I love going to movies with THX sound. My favorite part of some movies is when the THX logo comes on and the speakers play that cool sound, and the words appear on the screen that say, “The audience is listening.” That’s actually the best part of some movies that I’ve seen. I’m glad the theatres haven’t figured out that I’d probably pay a few dollars just to see that one part.
We’ve been talking about worship the past few weeks. We’ve talked about how God desires a relationship with us, to meet with us. We’ve talked about the primary reason to worship God: not for what it does for us, but primarily because God is worthy of our worship. We’ve also looked at the fact that God does not want worship. Instead, he wants worshipers. He wants our hearts more than any external act of worship we could ever perform.
Today, we’re going to finish off by looking at how we worship. I mentioned last week that all of life is worship -Sunday to Saturday. Colossians 3:17 says, “And whatever you do or say, let it be as a representative of the Lord Jesus, all the while giving thanks through him to God the Father.” Worship isn’t an event; it’s a way of living. It encompasses all of life.
Today, though, I want to look at corporate worship – what happens when we come together to worship God as a group of Jesus followers. This is where the whole theatre analogy comes in. When you came in today, you could have re-arranged the chairs into a circle and sat and talked with a few friends. You could have brought a coffee and a muffin and enjoyed food with others around you, but you didn’t. Instead, you sat in rows and faced the front. You likely looked at your watch to see when the service would start, and when the service started, some of you checked again to see if we were on time. Your attention has been mostly focused on what’s happening up front here.
This setup has some advantages. It’s easy to come, or to invite somebody new, without feeling threatened. But it also presents some challenges. It’s not wrong, but we need to be aware that we’re losing something, especially as it relates to worship. When we say, “The audience is listening” in most churches, we think of those who are sitting in the pews or rows of chairs facing the front. But you are not the audience of worship. God is the audience, and he is listening. Rather than sitting as spectators, you are the participants in worship, and God is the one who is watching. Worship is about participation.
I wonder if you could switch pictures in your mind from a worship service in a theatre setting to a worship service in a living room. Early church worship services took place in homes for the first few hundred years of the church’s life. Groups of up to 50 people met in living rooms. It would be a little more spontaneous than we’re used to. Justin Martyr described a church meeting around 150 A.D.: people came, had prayer, read from a portion of Scripture “as long as time allows.” Then, someone gave a discourse to encourage everyone to imitate what was in the Scripture. They would then stand, pray, take communion, and go off to work, since Sunday was a workday. It had many of the same elements of a worship gathering that we have: prayer, Scripture, communion. It was structured very differently, though, and was highly participatory.
We think of preaching today as somebody getting up to lecture a crowd for 3o or so minutes. A lot of that type of preaching in the early church took place not in the context of a worship gathering, but instead in the Temple, synagogue, or other place so that people could hear the Gospel story. Within a worship gathering, the teaching of God’s Word probably took a more informal form. I doubt somebody stood up and just talked for half an hour. We get hints of what it might have been like in a few passages, and we’re going to look at them today.
If you have a Bible with you, turn with me to Colossians 3. Verses 16 and 17 say:
16Let the words of Christ, in all their richness, live in your hearts and make you wise. Use his words to teach and counsel each other. Sing psalms and hymns and spiritual songs to God with thankful hearts. 17And whatever you do or say, let it be as a representative of the Lord Jesus, all the while giving thanks through him to God the Father.
Notice anything different in this passage? There’s a lot you’d expect to see: a focus on the words of Christ, passed down and taught among the churches, along with the Law and the Prophets. You have different types of songs, old and new. You have thankfulness – the idea of worship expressing the heart’s gratitude for Jesus Christ. All that looks familiar, not all that different from what we would expect to find in a worship service. But there is something different that we normally find today.
Verse 16 says, “Use his words to teach and counsel each other.” That’s very different from how we do it today. We don’t usually come expecting to teach and counsel each other. We expect to hear it from the front, from the pastor or whoever is speaking that day.
I really appreciate good preaching and many of the preachers I’ve heard throughout the years. But we may be losing something by making them the primary or only teachers of God’s Word. I’m a pastor, but I can say this: we all expect pastors to say certain things because, well, they’re pastors. We also believer that they’re at least a little removed from the life of an average person. They work for churches; you work for some guy your pastor wouldn’t know how to handle if they ever met. So when the pastor speaks, it’s not always directly into your world, because your pastor doesn’t completely understand your world.
It makes a big difference to hear a co-worker talk about a passage of Scripture that’s really helped her cope with pressures at work. It’s helpful to hear another parent of teenagers talk about his struggles, and how he’s found comfort in God’s Word that have helped him deal with having a teenage daughter. That’s very different from just having the pastor speak.
Some of us aren’t speakers or teachers, although I’ll bet most of us have something to offer – an insight or an encouragement. No matter. Another passage talks of some other ways we can participate in the worship life of a group of believers. 1 Peter 4:10-11 says:
10God has given gifts to each of you from his great variety of spiritual gifts. Manage them well so that God’s generosity can flow through you. 11Are you called to be a speaker? Then speak as though God himself were speaking through you. Are you called to help others? Do it with all the strength and energy that God supplies.
You get the idea of a group getting together to worship God. Some are good at speaking, and can’t wait to share what God has been teaching them lately. Others head right to the kitchen to help with the coffee and goods that are going to be served later on. Others come in and quietly sit beside someone who looks down and who needs a bit of encouragement. I could go on. Everyone has something to offer, something they naturally love to do. Nobody’s a spectator.
1 Corinthians 14:26 puts it this way: “When you gather for worship, each one of you be prepared with something that will be useful for all: Sing a hymn, teach a lesson, tell a story, lead a prayer, provide an insight” (The Message). Everyone comes expecting to contribute something. The focus isn’t on the front. It’s on God, through each other. The audience is listening, but the audience isn’t the people who come. The audience is God. Everyone participates in offering worship to God.
Some of you are hear all this and say, “That’s the way it should be when we come together to worship God.” How you respond is going to depend a lot on your personality. Let me talk to two groups of people here and see if we can think about how this might work in our setting.
Some of us are ready to say, “Great, when do we start?” We want to remove the barriers to make sure we’re all clear that we’re participants, not spectators, in worshiping God. I want to outline some of the ways that people today are rediscovering older ways of worship to recapture some of what took place in the early centuries of church life. Some are meeting in houses or informal groups. They say they’re part of a church, but it’s not a church with a name or a structure or a board or any type of program. They’re a group of believers who meet together to follow God and to worship him together. That’s one way of recapturing a bit of this ethos.
Some churches continue to meet as we do, but they’re making changes to de-emphasize what happens up front and to move what happens off the platform and into the assembled group. I’ve heard of stages that are backlit so you can’t see the people who are leading. We’ve got our worship leaders on the floor today, more among us than in front of us. I’ve heard of worship leaders start on the platform and gradually move off to join the people as the worship continues. They start as leaders but they finish within the group, worshiping alongside everyone else.
As you’ve heard me talk today, some of you have said, “That sounds a lot like a small group.” You don’t even have to call it a small group, but some people say, “Look, I don’t want to give up Sunday morning, but I want more. I need more.” You can start a formal small group, or you can just get together with some others on a regular basis to share life together, to read God’s Word and teach it to each other, to pray and to support each other.
You can also work at participating on Sundays. In your programs today, there’s a sheet with some of the opportunities you have to participate on a Sunday – everything from greeting people as they arrive to helping the kids to praying or participating up front. It’s not enough to come and sit in rows. We need more. We need to sit in circles, in a living room format, somewhere in our lives. But even here, as we sit in rows, we need to make sure we’re participants and not spectators.
The audience is listening. He loves when worshipers come together to praise him. Today we’re going to participate by meeting at his table today, remembering the Lord’s death for us. Jesus has invited us, and he is our honored guest. He wants to eat with you, to drink with you. Let’s participate. Let’s worship. Let’s meet him right now.