Misunderstanding the Purpose of the Lord’s Day Service
In my last post on this topic, I said that one of the reasons Presbyterians don't understand and appreciate liturgy is their inadequate appreciation for what ought to happen on the Lord's Day. Presbyterians don’t like liturgy because they have not been careful to discover the fundamental purpose of the Lord’s Day assembly.
We are assembled together by God to be served by him. The Lord’s Day worship is first of all God’s service to us. He draws us into his life-giving presence. He gives to us. We come to receive gifts from the Lord.
Once I had a conversation with a Presbyterian minister who was conducting seminars on Reformed worship all across the country. He knew of my interest in worship and was interested in telling me what he does. “The first and most important point I make in my seminars,” he said, “is that Reformed worship is giving glory to God. We don’t come to get anything from God, we come to give him our praise and honor. This is what sets apart Reformed worship!”
Well, I thought, that may be true, and if it is, it is one of the reasons why Reformed people cannot seem to connect with a liturgically structured service. They don’t come to receive anything from God (with the possible exception of the sermon) during the worship; instead, they come to give to him praise and honor. Although this has become a popular shibboleth in Reformed circles, it must not be permitted to go unchallenged. The purpose of the Lord’s Day assembly is not simply “Praise.”
Many modern Reformed works on worship take this position. The first sentence in John Frame’s Worship in Spirit and Truth (Phillipsburg, PA: Presbyterian & Reformed, 1996) is: “Worship is the work of acknowledging the greatness of our covenant Lord” (p. 1, his emphasis). He assumes this definition throughout the book. I could quote other recent Reformed authors to the same effect. Most of them define worship as what the people of God do, the work they perform on the Lord’s Day, specifically the adoration, praise, and honor that they ascribe to God.
Certainly there are numerous passages that exhort us to “Praise the Lord” and to “worship” him. I would caution you, however, that in many cases the word “worship” has not served us very well. It is not the most helpful translation of words used to designate “bowing down” or “prostrating oneself” (e.g. Psalm 95:6).
For example, when we are called to “prostrate” ourselves before God, this does not exactly correspond with the way we use the word “worship.” To fall down before God is to allow oneself to be lifted up by him. It is to give one’s self over to the Lord’s service. In effect, falling down before God puts us in the position to be served by God. Much more, therefore, is often going on in these passages than merely ascribing “worth” or “praise” to God.
Moreover, too often in our circles the giving of praise or glorifying of God is set over against the worshiper’s expectation of receiving anything from God in church. It is precisely this one-sidedness of “worship as praise” that I believe is a real problem in Reformed churches.
This attitude is sometimes linked with the super-spiritual-sounding assertion that “we just gather together to give praise to God taking no interest in what we might get from him.” I submit that this is unbiblical rubbish, and may, indeed often does, easily slip into doxological hubris.
For us, as creatures of God, there can be no such thing as “disinterested praise.” We simply cannot love or praise God for who he is apart from what he has given us or what we continue to receive from him. We are not his equals. The notion that pure love and worship of God can only be given when it is unmixed with all thoughts of what we receive, has no biblical grounding. To be sure, it sounds very spiritual and pious. It even comes across as self-denial.
In fact, however, there is no such worship in the Bible for the simple fact that we cannot approach God as disinterested, self-sufficient beings. We are created beings. Dependent creatures. Beings who must continually receive both our life and redemption from God. Our “worship” of God, for this reason, necessarily and primarily involves our passive reception of his gifts as well as our thanksgiving and petitions. We cannot pretend that we do not depend upon him. We will always be receivers and petitioners before God. Our receptive posture is as ineradicable as our nature as dependent creatures. We must be served by him. Recognizing this is true spirituality. Opening oneself up to this is the first movement in our “worship,” indeed, the presupposition of all corporate worship. It is faith’s posture before our all-sufficient, beneficent Lord. Praise follows after this and alone can never be the exclusive purpose for our gathering together on the Lord’s Day.
So, above all else, when we gather on the Lord’s Day, we are being called together by the Lord in order to get, to receive. This is crucial. The Lord gives, we receive. Since faith is receptive and passive in nature, faith-full worship must be about receiving from God. He gives, and by faith we receive. We are given his forgiveness, his instruction, his nourishment, his benediction, etc. We come as those who receive first and then, second, only in reciprocal exchange do we give back what is appropriate as grateful praise and adoration.
More and more I am discovering how crucial (at least in our current situation) such a conception of worship is. Too often in current Reformed and evangelical circles worship or liturgy is described first of all as the “work of the people.” While I do not deny that we “work” during worship, I do regard this definition as dangerously one-sided. Whatever we “do” in worship must always be the faithful response to God’s gifts of forgiveness, life, knowledge, and glory—gifts we receive in the service!
Much of what goes by the name “contemporary” worship has evacuated the Sunday service of God’s service to man! It is all about what we do. The reduction of Christian worship to “praise” and “giving worth to God” by well-intentioned pastors desirous of purging the church of superficial worship forms will only continue to feed the very thing that they oppose.
I have more to say about this, so I'll finish my thoughts in another post.