An interesting way to think about what it means to “worship” is to begin with the concept of idolatry. It is common enough, in congregational settings, to hear talk about the dangers of idolatry: worshipping an idol, in other words, approaching something that is not God as if it (or he or she) were. Often money is the culprit, or (perhaps more accurately) financial and personal security; for others it is power, or an all-encompassing relationship, or one’s work.
I’ve never met anyone who, upon hearing this, responds: “But I never raise my hands and sing about money / security / power / etc., so how can I worship those things?” Most people seem to understand that what is meant by “worship” is the fundamental disposition of their life as reflected in various choices, priorities, and expenditures of time and physical / mental energy. To commit idolatry is to find your life oriented in a major way around some pole that is not God, which means that there is something driving your decisions and priorities – something concretely ordering your choices in a certain way or towards certain ends, whether consciously or otherwise – other than God and his wisdom.
How is it, then, that it is still possible to use the word “worship” to describe the portion of a gathering of believers during which songs are sung? In other words, it seems that many Christians implicitly understand that talk of “worshipping” financial security as an idol involves something other than singing songs about money; but when it comes to talking about what Christian worship actually is, the word is still held captive by an image of a group of people singing together.
I think there are two reasons for this state of affairs. First, I think that many believers, myself included, are not sufficiently aware of idolatry. We are simply not used to regularly asking one another and ourselves the difficult and penetrating questions that are often needed to expose the extent to which it is something other than the triune God that orders our affections. If we were as aware of idolatry as Scripture calls us to be, we would be much more alert to how the seemingly small and insignificant times in our lives are actually quite important and spiritually revealing; they often highlight where our true allegiances lie. A relatively lighthearted example of this is being stuck in traffic. The way we respond to such a frustration-inducing situation often reveals whether or not we are really patient people, or whether, at bottom, we hold expedience as an idol. We may assume that our time is in fact our time, our possession to do with as we please, rather than the undeserved gift from God that it really is. If on the other hand we understand our time as gift, then that means that we recognize God’s sovereignty and provision and allow that recognition to shape our perspective on that area. In other words, we thus worship God with our time. If we were this alert to the true nature of idolatry we would recognize, conversely, what worship really is, rather than subconsciously associating it with singing, an event that happens rarely and sporadically when compared with the richness and thickness that is our actual daily life.
The second reason I think it is still possible to talk about a “worship time” (meaning three or four songs sung during a part of a church service explicitly set aside for that purpose) or a “night of worship” (meaning a gathering during which there is only singing and perhaps prayer but no teaching/preaching) is a bit more complicated, but I think it has to do with a fascination with emotionally charged experiences and an accompanying devaluation of “normal” life. I will elaborate on this second reason in my next post, because it deserves some expansion, and anyways it is probably misleading to call this complex and interrelated set of ideas and impulses a “reason.”
So in one sense this meditation isn’t concluded yet. But I would end here by focusing on idolatry, by reminding us how easy it is to forget that the seemingly “in-between” and “harmless” and “inconsequential” times of our lives are actually anything but. They are always stages on which our spiritual formation (or lack thereof) is furthered, and on which its presence or absence is demonstrated. This is perhaps discouraging at first, at least if you are like me and aware of your own propensities; but then it is infinitely more encouraging, because there are no times in which God’s kingdom is not available to us, and there are no times that are unimportant. To anticipate a later conclusion, it is the broad stage of the seemingly mundane on which we learn what worship really is, and this means that all walks of life are equally open to God’s kingdom power. And God delights in using broken and inadequate vessels, those of us who were once only sinners but who are now defined by resurrection and new creation and sainthood and who nevertheless find ourselves putting on dirty clothing every so often. Recognizing idolatry in the seemingly mundane can always be the beginning of a new practice of true worship. More on this next time.