Every Sunday Christians get out of bed and get themselves ready for church. A few walk to church or take mass transit; most drive. Some Christians wear their finest clothing—a suit and tie, or a fancy dress and perhaps a hat—while others dress more casually—everyday shirts and slacks, or perhaps jeans, or sometimes even shorts. Most have breakfast before church; a few fast. They gather, and they worship. Some of them attend a class before or after the service. And, of course, not all Christians who worship gather on Sunday morning. Some gather on Saturdays, others on Wednesday nights, and still others at other times of the week. Some have very formal services: traditional and liturgical, following patterns that were set early in the history of the Church. Others are far more relaxed—they sing a few songs, they hear Bible readings and a message, and they pray together. Christian worship practices are very diverse, conducted in a great many languages in a great many styles, sometimes with more than a thousand in one place and other times with fewer than ten people in the building.
Why do Christians worship? The best beginning to the answer might be the negative way—offering a few suggestions that are not the reasons Christians worship.
- Christians do not worship as a good work to earn God’s approval and obtain his blessings. Christians are saved by grace; not by works. Their works (including worship) are a response to being forgiven, redeemed and rescued. Their works (including worship) do not cause them to be forgiven, redeemed, and rescued.
- Christians do not worship because God needs their attention. God is complete within himself; God does not need anything from anyone. Some creative writers have written fantasy novels in which gods require worship and fade to nothing when they are forgotten. The true God would exist without worship; he exists outside of space and time and is fully self-sustaining.
- Christians do not worship to flatter God. They do not expect special favors from God because they attended a service. They do not think that God owes them anything because they came to church, sang his praises, heard the sermon, prayed the prayers, and put money in the offering plate.
- Christians do not worship for purely selfish reasons. They do not gather for worship only for their own individual benefit. They do not come to church to be entertained or amused. A church service cannot compete for excitement, action, and suspense with a sporting contest or a good Hollywood movie. Nor should it try to compete with those events.
- Christians do not worship to impress anyone else. They do not come to church to exhibit their piety, their faithfulness, or their wardrobe. They do not want to be admired for their singing. They do not gather to try to make a good impression upon anyone.
Of course, any gathering of Christians may include some people who think they are there for one of these reasons. There may be some who think they are earning rewards from God and others who want to impress their fellow Christians. There may be some who come to be enlightened or entertained and others who expect special blessings from God because they came to church. In fact, the real reasons for Christian worship are similar to some of the misperceptions listed above. Someone who has been told why Christians worship may have misunderstood the lesson they were taught. Others may be part of the crowd merely out of habit, not stopping to ask why they are there and what they expect from the service.
Why do Christians worship? First, we worship because God wants us to worship him. In the Bible he commands our worship. He says, “Remember the Sabbath Day by keeping it holy” (Exodus 20:8). “Let us consider how to stir up one another to love and good works, not neglecting to meet together, as is the habit of some, but encouraging one another, and all the more as you see the Day drawing near” (Hebrews 10:24-25). “Let the Word of Christ dwell in you richly, teaching and admonishing one another in all wisdom, singing psalms and hymns and spiritual songs, with thankfulness in your hearts to God” (Colossians 3:16). “For where two or three are gathered in my name, there am I among them” (Matthew 19:20).
Yet if worship is commanded, it still is not a good work that earns God’s approval. Obedience to God’s commands does not cause his love and mercy and his forgiveness. Rather, God’s love and mercy and forgiveness cause a Christian to do good works, including worship. A tree is recognized by its fruit (Matthew 7:20), but sound apples do not cause the apple tree to be healthy. Instead, when the apple tree is healthy, it will bear sound apples.
God wants us to worship him, not because he needs us, but because we need him. We need to remember his goodness; therefore, we praise him. We need to remember the things he has done for us; therefore, we thank him. We need to remember that we are sinners desperately needing rescue; therefore, we confess our sins to him. We could do any of these things alone, and most Christians probably do. But God also wants us to gather as a group to do these things so we can strengthen one another, support one another, and encourage one another as members of the same family.
After all, God loves us. He wants what is best for us. These gatherings are beneficial to Christians. And, because he loves us, God wants to hear from us. He does not need us to honor and praise him, but he knows that such activity is good for us. Our finest works—even our finest worship—is worth no more than the crayon drawing of a Kindergartener. Yet the love of God accepts these gifts and, in a sense, proudly displays them on the door of his heavenly refrigerator.
That is the second reason we worship. We need fellowship with God. When we gather with fellow Christians in the name of Christ, he is with us. That is true whether the gathering is in a church building, a private living room, or under a tree. Gathering in his name means more than gathering because we are Christians. Four Christians playing golf together are not the Church—not even if each of them whispers prayers of supplication or of thanksgiving on the putting green. Church happens when Christians examine the Word of God together, especially when they are seeking God’s promises of forgiveness to share with one another. Holy Baptism and Holy Communion are part of the reason Christians gather; neither of these Sacraments is a private act, but they happen when Christians gather in Christ’s name.
Therefore, God speaks to his people through his people. He communicates with us through one another. First, he spoke to the world through apostles and prophets. Now, he speaks to the world as his people repeat the message of the apostles and prophets. Some are called to preach the Word, to administer the Sacraments, and to lead the worship. But all those who participate in the service are sharing the Word of God with one another. However they contribute to the service, even if only in silent prayers, they are strengthening the body of Christ by their presence. They are encouraging their fellow saints. They are doing the work that God gave to his Church to accomplish.
All this is closely attached to the third reason Christians worship. God does bless us as we worship. We are not gathering selfishly to demand his blessings. We do not arrogantly tell God how and when to bless us. But he loves us so much that, when we gather as the Church, God gives us good things. Through the promises of his Word he gives us the forgiveness of our sins. He gives us the guarantee of eternal life in a perfect new creation. He gives us victory over the devil, over our sins, over the sinful world, and even over death itself. He gives us the strength to continue living as his people in this world as we look forward to the world to come.
For this reason, Christian worship is often called the Divine Service. When we enter God’s house, we are his guests. He serves us. In a sense, every Christian service is like Christmas, with gifts to be opened and celebrated. Those who miss the service for no good reason are depriving themselves. They are skipping Christmas, leaving gifts meant for them sitting under the tree. We come to church for fellowship with God. We leave bearing gifts that he lavishes on us because he cares so much about us.
As these gifts are given in the service, one Christian might be entertained. Another might be uplifted. A third might learn something new. Even for the Christian who does not feel entertained or uplifted or educated, the service still has benefits. It might strike some Christians as tradition-bound or repetitive or boring. Especially the traditional, liturgical service has been blamed for boring believers and visitors alike. But the very pattern of the traditional Christian service is family-friendly. The child who has not learned how to read still learns the liturgy and takes part in it and receives benefits from it. The young mother holding a baby can follow along because she knows what to expect. The elderly grandmother with failing eyesight and failing hearing also gains the benefit of repeating the same liturgy she has known since childhood. And all of them—the young child, the mother, the grandmother—are receiving from God Himself the forgiveness of their sins, the guarantee of everlasting life, and a share in the victory won by Christ for all his people.
The problem with traditions is not that they never change or that people find them boring. In fact, traditions do alter over time. The problem with traditions is that they require explanation. Simply doing them does not give them meaning. Learning what the tradition represents, why it has been preserved in the Church for so long, and what it communicates about God and his love—that makes traditions both meaningful and valuable.
A girl watched her mother prepare the pot roast for the oven. Before she put the roast in the pan, the mother sliced off the end of the roast and put it sidewise next to the larger piece of meat. “Why did you do that, Mommy?” the little girl asked. “I’m not sure,” her mother answered. “My mother always did that. We’ll have to phone Grandma and see why we’ve always done that.” Grandma, when she answered the phone, was just as puzzled about the question. “I’ve always done that,” she told her granddaughter. “I think my mother must have done that too. You know, her mind is still pretty sharp. Why don’t you call her at the retirement village and ask her the same question?
The elderly lady laughed when she heard the question. “When your grandfather and I first were married,” she explained, “the only roasting pan I had was very small. I had to cut the roast that way to make it fit in the pan. I guess I just kept doing it, and it was handed down from generation to generation.”
Traditions that are not explained become useless, even harmful. Consult Psalm 50 and Isaiah 1:10-15 to see how angry God became with his chosen people when they went through the motions of worship and sacrifice without thinking about what they were doing and without putting their faith in the Lord.
But the enemies of tradition—who hate no sentence more greatly than “We’ve never done it that way before—make a mistake when they toss out all traditions, the beneficial along with those that have lost their meaning. Different is not always better. Before making a change to a long-standing tradition, those in charge need to ask, “How will this make the service better? How will this help people see the promises of God more clearly? What will be lost to all of us if we make this change?”
Traditions hold people together. They tie generations together. They preserve the past and help people to learn their history. Every group of people has a set of traditions, and often those who mutter against tradition have ingrained habits that have become as traditional to them as the old ways they despise.
Therefore, this fall and winter I will be writing from time to time about the traditional worship of the Church. Some readers will find these lessons very familiar; others might be learning about some Christian traditions for the very first time, even though they have been Christians for a long time. I will be presenting these traditions in three sets. First I will write about the parts of Christian worship from beginning to end, explaining why the traditional liturgy contains various elements. Then I will cover traditions of the Christian calendar, from Christmas and Easter to the less known holidays, as well as the seasons of the Church Year. Last I will speak about various other traditions associated with Christian worship—traditions about the architecture of the church building, traditions about the way that worship leaders dress, and traditions about the items used to serve Holy Communion, among others. May our understanding and appreciation of traditional Christian worship grow through these explanations. J.