“How was worship?” It’s a question that sounds fairly innocent. Most of us have probably asked our friends this question on a Sunday afternoon. We ask, “How was church,” sort of like we ask, “How was your day?” We want to know what happened. We want to know what they think. What songs did the musicians play? Was the sermon good? How many people were there? How did the service make you feel? Did the pastor that you like preach? Were the hymns easy to sing? Was it “authentic”? Did you connect with it? These are all genuine questions, but they bring up two problems with the way we view worship. What happens in church isn’t about your actions, and it isn’t a surprise. It’s unbelievable, but it isn’t a surprise.
The word “worship” has to do with acknowledging worth in something. Worship often is about people ascribing value to an object. In church, people acknowledge God’s worth through their worship: “We give God our worship… God is worthy of our worship.” It’s anthropocentric (man centered) in its movement from the worshiper to God. This takes many forms, but basically has one theme: Worship is about people offering something to God “in response” to His worthiness. This is why people ask, “How was church?” They really mean something like, “How did you acknowledge God’s worth in church today? Did your actions show that He is worthy? Did the sermon, songs, and creative elements help you acknowledge God?”
This understanding of worship takes God’s work out of church. God becomes a passive agent on Sunday mornings, watching His worshipers perform. This is the problem. Believers don’t gather because of the things they want to do for God. They gather because of what God has done for the church and for the world. They gather to receive the promises of God, and His promises are always the same. Church isn’t about giving God your best effort, singing your favorite songs, listening to your favorite preacher, or participating in your favorite style. The church meets because God has made promises. He has promised to deliver His gifts, His grace, in real places for your benefit. God’s favor is not an abstract idea. It’s about real things. It has flesh and blood. It’s audible. It marks you. The gospel is good news that comes from outside of your sinful heart-good news from God for you.
This means true worship isn’t about wondering which pastor is gong to preach on any given Sunday. It’s not about wondering if the band will play your favorite song, or if the organist will play a song that you know how to sing. Church isn’t about making sure that the worship service stays under an hour and incorporates a couple of “creative” elements. Church isn’t a movement from you to God.
In the end, worship really isn’t a good name for what happens on a Sunday morning in Christian churches. In true worship, God does things for you. He serves you His gifts. It’s an act of service by God, not your spiritual acknowledgement of His worth. God is not on a pedestal awaiting your praise. As Luther said, “God is with us in the muck and in the work that makes his skin steam.” He doesn’t stand in the distance. For Luther, this is the meaning of Immanuel – God is with us. In Jesus, the Crucified One, God enters the muck of this world and delivers His gifts to you himself.
The early church used a different word for their church gatherings. The Ancient Greeks used it to describe the generous donation of a wealthy person to complete a public project in the city. It was a public work at a private expense, a public service. The church used this secular word, leitourgia, and applied it to a Christian context. In church, God does a public service, His liturgy.
Liturgy is a public work of God, a Divine Service, where Jesus gives you His gifts. These gifts are true gift because they were bought for you at God’s expense. There is no work to be done. No penance or acknowledgement of God’s worth qualifies you for this service. If that’s how it worked, then church wouldn’t be a public service at God’s expense-it would be a job where you receive your due reward.
God serves you the gifts of Christ’s death. In church, Jesus serves His Word and Sacrament. He serves the good news that God justifies you, an ungodly sinner. This is the public service pronouncement: You are not guilty. Jesus has taken your sin and given you His righteousness. He serves you the Baptismal promises of death and new life, cleansing, and salvation. He serves you His Body and Nlood for the forgiveness of sins in a foretaste of the feast to come-a feast where God’s favor lasts forever, a new creation and a world without end. Come to the Savior’s liturgy. All is ready. Jesus has paid for everything. It costs you nothing.
Chris Vecera is a Theology Teacher at Orange Lutheran High School in Orange California, and he can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.