This article was published in the September/October 2003 issue of Worship Leader, but the topic is just as important today as it was then.
Worship is a lifestyle….
It’s a phrase you hear with increasingly regularity these days, as diverse expressions of worship continues to define contemporary Christian identity, both individually and corporately. We identify ourselves by the music of our worship—the rituals we employ and the cultural baggage we bring with us into the sanctuary. Small wonder worship occupies a central role in Christian life. What we bring to our praise, and what proceeds from it, are definitive indicators of our commitment to our faith.
So goes the prevailing wisdom, echoed from the pulpit, the concert stage and in a myriad of books, articles and interviews that seek to articulate the fullest dimension of the worship experience. The implications are clear: how we worship is how we believe and how we believe is how we act—in evangelism, in ministry and in service. Simply put, worship is not simply an end unto itself: it is the means to an end.
But, by so fashioning the purpose and perimeters of worship, are we heaping up instead a slippery slope of common assumptions that may or may not withstand biblical scrutiny and the rigors of semantic certainty? Do we really know what we mean when we tell each other that worship is a lifestyle? Are we aware of what we are adding to the act of worship…and what we are taking away? Are we in accord with the essential purpose of worship, or are we simply seeking to justify the cultural and creative imperatives that have given rise to the “worship industry?” Are we fully in the flow of God’s original intent for worship or have we jettisoned our rich tradition in a frenzy of postmodern modifications?
Worship Leader magazine recently put the question of worship as a lifestyle, with all its attendant implications, to a number of theologians and pastors for whom the vital dimension of worship truly is a lifestyle—of scholarship, teaching and penetrating insight. The results, while by no mean conclusive, may be surprising, both for those who have taken up the rallying cry of worship as a lifestyle and to those for whom the phrase is the only the latest in a long line of easily digestible Christian catchphrases.
“The word ‘lifestyle’ connotes a choice. We pick options that suit us best and compile a style of life from our choices. But worship is not an option. It is a command of God.” So says the Reverend Maggi Dawn, a Chaplain at King’s College in Cambridge. A “recovering” evangelical turned Anglican, Dawn brings a multi-faceted perspective to the subject of worship in both its historical context and its current development. For the U.K. based pastor and theologian, the connection between past and present is vital for an understanding of the authentic role of worship. “The modern church is often seen as presenting an array of consumer options,” Dawn continues. “The implication is that if worship doesn’t suit my lifestyle at any particular juncture I can make a more comfortable choice. Where this approach begins to break down is when you consider the biblical imperative that worship is an absolute requirement. There is no choice involved in the matter, which means that we sometimes have to keep slogging away at our worship, even when it doesn’t suit our lifestyle.”
Dawn’s contention cuts to a critical issue in the debate over living a life of worship: a working definition of terms. While worship finds its meaning in the historical accounts of Scripture, the word lifestyle seems to have been conjured from the thin air of contemporary marketing jargon. “The meaning of the word lifestyle is a mystery,” asserts Ken Smith in his biting book Junk English. “Sometimes it is used as a sloppy synonym for life…at other times it apparently defines something, although that something is never clear. The word is widely used by home-furnishing and personal-hygiene retailers, credit-card companies and illustrated-book publishers, who count on the general public recognizing what it stands for, if not exactly what it is.”
If the term lifestyle is diffuse and inexact, what does that say about the concept of a worship lifestyle? For Dr. Randy Rowland, Dean of Northwest Graduate School in Seattle, Washington, the answer is apparent in the expectations we bring to the act of worship itself. “We find it quite easy to reduce worship to a privatized act, a personally meaningful experience shared by like-minded friends at a Christian gathering,” Rowland asserts. “But worship demands an investment of the whole person and the whole life. We should expect worship to be a sacrifice, where we die to some of our wants and needs. Worship does not contract us into our comfort zones. Worship expands us as we magnify God.”
For Samuel Balentine, Professor of Old Testament Studies at Baptist Theological Seminary in Richmond, Virginia, the scope of that expansion is clearly laid out in the very first verses of the Bible. “”Worship is firmly grounded in creation theology,” Balentine explains. “In the account of the seven days of creation, the seventh day is sacred. All creation is summoned to look upon a ‘very good’ world as an act of worship. That act, in turn, is a cyclical concept, reoccurring as the Sabbath in the liturgical calendar. It is a time set apart from ordinary days. Worship is fundamental to understanding the love of God and that understanding is worked out in the ethical dimensions of our lives.”
“When we gather for worship, something utterly unique occurs,” Dawn contends. “It’s not just about you and your conditions for fulfillment. It’s about coming together with people who may not be of like mind with you, who are not just like you and with whom you may feel deeply uncomfortable. Where else in life is such a requirement made of us?”
Says Rowland, “Authentic corporate worship is likely to transform us into the sort of worshipers who cannot confine our expression of worship to a worship service. It doesn’t end in a weekly public ceremony or get squished down into a private devotion during the week. We wake and greet each new day as a call to worship.”
Yet, if each day is a call to worship, what of the sacred time, set apart from the foundation of the world? If we are to be in a constant state of worship, is singularity of this preeminent expression devalued?
“The holiness of worship and its outworking in our everyday lives are aspects that must be held in constant tension,” insists Balentine. “There are ethical components to our lives that are not compelled by our faith. For instance, good citizenship requires ethical behavior. But it is the Christian contention that ethical behavior separated from the love of God as expressed in worship has lost its mooring. At the same time, worship is not equal to the practice of Christianity in our day-to-day routines. It is something more, something specific and set aside.”
“True worship transcends the structures we create,” concludes Dawn. “We make a commitment to worship and, if we’re true to that commitment, a transformation occurs. We stop singing the songs and the songs start singing us. We begin the process by trying to make worship meaningful for ourselves, but in the end it is we who find our meaning through worship, in good times and in bad times. This is a monastic phenomenon, one where the believer removes the element of choice in worship. Then it truly does become a lifestyle.”
Does worship, as Rowland insists, “not confine itself to the sanctuary, but claims every place we walk as holy ground?” Or, as Balantine would have it, “Worship is a command of God different from any other, designated as such from the moment of creation?” The answer lies at the heart of a mystery initiated by the Creator and embodied in His creation and its response to his love.