Do we gather to worship?

Robert Strivens has reviewed William Taylor’s book “Revolutionary Worship”  here.  Taylor, following Vaughan Roberts and David Peterson argues that for the believer, worship language in Scripture is primarily about our everyday lives. Taylor’s primary aim seems to be to encourage people to think of their day to day activities in the home, workplace, school or University -even on the sports field as worship. 

Strivens’ concern is that this downgrades what happens when we gather as churches. Taylor argues that we should rethink the language we use to describe our Sunday gatherings.  The point being that if the whole of life is worship, then yes, the Sunday meeting is worship but we don’t want to describe it in such a way as to suggest that Sunday, together is when we worship and our activities in the week are not.  Striven’s concern is that Taylor along with the other men prioritises horizontal (one another language) over vertical (Godward language).  He sees this as potentially dangerous.

It is worth recognising that as well as seeking to encourage people to think of daily life as worship, Taylor is also wanting to counter another danger when he talks about Sundays.  There is a particular risk of a mystical/superstitious/magical view of Sunday gatherings.  We’ve seen it in language that talks about our worship, usually with an emphasise on singing, drawing us into God’s presence, or even drawing God down to us. This is seen both in some approaches to contemporary worship but it’s also seen in particular ritualistic approaches to church especially when those approaches see the church building as especially spiritual.  And before we target modern believers or traditional Anglicans and Catholics, I believe that those particular types of thinking have been around in aspects on non-conformism  for some time too.

So, what do we make of the debate?  I notice that Liam Golligher has weighed in with this damning verdict.

For the record, I’m more with Taylor, Peterson and Roberts than with Strivens and definitely more so than with Golligher.  Why?  Well, primarily because of the Bible! 

  1. Worship has always been about the whole of life

If I were to quibble with Taylor, it is with wording that suggests that the revolutionary result of Christ’s coming and sacrifice is that we now treat the whole of life as worship, when this was not the case in the Old Testament.

I’ve been writing a bit about Genesis 1-3 over the past few weeks and months and of course, one of the big focal points in those early chapters is about the creation mandate to fill and subdue the earth, as people made in God’s image, with God’s blessing and enabling.  If image bearers are filling and ruling the earth, then by bearing his image, they are reflecting his glory and thus magnifying it.  That sounds a lot like worship to me.

In Genesis 2, Adam, was given the task of both working the land in the garden and keeping/guarding it.  As Wenham notes, this kind of language is later applied to the Priests and Levites in Numbers 3-4.[1]   Of course, for the priests and Levites in the temple, the whole of their lives were about worship in terms of the overt offering of devotion that was pleasing and acceptable.  Post The Fall, we might observe in Genesis 4 and God’s disregard for Cain’s offering that the work of our hands is no longer pleasing and acceptable worship, unmediated and without sacrifice.

So, perhaps there is already a bit of a clue there as to the difference that the New Testament makes.  It is not that suddenly worship becomes about “All of life” having only been about specific times and places, it is that in Christ, we are all now priests, with direct access to God. 

  • Old Testament Worship as mediated was centred upon the Temple and the Priesthood

Sticking with the Old Testament for a little while, we see a few things.  First that worship is an instinctive response to God’s visible Shekinah presence.  If worship is to do with homage, giving worth, devotion, praising, bowing down, prostrating then it is unsurprising to see that when the people of Israel saw the pillar of cloud, they stopped to worship, where they were (Exodus 33:10). 

Furthermore, it is no surprise to see pagan worship associated with cultic sites or temples because, pagan worshippers were seeking to approach the visible representation of their gods.  Whilst the Israelites were commanded not to make images of Yahweh, the Temple did represent his presence and at times, his visible Shekinah presence was seen there.

And so, for both pagans and covenant keepers alike, there is a strong connection between worship and sacrifice. You worship and you offer sacrifices at the altar (1 Samuel 1:3; 2 Chronicles 32:12).  Therefore, worship is mediated, through the priests. But worship is still about the whole of life.  Notice how people are to worship. They are to bring the first fruits of their crops, of their work as offerings (Deuteronomy 26:10). 

What this also means is that worship, because it was focused on the place was also centred around the great events, the Festivals that happened throughout the year, when the people would go up to Jerusalem and the Temple.  This enabled their thanks and praise offerings to be mediated and acceptable because the priests were there, because sacrifices had been offered and because God’s manifest presence was there.  

It is worth remembering that weekly Sabbath gatherings were not intended to duplicate or replicate the Temple, festival gatherings but took on a different purpose.  Primarily they were about coming together for teaching and instruction.  This moves us on to a third point.

  • The primary purpose of gathering was to hear God.

When we look through the Old Testament and see the call for God’s people to gather or assemble.  It is not in order to worship with their singing and prayers.  Yes, there is a vertical dynamic but it is from God to man not man to God.  They gather to hear God speak to them, to be taught God’s Law, to witness God’s might deeds and his judgements  (Gen 49:2; Lev 8:3; Num 20:8; Deut 31:12). 

I think it is reasonable to suggest that this points to the priority for us gathering or assembling. We gather to hear God speak to us, together corporately.  We may also be said to gather as witnesses when we remember the Lord’s death in communion, witness baptisms or are there as members of the body use their spiritual gifts to God’s glory.

New Covenant/New Testament worship

I think that Peterson, Roberts and Taylor are right in terms of their assessment about what primarily goes on in the New Testament.  Acts 2:42-47, although it does not describe what happens on a Sunday but rather what was happening daily, in the aftermath of the Pentecost festival suggests that there is a meeting together to hear God, to witness, to look out for each other etc much as we have described above.

It is worth noting that in Ephesians 5:19 that the emphasis in terms of singing as an outword expression is that our words are addressed to one another. Of course there is vertical worsip, or devotion because our intent is to glorify God and so you are “making melody to the Lord with your heart”. Notice too, that Ephesians 5:15-6:20 with its instructions on the Spirit filled, God honouring life focuses as much on our day to life in the home and the workplace.

So what about Sundays?

I wonder if part of the concern with Taylor’s book (and the approach of a number of people) is that there’s a concern that church gatherings in some contexts appear to have lost any sense of occasion, joy and reverence?  I’ve heard church services described less than positively as “akin to a school assembly” and there is I think a risk that we can go through the motions in a clunky and cold way.  I don’t think that this is what our gatherings are meant to be like but I’m not sure that this is down to Taylor’s approach because I see the problem beyond churches overtly associated with that kind of thinking. 

I’m increasingly of the view that the best way of thinking of our gatherings is to see them as households enjoying a Sabbath meal -or even the Festival meal together.  There should be sense of joy, of feasting, of resting, of celebrating and appreciating.  In that sense, it is worship, not because it is disconnected from our “whole of life, Monday -Saturday” worship but because it is the pinnacle and at the centre of it.  It’s the pinnacle or end point of our daily worship because in a sense we bring the fruits of the week past together to celebrate before God and to thank him for all he has done.  It’s more than that though, its central because as we are equipped and encouraged, we prepare for the week of worship ahead.

Strivens seems concerned that Taylor’s approach will diminish the importance of Sunday church attendance in the minds of believers.  However, I doubt it is likely to do so. Whatever your specific language, church gathering remains a central part of the life of God’s people, particularly if we emphasise that there is a one-another-ness. Further, I’m concerned about pragmatic phobias motivating our disagreements.  The fear that if we don’t hold position x then God’s people won’t do “y” leads down the path of legalism. When we come back to the principle that we are meant to glorify and enjoy God and when Sunday gatherings are so obviously integral to that, then I think we are much more likely to see believers taking Sunday gathering seriously.

Personally, I have no problem therefore with describing our Sundays as “worship” but that is because they are central to our whole life worship.

[1] Wenham, Genesis 1-15, 67.

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