service or experience

Our words matter. Scripture tells us and experience confirms to us that words are extremely powerful things. They build up or destroy. They bring life or death. They bless or they curse. One of the chief hallmarks of wisdom is the ability to handle words carefully. Words matter.

Words also matter in our communities. We build a culture by the words that we use and share. Words are sort of like different colored paints to an artist. The choice of yellow over blue will change the entire mood and message of a painting. Similarly the words that we choose and repeat will help to cement the assumptions and the values of our communities.

So, when it comes to worship – the chief reason the Church exists – the words we choose when we talk about it matter. There is a long history within Christian circles that refers to the community act of worship as a “service.” I’m not sure when or how this developed exactly although it does have some biblical roots.

The most common and general word for worship used in the NT is προσκυνέω which literally means “to bow down.” It is used consistently in the NT for the worship of a deity. There are other words used for “worship” in the NT, but one in particular sticks out in the context of offering a “service.” The word λειτουργέω only appears three times in the NT (Acts 13:2; Rom 15:27; Heb 10:11) but the noun form appears another six times (Luke 1:23; 2 Cor 9:12; Phil 2:17, 30; Heb 8:6, 9:21). This is a more formal word used for official acts of worship done in and for the public. It was generally associated (especially in the LXX and in Hebrews) with the duties of the priest performing his service to God in the sanctuary. It is probably best to understand this word as “service” or “ministry.” This is the Greek word that provides the basis for the English word “liturgy.”

Why does this matter? There is a new tendency among some churches to refer to their worship as “experiences” leaving behind the apparently antiquated verbiage of “service.”

I picked Furtick’s church not to pick on Furtick but because his church is emblematic of this growing trend in churches big and small.

On the one hand, it’s not technically wrong to call worship an experience. Of course calling worship an experience says much less than we probably assume. After all, literally everything is an “experience,” but just calling it an experience tells me next to nothing about what kind of experience it was. And this is the first problem I have with calling worship an experience. What do you mean by that? What kind of experience should we expect? I think that if you asked John after he spent some time in the throne room of God if he had an “experience,” he might look at you like you were covered head to toe with eyeballs. Of course he had an experience – an awesome yet terrifying, humbling yet emboldening, mysterious yet clarifying, my-mind-is-blown-from-being-in-the-presence-of-God-and-I’m-gonna-explain-it-to-you-but-it-is-going-to-sound-really-trippy kind of experience. When a church advertises a worship experience, what should I expect? Should I expect to be filled with awe as I silently contemplate the Creator? Should I expect to be moved to tears as I’m called to repentance? Should I expect to be overcome with joy as I hear sing songs of praise and greet my brothers and sisters in Christ? Or maybe I shouldn’t be expecting some sort of dramatic experience at all. Maybe what I should expect is the type of ordinary, stabilizing, habit forming experience of simply hearing the gospel proclaimed and giving thanks to God.

If I may indulge just a bit of cynicism, a “worship experience” carries the whiff of  marketing. A worship service sounds like mom and dad’s church. Stuffy. Suits and ties. Old hymns. Old people. People don’t get out of bed on Sunday for a service. But an experience? You bet.

And this leads me to my real concern. I’m sure I’ll have some friends read this with a sense of defensiveness. I’m not trying to be uncharitable or legalistic. I’m sure that a lot of churches with “worship experiences” are doing fantastic things for the Lord and for the world. If your church advertises a worship experience, I’ll happily attend (with maybe just a few “get off my lawn” grumbles under my breath). I’m just wondering if the words we choose to describe our worship matter. Are we sending the wrong kind of message and cementing the wrong kind of values?

To call worship an experience sends the message that the primary purpose of worship is to do something for or to the worshiper. Worship hasn’t succeeded unless or until I have had the desired experience. This turns the worshiper into a connoisseur sampling worship for personal taste. This also turns the worship leader/preacher from a pastor into a host – always worried about the satisfaction of the customer instead of worrying him/herself with the glorification of God. A pastor who calls worship an “experience” should permanently disavow preaching against the sin of consumerism.

Now, worship should definitely affect the worshiper. Worship shouldn’t leave us alone. But this is rightfully the byproduct of worship, not its purpose. Calling worship a “service,” as old-fashioned as that sounds, doesn’t mean that we have to stop paying attention to the needs of the worshiper. But it does mean that when we come together as the body of Christ our primary focus is on offering a public service to the God who is worthy and the God who has saved us. Now, I have to admit that a “service” can become a distraction to worship too. We’ve all been in churches where the main focus of attention is on the details of pulling off the “perfect” service, while true worship that engages the heart and captures the imagination is kept safely under wraps.

The important point is this: The words we choose matter. And whatever we call our worship, we should be careful that our words aren’t communicating something that actually works against the purpose of true worship.


3 thoughts on “service or experience

  1. I appreciate this perspective a lot. Language is incredibly powerful. I’m sure people look at it as “well it’s one word difference, what’s the big deal?” And in the grand scheme of things it probably isn’t. But, if we continue to use the same language over time it doesn’t just change the words on our website, it can change the mindset or the culture.

    As a worship minister, I stopped using the phrase “a call to worship” and started using “a continuation in worship” because I didn’t want people thinking that worship started once we shared a verse, song, or thought. I wanted people to view our services as a culmination of worshippers coming together sharing their praises and burdens in community. I think a similar assumption could be made that if this is a “worship experience,” what happens when the “experience” is over? Is worship over? Obviously not. And I don’t think that is what Elevation means. I just hope it doesn’t change a culture or the point of church gatherings.

    Liked by 1 person

  2. My one thought is simply that in the context of weekly gatherings, the word ‘service’ has been redefined by society and doesn’t carry the connotations that you outlined. So churches have to choose between redefining a word for society (downright impossible) or utilizing a word that is halfway relevant (tempting, but with the issues you listed above).

    I don’t have a solution, but not sure either of the current options are helpful.

    Liked by 1 person

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