What's at stake in Worship? Everything. That's what's at stake in worship. The urgent, indeed troubling, message of Scripture is that everything that matters is at stake in worship.
Worship names what matters most: the way human beings are created to reflect God's glory by embodying God's character in lives that seek righteousness and do justice. Such comprehensive worship redefines all we call ordinary. Worship turns out to be the dangerous act of waking up to God and to the purposes of God in the world, and then living lives that actually show it.
Worship, then, refers to something very big and very small, and much in between. It can point to the meaning and work of the whole created order. Worship can also be in the cry of a mother or in the joy of a new disciple. Worship can name a Sunday gathering of God's people, but it also includes how we treat those around us, how we spend our money, and how we care for the lost and the oppressed. Worship can encompass every dimension of our lives.
True worship includes the glory and honor due God—Father, Son, and Spirit. It also includes the enactment of God's love and justice, mercy and kindness in the world. This is the encounter and the transformation that is worth the pearl of great price, both for our sake and for our neighbor's. On the one hand, Scripture indicates that worship is meant to be the tangible embodiment of God's hope in the world. Conversely, the Bible also teaches that the realities of oppression, poverty and injustice can be both a call to worship and an indictment of our failure to do so.
Clearly we are not primarily speaking about worship here in the limited but important sense of the service of worship, though we will certainly reflect on that. Nor do we mean a still smaller piece of that service, the period of extended singing that is distinct from prayer and preaching that some call worship. This is not a hook about postmodern worship versus modern worship. We are not concerned here with the pros and cons of praise choruses versus hymns or with liturgical debates over the value of candles, video clips, worship cafes or special lighting. These issues may be as far as some have gone in considering the subject of worship.
When worship is our response to the One who alone is worthy of it—Jesus Christ—then our lives are on their way to being turned inside out. Every dimension of self-centered living becomes endangered as we come to share God's self-giving heart. Worship exposes our cultural and even spiritual complacency toward a world of suffering and injustice. In Jesus Christ, we are called into a new kind of living. Through the grace of worship, God applies the necessary antidote to what we assume is merely human—our selfishness. Worship sets us free from ourselves to be free for God and God's purposes in the world. The dangerous act of worshiping God in Jesus Christ necessarily draws us into the heart of God and sends us out to embody it, especially toward the poor, the forgotten and the oppressed. All of this is what matters most and is most at stake in worship.
So what's the problem? The church is asleep. Not dead. Not necessarily having trouble breathing. But asleep. This puts everything that matters at stake: God's purposes in the church and in the world.
Whether I think of myself, or congregations I have served as a pastor, or other churches across the country and around the world, it seems that many of us are asleep to God's heart for a world filled with injustice. It's no surprise that we also seem to be asleep to God's desire that out of worship should come a church that seeks and embodies the justice that's needed in the world. We are asleep to God's heart for the poor and oppressed, absorbed with our own inner life, wrestling with our own dreams and traumas that, for all their vividness, are unknown, unseen, and largely unreal to the world around us.