Theology & SpiritualityWorship

Webber on the Purpose of Worship

“My longing for a more satisfying worship grew as each route I took in worship led me to a dead end street. But after giving up the evangelistic approach to worship and after the unfulfilling experience of educational worship, I didn’t know what to do next. I was running out of reasons for being at church (Webber, Evangelicals on the Canterbury Trail).”1

In the opening quote above, Robert Webber’s personal experiences raise a legitimate question, “Why would someone go to a worship service on a Sunday morning?” In other words, “What is the purpose of worship?” In today’s culture, this question has heightened relevance. For lots of folks faith is a private matter, no community necessary. Worship happens anywhere, at any time, and in many different forms. It is common for people to say that their “church” is a hiking trail on Saturday morning or a family dinner table on Sunday night. Additionally, Sunday morning worship services interfere with work schedules, household chores, youth sports leagues, and other regular obligations. Furthermore, many people, exhausted by the demands of their weekday schedule, prefer to use Sunday morning as a time to relax, as opposed to adding yet another appointment to their calendars.

For many younger people today, organized religion, and all the trappings associated with it, keeps them at home. One semester I had a student who constantly joked that he could only attend church on the weeks he got paid. This was because he felt like most church services pressured and guilted a person into giving financially. If all the rigmarole around money is not enough to turn a person off, many people today are highly suspicious of religious authorities, often times for valid reasons. They prefer to practice their own spirituality without having to submit to the dogmas of a corrupt hierarchy. Finally, modern technology makes it possible to attend church services online. More and more large churches are launching online campuses that make it easy to attend church from the comfort of your couch. So, the question is incredibly appropriate. Why go to a worship service on a Sunday morning? One’s answer will depend on the purpose of worship itself.

Three Prevalent Types of Worship

In Robert E. Webber’s book, Evangelicals on the Canterbury Trail, Webber chronicles his own growing dissatisfaction with Christian worship. Like many, he reached a point where he asked the question raised above. Why even be at church? This is because he burned out on the three most prevalent types of Protestant worship experiences:

  1. Evangelistic worship
  2. Educational worship
  3. Entertainment worship

The traditional Baptist church service epitomizes the evangelistic approach to worship. The focus of the Sunday morning worship service is the altar call. Members are encouraged to bring friends, family, co-workers, and neighbors each week so that they can meet Jesus and get saved. The themes of salvation, sin, Cross, atonement, and redemption are incorporated into the sermon and worship music each week.

The average Protestant church follows the educational worship model. The sermon is the high point of the service. Everything else leads up to this moment where the pastor teaches from the Bible and the congregation learns as much as they can about the stories and truths contained therein. This might be further reinforced by Sunday school classes before or after the worship service. This of course puts a lot of pressure on the pastor each week, writing and developing sermons. A bad sermon makes the whole worship service a big disappointment. If the pastor doesn’t deliver a heaping helping of God’s Word, the congregation will leave hungry and unfulfilled.

Many of today’s newer churches have opted for the entertainment worship model. They know people are worn out by the boring educational model that feels too much like school. They know that the church competes in a noisy world full of distractions. In order to compete, the church needs to put on a good show. People should enjoy themselves at church; the music should be well-done, the graphics eye-catching, the sermon applicable and entertaining.

A Fourth Way: Worship of God

Webber, like many, lost interest in all three of these models. What, then, did Webber turn to instead? In short, he went looking for a church where the focus was simply on worship of God–not on mass conversions, not on communicating Bible lessons, not on the spectacle. In his search, he first turned to two of the most ancient practices of worship in the Christian tradition–the love feast and the house church. Eventually, he desired a greater sense of global community than the house church offered so he joined the Episcopal/Anglican Church.

Webber’s book, originally published in 1985, was clearly ahead of its time. Many Christians today, especially younger ones, find themselves asking the same questions. Why should I belong to religious institutions? What is the value of attending a Sunday morning worship service? Why not simply practice my own personal sense of spirituality? Based on my personal observations, it appears as if many churches are turning to the entertainment model to solve this crisis. If church is more fun, they think more people will want to attend. Maybe this logic works for a time, but I think it is misguided in the long run. At some point, even the entertainment model loses appeal, especially in a world with so many forms of entertainment.

Eastern Orthodoxy: A Model for Going Forward

While Webber converted to Anglicanism, one could argue that Eastern Orthodoxy offers an even better example of the purpose of worship. After overcoming the initial strangeness and unfamiliarity of Orthodox worship, a Protestant encountering Orthodox worship will be overwhelmed by the realization that the main point of the service is to participate with all the saints and angelic beings in the never-ending heavenly worship of a Holy, Mighty, and Immortal God. In the earliest history of Christianity, worship services were attended exclusively by believers so the service had no need to be evangelistic. Evangelism happened outside the walls of the church and in the marketplace. The amount of time spent listening to an educational sermon or homily will pale in comparison to the amount time spent praying, singing hymns to God, hearing the Scriptures read, and receiving the Eucharist. Finally, whether or not an Orthodox service is entertaining seems incredibly irrelevant. The style of music is hopelessly out of fashion and the liturgy is not driven by seeker-sensitive fads. Besides attending an Orthodox service because of family tradition and ritual, the only reason to come is to offer worship to God. The service offers no other purpose.

Protestant churches would do well to learn from folks like Robert Webber and the example of the Orthodox Church. Protestants like myself have heard hundreds of salvation messages (and been saved and re-saved many times). We have heard thousands of sermons on the Bible, many of which were not terribly enlightening or beneficial. We have sung a myriad of contemporary Christian worship songs. While some of us are looking for more of the same, others of us are not necessarily looking for more of what we already know. Instead, we want to be part of a gathered and called-out community (an ecclesia) that comes together in the presence of God. We want to be spurred on to love and good deeds.2 We want to see God’s Spirit at work in the lives of our brothers and sisters and to hear them give voice to that each week. We want to focus on God rather than ourselves and our private concerns for a few minutes. We want to hear the full biblical story, not just the story of the Cross each week. We do not want the sermon to be the main event, as if we cannot have “church” without it. We do not want to watch the pastor on a big screen; we spend enough time looking at computer screens and television screens during our daily lives. We want to put our technology away for a minute; unplug so that we can simply be in God’s presence. We want to be quiet and reflect rather than have more noise in our lives. After the worship service ends, we want to sit around a table with our brothers and sisters and share a fellowship meal. My hope is that more and more churches realize this growing Protestant discontent and return to worship as the main purpose for gathering each week, otherwise more and more people will start running out of reasons to attend.

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Jarrett Dickey

Jarrett Dickey

Jarrett is a bi-vocational house church pastor and adjunct faculty member. He teaches classes at several local colleges in the areas of religion and humanities. In addition to teaching, Jarrett is the assistant pastor of a house church, where he helps with preaching, teaching, worship leading, and discipleship. Jarrett married his high school sweetheart, Hannah, in 2005, and they now have four small children. Jarrett holds a bachelor of science degree in biology from Ohio Northern University and a master of divinity degree from Emory University, Candler School of Theology. His hobbies include guitar, hiking, bird watching, crossword puzzles, sports, reading, and writing.

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