Worship: What's in it for me?

This article was first published in the Different Voices magazine.

The former Administrator of St Mary’s RC Cathedral, Edinburgh, Mgr Michael Regan, asks what place personal satisfaction should have in choosing how we shall worship.

In the consumer society in which we live, one of the criteria for success is the issue of customer satisfaction. Are you pleased with the product? Has it lived up to your expectations? Is it good value for money? Would you recommend it to someone else? Each individual has a different, personal scale for answering these questions: for one it might be that a particular item fulfils the purpose but is extremely cheap; for another it might be the fact that the item comes with the correct designer label; for a third it might be the speed with which the particular item could be delivered. Whatever the reason, for most people in our society, personal satisfaction comes high on the list. When it comes to worship, however, this approach presents something of a challenge, since worship is not ‘all about me’!

In a Christian context, the challenge of worship, as opposed to personal prayer, is how we give outward expression to a faith that we share with others. There are certain elements that perhaps need to be underlined in order for this to happen. One of these is the fact that worship is primarily made to the greater glory of God. It is that public activity by which we seek to give glory to the creator, the redeemer and the sanctifier: God, Father, Son and Holy Spirit. Thus worship or liturgy must always be outward-looking rather than self-absorbed. It is not an end in itself but rather a means to an end, which is union with God.

The second element that needs to be understood is that it is an act not simply of an individual or a group of individuals but the act of a community, the whole group of believers. This is clear from the very beginning of the existence of the Christian church. Christ calls a group of disciples and instructs them in how they are to celebrate his presence among them and how they are to become sharers in his life. So at least in part our celebration of worship is conditioned not by our own choice but by what Christ told his disciples to do. Further the whole of the New Testament reflects the communitarian dimension of life for the early Christians. Paul shows the way in which the community influences worship by indicating not simply the centrality of the Eucharist/Holy Communion in 1 Corinthians 11 but also by showing that worship, far from being isolated, makes moral demands on the members of the community, so that the relationships are established with God but also with the others. The nature of the community, however, presents a challenge because there is a relationship within a specific community gathered in time and place and the wider community that we call the Church. Different language, different cultural and moral traditions and different symbolic values all present elements that need to enter into any understanding of worship but can never be deemed to be the final arbiters of how we worship. The worship has also to give expression to the common faith of the wider community and can never be reduced to trying to avoid upsetting anyone.

Some examples of this from the various Christian denominations might be useful at this point. In all traditions, the question of the place of language is crucial. From a Roman Catholic tradition this was Latin-based, the Churches of the Reformation chose the vernacular. Some sought a definitive text, like the Church of England in producing the Book of Common Prayer, which remained the staple of worship for several hundred years. Then a desire to update the language led to the Alternative Service Book and on to Common Worship, via a number of experimental texts. Changes in language have been incorporated but modern issues, unthought of even fifty years ago, play a role today. Inclusive language, or gender specific language for the members of the Trinity, can cause major dissension, but also the language of dark and light, black being equated with evil and white with good can cause difficulty. In moral matters the questions of polygamy, divorce and remarriage, same sex relationships, all present a challenge to worship to find appropriate expressions that strike the balance between one particular community and the wider Church. In musical terms the distances between polyphonic choir performance and praise band music and the austere silence of the Quaker meeting equally raise issues for any particular community. Increasingly in this media-savvy age, the question is asked to what extent participation through television or the internet can be seen as being part of the community of faith. Above all the question of the leader of worship can be a challenge – the ministry of women, the personality and the theological perspective of the preacher, all of these come to their visible focus in worship.

So where does this leave the poor individual Christian faced with the plethora of choices of places and styles of worship? How does one individual decide ‘what is for me’ without becoming entirely self-absorbed?

I would suggest that the answer is threefold: firstly, the worshipper should answer the question, do I feel at home here? This is first asked denominationally. Do I believe that this expression of the Christian faith is the one that leads me closest to God? Then it is asked with reference to a specific community: do I feel as though I belong here? This is a challenge to those traditions that have a geographically-based parish system but where one can no longer take for granted that people are willing to accept whatever they are given.

Secondly, the worshipper should pose the question, Is this worship nourishing me in my journey of faith? This avoids the danger of just seeking out what one wants to hear and also prevents a standing still in the journey. Nourishment stimulates growth and growth implies challenge at times. Worship is not simply about being comfortable but about hearing the call of the Gospel and living the Christian life.

The final question for the worshipper must be: What am I giving back to this community of faith? The challenge is not simply to be a religious consumer but also to be a provider of service for others. In other words, the worshipper asks how am I giving glory to God not just in this act of worship but also in its repercussions in my life?

I would suggest that the answer to these three questions would enable individual worshippers the scope for their personal taste - ‘what’s in it for them’ - but at the same time lead them beyond themselves to a relationship with God and with neighbour, which is the final goal of worship.