My hope is you will read this to the end, all the way to Billy Graham’s striking prayer.
This is the time of year that people cease to worship and use their weekends elsewhere and otherwise. On vacations I’m always tempted in this way. Always. Though true worship is never first about us, what we do instead usually is. That’s why, ultimately, alternative worship (like the golden calf) doesn’t satisfy: we were saved that we might no longer live for ourselves (2 Cor 5:15), an ethic that finds its first, highest, and best expression in worship. It’s in losing our lives that we find them. So what follows are biblical reasons for the importance of worship in the lives of God’s people, then after that a few practical thoughts.
1. For centuries, Christians could not know what God was saying to them unless they went to worship. The two were inseparable: worship and God’s voice. Individuals didn’t own Bible manuscripts, they were far too expensive. Go all the way back, for example, to the churches at Philippi or Ephesus — you could only know what Paul and the Holy Spirit were saying to you by going to worship and hearing the letter written for you (among others). By this, God organized the formative years of the Church around worship. Not a mistake.
2. Following the exodus, Israel’s most significant watershed moment was a failure of corporate worship (golden calf, Ex. 32). The people were hungry to ascribe honor and worth, but they were also easily misguided. The moment was made all the more possible because of a weak leader (Aaron). So good or bad, the key issue was worship.
3. The crucial first five books of the Bible are much more about loving God in corporate worship — along with the character, content, and practice of that worship — than any other single topic. Nothing else is even close. Worship was the center of belonging to God, and this centrality became a given for the followers of Christ (see below #5 & #6).
4. Israel’s commitment to worship was so fundamental to life that when the Temple was destroyed by Babylon, the Synagogue system — think of it as decentralized Jewish worship — arose almost immediately.
5. Luke tells us it was Jesus’ personal habit to attend synagogue worship (Luke 4:16), then uses the same word in Acts (17:2) to say it was Paul’s custom as well. As with all Jews, corporate worship was woven into the pattern of weekly life, and life itself was a cycle of work and worship, not work and play.
6. As with Jesus, Paul’s ministry was famously attached to the place of worship (see Acts 14:1; 18:19; 19:8; 18:8; 13:42; 17:10). What we tend to forget is there was a period of time that Christians continued to meet in synagogues before being forced out. When finally they were forced out, Christians used synagogue worship as their foundation (I can email you PDFs of early-Church scholars, Martin p.27; Maxwell p.5).
7. The greatest, most unforgettable picture of Glory is the people of God gathered at his feet in his throne room, worshiping and proclaiming his glory (Rev. 4). This is what ultimate reality looks like. To argue it has no bearing on the present is to misunderstand why God has already given us such pictures of our future. Worship is our permanent identity.
A few practical thoughts.
1. The very last thing Satan wants you to do is come and worship. Satan wants you to worship yourself, just as he worships himself. On Sunday mornings you will find yourself tired, slightly sick (headache, nausea), swayed by an unwilling child, needing to finish some project, irritated by something at the church, or any one of a hundred things Satan will invent in the final hour before you have to leave. If you want a stunning picture of this battle, read pp. 10-14 in C.S. Lewis’s Perelandra.
2. You will draw permission from other people who skip worship a lot, especially those who have some leadership role. We subconsciously want to assuage our guilt. Bad examples are helpful. (If you are a leader, I encourage you to take this before the Lord for 10 honest minutes.)
3. We expect little of ourselves and call it grace. Bonhoeffer wrote a whole book about this. Grace is glorious, free, and freeing. But like all ideas we hold in our hearts and minds, it is also subject to the Enemy’s work of distortion. Don’t be afraid to expect more of yourself, as Christ allows it. Expect holy habits, including worship.
A Prayer of Billy Graham:
“Heavenly Father, we come before you today to ask your forgiveness and to seek your direction and guidance. We know Your Word says, ‘Woe to those who call evil good,’ but that is exactly what we have done. We have lost our spiritual equilibrium and reversed our values. We have exploited the poor and called it the lottery. We have rewarded laziness and called it welfare. We have killed our unborn and called it choice. We have shot abortionists and called it justified. We have neglected to discipline our children and called it building self-esteem. We have abused power and called it politics. We have coveted our neighbor’s possessions and called it ambition. We have polluted the air with profanity and pornography and called it freedom of expression. We have ridiculed the time-honored values of our forefathers and called it enlightenment. Search us, Oh God, and know our hearts; cleanse us from every sin and Set us free. Amen!”