The Primacy of Worship

by The Rt. Rev. Daniel R. Morse

For several years now the Reformed Episcopal Church has been saying and believing that worship is the most important thing we do, the thing that no other institution or organization in the world can do. We did not make that up just so we could carve out a unique place for the Church in the world, because we thought it ought to be true, or because we had a personal, subjective preference to focus on worship while other churches prefer to emphasize evangelism, church growth, youth programs, music programs, or education. We say and believe that because it is what the Bible teaches.

Since that is what the Bible teaches, the question then is how do we put it into practice. Since worship is the chief calling of all creation (Westminster Shorter Catechism #1), and the main reason for the Church’s existence as an institution, you might think that those studying for the ministry, as well as all the members of the Church, would be demanding and receiving instruction and training in worship. They would want to know what the Bible, theology, and church history had to say about worship, and they would also want to know how to do it in the local church. They would want to learn to sing the 150 Psalms, which are the primary biblical pattern for prayer and singing, instead of other hymns no matter how great or familiar. This, of course, would apply especially to shallow little “ditties” that are nothing more than religious mantras—repetitions of the same phrase over and over—that induce a kind of emotional stupor.

The main reason for this is that when we come to worship God we do not come to please ourselves. I have said that over and over, and we all have nodded agreement. But when it comes to the particulars of what we actually do some of you object on the grounds that you do not like a particular thing or things. By that reaction you display that what you really want to do in worship is please yourself.

We live in a world where the only rule is to please oneself. That rule is applied in sex relations, marriage, economics, government, business, family relations, law, child-rearing, entertainment, ethics, but especially in worship. Living according to that rule has brought us at the end of the twentieth century to a world that is more violent, bloody, greedy, hateful, and selfish than any other in human history, and all in the name of love, humanitarianism, and civilization. We will never be able to challenge such extreme wickedness and barbarity as long as in our relationship to God, the supreme and most basic of all, we live according to the same rule.

It is in worship that at one and the same time we engage in the highest of all human activities and yet the one that is the most contrary to our sinful natures. We do not naturally like to worship God, even after we are converted. Conversion does not make us suddenly perfect, but only introduces us to the long process of growing more like Christ. How unlike Christ we are is evident in worship as in no other area of our lives. Christ came not to do his own will, but the will of him who sent him, which of course was most evident in his supreme act of devotion in submitting to the death of the cross. Doing our own will—not the will of the one who made us—is a greater sin in worship than in any other part of our lives, and a sin that we are more susceptible to in worship than anywhere else. Drawing near to God is more distasteful to sinners than anything else; more contrary to our nature than anything else. Yet we know we ought to worship God, and so we substitute things we enjoy for what Scripture teaches about worship, call them worship, and then say we have paid homage to God when all we have done is please ourselves. We may even act surprised that there is no blessing on our worship and try to blame our lack of success on something else. We were created to find our greatest joy in worshipping God, and hence the greatest sin imaginable both before and after our conversion is that we do not delight to worship God.

We show how unlike Christ we are first of all by lack of care with regard to the Lord’s day. We know that the Lord’s day is coming just as surely as death, and we seem to ignore it as if it were death. Instead of setting the worship of God as the top priority and highest privilege of the week do you shuffle it down to the bottom of things to do? Do you regularly plan activities that keep you out late on Saturday night? If you don’t go out on Saturday night do you discipline yourself during that evening to meditate on the high privilege that will be yours the following morning and determine to do the best you can in praising God? Do you make sufficient clothes and food preparation on Saturday so that you can not only be on time for Lord’s day worship, but also give it your full attention? Do you plan to spend the whole day in the public and private worship of God, or do you hope worship won’t last too long so that you can get on with your own recreations and plans? Do you use Sunday to catch up on work you didn’t get done during the week? Do you or your children engage in gainful employment or organized sports on Sunday? Do you rationalize such behavior by saying that at least you came to morning worship so it doesn’t matter what you do with the rest of the day?

We also show how unlike Christ we are by doing things we like during worship in place of what God says he likes. We have been conditioned by TV, movies, and radio to get pleasure at the turn of a switch. Instant gratification is at our beck and call, and it is very difficult to change that when we come to worship. We like certain songs, and since singing is only for the purpose of entertaining us, we think there is no reason for venturing beyond those familiar songs. When you are faced with a strange, new song do you say to yourself, “I am being trained to worship God with the saints and angels in heaven, and I am glad to have the opportunity to practice this song on earth before I am called on to perform it in the big concert in the sky?” We like stand-up comics. Do you expect the sermon to entertain you with bite-sized jokes and thoughts for the day so that you won’t be required to use any mental energy? We like mental stimulation. Do you enjoy studying God but call it worship? Do you feel like you have worshipped if the minister has preached a great sermon? Is your worship dependent on another human? If he preaches a lousy sermon because he was a lazy bum the previous week, had an off week, or just has no gift of preaching, are you prevented from worshipping? God calls us to come into his presence body and soul. Do you prefer to sit silently in your seat while someone worships for you and lectures to you?

We also show how unlike Christ we are when we don’t do things God likes because we don’t like them. God says we ought to celebrate holy communion weekly as a covenant renewal ceremony, but some churches say they don’t want to do it because it takes too long, is inconvenient, or becomes too familiar if practiced too often. God says he likes incense because it is the sweet aroma of our lives and prayers in his nostrils, but we say we don’t like it because it reminds of things we don’t like. God says he likes and answers certain kinds of prayers by giving us the Psalms and Lord’s Prayer, but we say we don’t like those prayers because they are too long and we like our words better.

Just as we do not naturally want to worship God, so we do not naturally know how to worship God. It is against our desires to worship God, and especially to worship him in the way that pleases him. Even when we say that we enjoy worshipping God we often want to do it in a way that pleases us, or that we think is right, instead of doing it in the way he says to do it. The result is that, though we may truly want to worship God, we do not do so correctly because we are still doing it the way we think is right, which is the same as worshipping ourselves.

Most of us have neither experienced nor studied worship that has been carefully worked out in its details according to biblical principles. Most of us have come from church backgrounds characterized by an emphasis on what we don’t do or what was forbidden rather than a positive approach to the structure, movement, and elements of worship set forth in Scripture. We only know what we were used to, what we had grown to like, what we preferred, and that became the measure of acceptable worship for us. We must not allow our fear of something just because it is new, or our preference for what is comfortable, or our experience of doing things differently to become the rule by which we determine what ought to be done in worship, and therefore keep us from a study of the Word of God.

Since we haven’t studied worship ourselves, and don’t come from a tradition that has an understanding of all that the Bible says worship is to be, it doesn’t make sense and isn’t appropriate for us to presume to judge what worship is supposed to be. We need to be humble students a great deal longer before we claim to have any right to say what is good or bad about worship. We also need to understand and appreciate the biblical principles embodied in our prayer book service before we start talking about all the changes we would like to make.

Worshipping God, therefore, is the most difficult thing we will ever do for two reasons—our sinful natures and our sinful ignorance. To worship God acceptably will require the greatest act of self-discipline we can muster to bring our unruly wills into line with Scripture and the hard work of studying Scripture, theology, and history so we will know how to worship God acceptably.