The day I did The Talk


So there I am, quite content to lead the odd reflective service, when all of a sudden we discover there’s no-one around to do the talky bit for one of them.  No problem, how hard can it be, right?

Armed with a fairly clear idea of what I should talk about, I set out to jot it down.  Ha! I’ve now lost count of the hours spent writing, re-writing, throwing away, starting again, editing, cutting, despairing over a three week period in order to produce a 10 minute talk which ended up nearer 20 because I simply couldn’t cut any more out and keep it even vaguely coherent.

Things I have learnt:

  • I hate writing talks. Essays, papers, vaguely academic stuff, that’s fine. Talks, no
  • it’s very hard not to make it a lecture (for me, at any rate)
  • if I have to do it again I’m going for one idea, just one simple concept that can easily and amusingly be delivered in 5-10 minutes. Not something better suited to a Master’s thesis
  • people are remarkably gracious as to what they’ll tolerate from the front :)

Anyway, having burnt countless stressful hours on it, I figured it may as well land up here after the fact.  Of course, it’s not properly constructed for a blog post, but I’ve resisted the temptation to expand, or link to more detail on specific bits. It can stand or fall for posterity as a talk, not a paper.

The Talky Bit

Tonight’s talk may seem to jump about a bit. It’s something of a whistle-stop tour, covering a fair amount of ground, in as short a time as possible. So if anything makes you want to dig deeper, let me know and I can point you at some stuff to read, and maybe argue with.

However, before we get going, I’d like to start by stopping, just for a few seconds. Take a moment to think, as honestly and as deeply as possible in those  few seconds, on why you’re here tonight. You don’t need to write it down and I’m not going to ask anyone to share. Why did you come? What were your expectations? What are we doing here tonight?


It doesn’t take a genius or special insight to guess that for most of us there are a whole load of different reasons, purposes and expectations that draw us to church.  After a while regardless of what started us off, it becomes a habit, just something we do.  The good thing about habits, or at least good habits, is that we do them automatically, in good times and bad. But sometimes it can be useful to take a few moments to remind ourselves why, and perhaps to cut through some of the things that can pile up and hide what we know to be true.

Worship is an interesting and increasingly loaded word.  We have worship leaders, worship bands, worship music, worship services, worship times, worship charts, worship resources, worship events, worship conferences; even a worship industry. For many evangelical churches it’s implicitly linked to that slightly nebulous idea of the fuzzy feeling, the ‘connectedness’ that can occur when good music combines with good words and a good atmosphere, and we’re lifted out of the everyday into a transcendent moment.

Worship is also increasingly identified with what goes on at church.  Up to a point it is – Colossians 3:16 says: “Let the message of Christ dwell among you richly as you teach and admonish one another with all wisdom through psalms, hymns, and songs from the Spirit, singing to God with gratitude in your hearts.” – but it’s also something more.


In creating a kind of Worship with a capital W, linked to ‘worship times’, we narrow it down, and also set up a tension between worship being something we give to God, but which becomes tied to personal preference, to what ‘works’ for us. We get wrapped up in the ‘quality of the worship’, and in whether we were ‘enabled to worship’ in a service. That isn’t entirely unreasonable: our gathered acts should lift, refresh, challenge and encourage, not drive us to distraction.  Unfortunately it also encourages us to focus  in the wrong place, and to run the risk of either not seeing the wood for the trees, or worse, embark on a programme of deforestation.

The words in scripture translated as ‘worship’ all actually mean somewhat different things to how we use the word today.  To some extent that’s part of the natural evolution of language, but a side effect is that without a wider understanding, ‘worship’ in the narrow sense leads to division and tension; it turns the focus on form over function, and make us push for our preference, for what works for us, for our experience. Perversely, it takes something that should be a unifying act, pointing towards God, and makes it a source of whisperings and mutterings, hurts and splits.

There are three words that are commonly translated as ‘worship’. In the Greek they are:

Sebomai – meaning reverence and respect, ‘fear of the Lord’ as it used to be phrased

Proskuneo – implying homage and grateful submission.  It carries with it a sense of posture: not stood with arms held high, face up, but prostrate on the floor, knelt and bowed at the feet of the one being worshipped.

Finally Latreuo, used to describe acts of service, and service performed for a master.

In Old Testament usage this would be in the context of priestly service at the tabernacle, serving God and serving the nation. In the New Testament this is widened out through our understanding of the priesthood of all believers, and through explicit teaching. For example, in Romans 12:1 Paul writes “Therefore, I urge you, brothers and sisters, in view of God’s mercy, to offer your bodies as a living sacrifice, holy and pleasing to God—this is your true and proper worship.”. And in Hebrews 12:28 we read “Therefore, since we are receiving a kingdom that cannot be shaken, let us be thankful, and so worship God acceptably with reverence and awe.”   Both passages are latreuo worship – serving God in our daily lives, in everything – not just something we do in a particular place at a particular time.  This echoes Jesus’ words to the Samaritan woman, that “a time is coming and has now come when the true worshipers will worship the Father in the Spirit and in truth” – not on the mountain, not in Jerusalem, but wherever we are, by the work of the Spirit, in the actions we take and the choices we make as we live out our faith.

If that sounds like the makings of a hatchet job on our worship services, both contemporary and traditional, rest assured it isn’t.  It’s simply to say that as far as worship is concerned, what we do when we gather together is an extension of what we do when we’re not together. We don’t gather together in order to worship; we’re worshipping (or trying to) all the time. So when we gather together we’re still worshipping, because worship, in the form of service, reverence and obedience should be stamped through our whole lives in every aspect.  As someone, sadly unattributed, said: “I don’t come to Church in order to breath. I am breathing all the time. So too, I don’t come to Church to worship God, but because I am always worshiping God and I am also worshiping him at church.”.

I may be on thin ice with this, but it seems that in the general case, a lot of how corporate worship is subconsciously approached can be traced back to the model depicted in the Old Testament.

From creation until Moses, God is mostly defined indirectly, by his relationship to others. He is the God of Abraham, the God of Jacob.  When he reveals Himself to Moses in the burning bush, this relationship becomes more direct. He gives Moses His name, “I AM”, Yahweh.  Then through the construction of the tabernacle, this relationship becomes more intimate still, as Yahweh’s presence rests or dwells in the Holy of Holies, at the centre of the tabernacle, in the midst of the Israelite people.[1]

The whole of the tabernacle system speaks of God’s holiness and power, His intimate relationship with His people, but also their separation from Him.  His presence rests at its heart, yet He is still separated from them. The majority of the people can only enter the outer courtyard to bring their sacrifices. The priests serve in the Holy Place on behalf of the people.  And once a year, the High Priest enters the Holy of Holies on behalf of the whole nation.

There’s far, far too much to go into in a short-ish talk, but the tabernacle and the system of sacrificial worship was a highly concrete reminder that God was with Israel, but also holy and apart. The Israelites needed to come regularly to acknowledge their sin, to confess, atone, and be put right.

This is such a strong pattern, and such a powerful picture, that we often subconsciously import elements of it into our thoughts and approach to corporate worship, to church, today.  Much of which is good, but which needs to be held in the light of the gospel.

Church buildings are still often referred to as “The House of God” or “God’s house”. The structure and content of services and liturgies tend to follow a pattern that echoes the Old Testament model: confession, repentance, absolution, thanksgiving and blessing.  We come to meet with God, to bring supplication to, and receive from Him. As with ‘worship’ the way we use language influences our understanding; there’s a tendency to associate church with the place where we almost exclusively “do the serious God stuff”.

Before I get thrown out as a heretic, I should be quite clear that I have no problem with confession, repentance, thanksgiving, blessing, praise, adoration, intercession, scripture and teaching in our corporate worship.  Or a bunch of other stuff besides.  However, we can and do do all those things away from church too, they are not the core point of meeting together anymore.

The gospels speak of the temple curtain being torn in two at the moment of Christ’s death. In 1 Peter 2 we are told that “You are a chosen people, a royal priesthood”. We know from Acts and the Epistles that we are justified by faith through grace.  Jesus, following his resurrection, assures the disciples that he will send the Spirit, to guide and comfort them and those that come to believe later, and that by the Spirit he lives in us.  Yahweh’s dwelling place is no longer enthroned above the Ark of the Covenant, but in our hearts.

Hebrews 9 and 10 contrasts the nature of worship at the “earthly tabernacle” with the redemption received through Christ’s sacrifice.  God is with us wherever we are.  We do not have to go to the ‘temple’ to meet with Him, or to enter His presence.  Our “call to worship” should not be the start of a corporate service, it’s what happens every morning when we open our eyes.

Having outlined how Christ has fulfilled the original model of the tabernacle, the writer of Hebrews anticipates the question “So what now?”:

 19 Therefore, brothers and sisters, since we have confidence to enter the Most Holy Place by the blood of Jesus, 20 by a new and living way opened for us through the curtain, … 22 let us draw near to God with a sincere heart and with the full assurance that faith brings …. 23 Let us hold unswervingly to the hope we profess, for he who promised is faithful. 24 And let us consider how we may spur one another on toward love and good deeds, 25 not giving up meeting together, as some are in the habit of doing, but encouraging one another—and all the more as you see the Day approaching.

  “Let is consider how we may spur one another on toward love and good deeds, not giving up meeting together, as some are in the habit of doing, but encouraging one another”.

When we meet, when we join together in corporate worship, it is to spur each other towards love and good deeds, to encourage each other. This is an all-inclusive, participatory appeal. We aren’t told “turn up, sit still, go home”; but instead to come actively looking for ways in which we can spur each other on, that we can be the encourager, not the encouraged. We are to come looking to give, to take part, not to receive; but it’s a virtuous circle, if we’re all looking to encourage one another, then we should all go away encouraged.

In John 13:34-35 Jesus says to the disciples:

 “A new command I give you: Love one another. As I have loved you, so you must love one another. By this everyone will know that you are my disciples, if you love one another.”

 People will know that we follow Jesus by the love that we show each other.  Christ’s prayer for his disciples was for their unity, and unity is something that’s much easier to maintain in a context of love and encouragement, even in the midst of disagreement.  1 Corinthians 13, the classic passage on love used at so many weddings, is written in the context of how to be church, not how to have a good marriage.  Before it is the analogy of the church as a body, with many parts, all needing to work together in order to be the whole it was created to be. After it is specific teaching on how to conduct oneself in worship meetings for the good of all – believers and unbelievers alike.

Love and encouragement are actions; they are things that we must do, and they can’t easily be done in isolation. Some people may be hard to love in person, but they’re even harder to love if you don’t see them.  It’s difficult to encourage someone without having some kind of interaction with them.  All of the obvious things we do at church – pray, sing, confess, reflect, learn, give offerings, intercede – we can do on our own.  But what we can’t do fully without meeting others is encourage one another, spur one another on, support one another, see Christ revealed in each other, and by the love we show each other, reveal Christ to others.

So when we go to home group, or open house; when we meet up with Christian friends for a coffee or a pint; when you and I come to church next week, be it here or somewhere else, I pray that those verses in Hebrews will be forwards in our minds and hearts, and that we’ll come seeking to encourage one another.  It may only be a smile at the preacher, instead of daydreaming through the sermon; a hug for a friend; a prayer after the service; simply taking an interest at coffee time, but bit by bit by God’s grace and the service of our worship we can build each other up, not drift along together, or worse, knock each other down.


To sum up in two points:

Worship, true worship in the light of the cross and the resurrection, is not in the songs we sing, the responses we read, or the rites and rituals we perform together, even though it informs all of those.  Our true worship is in our on-going obedience and response to God’s Word Jesus Christ, enabled by the Spirit, and carried throughout every aspect of our lives, individually and corporately.

And when we meet together our goal should always be to encourage, build and lift each other up in all that we do and say. There may be times when simply turning up is the most encouragement you’re able to offer, but it’s as we love and encourage one another in meeting together that we receive.  And it’s through the love we show each other because of Christ that those looking on will see a reflection of God’s greater love.   He will be glorified as the church – not just HBC, or Hertford Churches Together, or the BU, or the Anglican Communion – but the whole big wide messy church truly becomes the worthy Bride of Christ, radiant, faithful, and attractive, giving glory up to God and making Him known.


The above is a rapid distillation of various thoughts, conversations, studies and reflections over the years.   A lot of the source material is ephemeral (conversations on Ship of Fools; blog entries on engageworship; teaching, or reactions to teaching at things like mission:worship or Spring Harvest etc.).  Some of the more readily identifiable background includes:

And now let’s move into a time of nonsense, Nick Page, Authentic, 2004
Selling Worship: How what we sing has changed the church, Pete Ward, Authentic, 2005
True Worship, Vaughn Roberts, Paternoster Lifestyle, 2002
Worship in Spirit and Truth, John M. Frame, Evangelical Press, 2004

And if you’re suffering from insomnia and very patient:

Engaging with God: a biblical theology of Worship, David Peterson, InterVarsity Press, 2002

[1] Aside – this continues through the Incarnation etc.