Whose Gathering Is It, Anyhow?
Robert Nordling (see his article on p. 32) tells a story about taking his five-year-old son, Jackson, to a young friend’s birthday party: All dressed up, brimming with enthusiasm, Jackson rushes into his friend’s house to join the festivities. But when his father arrives to pick him up after the party, Jackson looks dejected. “What’s the matter, Jackson?” asks his father. “Didn’t you enjoy the party?” The answer is a terse no. “But you were looking forward to this party so much! Why didn’t you have fun?” Jackson answers, “I didn’t get any presents!” To which Dad can only reply, “But Jackson, it wasn’t your party!”
The lesson Nordling draws from that exchange is this: worship is, so to speak, God’s party, not ours. And we come primarily not to receive (though we certainly do that also), but to give to God the presents of our faith, our gratitude, our praise, our confession, and the commitment of our hearts.
God is simultaneously the inviter, the host, and the guest of honor at our worship services. Worship, after all, is God’s idea, not ours.
How should that affect how we approach worship, and how we begin worship?
We need to recognize that all of our movement toward God occurs because God acts first. After all, it is God
- who created us;
- who made us able to respond to him as creatures to their Creator;
- who has revealed himself to us through the pages of Scripture, through creation, and through his Son, Jesus Christ.
- who has given us salvation through Christ and drawn us into relationship with himself.
God always initiates; we can only respond. And our primary response is worship. In worship we respond in praise to the glory and greatness God has revealed to us; we respond with thanksgiving for the saving grace God has lavished upon us; we respond in wonder and delight to the relationship God has initiated with us.
Even our response to God depends not on our own strength but on the Holy Spirit working in us. “Are you so foolish?” Paul asks the Galatian believers. “After beginning with the Spirit, are you now trying to finish by human effort?” (Gal. 3:3). The obvious answer to Paul’s rhetorical question is, Of course not! We are saved through the sanctifying work of the Spirit, and we can’t be perfected through our own effort! (Paul indicates that it would be foolish for the Galatians to even entertain that thought.) As believers we are in continual need of the Spirit to grow in righteousness and, indeed, to do anything that is truly pleasing to God . . . including worshiping him.
Our worship is an obedient response to God’s invitation. We may invoke God to bless our worship and to make God’s presence known. But in a greater sense we cannot invite God to be present in our worship. He is always present; we’re the ones who stray! Rather, it is God who invites us to worship. It is his Word that tells us, “Come, let us worship and bow down. . . .”
God has revealed himself to us and has established a relationship with us by his power and grace. God delights in that relationship and desires (and deserves) our worship as a means of affirming and strengthening our relationship with him. “Worship the Lord with gladness,” says the psalmist, “come before him with joyful songs” (Ps. 100:2). Coming to God is not an option for Christians but rather our obedient response to God’s gracious invitation.
The work of Christ has opened the way for us to come into God’s presence, as the book of Hebrews makes clear (4:16; 7:19, 25). The writer exhorts us to take full advantage of the free access to the Father that Christ has made available: “Let us draw near to God” with confidence, assurance, and faith (10:22). Our living High Priest has not only made the way clear through his blood (vv. 19-20), but actively leads us (v. 21) into fellowship with God.
Those truths have profound implications for how we “come to God in worship.” So how should we respond to the invitation?
Many worship services begin with either some innocuous words of greeting by the worship leader—focused on the weather or on the size of the crowd or on the pleasure the leader has in seeing the people gathered—or else the service launches right into songs written about or to God.
But the question is, who deserves the first word in worship? Who deserves to be heard first? That question takes us back to the question of whose gathering it is. The fact is, we have been invited and ushered by God himself into his holy presence. God has taken the initiative and paid the cost. God is the host of this gathering, the subject and the object of our worship. God is the main event, our purpose for gathering.
God doesn’t “show up” at worship, as the popular catchphrase goes. Although it’s obviously intended to communicate a vivid sense of fellowship with God, let’s be careful about suggesting both that God was somewhere else, and that we did something to bring him close! As Steve Fry puts it:
I’m concerned that some of us have perceived worship as a spiritual talisman we employ to get God to show up, rather than seeing worship as a simple response to His grace. . . . If we perceive worship as a mechanism that triggers His presence, we’ll inadvertently focus on the act of worship itself instead of the One we are worshiping—worshiping worship if you will.
—“Unity, Worship, and the Presence of God,” Discipleship Journal (Nov./Dec. 2002)
Since God is the inviter, the host, and the honoree, shouldn’t we hear first from him? Isn’t it infinitely appropriate to hear a Word of invitation and welcome and testimony from God himself as the One who has made our gathering both possible and meaningful? Let us hear first from God through his Word, and then respond to him with our songs, prayers, and words of praise.
A Biblical Pattern
If we give God the first word, then our worship will reflect the biblical pattern of all God’s dealings with humanity. This pattern, evident throughout Scripture, can be represented thus:
God always takes the first step to reveal himself and to initiate a relationship with his creatures; our part is always to respond to God’s first move. In our worship, it is ultimately true that until God first speaks to us we have nothing to say to him. We cannot respond appropriately until we have heard something to respond to!
This pattern should not only be incorporated at the beginning of the service but throughout as an alternating rhythm of revelation and response, so that our worship becomes a true dialogue between God and his people. (An interesting exercise is to take an outline of your worship service and put an arrow up or down beside each element to indicate whether in that part of the service God is speaking to us or we are responding to him; horizontal arrows can also indicate those times when we are speaking to each other for our mutual edification.)
The Word can provide a God-centered, divinely focused transition between songs or parts of the service. Consider the difference between these two transitions:
- “And now we’re going to sing ‘Holy, Holy, Holy.’ Let’s all sing out!” or,
- “In the words of Isaiah 6:3, ‘Holy, holy, holy is the Lord Almighty; the whole earth is full of his glory!’” (followed by singing).
Which is a more powerful lead-in? Which is more likely to enhance the flow of worship and the worshipers’ concentration?
We need to hear from God more than God needs to hear from us. And while God deserves and desires and relishes the praises of his people, how much more fervent and heartfelt those praises will be when they are fueled by God’s own self-revelation.
Worship is a dialogue, a conversation between God and his people. What a blessing to be able to express our adoration and praise to him! But oh, how we need to make sure we are listening to God and not doing all of the talking. Let’s honor God and his gracious invitation by always letting him have the first Word.