What is Worship
Excerpts from Ongoing Pilgrimage by George McLean Milne 1972
Pages 50-52, 140-141.
Minister of First Church of Christ Woodbridge, Connecticut from 1952-1979
The Shape of Worship
One of Jesus’ many deceptively simple statements comes to us from his words to the women by the well in Sumaria: “God is a spirit, and they that worship him must worship him in spirit and in truth.” But how does one go about that?
The answer, of course, depends on what we think worship is, and here, I think many people of our place and time are hazy or misled. False conceptions of worship are one main reason why a lot of people aren’t here, and why some who come depart disappointed. Let’s look for a moment at a few of these inadequate views.
There is the idea that a service of worship is a conjurer’s act, in which the minister and his staff try to conjure up, if not God, then a mystical mood of religious feeling. This is done, variously, by lights, vestments, alters, music, bells and by the imagery of sermons and prayers. This conception goes back to the primitive mood music of tom-toms; it brings to mind the picture of Saul with the witch of Endor trying to call up the presence of Samuel, and it suggests how drugs and wine in worship have been used to help put subjects in a mood where they imagined that they were conscious of some exciting, ultimate reality. On this basis, our service here would be rated on how successful it was or wasn’t in making God materialize, somehow, to the expectant people.
The chances of anything like this happening are probably not more than one in fifty, and so the person who sees fit to come to church only twice a year is still about on target in terms of the church’s “scoring” at the occasion when he came! Worship cannot develop on that assumption: it is not a conjurer’s trick.
Still another inadequate reason for worshiping is to come expecting some shot of inspiration or guidance: “Get more out of living, go to the church of your choice!” “The family that prays together stays together.” “Find the help you need for your life,” and so on, It is true that worship can bring a real help to real people, but not probably in that way. A church is not a spiritual supermarket or even a general store, where we come expecting to pick up a week’s supply of the inspirational or moral commodity we think we need. Misunderstanding at this point can justify us in staying away from church because we don’t happen, in what is being offered, to get what we want, or because we don’t think we need it anyway.
A third misconception is to think of a service of worship as being a performance. Perhaps you’ve heard people say, “Go to Reverend so-and-so’s church: he puts on a good show!” But we aren’t competing in show business. A besetting temptation of ministries, choirs and organists is to imagine that we are performing for an audience to win their approval and applause. This is both vain and irreverent.
If people come to church, or stay home on the basis of whether the service is a good show or a poor one, then the problem of keeping them coming becomes as harassing and as impossible as, for example, keeping the “Lucy Show” going indefinitely at an undiminished peak of popularity.
Worship is not a performance; not a dispensary for shots of inspiration; nor is it a religious conjuring act. What, then is it?
It is first, last and always, a celebration-a celebration of what God is and of what God has done. The primary purpose of worship was put quite simply by the Psalmist: “To give the Lord the glory due unto his name.” See how the understanding of this purpose turns the whole picture around and puts it right.
We are not here to be entertained, or “psyched up” or calmed down, or straightened out. We are here to celebrate the wonder of God-in the Bible and in history, in nature and human life and above all in the life and love and death and rising again of Jesus Christ our Lord. Very simply, we come not to get, but to give. It is only when, as a congregation, we pass over in worship from the idea of getting to the idea of giving, that we have a real and lasting reason for being here and that worship itself becomes a reality and not just an exercise in self-stimulation.
Our puritan forefathers had this stalwart sense of objectivity. Their first reason for coming to church was not the subjective, self-conscious motive of doing something that would be pleasant, helpful or profitable for themselves; it was to fulfill their duty to honor the Lord of life and of salvation.
What are people’s reasons now for not coming to worship? “I’m not interested.” “I don’t feel the need.” “I’m busy.” “I’m in too many organizations.” “I don’t get much out of it.” “We often go away week-ends.” The church cannot afford to take any one of these remarks as insignificant or irrelevant, but there is a sense in which all of them are beside the point. What has happened-and this is what has devalued humanity in our place and time and diminished our stature as people-is that we no longer sufficiently regard it as an essential duty and as an obligation of our manhood to honor the solemnity of life’s events, the gravity of its responsibilities and the mystery, wisdom and power of its Creator and its Redeemer by some common, resolute and reverent acts which are an integral rather that an optional part of our lives:
“To give the Lord the glory due unto his name.”
This conviction has its roots in Christ. It was he above all who, seeing the present in all its ambivalent reality, affirmed and believed in the days to come, and lived for the potentiality of things and of people as yet imperfect, He saw the future apostle in Andrew the fisherman, the saint in the passion-ridden Mary Magdalene, the constancy, as yet so unconfirmed, in Peter’s impulsive nature. He saw, beyond his disciples’ ill-mannered quarreling over precedence, the graciousness of Christian fellowship and the pattern of heaven. In fact, St. Paul never tired of pointing out, he believed in the future of human beings and of the world so much that he laid down his life in confidence of what they might be.