This article was originally published in Worship Leader magazine (March/April 2007). For more great articles like this one, subscribe today.
One of my favorite Early Church Fathers is Ignatius of Antioch, a martyr for the faith.
On his journey to martyrdom in 110 AD, he wrote a letter to the Christians in seven cities. One of these letters was sent to the city of Ephesus. Here is his quote, which I hope you will love as much as I do. “Your accord and harmonious love is a hymn to Jesus Christ. Yes, one and all, you should form yourselves into a choir, so that in perfect harmony, and taking your pitch from God, you may sing in unison and in one voice to the Father through Jesus Christ.”
I take this quote, not to refer to a specific group of people identified as a “choir,” as we think of it today, but as the whole congregation harmoniously praying (with song) the story of God’s redeeming work for all creation (much like the book of Revelation—a cosmic song of praise). What if our public worship brought song, Scripture, prayers, Eucharist and all else into a prayer concert for God? Unfortunately, worship today is in crisis.
The Crisis of Public Prayer
The first crisis of public prayer is its neglect. By neglect I do not mean to suggest that congregational worship has no prayer within it. Indeed, most, if not all, churches will do prayers. Most begin and end with prayer and even pray in between. What I speak of here is not the neglect of prayer, but the failure to do all of worship as the prayer of the Church for the hope of the world.
This failure to grasp all of worship as a cosmic prayer has several underlying causes. The first, and I believe, most fundamental reason why worship is not seen as prayer is the failure to grasp that corporate prayer arises from the story of God. The story of God is the story of the world and of human existence of all of history—a prayer for the reign of God. Worship prays this story. But this thought and the application of this thought for the content and structure of worship is neglected simply because it is unheard of by many.
A second reason why worship is not seen as the prayer of God’s people for the world is because worship has been turned into a program. Worship, influenced by the broadcast communication theories of the media revolution, has become an entertaining presentation. The commitment to worship “programming” has been intensified by the contemporary Christian music industry. Because people are drawn by entertainment, showmanship and celebrity, many local churches have turned to a presentational worship to attract the masses.
Consequently, the nature of worship has shifted from corporate prayer toward platform presentational performance. Corporate worship, instead of being a rehearsal of God’s saving actions in the world and for the world, is exchanged for making people feel comfortable, happy and affirmed. Worship, no longer the public prayer of God’s people, becomes a private and individual experience. Beneath the privatization of worship is the ever-present individualism of our culture. This focus on the self results in prayers that are concerned with my life, my needs, my desires. This kind of prayer does not do what worship as prayer does—glorify God for His story, not only with our lips, but also with our lives.
Worship as “public prayer” refers to worship, from its beginning to its end, as prayer in the world for the world. But these acts of prayer are not a mere “collection of prayers” but a praying of God’s story of the world and an offering of God’s story of the world to God as an act of thanksgiving. It is us saying, “God we are here to remember Your story and to pray that the whole world, the entire cosmos will be gathered in Your Son and brought to the fulfillment of Your purposes in Him.” It is a prayer that remembers God’s saving deeds and anticipates God’s rule over all creation.
I sense it was this kind of “Revelation worship” that Ignatius had in mind when he called on us to “Sing in unison and one voice.”
About Robert Webber
Robert Webber wrote an article in every issue of Worship Leader, from its debut issue until he passed away in 2007. He is the founder of The Robert E. Webber Institute for Worship Studies.