This post marks the end of the discussion of love as a virtue of discipleship. Clearly, there is much more that could be written. Love is an essential topic in scripture as well as theology in general. We are all responding to the love that God showed us from the very beginning, from creation, from the first breath, from the cross.
One of the traditional ways that Christians have responded to this love is through communal worship. As we gather together, we turn toward God as a community with thanks and praise, grateful for what God has done and continues to do and promises to do. In our congregation, we worship facing the cross, constantly reminded that the love that we celebrate is both grounded in and tempered by the suffering and death of Jesus.
We also worship facing the communion table, invited every week to come forward and take part in the community meal where Jesus greets us as host and feeds us with his own self, sustaining us once again to go out into the world with love. Some traditions have an altar call where the hope is that people will experience that one-time conversion, able to answer with a date to the question, “When were you saved?” My Lutheran tradition invites the community forward every week to the table of grace, recognizing that our lives need conversion again and again. We come forward to discover that Jesus has chosen us in spite of who we are and what we may have done.
Worship has a three-fold purpose when it comes to love. First, we encounter God’s love in word and sacrament. I put this first because such is the nature of grace; God always acts first. We may think that we are the primary actors on Sunday morning, with our standing and sitting and singing, but before we can crack open a hymnal, the Holy Spirit has already been singing to us, a song of creation and a song of love. On Sunday morning (and any other time we worship together) we intentionally wade into the stream of God’s love, not realizing that it is not a stream we choose to enter, but an ocean that surrounds us like the oxygen and nitrogen in the air we breathe. When we take the time to pay attention, to glimpse that love, we are called to respond.
For this reason I put our response as the second purpose of worship. When we have encountered the love of God it is fitting to take time to admire and celebrate that love, like a beautiful work of art the draws our attention, or (as with the discussion of awe and wonder) a dramatic sunset that stops us in our tracks. We respond with prayer, praise, song and speech. We respond with words of thanks and words of peace and words of good news.
Unfortunately, the valid criticism of much of Christianity is that this is where it seems that the purpose of worship ends. We come in the building. We praise an hour. We go out until next week. With that attitude, it is no wonder that churches get bogged down in the minutia of worship and liturgy, worried about the style, worried about the proper form, worried about getting it just right. Should it be entertaining? Should it be traditional? After all we only have this hour to convince people to come back for another hour next week. And isn’t it the purpose of the church to get people in the doors for that precious hour? We miss the point of worship when we forget a fundamental purpose of worship.
The third purpose of worship is to get us out of worship. It is what happens when we leave the building, the hymnals, the organs and praise bands behind. In my tradition, the formal service ends with a declaration of dismissal like, “Go in peace! Serve the Lord!” The idea is that the love we encounter in worship should send us out into the world to share that love, live that love and model that love. The love we show for others is the consequence and continuation of our worship.
We can debate about the nature of the best worship in our day and age. Worship styles have shifted and changed over the past two millennia. Liturgy is attractive to some. Praise music and PowerPoint slides may be attractive to others. Another group may be more attracted to contemplation and quiet. None of these are wrong, but all of them miss the point if they fail to send us out in love. The measure of good worship is not found in the numbers who return, but in the Christians who are inspired to go out and share good news through acts and words of love.