narratives have in our lives. They instruct us in what life is really about and encourage us to live according to their values and priorities.
As one example of this, much has been written regarding the pervasive influence of consumerism within our culture. The narrative of consumerism offers us a far-reaching vision of what “the good life” looks like. It invites us to find our identity and invest our energies in the pursuit of consumption. This story has a way of capturing our imagination, shaping our values and directing our behavior.
As followers of Christ, we believe that our lives have come to be swept up in God’s story of redemption, the grand story revealed to us in Scripture. Because this story centers in the conviction that “Jesus is Lord,” we cannot permit a claim to be made on our lives by any of the competing narratives this world has to offer. We are not to “conform any longer to the patterns of this world,” but rather to “be transformed by the renewing of (our) minds” (Rom. 12:2). As disciples of Jesus, our attitudes, priorities and choices should be growing progressively into alignment with this story of what Christ has done, is doing and promises to do.
If God is the proper focus of our worship gatherings, then it makes good sense that God’s story should be the central story that gets told in these gatherings. As we sing, pray, listen to the voice of Scripture and share testimonies with one another, we are provided opportunities to recount this central story and to be reminded that it is indeed our story. In turn, we are provided an opportunity to be renewed in our commitment to go out into the world and live in faithfulness to this story in the power of the Spirit.
The Anabaptist legacy
The earliest Anabaptists offer a powerful example of what it means to be formed by God’s story. These believers were captivated by the conviction that God’s story is a story of mission. They believed that the God whom they worshiped is a missionary God, one who seeks to save that which is lost (Luke 19:10). They were convinced that, as followers of Christ, they had been called to live as his missionary people in the world. They recognized that Christ’s call challenged them to be set apart from the prevailing stories of their society and to devote themselves fully to the purposes of God’s mission. The way that these believers prayed, preached and sang when they came together demonstrated their passionate devotion to Christ’s call.
In recent times, a growing number of Christians from a variety of traditions have come to recognize the power of this early Anabaptist legacy. These contemporary followers of Jesus have been reawakened to the reality that the story of Scripture is the story of God’s mission. They too have recognized that Christ calls us to join him in his mission (John 20:21). They too are striving to rediscover how to live in faithfulness to this call in today’s world. How about us?
Gathering as missionary people
If we take this calling seriously, it will have profound implications for what happens when we gather together. If the God whom we worship is a missionary God, if the story to which our lives are meant to be oriented is a story of mission and if our identity is that of a missionary people, then this should surely gain expression in our worship gatherings.
If the story that gets told in our gatherings is some other kind of story, it fails to be truly God’s story or to form us in a way that is faithful to God’s purposes. Of course, a host of competing stories—such as the narratives of nationalism or consumerism—would like to sneak into our worship and entice us to take our focus off of God. We must be careful not to allow this to happen.
I suggest that our worship gatherings both show and shape us. So, what do our worship gatherings show about how we are living? Do we have testimonies to share of how we are experiencing Jesus at work in our communities? Do our prayers reveal that we are concerned about the brokenness by which we are surrounded or that we are seeking God’s empowerment to be able to respond with compassionate care? According to what story do our worship gatherings endeavor to shape us? Do our encounters with Scripture challenge us to orient our lives to the way of Jesus? Do the songs that we sing invite us to offer ourselves in obedience to God’s purposes?
As we contemplate the things that take place during our worship gatherings, I offer three specific points that are worthy of our consideration:
- Missionary identity: Does the substance of our worship services reveal that we have sincerely heard Christ’s call to be his missionary people? Does it challenge us to continue to understand our place in this world in light of his call?
- Missionary imagination: Do our worship gatherings demonstrate that we are being captivated by a vision of how Jesus wants to transform our lives, our homes, our neighborhoods and our world? Do they inspire us to continue to envision the ways in which the wholeness of Christ’s kingdom might come to bear upon the broken things within our lives and our communities?
- Missionary initiative: Does the tone and content of our worship services reflect that we have been actively striving to join Christ in his mission in the world? Do we come away from these gatherings invigorated to continue to live for the purposes of Christ in the power of the Spirit?
If our desire is that God would truly be at the focus of our worship services, we will recognize the need to give these questions our careful and candid consideration. God desires that we worship him not only with our lips but also with our lives. As we gather together, it should be evident that we are a people who, by God’s grace, are being formed to reflect his character and who, by God’s power, are striving to live in faithfulness to his mission within the world. This is the kind of people that God has called us to be. Indeed, this is precisely the kind of people that our world needs us to be.
Cory Seibel is assistant professor of pastoral ministry at MB Biblical Seminary and is based on the Fresno, Calif., campus. In addition to teaching, Seibel is directing pastoral ministry education and is serving part-time as worship pastor at Bethany MB Church in Fresno.
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