Do I Need to Go to Church? – Why we get worship all wrong

Do I really need to go to church as a follower of Christ? When Jesus talked with the “Woman at the Well” about places of worship, his point wasn’t that place was unimportant. Worshiping in “Spirit and truth” can be done anywhere, so we know it is not about the exact address. We know our place of worship is where the Spirit is and where truth is. Widely, worship is looked at as a personal choice and activity. In fact, that is quite true! We all have to choose to worship Christ. We all have a personal free will. But, what is missed is that gathering for worship seems to not be valued. Our worship services are more than an additional stop in a lifestyle of worship. They are the base camps to living life, connecting us to story that’s bigger than us.

Worship is sacred. Discipleship is daily.

Liturgy is a great word to use for what worship which happens and Sundays when we gather together at a particular place and time. Liturgy means the people’s service or our public worship practice. So, when we talk about living a life as a worshiper, there are things we do together as believers that are special. Worship of God, as some say, can be any act. All things we do should be an act of worship. I wish we were all that perfect. And, think about this. If worship is everything, then is worship nothing? So, yes we have discipleship–or the issues of learning to follow after Christ more and more every moment–and we have worship or liturgy that anchors that. I prefer the term liturgy because it seems that the term “worship” is used for what we used to call discipleship.

We also have expressed acts of worship such as praise, prayer, and service. All of these may not be done literally in a church as service means I need to touch another. But, they can all mean worship! Praise–the definition of the biblical word Alleluia–is an expression of worship. Prayer is an expression of worship. Hearing and teaching the Bible is worship, too. Liturgy gives us a sacred place to discuss and value what we do together. So, when Jesus was conversing with this woman at the well he wasn’t telling her that public worship was unimportant.

What is perhaps a worthy statement is this: we are disciples or students of Jesus in all that we do daily. A worship service is a sacred event. There is nothing wrong in saying this and in valuing both places of worship. There is nothing wrong with making a distinction between worship that is lived out in the world and worship that is celebrated as a gathered people.

Gatherings are more than evangelist events.

It is clear that being “attractional” drives many ministries. What this may mean is programming to a demographic, the use of marketing to felt needs, and evaluating success by growth. The worship service then is structured to attract as are the other “programs” of the church. Music is chosen to reach, sermons are presented to communicate, and ministry programs are performed to draw in numbers. All of these things are not ethically or theologically an issue to me, except when we call them “worship” instead of for what they are. Attracting our community is a great idea and we should! But, are these “attractional” activities actual ministry or simply tools to help us in our ministry?

I would say the traditional four-fold service structure makes sense for all of us: Gathering, Word, Table, and Sending. All four of these are biblical! I know what some are asking. What about reaching the unchurched, de-churched, or seeker? Yes. We do that, too. But, we still are called to publicly offer worship. If we forgo the Bible for thin sermons that entertain or that are meant to modify behavior we miss the point.

We are calling seekers to become worshipers. Is it not better to have seekers witness the story of God through our expression of worship than be entertained? Freely use innovative means to attract. But, please submit these under our call to worship. Why is it that we limit evangelism and discipleship to one hour on Sunday and think worship is everything else? One thing we know from the writer of the book of Hebrews is this. We are to “spur” each other on for love and good deeds in our worship. Are we more concerned about getting crowds or about loving those crowds? Also, how we reach people is how we keep people. So, if we entertain to draw, then we entertain to keep.

The power of the presence of God.

If we as worshipers become more loving to each other and our neighbors, it is far better than the haze machine and fancy sound system. It is even better than offering great coffee or cool church stage designs with wood backdrops. Again, I love all of these things. But, is the gathering about getting a certain feeling? What we call a religious experience indeed is far less than what we see in the Bible. The famous encounter of the prophet Isaiah had with God made Isaiah “undone” before he could even speak. I don’t know about you, but a terrifying experience is not what I ask God for daily or even in a worship service.

A religious experience is where you will never be the same again. The emotional last song in a revival meeting gets people to walk forward and recommit their lives. This is a good thing. But, a religious experience is far more powerful. It is lasting because is happens to us more than we happen to choose it. Paul on the road to Damascus saw Jesus and was blinded. He was never the same. The point here is that if we sell this life-changing encounter to our parishioners as a reason to come on Sundays and only provide the vibes of a concert we are bait-and-switching people. 

God promises to be present. We may indeed have life-changing encounters with him as he promised to be present with us. But, we cannot promise experiences on demand. There are companies like Disney who do this and the agreement is that it is entertainment and escape. We love the experiences others create for us. That is not our job, however. We don’t program experiences to consumers. We preach the promises and the truth and then let the Holy Spirit do as he wishes. This expectation of the Holy Spirit is different than prescribing a specific spiritual experience. Mystery is deeper than good vibes. Faith must believe in promises even when the vibes are not causing goosebumps or flutters.

We forget, so telling God’s story empowers us to live.

When we practice a liturgy that gathers God’s people, preaches and speaks the Word of God, enjoy the presence of God at the Table, and then send the church out we are inviting all to live a true story. God’s story. Some have derided this as “gather and scatter” and call it irrelevant. But, if we are only about bringing people in, what do we invite them into? If we don’t live a story ourselves, doesn’t it become harder to tell that story. The Greek word for church is “ekklesia” which means “God’s gathered ones”. We need to be the church! We need to be God’s gathered ones!

In a world that has changed how we live in community with urbanization and social media, the idea of physical gathering is even more important than ever. Our society is full of changing trends and thoughts. What will ground our ethics if the Bible is not central? When God’s presence is not offered at the table, how do we learn to sit at all the other tables in life? We need his table to teach us true grace. And, we all have a purpose to live! Our worship is not complete without the prodding of each other to live out our purpose in Christ.

Sleeping in is not an option, or is it?

I have heard many say, “I had church at the beach” or “my church was on the golf course.” If those four movements were part of it, then I may agree. If you had people gathered as God’s people then you get one check. If the Bible was taught and shared, you have another. Next, if the sacramental presence of God is present at his table you get another check. Finally, if you are sent to live out God’s call on you then you pass. Enjoy a day off! But, should you call it church?

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Rich Kirkpatrick

Rich Kirkpatrick

Writer, Speaker, and Musician. Rich Kirkpatrick was recently rated #13 of the “Top 75 Religion Bloggers” by Newsmax.com, having also received recognition by Worship Leader Magazine as “Editor’s Choice” for the “Best of the Best” of blogs in 2011, 2014, 2015 and 2016.

3 comments

  1. What if I just stay home and read your blogs? Am I covered? 😉

  2. Amos says we’re heading into a “famine for hearing the word of the Lord.” The first group he identifies as feeling that famine is “the young men and lovely young women.” I tie that to our modern youth-centered worship churches. You describe that famine quite well. You are obviously seeking a deeper relationship with God and others. I think the first step would be to recognize that checking off a list of four merely symbolic acts gets you exactly nowhere. For example, Christ is only present in the sacraments because we are present and putting our trust in him. The measure of the grace we receive is our own buy-in to the cross. The bread and the wine are just there to jog our memory. Proverbs 13:14 says “the teaching of the wise is a fountain of life, to turn one from the snares of death.” When was the last time you had teaching in your church to turn people from the snares of drugs or mental illness or no-money-down relationships? And yet a good third to half of our population is wrestling with each one of those problems. And you are seeking an intimate time of worship. For shame.

    1. I am seeking a Church that loves Christ and each other, not a personal experience. In re-reading the post, I am positive that point is made. There are a couple other things needed to help you understand the perspective here. It is nice to hear the principle from the Proverbs about hearing and speaking words that give life. That is a good reminder about how we should speak, even in blog comments and discussions and social media encounters. So, the intent of my post is to help believers ponder what they think church worship should do.

      Let me clarify, the Sacraments are a promise from Jesus himself from his mouth and not simply to jog memory but to mystically represent his presence. We believe that promise if we are wise. Jesus did not “prescribe” a lot, so it matters to note his words. The cross and the grace we have offered to us has NOTHING to do with our efforts–nothing, including our “buy in.” Our confession of faith is all that is asked, otherwise our works apply–and that is not how grace works.

      And, the “list” of worship service elements is the historical and biblical form of worship that basically represents we maintain authority with the Word of God, experience the mystic uninion with Christ freely offered at the Table, pray as a family of believers who are gathered together in community, and take our call to live out the life of Christ to a world that is in addiction, poverty, pain and sorrow. Preaching Christ is the answer, not condemnation on what people suffer with. The answer is our love not a sermon that may only be performed to make the rest of us feel better about our pious selves.

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