There is an interesting paradox with worship, particularly in our western context of worship. Worship is often evaluated on the basis of what the worshipper gets out of it. There are wars in congregations as various groups and individuals within the congregation demand that their particular approach to worship be adopted as the norm and the things they dislike be banned from the service. To leave worship saying, “I didn’t get a thing out of that” is the beginning of a church fight or a journey to find a “better” church where worship provides what the worshipper is looking for.
The paradox is that the more worship is defined by what the worshipper is looking for, the less it is worship. Rather than worship being a time when people can consciously and freely concentrate on the wonder of God’s love and grace and presence in our world and lives, it becomes a time when I want my favourite hymns, the perfect temperature, the left side back seat, the proper volume for the music, the kids quiet and under control, the sermon short and funny–or whatever combination of factors I happen to be looking for that particular day.
It is possible to find somewhere or create somewhere everything falls into place and all the elements are perfect or as close to perfect as possible. When we find that sweet spot and attend the service, we go away feeling that we have received something. But the question that we don’t want to look at is whether we have really worshipped. If we are looking for what gratifies us or what we think must be done or what turns our crank, do we really have room to see and worship God?
In Matthew 6, Jesus deals with this issue, sort of. While not actually mentioning worship, he does talk about people who give their donations with lots of publicity and who make their prayers publically and loudly–they want to be noticed. According to Jesus, they have received their reward–they are noticed by the people around them. (Matthew 6.1-6). I think the warning there applies to worship. When we try to make worship too much about us and our needs, we might feel something–but instead of that good feeling being the working of the Spirit, it is more likely the result of the psychological, emotional and physical bubble we have created so that we can feel good.
The solution is not the approach of some of the forefathers in my own Baptist denomination. Rather than try to give worshippers a good feeling, some of them thought the key to good worship was making people feel guilty and uncomfortable. So in every way, beginning with relatively cold buildings in cold climates to seats designed to be uncomfortable to music as unemotional as possible to sermons as long and boring as humanly possible, the goal was to have the worshipper leave feeling unimportant like the worms their theology compared them to. But this is really the same problem–making worship about the worshipper.
The more we try to make worship about what we want, the less we worship. Certainly, we might achieve what we want but since worship is about God not us, we will go away feeling good (or bad) and think we have worshipped. But we will not have encountered the wonder of the love and grace of God–we will only have encountered ourselves and our desires and pushed ourselves a little more into the place God is supposed to occupy.
That isn’t to say that we make worship a dry and sterile event that doesn’t touch us. Rather, we seek to make worship about recognizing the presence of God and giving him what is due to him. What we feel is a by-product of good worship. If we truly worship God, we will certainly experience something, maybe not what we expected to feel because God has become involved, but we will experience something.
When we reach beyond ourselves to see the presence of God and worship God for who and what he is and does, we will experience a blessing in our spiritual lives. We will grow in faith. But the paradox is that if we design worship for what we want to get out of it, we might get some reasonable facsimile of what we want, but we won’t worship. When we truly seek to recognize and acknowledge the presence of God in our lives, we will worship–and we will receive a blessing.
May the peace of God be with you.