thoughts on worship, pt 1: commodity vs. community

I love the quote from Will Willimon that goes something like: “The greatest sin we can commit is to be boring in worship.”

I am leading a design team that will launch a contemporary worship service in the fall at the church where I serve. So, more than usual, it’s gotten me thinking about worship. One thing that I’m mulling over is a distinction between two approaches to worship: commodity or community.

Worship as Commodity

A commodity is available for me to acquire–usually by purchasing it. Also, a commodity is acquired because it is useful to me somehow. I recognize the value that a given item would add to my life, so I take the steps necessary to procure this or that commodity in order to enjoy it benefits. Our culture is rapidly commodifying everything that we can think of.

We see worship commodified in some of our behaviors around music–such as so-called “worship concerts.” They may not be astute enough to know that there’s something theologically prickly about selling tickets to go worship God in a nice arena near you. For one thing, the moment we purchase an experience that purports to be the worship of God by his people, we are rejecting God and instead honoring the graven image of our own souls. Buying an “experience” of worship all about us feeling a certain way.

But we treat worship as a commodity in normal avenues as well as in exceptional cases. When worship is primarily about me “getting something out of it” or “getting a pick-me-up to help me get through the week,” we are not actually worshipping God. We are procuring a service to address our own perceived need. Yes, most of us begin in this place, but we must be led to a deeper, richer place.

Worship in Community

By contrast to “worship as commodity,” I offer “worship in community” to lift up worship as something that forms and expresses the faith of the gathered people of God. Are there guests who observe and participate? Yes. But the key difference is highlighted in the question: What is the context for the worship service they are guests in? Is it one that assumes worship is an event that individuals or a variety of groups attend? Or is it one that assumes that the worship service is primarily the gathered people of God for the purpose of worship? What actions are performed in worship to underscore it’s deeply communal nature?

Traditional elements in the liturgical flow of the service help engender this: greeting, prayers, proclamation of the Word, holy communion, benediction. Music is interspersed throughout. Some contemporary-style worship services do accomplish “worship in community” without following this sort of traditional liturgical order. But I think many services in which contemporary music/instrumentation is primary would benefit from this sort of theological intentionality. And many traditional worship services would benefit greatly from re-visiting what worship is instead of not merely defending how it’s “always been done” in this or that locale.

Let me state this explicitly: This is NOT a distinction that breaks down neatly along stylistic and taste-preference lines. It cuts across all sorts of worship types.

So, how can we tell the difference between “Worship as Commodity” and “Worship in Community”? It’s kind of a “smell test” approach for me, admittedly. A good first step, however, is confessing our propensity to commodify even the things of God, for it is in confession that the things done in darkness of soul become conquered and transformed by the light of Christ.

Published by Guy M Williams

Christian | Husband, Father | Pastor | 8th-Gen Texan | Texas A&M ‘96 | Asbury Seminary ‘01 | Enjoy family, reading, running, golf, college football

7 thoughts on “thoughts on worship, pt 1: commodity vs. community

  1. Guy,

    I am looking forward to this series. It sounds like your asking some good questions and not just focused on musical styles. Two minor pushbacks:

    The Work of the People (a cool local arts collective that makes great materials for worship) has posted a great free video by Brian McLaren on worship, art, propaganda, and truth.

    Pushback number two, are you sure worship in community is going far enough? Communities can still get stuck in the addictive system of consumption. I have been using the distinction of worship consumers vrs worship creators.

    Radical/Heretical idea: Just stop. The best way to break the pattern and assumptions of worship as something to be consumed is to stop having worship services all together. Find ways to go be the church in the community, to participate in actions together, but take a fast, a long fast from worship services.

  2. Nate,

    Nice to hear from you. Thanks for the link and the push-backs.

    As for the second, I would say that I agree with you in that communities can develop their own peculiar dysfunctionalities. But I’m not going in that direction in this post, though I may not have drawn the distinction sharply enough.

    For me, the press back against this propensity to commodify worship as something that individual persons or even groups of persons attend to consume religiosity (even the kind that defines itself in contrast to “dead religiosity”) is to emphasize that worship is at the heart of genuine community among the people of God. So, think of the people of God gathered and in the process of being cultivated into authentic Christ-centered community. That’s what I’m placing in contrast with “worship as commodity.” “Worship in community” means that in worship we enact somehow the “life together” (to use Bonhoeffer’s phrase) that ought to be indicative of those whose life is together in Christ and shaped by Christ.

  3. I like Willimon, but sometimes I find his aphorisms exasperating. “The greatest sin we can commit is to be boring in worship.” Now WHERE is this in scripture? In fact, where is the concept of boredom itself in scripture?

    OK, let’s admit that being “boring in worship” is a sin. Boring to whom? To long time church folks, many of whom think worship is supposed to be boring? To newer attenders who might get turned away by boredom (whatever God thinks of boredom, it is one of the greatest sins in the eyes of our cultural gods)? To God (does God get bored? Can God get bored?)

  4. I’m new at this “blogging stuff” so the first response I sent didn’t make it to “publication.” I’ll try again. It will give me a chance to refine the way in which I originally responded.

    “We must be led to a deeper, richer place,” is the phrase that captured my attention more than any other part of your thoughts on worship, Guy.

    I have been to this deeper, richer place and I yearn to go there again in worship with a “community” of believers. I have a sneaking suspicion that is why God gave me the “green light” to serve on the contemporary worship leadership team. I truly felt a tremendous surge of holy excitement along with hesitation. This is not an easy undertaking, esp. at a very traditional church. I have been in prayer and study since you placed your call to me.

    Contemporary worship, and just plain worship, for that matter, is often misunderstood. Perhaps that is why “community” over “commodity” is so crucial.

    Worship is not a product or performance. It is the abandonment of our “selves” into total, kinesthetic” praise to the God who gave us this life, His Son who made possible our redemption, and the Holy Spirit who makes our worship acceptable.

    I am moved by the Watermark song, “Captivate Us.”

    “Captivate us, Oh Jesus.
    Set our eyes on you. Devastate us with your presence falling down. And rushing river, draw us nearer. Holy fountain consume us with you…Draw me closer, oh, my Lord. Draw me closer, Lord to thee.”

    Captivate, devastate, consume…powerful words for a powerful, amazing Presence…Rushing River, draw us nearer…

    This image of a river keeps coming back to me as I consider worship.

    Psalm 46: 4-5 convicts me to keep this “river” ever present as we lead the congregation in a “different” form of worship.

    “There is a river of worship whose streams make everything glad.
    Keep us in the midst of that river, carried by the current of praise.
    Fill us and we will not fall.”

  5. Good stuff, Patty. Thanks for jumping in.

    I like the image of a river too. I briefly mentioned the “forming our faith” and the “expressing our faith” aspects of worship (both public/corporate and private/individual) in this post. I’ll have more to say about that later.

    But the river image that you raise up here kind of touches on both of those, in a sense.

    On the one hand, the “river of praise” is something that we are caught up in and add our praises to the mighty chorus across time and geography in the Church. At the same time, I think also of how a river shapes and molds the land through which it runs–cutting this groove and that, widening here, quieting there, and pressing out new paths at times as well.

  6. Ah, yes. The river flows where it will and if we follow its current it invariably leads us to a deeper place. But we must be patient as we follow through this groove and that, widening and narrowing here and there, quieting and rushing… It’s a Spirit-directed flow, not a human endeavor, that takes us on this journey of praise.

    I have been asking my husband, Greg, to pray for me daily, esp. since I have begun serving on the CWLT. Praise keeps coming up in the Scripture readings he’s using. Quite a “God thing,” I would say.

    Today’s verse came from Psalm 47:1 :

    “With a joyful heart, let Patty clap her hands, sing and give thanks to You in every form of praise. May her delight in You cause her to shine like the sun, even in dark places. Even her life will be a dance to bring you honor and glory.”

    Here’s to the river, the song and the dance!

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