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.