The Practicality of Worship

When we think of attending a worship service, “practical” isn’t what generally comes to mind. Perhaps “obligatory” (for those who attend out of a sense of duty) or “beautiful” (for those who enjoy the music and aesthetics), or “helpful” (for those who appreciate the teaching) are more familiar words to associate with worship. And yet, there is something missing from each of these word descriptors.

If worship is obligatory for you, you may appreciate the satisfaction of accomplishment more than anything else about it. If worship is primarily beautiful to you, be careful, as music and aesthetics vary greatly from service to service and from leader to leader. The subjective nature of the sensory experience can leave you feeling a bit flaky when it comes to regularity. If worship is primarily helpful for you, well, that’s subjective as well. You may find yourself more inclined to attend if you think the pastor is teaching on a topic you’re interested in.

We are increasingly, however, living in an age dictated by practicality. Is worship practical? In the Covid era we’ve been trained to view activities through a new grid: is it necessary and is it safe? In the eyes of the world, a worship gathering isn’t safe and it isn’t necessary. In terms of safety, it’s often indoors, without much social distancing, and possibly attended by someone who is sick. In terms of necessity, well, our familiar reasons for going (obligatory, beautiful, or helpful) can be met on-line with virtual worship or in some other activity altogether.

But worship is more than an aesthetic experience to enjoy; more than an obligatory activity; and more than teaching that might or might not seem helpful. In-person worship is practical, and all the more so in the face of Covid warnings and fears, and here’s why.

Worship is in our DNA. We were made to worship. As image-bearers of God, we were made to reflect God to the world and, like a mirror, we can’t do that if we’re not around Him. We can define worship as “the work of acknowledging the greatness of our covenant Lord.” Worship is ultimately about God, not us. So evaluating whether or not it is necessary based on my subjective sense of getting something out of it is beside the point. It is our calling. And the pattern for coming together to worship is established in the days of creation. On the seventh day God rested from all his labors, thus, as his image-bearers, we too are to rest from our labors as we reflect on the fact that God is the creator (Ex 20:11) and God is our redeemer (Dt 5:15). Worship is a rest from our labor in God’s world, and a remembrance that God has done the work of procuring our rest in His presence through the work of Christ on the cross.

And as we remember the Sabbath, we find our souls refreshed, our spiritual hunger satisfied. “As a deer pants for flowing streams, so pants my soul for you, O God.” Says the psalmist when he is kept away from the house of God. “My soul thirsts for God, for the living God. When shall I come and appear before God? My tears have been my food day and night, while they say to me all the day long, ‘Where is your God?’ These things I remember, as I pour out my soul: how I would go with the throng and lead them in procession to the house of God with glad shouts and songs of praise, a multitude keeping festival.” (Ps 42:1–4)

When we come together in-person to worship, we get to meet face to face with God. While there is a sense in which the Holy Spirit dwells in the hearts of each of his children (2 Cor 1:22), we experience the covenant presence of God when we are together. The Lord’s Supper points to this as we remember the covenant meal that Jesus instituted with his disciples. It was reminiscent of the covenant meal the elders of Israel enjoyed with God on the mountain at the time of the Exodus (Ex 24:9-11). The blood of the Lord covers us that we might meet face to face with God at his table to remember his promises to us.

As Paul gave instructions to the Corinthians on worship, he scolded them in their practice of the Lord’s Supper for they did not do it together. They didn’t recognize the body, in the sense of the church, as they partook. Instead, they treated it as an individual experience. And as a result, some were getting sick and even dying. This is the great irony. It wasn’t those who risked coming together that got sick and died, it was those who did not come together. The principle stands for us today, too. The table of the Lord is an invitation for the body, as a whole, to come face to face with the great God of the universe who has gone so far as to give his only son that we might come. God is our true refuge. Can we not trust him to be our refuge when we come to the crowded table? And when we come, we eat the manna from heaven, the only food that satisfies the hungry soul.

So, worship is practical.

Come, everyone who thirsts, come to the waters; and he who has no money, come, buy and eat! Come, buy wine and milk without money and without price. Why do you spend your money for that which is not bread, and your labor for that which does not satisfy? Listen diligently to me, and eat what is good, and delight yourselves in rich food. Incline your ear, and come to me; hear, that your soul may live; and I will make with you an everlasting covenant. (Is 55:1–3)