Love Takes On. Love Takes Off.
Missionary Hudson Taylor learned that the “heart language” of a people is learned up close, not from a distance. For him, that meant taking on the clothing (literally) of those he wished to reach. It’s not unlike what Derek Webb sang: “And like the Three-in-One, know you must become what you want to save.”
A while ago, I was in the part of the world Hudson Taylor had embraced. I was talking with a national—call him “Jazz.” Through an interpreter, I asked him what attracted him to Christ. He talked about an incident on a basketball court. There was this new guy—an expat from the US—who wanted to join a pick-up game. The expat—call him “Mike”—was conspicuous by virtue of, well, being an expat. He happened to be wearing the jersey of a famous NBA player. Well, just by showing up, Mike had invited a rude welcome from Jazz—a hard foul. But Mike didn’t respond as expected. He didn’t get angry, he just kept playing. After the game, he came over, took off his jersey, and offered it to Jazz.
“OK, but what do you want from me?”
“I just want to get to know you.”
Distrustful at first, Jazz nonetheless accepted the jersey and the invitation to friendship. Eventually, he wanted to know where that kind of offer of friendship came from: “In my world, nobody wants to know you just for you. This fellow did. I found out that Jesus made him that way. I wanted Jesus to make me that way.”
Worship Is More than the Music
There’s a difference between “worship services” (shorthand for what we do on Sundays) and “services of worship” (shorthand for what we do the rest of the week). That’s why the apostle Paul calls on believers in Rome to “present your bodies as a sacrifice that is living, holy, and pleasing to God” (Romans 12:1 translation mine). And that’s what Paul puts a priority on.
In Mike’s case that meant taking the hard foul and then offering his jersey in friendship. In Paul’s case, that meant devoting what we call his Third Missionary Journey to creating a concrete picture of the gospel message. He has been taking up a collection from the prosperous Gentile churches in Greece and Asia Minor for their impoverished Jewish brothers and sisters in the mother church in Jerusalem. Paul writes his letter to the Romans while he is on the way to Jerusalem to deliver that collection. He understands that the work of Christ has done more than create individual worshipers in scattered congregations around the Mediterranean. Christ’s sacrifice has united heaven and earth, and has created one new humanity in himself. Paul writes, in part, to ask for prayers that these offerings will be accepted—for it’s not sure that they will be. But Paul is willing to risk everything to see it happen.
True worship is this sort of self-offering: Mike for Jazz, Paul for his churches, Gentile believers for Jewish believers. In Romans 12:2, Paul further qualifies this kind of sacrifice as logikēn (from which we get “logical”). What he means, going back to the beginning of Romans 12:1, is that worship-as-the-presenting-of-our-bodies makes sense in view of the mercies God has extended to us in Christ.
How “Worship Services” Become “Services of Worship”
Twice a year I have the privilege of seeing this kind of worship on display among students at the Robert E. Webber Institute for Worship Studies. Each session in January and June, students in the senior doctoral seminar are asked to create a “worship service” for the entire campus. To create this worship service, these students have to offer “services of worship.” That is, they sideline their own preferences and sometimes even their principles for the sake of serving the Lord and the IWS community. People who in their home church settings call all the shots learn to defer to one another. The Lutheran “high liturgist” and the Assembly of God “anti-liturgist” figure out a way to offer a common worship. The brilliant trumpet player sidelines his gift because the group needs him to run projection. The extraordinary diva soloist simply blends her voice with the ensemble, because that’s what the occasion calls for. And that’s how real worship happens, when we offer our bodies as sacrifices, living and holy and pleasing to God.
As early Christian theologians put it: “Christ became what we are that we might become what He is.” Mercy came to us, so we become mercy to others. That’s “logical” worship. That’s what Webb sings about. That’s what Mike did. That’s what the apostle Paul did—and calls on us to offer. Such “service of worship” is the measure of success for our “worship services.”