What Is Worship? (Why I Go to Church, Part 3)

In case you missed them, here are Part 1 and Part 2 of the Why I Go to Church series.

Not long ago, the question came up in my church community: What is the difference between worshiping Jesus and following Jesus? When our community gets together on Sundays, is what we’re doing worship?

To my surprise, a lot of people immediately said no. They had a lot of negative connotations with the word worship. To them, to call our services worship meant Jesus wasn’t present in our lives except on Sundays.

Now, personally, I love worship and I have no issue with calling it that. So this discussion got me thinking: what is worship to me, and why do I love it so much?

Although I’m a very analytical person at times, for me, worship is an emotional and on some levels mystical experience. Consequently, anything I try to say about it will necessarily be incomplete. But since that’s never stopped me before, I will share some reasons why I love worship and don’t want to part with the word.

The word worship comes from the Old English weorthscipe, meaning “respect” or “worthiness.” Starting my week with a formal worship service reaffirms that God is the center of my life, the most important part, worthy of my love and devotion. And believe me, I need lots of reminding of this. When I put my own desires in the center of my life instead, I give myself implicit permission to hurt other people if my desires aren’t met, and that’s where all the problems start.

Now a little about specific elements of the worship service. I love Catholic worship and other highly liturgical services in particular because they present all my favorite elements all the time. A balanced meal, so to speak.

Things get started with congregational singing. Now, I like singing in my own, in the shower or at karaoke, but there’s really nothing like singing with an entire room of other people.  I mean, not to get too literal about Heaven, but apparently praising God loudly is most of what we’ll be doing there. It feels so good to just sing out your love at the top of your voice in a crowd of others doing the same.

Then, of course, there’s liturgical prayer! First, we declare that we are a community in Christ. Nothing but Jesus brings us together. Despite all of our differences, we are all part of the same Body, which is just as much of a miracle as anything else, if you think about it.

Then we confess our sins as a community. I know a lot of people think this must be horrible, and to be honest it’s not always easy, but with the world as messed up as it is in so many ways, how can we neglect to acknowledge our part in that through the things we’ve done and the things we’ve failed to do, and also voice our desire to change? And as with any apology, when I work up the courage to offer it, and even more when it’s accepted, I feel a great weight lifted and I’m all the more ready to celebrate…

… which is exactly what happens as we raise our voices again to glorify God! This is worship in a nutshell: saying out loud how much God is worth to us and recounting the many blessings we’ve received through Jesus.

Then there is reading out loud from the Word. This is another thing I love about services with more traditional liturgical structures: you get some Old Testament, you get a Psalm, you get some New Testament, and you get some Gospel, every time. This gives you so much valuable food for thought in terms of how they are all connected. And hearing the Word spoken right here and now is such a different experience from just reading it to yourself. The best readers amplify God through their reading, telling it to you like a riveting story, both beautiful and important.

And then there’s the preaching on the Gospel and how we can apply it to our lives. That is amazing because professional preachers know so much more than me! Some of them are scholars and have great knowledge of the historical and cultural context of Scripture, bringing it alive in new ways. Some of them are truly wise and experienced in serving in radical and humble ways. Some of them are just great at communicating the Gospel and reminding us why it’s such good news. The best are all three! But even taking into account preachers’ imperfections, as long as they are speaking the Gospel, it’s Good News to my ears.

Then, typically, there is a profession of faith of some kind, often in the form of a Creed. Now, often we don’t do this at my current church, although sometimes we do. I think some people in the community are uncomfortable with it in the same way they may be uncomfortable with the word worship: to them it conjures up images of something forced and confining and exclusive and joyless. I respect that, although for me, Creeds are very joyful, a way of expressing unity with other parts of the universal Church, and honestly not all that different from when we affirm our core beliefs in other parts of the service or in songs.

Then there are the communal prayers for the Church and the world. We pray the big prayers: for the Church to actually be Good News to people, for our Church leaders (and our world leaders) to be responsible peacemakers, for God’s presence in the overwhelming issues of the moment and the human response to them. And we also pray the smaller prayers, like for members of our community who are suffering, and for us to carry out the specific mission God gave us.

Then there is Communion or the Eucharist, which of course deserves way more space than I can possibly give it here. To me, this is the most beautiful, most joyful, and most real part of worship. That we get to literally taste and see that God is good! That we get to metabolize God into our bodies, mysteriously! That we get to all be mystically connected in this sacrament! I will never get over what a miracle this is any way you look at it.

And of course, in the middle of the Communion rite we say the Our Father (or the Lord’s prayer, if you prefer) – the oldest and best prayer, from Jesus’s own mouth! And then we get to share the peace, which ironically sometimes makes me quite anxious, since I am an introvert who loves people. However, in my current community I know almost everyone and we’re all very comfortable hugging each other.

As we conclude, the pastor prays for all of us to grow closer to each other and God through communion and worship. Then we are sent out in peace to proclaim the Gospel and bring God’s kingdom nearer. And then, more singing!

Truly, worship is worth it. I can’t think of a better way to start the week.

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