The purpose of worship — from experience to encounter

In a 2005 interview with Christianity Today, Eugene Peterson said, “Do we realize how almost exactly the Baal culture of Canaan is reproduced in American church culture? Baal religion is about what makes you feel good. Baal worship is a total immersion in what I can get out of it. And of course, it was incredibly successful. The Baal priests could gather crowds that outnumbered followers of Yahweh 20 to 1.”

Experience-based religion is Baal worship. A focus on me and my emotional response to the setting, the music, the preaching is not what biblical worship is about.

When I was writing the study guide to Eugene Peterson’s book The Jesus Way, I was surprised when I came to the chapter on worship. There are all kinds of adjectives that I would have expected to use when describing worship — authentic, passionate, heart-felt — but none of those are words that Eugene used. The over-riding word for the chapter on worship was “prophetic.” I was stunned.

The chapter focused on Elijah and the prophets of Baal. Where the Baal prophets offered sincerity, they were sincerely wrong. The Baal prophets offered passion, even to the point of cutting themselves and offering their own blood to their god, but they were passionately wrong. Against these devout but wrong-headed priests of a false god, Elijah offered truth that cut through the lies. This is the prophetic witness: truth that cuts through the lies and gets to the reality of who God is and who we are before him.

John Zimmerman says that the goal of worship is the “Sir, we would see Jesus” of John 12:21. Or as the Living Bible has it: “We would meet Jesus.”

Real worship is an encounter with God, not an experience that makes us feel good. Feeling good is neither here not there. Sometimes it happens in worship. But not always.

There are times when meeting Jesus and encountering the prophetic Word so cuts us to the heart that we feel anything but good. There are times when the Word so shocks us that we want to reject it. There are times when it uncovers the darkness of our souls and not just our questionable actions. There are times when it makes us weep for the world around us that is so desperate and lonely and lost and hopeless and suffering and tragic.

The prophetic is never sentimental, pulling on fond feelings of the past and reproducing them. It never offers an escape from present realities by airbrushing the past so that it glows with a happiness that never existed. No! The prophetic insists on God. The prophetic insists on taking reality seriously — the past, the present, the future. No sentimentality or escapism. No impossible perfections.

Walter Bruggemann says that the prophetic imagination is one of “hopeful realism.” It is always hopeful because it insists on God. And where there is God, there is always hope. As long as God is alive and active in the world, no situation is impossible. But the prophetic is also realistic. It candy-coats nothing. It sees all that is wrong with the world and all that is right with the world and leaves none of it out.

This is why worship without lament is false, for there is so much in us and around us that is just plain wrong to lament over.

This is why worship without redemption is false, for there is God at work in the midst of history, never leaving or forsaking us to the darkness, but always working redemption and reconciliation. Grace, not nice feelings, is at work here.

Real worship, according to Peterson, exposes our idolatries and replaces them with an encounter with the living God.

Therefore, real worship will always undermine us. For, to be honest, we’re more interested in our wants, needs, and feelings than in God.

Every now and then I’ll hear a sermon that is basically a lecture. Now, I like lectures. You may not, but there are some of us who do. I love to learn and I will be sitting there, soaking in all of the truth I can get. And I’ll have this deep sense of satisfaction. But then it’ll occur to me that I’ve encountered truth, but I haven’t encountered the Truth, I haven’t encountered God himself. The preacher will have given me lots of information, but no formation. (See the post on Informed by unformed.) And the lame thing is that I’ll be satisfied with that. I will have satisfied my desire to encounter truth and learn and I will have left with my self-idolatry intact.

Every now and then, I’ll be impressed by the musicians leading worship. I’ll experience a great performance, but I won’t have been led to encounter the living God. Again, experience will satisfy without there being an encounter.

Every aspect of worship must lead us to an encounter with our Lord. As we do so, we should find our wants, needs, and feelings unthroned as God takes his rightful place as King. This doesn’t require polish and spectacle. It can happen anywhere that prayers are prayed and the Scriptures are read. What it does require is prayerfulness and intentionality, self-offering and the expectation to meet Jesus.

[See How to end the worship wars]