Why go to church? According to a Pew Research Center survey, Christians answer that question in a variety of ways, with common responses being: to grow closer to God, to give children a moral foundation, to become a better person, and to meet a religious obligation. While none of these reasons are wrong per se, if they are the only reasons given, then the deeper purpose of church is missed. The focus is on the work of the worshipper rather than the work of the Worshipped. Which raises the question, who’s serving whom in worship anyway? If worship is viewed as a human work towards God, going to church becomes yet another tiresome task on the checklist of life. Law. How refreshing it is, instead, to embrace the deeper reality that in worship, God’s work in Christ is delivered to humanity. Gospel. Worship at its core then, is primarily reception. Christians come to church to receive God’s Word of forgiveness into their ears and into their bodies, and gratefully go out into the world with their identity hid in Christ.
Common misconceptions about the nature of worship in the American context can be traced at least in part to its Old English roots as weorthscipe, meaning worthiness, or acknowledgment of worth. The etymological consequences have unfolded for centuries in the English-speaking Church, as worship came to be understood primarily as a human work that takes place in individuals’ hearts and minds as they ascribe honor and praise to God.
Viewing worship as an internal and individual act can foster various types of liturgical, artistic and musical minimalism, where God is worshipped abstractly in the mind, purely because he is worthy to receive all honor and praise, not necessarily because of what He is doing for congregants via the means of grace during worship. When worship is mainly a mental activity, arts, architecture, and liturgy dwindle as the sermon morphs from prophetic proclamation, to lengthy lecture. Preachers become professors, with congregants as students, completing their intellectual work and note-taking during the sermon, while the sacraments are demoted to once a month or once a quarter. Each week, everything hangs on the sermon—what pressure for the Pastor, and what expectations for the people!
In his insightful book Disruptive Witness, Alan Noble explains that this type of church environment unintentionally communicates “that the real point of church is to receive a good lecture about the Bible that I can rationally apply to an area of my life to improve my standing before God” (130). Following Charles Taylor, Noble calls this “excarnational” worship, which makes “communion with God a thing that happens inside our heads, not with our whole selves, including our bodies” (130). Noble continues, “If the purpose of church is to learn about God the way we learn about any other subject, we shouldn’t be surprised when people stop showing up to church once they feel they’ve learned everything….The weekly gathering together of saints is only justified if attending church is about much more than intellectual growth. In this sense, excarnation is not only a deviation from historical Christianity. It also renders regular church attendance obsolete” (130-131).
In a corresponding way, viewing of worship primarily as an internal human work for God can also contribute to the elevation of the heart and emotions, evidenced in praise and worship sessions focused on the subjective “I.” When worship is understood principally as an emotional activity, doctrine, theology, and preaching decline as praise and worship take on near sacramental status. Worship leaders become the new priesthood presiding over not the Lord’s Table, but the Spirit’s Moving, as congregants complete their emotional work subjectively, while the sermon joins the actual sacraments in the shadows.
Again, Noble captures what’s at stake here: “The result is that we experience worship much like we experience a concert. It becomes an individual, emotional, and spiritual exercise wherein I try my best to think about the words and praise God. But even though I am surrounded by the saints, I remain comfortably in my own head…If our worship remains an individual spiritual exercise, we will contribute…to the secular trend of reducing the spiritual to the private” (137-138).
In both of the aforementioned trajectories, worship becomes chiefly about intellectual or emotional acts of man towards God. Such privatized, atomistic expressions emphasize the inner-substance of worship and subtly spurn physicality and community, unintentionally endorsing a mind-body dualism that runs counter to Christianity’s holistic view of the human person.
It certainly would be an overstatement to pin all of this on the etymology of the English word ‘worship.’ But it also would be a mistake to avoid considering how such word origins have contributed to understanding worship as a human work for God. In either the intellectual or emotional trajectory, the Law creeps in to overshadow the Gospel as a driving force for church attendance. In the digital age, further questions surface. If worship is an internal work of the spirit and intellect, why bother coming to church when online sermons and downloadable songs enable such work to be done anywhere? Reclaiming a more robust understanding of worship starts by going beyond the English context.
During the Reformation era, The German Reformers’ preferred term for worship was Gottesdienst, meaning God’s work, or Divine service. As Timothy Wengert explains, “Luther’s concept of the basic structure of for how God and humanity relate was clear….God is the active partner, the individual is the passive one….For him worship is above all else the gathering of the community in which God serves the assembled people” (211). This completely inverts the worship paradigm of modern American Christianity, and rightly places God as the main giver, and humanity as the main receiver. Certainly, there are aspects of worship where congregants offer praise and sacrifices to God, but the main directional emphasis communicated by the word Gottesdienst is from God to man.
Even more ancient is the Greek term leitourgia, meaning public service or work for/of the people. In New Testament times, the word commonly referred to fulfilling “public offices at one’s own cost.” These were acts of public service done by a patron or private benefactor for the good of the community. It was a work of the greater, for the good of the lesser. When applied to worship, leitourgia provides a beautiful picture of God as the benefactor who does His work, giving good gifts to the congregation. John Francis Baldovin explains it this way: “Too often one hears or reads a superficial etymology of the word ‘liturgy’ as ‘the work of the people.’ But the word is more complex than that since in its origins it referred not to work done by the people but rather a public work in the sense that we would speak of the ‘Department of Public Works’—in other words, a benefaction or work done for the people” (67-68).
These German and Greek terms restore life into the world of Christian worship in ways the English word misses, bringing worship outside of the realm of inner feelings or works for God curvatus in se (curved in on oneself), into the objective realities of pure gifts from God extra nos (outside ourselves). This paradigm shift revolutionizes how one views the work of the Church, and the reasons for going to church, as it captures the deeper dynamics of what actually happens during the church service. God delivers Christ and his forgiveness to his people through Word and Sacrament received into the whole human person.
For most of church history, one of the main reasons for attending church was to hear the Word proclaimed, since the laity were frequently illiterate without personal copies of the Bible. Even in the post-printing press world, the act of hearing stayed central to church-going for centuries. Carrying a Bible to church remained impractical because they were expensive, fragile and cumbersome, viewed as treasured family inheritances.
Only recently, historically speaking, is it even possible to go beyond listening, and read along with the Pastor in church. This difference is subtle, but worth pondering. Reading is a more active, self-directed process. Hearing, on the other hand, is passive reception, a helpful lesson in how God delivers his gifts to humanity and reinforcing the monergistic nature of salvation. Listening allows one to rest in the joyful relief of receiving; a point not lost on St. Paul in Romans 10:17, “So faith comes from hearing, and hearing through the word of Christ.”
With the proliferation of printing and an environment now saturated with text—digital and otherwise—there is something refreshing and restful about listening; perfectly fitting for the Sabbath-rest of Sunday worship. The kerygmatic announcement of the Gospel heralded by the Pastor in persona Christi is meant to be heard, for it is the word of Christ given to humankind which creates and sustains faith. Preaching is much more than a lecture imparting information about God; it is God’s actual performative Word proclaimed into our ears and delivering what it says: forgiveness, life and salvation. Just as the Word-filled waters of baptism once washed over us with Christ’s death and resurrection, so too the proclamation of forgiveness and preaching of the Word wash over us with refreshing waves of renewal each time we hear them.
The beauty of God’s design is that his performative Word is not just spoken and heard in worship; it is administered to the whole person in the Lord’s Supper. The intimate union of Christ and the Church in the Eucharist is the rightful climax of Christian worship, and for most of church history was celebrated as such weekly, if not more. The enfleshed Word makes himself present in the breaking of the bread for the forgiveness of sins. What can Christians do, but joyfully receive such a profound gift? It is a tragic irony indeed to turn this gift into solely a work of human remembering, or to exchange this rightful climax for the above-mentioned replacements of emotional expression or intellectual work. Christians who know the depths of their own sin-sickness, need more than just feeling the Spirit or thinking for Jesus. They need salve for their wounds, and can find it in the medicine of immortality, Christ’s body and blood.
With the modern tendency to spiritualize worship and countless digital temptations to dichotomize mind from body, the frequent reception of the Lord’s Supper anchors us in embodied reality, keeping the body and soul unified and connected to the resurrected Christ. The Supper is not a simple work of remembering; it is Jesus giving himself into our bodies for forgiveness, life and salvation.
Rediscovering the notion of worship as reception reorients us in our proper place in relation to God, allowing God, the greater being, to do the work of serving humanity, the lesser beings. God does not need his ego stroked in our attempts at worship. Encapsulating Luther’s understanding of the Christian life, Gustaf Wingren nails it: “God does not need our good works; but our neighbor does” (10). What we can offer in worship, is our open hands to receive Christ’s gifts, and a grateful response that naturally flows from that. Jesus himself said, “The Son of Man came not to be served, but to serve, and to give his life as a ransom for many” (Matthew 20:28). We should let Christ be Christ to do his work of serving and saving his people through Word and Sacrament.
Understanding worship as reception of Christ’s gifts frees us from the chains of duty and law, overcoming the debtor ethic to which we so easily fall prey. Instead of answering the question of why go to church with responses that reveal a debtor mentality according to the Law, we can answer more fully as true heirs according to the Gospel: to have our sins forgiven, to receive Christ’s gifts, to be united to Christ, to partake of the cup of salvation. These are the life-sustaining, salvation-imparting, Gospel-centered reasons to go to church, which turn the duty into a delight.
Joshua Pauling teaches high school history, was educated at Messiah College, Reformed Theological Seminary, and Winthrop University. In addition to Modern Reformation, Josh has written for Front Porch Republic, Mere Orthodoxy, Public Discourse, Salvo Magazine, and The Imaginative Conservative. He is also head elder at All Saints Lutheran Church (LCMS) in Charlotte, North Carolina.