(Continued from Part 4)
When we get to the matter of sacrifice in worship we are getting to the heart of the matter so far as what the worshiper contributes. It is a very helpful exercise to put every part of what goes on in the activity of worship to this test.
All Worship Involves Sacrifice
Sacrifice is the fourth substantial element in Christian worship. In fact, worship is summed up in sacrifice. In any era or place, when people have awakened to the divine, the resulting sense of holy awe fills them with an impulse to give something to the unseen Presence. All religions have in common something equivalent to an altar.
How does the element of sacrifice permeate Christian worship? There is the sacrifice of praise in hymns and spiritual songs. The offering up of tithes and offerings has in it an element of sacrifice — which explains why it should be a dignified act of worship, not a mere interlude to “take up a collection.”
(When a soloist sings, her song must first be seen as an act of sacrifice to God, offered up as worship. It can be argued that the proper response, therefore, is not a round of applause for a job well done; it is a fervent mental and/or audible “Amen” as agreement with the truthfulness of the song. If we say that applause is the new way of saying “Amen” then applause should follow every part of worship, not just musical offerings. For example, a good pastoral prayer should be followed with a good hand. It seems to me that applause following only musical renditions of one sort or another is given in imitation of the entertainment world and the practice should be questioned.)
In worship, the gaze is primarily upward, and only then inward and others-ward. And “Amen” — meaning truly or verily — is a distinctive Christian word which belongs to the congregation (1 Cor. 14:16).
Above all, the sermon given at the high point in worship is preeminently offered to God as an act of sacrifice. The Reformation in the Sixteenth Century came about through the rediscovery of the Sacred Scriptures as a living message and the consequent renewal of preaching. The Methodist Movement of the Eighteenth Century was a preaching movement out of which grew a community of transformed men and women and an overflow of social ministries. To the serious congregation of the present, the preaching of God’s word must be the crown jewel in the setting of Spirit-inspired congregational worship.
As Martin Luther summarized it, “When I declare the Word of God, I offer sacrifice; when thou hearest the word of God with all thy heart, thou dost offer sacrifice. When we pray, and when we give in charity to our neighbor, we offer sacrifice. So too, when I receive this sacrament, I offer sacrifice — that is to say, I accomplish the will and service of God, I confess him, and I give Him thanks. This is not a sacrifice for sin, but a sacrifice of thanksgiving and praise.”
What May Change And What May Not
How a congregation adapts true worship practices to its own setting may legitimately vary depending on a variety of things: What is the culture of the people? Are they dominantly blue collar or white collar? Is the community rural or urban? Is it a congregation of 50 or 500? What is the mean age? What sort of architecture frames the sanctuary? And what is the temperamental leaning of the pastor in these things? All such matters factor into how a congregation worships.
But none of these variables should obscure the fact that in all cases, worship that is truly Christian has one ESSENCE: from beginning to end it is reverence and joy in the presence of the God who is thrice holy – Father, Son, and Holy Ghost. And, as well, it has a common SUBSTANCE, manifested in its rituals, symbols, sacraments and sacrifice.
In fact, here is a good test any congregation might apply: If a young man should come to worship this next Sunday how would he be affected by the experience? Would it be dull, predictable, lacking in spirit? Or rousing but short on reverence and holy awe? Or would it be so sincere, so unpretentious, so Spirit-directed, that he would be lifted into the Presence, sensing the majesty and glory of God? And might the experience be so telling that he would remember it more than half a century later? It’s a good test for modern worship.