This Sunday falls in the middle of the 12 Days of Christmas, and nearly at the end of the secular year, and that ending is often a time of reflection on the past and a looking with hope to the future. With a slightly greater perspective, we might reflect on the state of religion in America. In just the past few decades, its face has changed rather radically. A recent article reported that “post-modernist” Americans, if they are looking for religion at all, want it on very individualistic terms.
They want, at best, a cafeteria-style Christianity, if they are still interested in Christianity at all. They want to pick and choose what fits their own lifestyle and worldview and at the first hint of a challenge, they will happily continue shopping another aisle of the supermarket of American denominations, many of which have embraced the latest marketing techniques to attract their share of the “seekers”.
Beyond this, most people, even in the pews, have a very pop understanding of what Sunday is all about, with practically no understanding of worship at all. That, combined with the religion of the individual and the tyranny of self makes up the popular notion that we “go to church” to be edified a little, maybe instructed a little, but mostly inspired, uplifted, comforted, and pepped up for living a nominally moral life. None of these, of course, is a reason for worshipping God. But where it is perceived as such, then the Sunday service should essentially be entertainment.
Every pastor has heard the same stories, though the words and details may vary a bit: “Well, Father, we’ve been looking for a church to attend on Sundays. We went to A a few weeks ago, but we didn’t like the sermon. So then we went to B, but we didn’t like the old hymns – we prefer jazzier praise choruses. Last week we went to C, but the choir wasn’t that great. Then we went to D, but no one spoke to us; the church was unfriendly, and frankly, sort of ugly.” While some of these may be legitimate critiques, they aren’t about worship at all.
The remarks fit well the modern theories of church attendance. If you don’t get edified, entertained, pepped up, pleased, comforted, well, it’s just not worth the effort.
The whole foundation of this point of view is “how I feel about it”; what I get out of it, what it does for MY emotions. It is worship not of God but of self.
The truth is that we worship God because of Who He is…we owe Him worship, literally “worth-ship”, because, as we view the worship in heaven in Revelation 4,
the elders fall down before God and cast their crowns before the throne saying “Worthy art thou, our Lord and God, to receive glory and honor and power, for thou didst create all things, and by thy will they existed and were created.” It isn’t about them– the focus of their worship is God, not self, and it thus issues in worship, not self-aggrandisement.
If we “go to church” to worship God and give Him His due, then even if the sermon is awful, the music poor, the people cold and aloof, and the building a prize winner for ugliness, though those things may make it all a bit more challenging, it really doesn’t matter.
True worshippers are drawn by the awe and majesty of God Himself. Their goal is to have communion with the personal God…and in so doing to become persons themelves. It is a journey through the asceticism of conversion, a journey never complete in time. It is asceticism because, given that the God we worship is a personal Being Who wills, plans, acts, responds, we are invited to embark on a sort of “athletic training”; invited to accept the invitation of God to become His disciples and, ultimately, friends; to engage in a personal relationship with Him, and in so doing, to sacrifice ourselves – to focus on God, not on ourselves.
Personal relationships always carry a risk. They may thrive, but they may also break down. They involve the uncertainty that accompanies freedom. We might at least acknowledge God’s right to disagree with the choices we have made. We can never put this God in our pocket. But that seems precisely what many today want: “Me and Jesus”, but mostly ME.
I want a church that will affirm ME, feed ME, do things MY way, accept ME as I am, and make no demands upon ME. This may be interesting as a course in that seductive illusion of “self-esteem”, but it is not a relationship with the Holy Trinity, and it will never issue in true worship.
We come to offer God a sacrifice: of praise, of thanksgiving and of ourselves, our souls and bodies; to be consecrated anew to Him through His own Sacrifice of which we partake. We come to witness the meeting of heaven and earth, the intersection of time and eternity, and to be strengthened by the might of the Spirit in the inner man to go back to the world in the power of His resurrection, primarily so that we can minister to others – not serve ourselves.