On the Risks and Dangers of WORSHIP
by Vernard Eller

This work may be freely reproduced and distributed provided that that no changes are made, no revenues are collected beyond the nominal cost of media, and credit is given to the author. Any other use requires the written permission of the author. Citing this material on other Internet sites is encouraged, but is to be done only by providing a hypertext reference to this file on this server.

Bible selections are from the New Revised Standard Version of the Bible, copyright 1989 (NRSV) by the Division of Christian Education of the National Council of the Churches of Christ in the USA. Used by permission. All rights reserved.

WORSHIP (in all its different forms, and with all its different appurtenances) is a very big thing in the church-life of our day. That, of course, would seem to be all to the good; yet I am convinced that the matter needs much closer biblical thought and examination.

What I here mean by WORSHIP is our human initiative in wanting to ascribe and render to GOD that honor which we find most appropriate to his name and being. Is that acceptable as a definition of "worship"? Apparently, we have never had any problem in deciding what GOD would most appreciate; so the only question now is whether GOD has ever spoken to the issue of what HE would most appreciate from us. And it is therein lies the risk and danger.

We (perhaps inevitably) assume that, from us, GOD would most enjoy receiving what we most enjoy giving. And that, in our day, amounts to what now is commonly called CELEBRATION (which is to say: music, dancing, eating, drinking, socializing, fun-time)--all dedicated to the praise and glory of GOD (and his people). So we build cathedrals and churches as splashy as we can afford (all to the greater glory of GOD). Then we make a big thing out of church activities-out of vestments, liturgies, worship centers--this, that, and the other. We want the best of all things--bright, beautiful, and expensive--and all to the glory of GOD.

Clearly, the assumption is that what we know to be beautiful, GOD surely must have sense enough to appreciate as beautiful, too.

Obviously, the risk and danger here is that GOD (in his wisdom) just might see the matter differently from what we humans do. It could be that his evaluation is quite different from what we assume for ourselves. But the WORSHIP we find enjoyable, we assume GOD must find enjoyable as well. However, that doesn't follow. It could be that GOD understands WORSHIP in an entirely different way. And it surely is not up to us to impose our human understanding upon him.

However, my studied opinion is that the Christian churches of today are pretty well into the celebrative business of our enjoying ourselves under the assumption that GOD joins in on that enjoyment, too. HAPPY GOD with his Happy People, as it were. To make the point decisive, I here tender my one worst example. It may be of some comfort to know that the whole of Christendom is not yet this far gone. But our saddest of cases might be entitled: HOW TO USE OUR WORLDLY PLEASURE AS A MEANS OF PLEASING GOD. What I have in mind is the "Christian" programming of the TRINITY BROADCASTING NETWORK. Channel 40 on my TV dial; I can't say what it is on yours.

But the first thing to strike a viewer is how worldly people can be to the glory of Jesus Christ. There is nothing of Jesus' own lowliness, poverty, and humility to be found here. All the performers (which is what they are) are dressed fit to kill--nothing but the best (and most extravagant) of garments, hairdo, cosmetics, jewelry, show-off display, the whole bit. And worldly? The music is exactly of the same raucous blast and tempo as the admittedly worldly channels on either side. The only difference is the naming of the name JESUS. All the ploys and gimmicks of advertising find a place here.

And then the preachers come on. They need a lot of room as they pace around in full voice, waving their Bibles, threatening, and promising all sorts of things. And perhaps most of all, there is that high-speed, high-energy, boisterousness that so dominates the secular scene of our day. Apparently, this Trinity crowd has never heard the Bible verse that says, "Beside the still waters, He leadeth me."

Of course, I am not at all accusing the church-at-large of having gone over to TRINITY BROADCASTING. However, I do think the church-at-large is smart enough to smell all the colors of the wind. The church can sense that it is a good thing (membership-wise, church-growth-wise, and all that) when people learn that WORSHIP can include all the pleasures of celebration and still be assured that this is precisely what GOD most welcomes and wants from them.

What we need to do now, then, is go to Scripture to learn what GOD has to say on the subject--which (sad to say) isn't going to be all that much fun. To my mind, God’s own best word is:

Now when David settled in his house, David said to the prophet Nathan, "I am living in a house of cedar, but the ark of the covenant of the Lord is under a tent." Nathan said to David, "Do all that you have in mind, for GOD is with you."
But that same night the word of the Lord came to Nathan, saying: Go and tell my servant David: Thus says the Lord: You shall not build me a house to live in; for I have not lived in a house since the day I brought out Israel to this very day; but I have lived in a tent.... Wherever I have moved about among all Israel, did I ever speak a word with any of the judges of Israel, whom I commanded to shepherd my people, saying, "Why have you not built me a house of cedar?" (1 Chr. 17:1-7)

In effect, is this not God's making clear that the temple was entirely David’s idea and nothing of his own? David thought to worship GOD by doing what David himself thought would be nice, rather than asking GOD what he actually wanted.And how can we be so sure that fervent song, dance, fun, and celebration is what GOD now wants as authentic WORSHIP from us? Is it possible that GOD's own word could be, "Be still, and know that I am GOD?"

Then consider this word of GOD that comes from Amos:

I hate, I despise your festivals,
 and I take no delight in your solemn assemblies.
Even though you offer me your burnt offerings and grain offerings,
 I will not accept them...
Take away from me the noise of your songs;
 I will not listen to the melody of your harps.
But let justice roll down like waters,
 and righteousness like an everflowing stream.(Amos 5:21-24)

What we, in our WORSHIP, are most intent on giving to GOD, he bluntly says he doesn't want. So, if what we are giving is not what GOD wants, what, pray tell, is what he truly does want from us? That one is easy; one scripture among many will do. Our choice here is a verse from Ps. 51: "The sacrifice acceptable to God is a broken spirit; a broken and contrite heart, O God, you will not despise."

Yet, sad to say, broken and contrite hearts simply are not the going commodity in the Christendom of our day. We prefer the WORSHIP we enjoy as over against that which GOD wants from us. Do you see where that puts us?

  • Indeed, if true WORSHIP is our giving to GOD what he most wants from us, I very much doubt that it is anything that can be done in our chosen way of en masse. At least, with David's big temple-building idea, the conversation came down to this: "David, you and I (just the two of us) really need to sit down for a one-on-one and talk this matter through. At least I never said that a temple is what I wanted from you."
  • And if a broken and contrite heart is what GOD most wants from us, that, also, is going to have to be done one-on-one (one heart per customer).

    Our praising GOD and giving ourselves in WORSHIP--that simply has to be ONE GOD and ONE WORSHIPER talking it out together. Our en masse celebrating of a BIG BASH FOR GOD--that just doesn't do it.

But when we are so enjoying ourselves in celebrative WORSHIP, who would be so brash as to put a stopper on us? THE LORD GOD HIMSELF would, if you must know. Three sentences out of John 14-15 are wonderfully clarifying:

  1. "If you love me, you will keep my commandments"(Jn. 14:15)
  2. "They who have my commandments and keep them are those who love me..." (Jn. 14:21a)
  3. "If you keep my commandments, you will abide in my love." (Jn. 15:10)

That makes it a whole new ballgame, doesn't it? Celebrating and singing the praises of GOD was done so free and easily. And this matter of keeping commandments is so very difficult (if not impossible), why couldn't GOD have been satisfied with our well-intended song and dance? That we could live with.

So what do you suppose are these "commandments" he so insists upon? Let me try you on a few, and you will soon get the biblical swing of things. We will play it as though it is GOD himself speaking:

  1. In baptism, you afffirmed my reality as GOD and LORD and gave your whole self over to me. Have you faithfully held to that commandment? Or have you fallen in with the moderns who understand GOD to be nothing more than an imaginative ideal derived from human culture?
  2. Sometime thereafter, before me, you made solumn vows about how you were going to live in matrimony. How well have you lived out my marital "commandments" of this sort?
  3. Have you brought up your children to "walk in the ways of the LORD"?
  4. In the case of most of your sainted parents and predecessors, these folk had learned how to live simply and without ostentation. Have you done as well?
  5. In our world, the primary goals are "success," "reputation," "getting ahead," and "making a name for yourself." Obviously, Jesus disdained any such style as this. Have you stayed with Jesus? Or have you gone the way of the world?
  6. You don't need my help; on your own you know very well what are the "commandments" of which John speaks here in the Gospel of John. How much you do in singing, announcing, or mouthing the praises of GOD--that has nothing at all to do with anything. GOD's own word still stands: "They who have my commandments and keep them are those who love me."

Yes, of course, there always remains the possibility of repentance, contrition, and being forgiven. Salvation is still a possibility for any one of us. But it is going to have to come on GOD's own terms of what "salvation" means--and not on our terms of how many compliments we have paid to him. So here it again: Not, "If you do sufficient praising--but if you keep my commandments--you will abide in my love."

Return to The Eller Collection