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What Do We Lose When We Lose Worship?
Recently, my son asked what church is like for most Christians in America. (He’s been to a variety of services from a range of traditions, but never an evangelical service.)
“They sing songs about God and listen to a sermon,” I told him.
That was terribly vague, I realized, so I pulled up YouTube and typed in the first evangelical Christian that came to mind: “Joel Osteen church service.”
As it so happened, a Joel Osteen service was airing live right then, so we watched it together — polished songs, sermons, prayers, and all. Professional singers belted out praises to God over guitar licks and drum kits. I had to tell my son that not all services were as amped up as this one was, but it conveyed a flavor (from what I understand) of one form of contemporary evangelical worship.
Worship. In a secular age, it feels like a strange word. But for thousands of years, it’s something most human beings did — and did often. It’s also something that most human beings (not just evangelical Christians) still often do today. Muslims worship Allah. Buddhists of the popular Pure Land tradition worship Amitābha Buddha. And most forms of Hinduism consist of worshiping one of many possible gods.
Still, the word sounds… antiquated.
What’s it good for?
The Practice of Being Small
If we define worship as “an expression of reverence for something bigger than ourselves,” then worship is the practice of being small.
When we worship — when we express reverence — we attune to the idea that we aren’t the main character in life. We bow our heads to something bigger or beyond us.
That “something” doesn’t have to be God. As the philosopher Paul Woodruff writes, “Reverence begins in a deep understanding of human limitations; from this grows the capacity to be in awe of whatever we believe lies outside our control—God, truth, justice, nature, even death.”
To illustrate his point, Woodruff gives an example of a reverent scientist. “A scientist who is reverent toward the truth is reverent in seeking the truth,” he writes. “Her very reverence makes her cautious.” Reverence, in other words, is what makes scientists effective. It’s the attitude and act of putting the truth above personal bias.
Framed in this way, scientists must worship the truth to be good at their work.
Something similar can be said of the other things Woodruff mentions: Justice, nature, and especially death. For instance, no matter who we are, death will have its way with us. All the skin creams, blended veggies, and supplements in the world cannot save us from what lies ahead, as good as those things may be. We have no choice but to bow down to life as it is, and life includes death.
Worship Keeps Us Honest and Humble
Tragically, contemporary popular culture tends to celebrate irreverence — an absence of worship. Just think of the typical person who dominates our news cycles lately and ask whether they’re more likely to embody reverence (“the virtue that keeps human beings from trying to act like gods,” as Woodruff puts it) or irreverence.
Irreverence also surfaces in religion whenever a group believes that they are the chosen people and everyone else is lesser-than. “If a religious group thinks it speaks and acts as God commands in all things, this is a failure of reverence,” writes Woodruff. He adds, “Reverence is not faith, because the faithful may hold their faith with arrogance and self-satisfaction, and because the reverent may not know what to believe.” (I’ll add that while I don’t know much about Joel Osteen, the fact that he lives in a mansion and plasters his face on his books suggests he might struggle with reverence despite worshiping every week. This suggests the possibility that grandiose, amped up church services might exhibit only the veneer of worship and not the actual thing.)
In short, worship — the act of bowing in reverence — keeps us honest and humble. It helps us develop respect for others, seeing them as fellow travelers or fellow brothers and sisters.
It reminds us, above all, that we aren’t the main character in life.
That’s what it’s good for. That’s what we lose when we lose worship.
But what does it look like in practice? Is it possible to develop forms of worship that work for believers and nonbelievers alike? I hinted at some possibilities in my previous post, and I plan to explore more in upcoming posts. It feels urgent to me — a needed corrective in an age that over-celebrates irreverence.
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