Essex vicar: "worship is useless"

I don’t always agree with blogging Essex vicar Sam Norton. Indeed only a few days ago I expressed my strong disagreement with one of his posts. But in his current series Some thoughts on Worship I have found many sentiments that I can accept, along with some that I cannot but have certainly made me think. While being puzzled by his insistence on worship being “sacramental”, I agree with his concern that some charismatic (e.g. “New Wine”) worship is not explicitly Christian and not grounded in the Scriptures, and with his reasoning:

not least on grounds of spiritual warfare.

Sam’s latest post in this series, subtitled “worship is useless”, is especially interesting. Here he first expresses then expounds this rule:

Sam’s first rule of worship: worship is useless, and as soon as worship is used for something else, it ceases to be worship.

Indeed. If we make our worship a tool for doing something else, whether mission, performance or political activity, it ceases to be true worship of God. Indeed, although Sam misses this point, the same is true if we make worship a tool for teaching, whether through hymns packed with doctrine rather than adoration or through a sermon about practical Christian living. Sam is right that in worship our focus must always be on God.

But I think where I would differ from Sam is in something I infer from his words, that all of what the church does together, at least on a Sunday, should be worship in this sense. Now there is rightly also a sense in which everything that Christians do together is or should be worship. But that is a different, broader sense of the word. The church should be doing useful things, like mission and social action. It should also be teaching its members about doctrine and the practicalities of Christian life. These things, at least on Sam’s definition, are not worship, and should not be the focus of worship services. But it would be quite wrong to use this as an argument that the church should not be doing these things.

Nevertheless Sam’s point is right, and aligns well with the material I linked to yesterday from Frank Viola. The church needs to be focusing first of all on God and on Jesus Christ, and this should be the core of its worship. Then, in Frank’s words,

it no longer chases Christian “things” or “its.”

But these “things” or “its”, in so far as they are good and right, should flow out of this worship, into teaching, mission and practical service to the world.

0 thoughts on “Essex vicar: "worship is useless"

  1. Hi Peter – thanks for reading along. I agree with you about teaching and, in fact, I think the difference between preaching and teaching is often missed. As it happens, I think if you came along to some of the services on offer on Mersea you’d be quite happy. We’ve instituted one service, on the fourth Sunday of each month, which is explicitly for wider teaching (called ‘The Learning Supper’ as it is followed by a fellowship meal).

  2. Thank you, Sam. Yes, we do miss the point of preaching when it is turned into a lesson in theology or politics, as well as when it becomes the centre of a “worship service” which is in fact intended to turn people into Christians – or even, dare I say it, get them “Back to Church”. Meanwhile your services sound interesting, but Mersea is just that bit too far away to be a tempting Sunday outing.

  3. Thanks both for a great discussion. I was stuck in the film “The soloist” by the way in which what worked good for the schizophrenic man at the heart of the movie was the wholly disinterested faith of the journalist in him as a simple friend. To get to the point he could offer disinterested friendship he had to shed any thought he would be able to sort him out psychiatrically, or force him to take his pills, and fly in the face of all the evidence, but still keep faith with his friend. Surely there’s some element in worship that is truest to its primary purpose of costly reckless disinterested love, freely offered — the lady in the gospels with her bottle of pure nard. If that’s so, feelgood worship could be very problematic, cut free from its primary purpose and repackaged as entertainment…?

  4. Yes – in the end he allowed God to do the ‘heavy lifting’. The position I am coming to with respect to the ecological crisis is that we need to cultivate the same attitude in that respect (which is what Peter K has sent me to with 1 Peter reference!) One way of summarising the book I’m writing at the moment – which is about what the church should be doing about the ecological crisis – is simply to say ‘get the worship right (ie get God in the right place in your life) and everything else will follow’.

  5. Thank you, Bishop Alan. Sam must be pleased that it was you and not his own bishop who reacted to this post title! Yes, that is a good analogy with friendship. True friendship is “useless” in the sense that it is in no way using the friend. The same with true love. True worship of God includes being similarly unconditionally a friend and lover of God. So I don’t condemn the “Jesus is my boyfriend” kind of choruses (as long as they are not sung to the exclusion of songs with more content) as I see how they express a genuine relationship of love and worship – much more so than the more typical modern worship which (like much traditional liturgical worship) feels more like performance.

    Sam, sounds like your book will be better than I thought it might be!

  6. God. So I don’t condemn the “Jesus is my boyfriend” kind of choruses (as long as they are not sung to the exclusion of songs with more content) as I see how they express a genuine relationship of love and worship

    In a wierd way, I categorize these types of worship songs like abstract art is to painting. Some people can’t make any sense of abstract art, whereas, some get moved by it in a deeply emotional way. So also these types of worship songs can touch the heart of the worshipper just like abstract art touches the soul of the artist who appreciates and paints abstract art as only they can. Personally, I only appreciate traditional art. 😉

  7. Fair enough, Kevin. Different worship music styles are helpful to different people. My only issue is with those who condemn these songs as fundamentally anti-Christian because they are not packed with doctrine. Worship songs are not for teaching but for expressing one’s devotion to God.

  8. Peter
    in spite of the closeness of your wedding you continue to produce challenging and thought provoking topics.

    It seems to me that clarity of definitions is a core part of this discussion. For example I would not equate placing God at the centre as “useless” – it looks like a very good “use” to me! I know that is a sinplification of the points being made, but I hope the point I am making is clear.

    Then we have to consider how we define what we understand to be worship, at least when God’s people meet together. Personally I lean to a widish definition which will include prayer, reading of Scripture and proclamation/explanation of the Word as well as musical, spoken and silent adoration and thanksgiving; and yes the Lord’s Supper is a 2 way part of this (Eucharist = Thanksgiving?; and the faithful receiver receives benefit). Not all elements on every occaision, but all will appear on a regular basis. For me warning bells ring when the term is defined in a selctively narrow way – defining a word to fit a specific point of view. So I see God honoured and central not only in the personal “Jesus is my boyfriend” type songs (horrible term), but also in the affirmnations of Scriptural truth about God and his works and creation. My own pilgramage has led me through many emphases, styles and approaches to worship. My natural leanings have shifted periodocally, according to where I am on my journey. So perhaps I am able to meet with God, or recognise that others do the same, in a rich tapestry of scenarios. And yes, if I am honest, at present personally I am more inclined towards quieter and sometimes more traditional approaches than more modern styles. That has not always been the case, and it will no doubt change again. In a frantic and noisy busy world – and work life – I am more drawn to, and appreciative of, silence and (biblical) contemplation than I would have ever expected, say, 15+ years ago.

    Finally a thought I offered a few weeks ago when closing a sermon on the wonderful doxology in Ephesians 1. While suggesting we should come each Sunday, wanting, and expecting to meet with God, if we find that a difficult idea to grasp, bring that difficulty to Him and see what He does. Many years ago that would have been very personal for me!

    I hope all this makes some sense, and I do like your comment on the risks of “performance”, a related issue which cropped up over on New Leaven a few months ago.

    If I don’t comment again before the day (I am srating a new job on monday), may God richly bless your new life together. After 32 years (on 22 Oct) I can recommend the commitment you both are making.

  9. Pingback: Gentle Wisdom» Blog Archive » Archbishop preaches to Queen, Blair and Brown about “wickedness in high places”

  10. Colin, thanks for your interesting comment. I thought the flow of my ideas had dried up before my wedding (two weeks away tomorrow) but it seems to be running again at the moment.

    Yes, of course this is a matter of definition. I suppose what we are really all agreeing is that worship on Sam’s rather narrow definition should be at the core of our spirituality, but there are also much wider helpful definitions of worship. My concern is when people only practice what I would consider peripheral to worship and never get to that core.

    Thanks for your wishes. May God richly bless you too in your new job.

  11. Kevin, that’s a good question. Not traditional hymns. I think I’ll keep the details under wraps until the day. But if words like “this heart adore You” and “You’re altogether lovely” (in a song which also refers to “my sin upon that cross”) make a “Jesus is my boyfriend” type song, then we have one. But then there are lines like those in traditional hymns as well.

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