The Primary Activity in a Church Must Be Worship
The most important thing that happens at a church is worship. Every church has a certain number of people who worship every Sunday. There is another number that worships periodically. There is another number that worships on Christmas and Easter and holidays. There is another number that will show up for an occasional wedding. And there is a number that doesn’t show up at all, yet claims adherence to a community.
One of the fundamental problems is that in the church we haven’t put enough emphasis on Christ and on worship. Instead we have put our focus on programming. Not all religious programming is a bad thing. Sunday school is a good thing. Choir is a worthy ministry. There is nothing wrong with educational programming like Bible study, or fellowship programming like youth groups and seniors groups. The problem is that in many instances, these programs have taken the emphasis away from worship, so that certain members of programs come for the program but not for worship, or when the program is over, there is no reason to come to church.
Many students in Sunday school and members of the choir take the summer off, if the choir is not singing and if Sunday school classes are not meeting. Many choir members only attend church when the choir is singing, so if the choir takes a month off in the summer, many members (who are not on vacation) will stay home. It’s as if no choir equals no church. Even more egregious is the parents and students who don’t come to church when there is no Sunday school. The “no Sunday school equals no church” equation has no doubt caused many not to come to church not only in summer, but to see graduation from high school as a graduation from church as well.
One fundamental challenge is that our way of worship is very counter cultural to our American culture. We are used to everything being “express” and Orthodox worship is not fast. We are used to everything being new and innovative and the Orthodox Divine Liturgy is ancient, and unchanging (or rarely changing). Someone recently remarked to me that the Divine Liturgy is challenging because it’s as if we are trying to make Eastern worship fit Western culture, the proverbial square peg in a round hole. Some will argue that organs, choirs and pews are accommodation enough to integrate our church into Western culture. Others will argue that a radical transformation of worship is needed in order to save the church.
Many years ago, I was on a plane from Seattle back to Florida. The person seated next to me struck up a conversation. In the course of the conversation, I learned that he worked in an oil field in Alaska, and that it was the company’s policy that their workers worked two weeks and then were off for two weeks. The company paid to fly them home to their various states. This was critical, he said, especially in the winter, when the sun does not shine at all in the oil fields of northern Alaska. The company was concerned that their workers spend time in the sun, and not just be in darkness for months on end, which was known to cause depression, increase in alcoholism, and decrease in productivity.
In trying to explain the benefit of worship, to those who think our way of worship is outdated or inefficient, I often think of this conversation. We need time to be in the presence of the Son of God. We need more than a few minutes to be disengaged from the world to be in His presence. We need more than a few minutes to be disengaged from the phones that most of us are addicted to. We need more than a few minutes to be away from the stresses of life—traffic, the balancing act of juggling everything, stress at every turn. We need to spend time in the Son, meaning time in the presence of the Son of God, and what better way to do that than in worship. The Divine Liturgy lasts one hour at a minimum. That’s one hour to be without our phones, and without distraction. This is attractive, even if we get nothing else out of worship.
As we have discussed previously, the Divine Liturgy is also like an extended guided prayer, touching on almost every aspect of life in our world, as well as in our personal spiritual lives. The priest offers petitions as prompts and people respond with prayers for God’s mercies. Rather than seeing worship as a performance between priest and choir or chanters, the Divine Liturgy is supposed to be a guided prayer over the various aspects of our lives. Weddings are a guided prayer for the couple getting married. Same thing for a baptism. A funeral is an opportunity to remember the person who has passed away and the hymns point us to personal reflection on death—both for the person who has passed and in anticipation of our own earthly end.
Worship is meant to be active, it’s meant to be work. And it takes work on the part of the priest, the workers (the choir, the chanters, the ushers, etc.) and the people to make worship attractive, meaningful and pleasant. Just about every church can do a better job with worship.
The Ten Commandments are commandments, not suggestions. And one of these ten is a commandment to set aside one day to worship the Lord. The church calendar contains many activities for many ministries. However the most important event held at any church is the Divine Liturgy, and the most important “ministry” for the people to participate in is the liturgical ministry, the ministry of worship.
How lovely is Thy dwelling place, O Lord of Hosts!
My soul longs, yea, faints for the courts of the Lord; my heart and flesh sing for joy to the living God.
Even the sparrow finds a home and the swallow a nest for herself, where she may lay her young, at Thy altars, O Lord of Hosts, my King and My God.
Blessed are those who dwell in Thy house, ever singing Thy praise!
Blessed are the men whose strength is in Thee, in whose heart are the highways of Zion.
As they go through the valley of Baca they make it a place of springs; the early rai also covers it with pools.
They go from strength to strength; the God of gods will be seen in Zion.
O Lord God of hosts, hear my prayer, give ear, O God of Jacob!
Behold our shield O God; look upon the face of Thine anointed!
For a day in Thy courts is better than a thousand elsewhere. I would rather be a doorkeeper in the house of my God then dwell in the tents of wickedness.
For the Lord God is a sun and shield; He bestows favor and honor.
No good thing does the Lord withhold from those who walk uprightly.
O Lord of hosts, blessed is the man who trusts in Thee!
We can all work harder to make worship more of a priority, as well as to make it more attractive.