Worship Rightly Done

D. Brent Laytham

If God is who we say God is, then (1) there is nothing more important than telling (and singing and blessing) God’s story, and (2) God’s story will never be God’s alone — given God’s election to bring forth and bring home a blessed creation.

Worship is that key moment, week in and week out, when God’s story is told. But worship never tells God’s story alone. For if worship only told God’s story, then it certainly would be God’s story wrongly told, since the truth of God’s story is precisely that God chooses to include us in his story. So in worship, two stories are to be brought into truthful, saving relation — God’s story and our story. The proper relation of these two stories is crucial if our worship is to be faithful and our lives are to be true. Our story must find its place in God’s story, not the other way around.

Lester Ruth has suggested that there may be a growing tendency to reverse this priority. He uses this key question to analyze congregational worship: “Whose story is told: the personal story of the believer or the cosmic story of God?” (“A Rose by Any Other Name: Attempts at Classifying North American Protestant Worship,” in The Conviction of Things Not Seen: Worship and Ministry in the 21st Century [ed. Todd E. Johnson; Brazos, 2002], 47.) Ruth elaborates the distinction between these two approaches:

There are churches whose worship over time is most focused on the personal stories of the worshipers and how God interacts with their stories. In contrast, there are churches whose worship over time unfolds a more cosmic remembrance of the grand sweep of God’s saving activity.

Obviously, worship could never be exclusively only one of these stories, for if it were only the personal story of the believer it would be the idolatrous worship of the self, and if it were only the cosmic story of God we would have no idea how that story related to us. Vital worship — that is, worship that is alive and enlivening — must attend to both stories. Nonetheless, week in and week out most congregations tend to emphasize one of these stories and subordinate the other to it. So, according to Ruth, we have “personal-story churches” and “cosmic-story churches.” Discerning where a particular church falls on this spectrum will require attention to “how a church selects the Scripture it will read, the normal purpose of the sermon, the regular content of prayers and music, the nature of any dramatic presentations, and the special holidays that are observed” (47), as well as to how the church explains and performs baptisms, the Eucharist, and its mission in the world.

Much is at stake here. Indeed, I would suggest that the “personal-story” approach, though sincere, is a pious form of idolatry. Only a “cosmic-story” approach clearly names the truth that our salvation is found in Christ, found by dwelling in God’s story. The story of Simeon in Luke 2 enacts the saving relation of personal story to cosmic story. The aged Simeon takes Jesus in his arms and praises God, praying his personal story within God’s saving story (Luke 2:29-32):

Master, now you are dismissing your servant in peace, according to your word; my eyes have seen your salvation [Simeon is praying his personal story but already hinting at the cosmic story in “servant,” “word,” and “salvation”], which you have prepared in the presence of all peoples, a light for revelation to the Gentiles and for glory to your people Israel [the remainder of the prayer names the cosmic scope of salvation, stretching from past preparation to future consummation].

In this brief prayer, Simeon sets his present moment (“now you are dismissing” [2:29a]) in the context of a larger story in which God has been at work preparing a light which is now seen by Simeon to be Jesus, who will be revelation to Gentile and Jew alike. The meaning of Simeon’s entire life story is given in that moment as it is set within Jesus’s story as God’s story.

In a subtle way, this story is a paradigm for our own worship. “Guided by the Spirit” (2:27) we gather with God’s people (“come into the temple” [2:27]) to praise God in the presence of Jesus. Opening our mouths, we don’t tell God our story and how Jesus fits into it, but rather we recite God’s own story to God, we sing and say again the “wonderful words of life,” the story of salvation, and in the process naming ourselves as included within that story. It is God’s story we proclaim, but because God is this kind of God (loving) and because God’s story is this particular story (saving), we cannot tell God’s story without naming our own place within it. Worship rightly done will celebrate the primacy of God’s story, while articulating the subordinate place of our story in God’s.

Posted Nov 03, 2014

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