Recurring irritations: the ‘W’ word

Worship bugs me.

Not the doing of it (although that has its moments), but the way we mis-use, mis-apply, and limit the word so much. Periodically I think I’ve got over it, but then I discover I haven’t. The latest provocation to twitchiness comes courtesy of a seed sown at Spring Harvest, watered by various conversations with people from local churches in between, and brought to fruition by an article in this month’s Christianity Magazine (June 2011).

At the outset I should point out that I go to a fairly mainstream evangelical church (UK-style mainstream). I play in various ‘worship bands’. On occasion I ‘lead worship’. So I’m arguably throwing stones from inside my own glass house, rather than seeking to start denomination wars.

Despite that, it does invoke a nervous twitch when ‘worship’ seemingly becomes synonymous with “what we do at church on Sunday”; even more so when it collapses down to “when we sing”. Every time I hear it used that way, a little bit of me dies. And another little bit gets unhelpfully stroppy. To make matters worse, because it’s such a classic piece of churchy shorthand, I even use it myself, when the circumlocutions to avoid it just get too much like hard work.

So this year at “Springy”‘ (sic) we get the genial MC regularly thanking Mr Ben Cantelon (and occasionally the rest of the band) for “leading us so well in our Time of Worship”. Fine, apart from two things. The minor one: for my money there wasn’t much actual leading going on, and the major one, no, that wasn’t “the worship”, ring-fenced, dealt with, set aside so we can move on to other stuff now. And whilst that may not have been the intention, or even the speaker’s understanding, that was the clear implication and weight of the words.

On the slight tangent of the leading, don’t get me wrong – Ben Cantelon & Co. played well.  We sang some good songs (and some duff ones, but that’s for another day).  I enjoyed singing (some of) the songs. I may even have ‘worshipped’ a bit whilst doing so. And we sang what they played, so they led in that sense. But for me leading people in corporate worship requires a little bit more – scripture, thoughts, direction, prayer; it’s not simply being the (very competent) house band for a corporate sing-a-long, no matter how committed. And getting back to the major point, whilst singing to God, individually or corporately, is clearly an element of worship … it still isn’t Worship.

Worship isn’t, or shouldn’t, be something that we have a time of; it should be the words that we speak, the actions that we commit, the choices that we make; it should be the way we live our lives, daily, constantly, on-going. In fact, arguably, our true worship, certainly our hardest and most effective worship, is likely to be what we do for the other 166.5 hours in the week (adjust figure to suit your local customs).

When we “offer our bodies as living sacrifices” it’s not just while we’re singing, arms in the air, “lost in worship”.

Worshipping in “spirit and truth” isn’t a code phrase for the emotional buzz that we can experience through music and singing (or through silent contemplation, for that matter). How high your hands go, or how tired you arms are at the end, aren’t the metrics for ‘good worship’.

If you look at the etymology and the current meanings of the word worship, it’s about ascribing worth and honour; tie that in with the Biblical context, and it’s about doing so not just in formal ceremony and liturgy, but also in service throughout our daily lives. A consistency of being; an orientation of soul and purpose. There are yards of books written on this, which expound it far better, and with greater knowledge, than me; even if the out-working in different traditions can look very different, the common underpinning is essentially the same. Check a few out; choose to read some from outside your own denominational or theological stream as well. It’s interesting and informative stuff.

None of which means that corporate singing is a bad thing; far from it. And none of which means that it’s wrong to be moved by music and song, or that God doesn’t on occasion use those times to speak, draw us closer, and change our hearts (although it does mean one needs a degree of discernment as to what is directly of God, and what is just a profound, ultimately God-given, but in the immediate context natural response to being in a particular musical environment, be it a concert, a club, or a worship service (see, I just did it myself again!)).

I just wish that we had a better vocabulary. One that reinforces rather than undermines that worship is the point, the reason, the underpinning, the journey, and not just the service stations and rest breaks along the way.