and perform your vows to the Most High." (Psalm 50:14)
"I must perform my vows to you, O God;
I will render thank offerings to you." (Psalm 56:12)
"Through Jesus, therefore, let us continually offer to God a sacrifice of praise—the fruit of lips that openly profess his name." (Hebrews 13:15)
Everything about our world trains us to view ourselves as consumers. The constant barrage of advertising increasingly targeted to our whims, the innumerable varieties of each product at the grocery store, and the absolute customizability of every facet of life from our homes to our wardrobes trains us to think that the universe should kowtow to our preferences. We know what we want, and we expect the world to give it to us.
Such a posture inevitability creeps into how we talk about worship. People regularly comment that they "really got something out of" that sermon or prayer. They discuss worship music in terms of preferences, whether using the sweeping archetypes of the worship wars ("Traditional!" "Contemporary!") or more nuanced debates (Hillsong vs. the Gettys; the hymns of the puritans vs. those of the camp revivals). Even when they aren't familiar with those categories, the highest praise someone seems to think they can give is, "I really loved that song we sang today."
I appreciate those comments; I'm even guilty of making them. However, they leave me with a nagging sense of unease. What I want to ask is, "What if that isn't the point?"
What if worship isn't about getting something out of it? What if it isn't about what we love?
What if it isn't for us at all?
We often refer to what happens on Sunday mornings as a "worship service." This label is more accurate than most of us realize. Worship, in Scripture, is primarily discussed as something we do for God. It is Christian service rendered to the Almighty, a giving to Him of the slory and honor He deserves. We are to "offer the sacrifice of praise," which is a striking metaphor. No Israelite would have lauded a sacrifice by discussing how much he liked that bull the priest just incinerated on the altar. If he did use such terms, it would have been to communicate regret at the wonderful animal he had lost. The point of sacrifice isn't our pleasure but God's.
All of this might seem like a subtle distinction, but the effects of internalizing it are profound. An attitude of worship as service transforms the way we approach God. We do not come as customers with a product to enjoy but as workmen with a job to do. Lifting up our hearts in praise, joining with the prayers of the saints, confessing our sins and listening to God's Word are not condiments we sprinkle on a tasty treat but commandments we are compelled to obey.
Such a recognition is especially important when it comes to parts of worship that don't especially appeal to us. I pastor a church which uses elements of both more traditional and more contemporary styles. In practice, this means that there are things everyone dislikes. Truth be told, there are things I don't really connect with. Pastors should not try to remake churches in their image or confuse their preferences with divine fiat. Instead we, along with everyone else, must recognize that while we might not enjoy some part of the gathering, that has no bearing on how we engage with it. We should throatily sing songs we don't like and willfully enter into prayers that don't move us and loudly declare truths we struggle to feel and seek to learn from sermons that mostly display the preacher's deficiencies. We should do all of this because it is the service of worship we are called to render.
(A note here - none of this should excuse those of us leading worship when we fail to do it excellently. Part of our service is doing everything we can to make the congregation's sacrifice easier. However, we also cannot live under the yoke of perfectionism or self-reliance, thinking that it is we who have the power to turn hearts toward or away from the things of God.)
As we worship this way, our lives actually begin to change. Part of the reason many Christians feel comfortable picking and choosing which parts of Scripture they will follow is that self-focused worship has prepared them to view the Christian life as a buffet they are fussing over rather than a meal they are tasked with preparing. Learning to work for God rather than serve ourselves as we gather on Sundays draws us toward obedience throughout the week. Being reminded that worship is for God's glory becomes a pebble in our shoes when we try to go about glorifying ourselves the rest of the time.
So when we gather as the people of God, we should make Him our sole aim. We should die to ourselves and seek to live for Him in that time, even when the dying is unpleasant and the living not all that we'd like it to be. Let us lay our preferences down on the altar and offer them up as a fragrant offering to the One who is worthy of all glory and praise.