Costly Worship

If meeting with Christians for regular Biblical worship meant you might possibly get persecuted and killed (not certainly, but possibly), would you join in such worship? If worship meant persecution, would you still gather with God’s people to praise Jesus?

Every Christian I have asked answers Yes. Yes they would.

So let me ask another question: If there was a light dusting of ice or snow, and gathering to worship might interfere with your Sunday plans (i.e., you might get stuck or maybe slip and fall in the parking lot), then would you miss? I don’t have to ask Christians this one, I know the answer. Yes, yes many would miss, and they certainly do miss. They say they are down for the cause of deathly and costly worship, but when it is slightly inconvenient (or when other family plans interfere), then not so much.

I know how hard it is to be plain. So let me give a few scenarios in this article that will help you clearly see the contrast of my main argument against common pseudo-Christian practices.

Scenario 1: If a funeral is somehow scheduled to be during Sunday morning worship (and I had no control over scheduling), what would I do? Maybe this scenario will become a reality in our culture — I have never heard of such a thing, but it is a good scenario to discuss the costly nature of worship.

Funerals are not sacraments and they are not holy. To that end, worship, not a funeral, provides the balm most needed at the time of death. Alas, this is where worship would be most costly, for I myself would not easily miss worship to go to a funeral home. A funeral scheduled during worship would not induce me to put Jesus second. The people scheduling the funeral are laying down the gauntlet, as it were, unwittingingly or knowingly asking: “Will you go and worship Jesus as first order business, or will you come and mourn with us?”

This scenario is highly odd and fake. However, I made it up because it is exaggerated, and because I know too many who would not even have to think for a moment what they would choose — they would choose the funeral every single time, no questions asked, no debate, no thoughts. So let me quote Jesus:

Another of the disciples said to him, “Lord, let me first go and bury my father.” And Jesus said to him, “Follow me, and leave the dead to bury their own dead.” And when he got into the boat, his disciples followed him. — Matthew 8:21-23

Many might take a possible bullet for Jesus, but few would miss an actual funeral for him.

Let’s say you would go to worship even if it meant you might take a bullet for Jesus. But how about this: what if you were upset with or annoyed by the people in your church, then would you still go and worship? Again, I already know the common answer. People regularly abstain from the worship of Jesus because they are disgruntled with God’s people. How ironic; they can take a bullet for Jesus, but they can’t be annoyed for him (or be wrong when in dispute with another Christian). They would die for him if that were the theoretical cost of worship, but when the actual cost is inconvenience, being wronged, or annoyance, then they skip worship.

Scenario 2: The church goes in a direction that you feel is tactically (not doctrinally, but tactically) mistaken. Should you keep worshiping there? The solution here is simple: stay and love the people of God! What happens more often, however, is a private and silent warfare and ultimately an abandoning of the body. In fact, there are some so crass that they never worship with a church again (then blame God’s people for their lack of worship). They claim to be able to take a bullet for Jesus, they just can’t take a bruise for his bride.

I hope this is helping. If you find yourself agitated, let me reveal something of my motive:

If I have a secondary goal in writing this, it is to help you encounter your own responses to these scenarios and questions, and then to encourage you to be at peace with your behaviors of worship. Yes, be at peace. If you are a pseudo-worshiper, then admit what the rest of us know. There is no need to lie about this things, so avoid pretending to yourself — move beyond that. These questions should reveal something about you that will be significantly useful to your own activities.

I know we all say we’ll take the theoretical bullet for Jesus, but if worshiping with other Christians meant you didn’t get to be with your loved ones for a couple of hours, would you still join in the church’s worship? Or how about this: what if going to corporate worship meant you would disappoint a boss, a co-worker, a friend, yourself or a family member?

Scenario 3: Friends come into town from a distance to stay at your house. They are tired on Sunday morning and really need rest, or they are hurting from life and need a retreat. Solution: Go to worship without them. Better, tell them ahead of time they can come with you, but either way, let them know that Jesus is the priority in your life. Alas, what I see happen instead is that the host of the home stays home and misses worship to serve the guests. Guests first, Jesus second. Everything first, and Jesus gets his time only if he does not interfere with your real life.

The irony here is that God lets us serve guests in our home for the other 166 hours in a week, while we insist that even the last 2 hours of Sunday (which we owe to Jesus) belong to the visitors. If you are the host who misses worship to serve guests, you are making a public statement about God. You don’t know it, and few of us say it to you face, so hear me now: you would not take a bullet for Jesus no matter what you say. You can’t even bear the burden of worshiping Jesus when friends come to town, so how will you bear a bullet in your flesh? Your true worship is exposed when you are too inconvenienced to gather with God’s people for such a short moment in time.

Is your Christianity tied to the body of Christ, or to normal (even important) social and family relations and events? You don’t need to answer, everyone already knows your answer. The church knows if your kid’s basketball game or some horse show, music recital, party, fund raiser, soccer match, family event or family reunion trumps worship. We know you. And if you are that person who needs only a minor reason to miss worship, we know that about you. We know if you are that person who is defined by your own pain. We know if your social calendar or private pains are more real to you than the calendar of the church or the pain of others. You are known by your perpetual self-referential crisis; you are known if you are a perpetual Jerry Springer episode (attended by an unending supply of reasons why you miss worship). If this is who you are, you don’t need to answer any of these questions. I am asking them hoping you will search yourself and discover what everyone else knows about you.

Must I say it? Yes I must: I am not here talking about missing worship for a car crash on the way to worship, violent or horribly contagious sickness, travel for a job assignment, exceptional circumstances or even yearly vacations. You may be looking for a church because you moved or are transitioning — I get that. I am not talking about that. I am talking about the person who exhibits a fuzzy-like border-line behavior with its hard to measure semi-habitual worship abstinence. I am talking about the subtle case of a person who worships often enough so as to imagine that their true affections have gone unnoticed.

Here is what I have seen as a pastor over the years. The very things that would never interrupt Christians from their secular employment, are the same things that easily and routinely displace their corporate worship. Many convenient-driven worshipers won’t give God 100 hours of worship in a year of 8736 hours, while simultaneously they give their family, work, hobbies, friends, hunting, sports, T.V., recreation and sleep generous quantities of time. So when I ask, Would you still be willing to worship if worshiping with Christians was the occasion of persecution, Let me urge you: Don’t answer. Don’t answer because we already know the answer. The only person you fool when you answer falsely is yourself. If you are a true worshiper, we know that too! If you really do love Jesus, we see it. Many imagine that persecution would help all of us to discover who really worships Jesus. But I suggest that we don’t need persecution to help us in our seeing.

We don’t need persecution to help us see who the real worshipers are. We just need a light dusting of rain that could possibly freeze. That is sufficient to empty churches of many pretend-worshipers. To empty churches we don’t need some theoretical threat of a gunman who will burst in and kill Christians, we just need a forecast of possibly inconvenient weather.

Weather is more powerful than an armed bandit! But when it is not the weather that disrupts worship, it is randomly anything else. Still, I wish we had a light layer of ice every Sunday, then we could just know that most pretenders will be at home. Then I wouldn’t have to write as I now do.

Can you believe I am writing this? Yes, this is a public letter, and I am the pastor of a church, so how can I dare challenge people this way? Alas, you who publicly miss worship are the ones who are publicly revealed. For your implicit statement is a charge against the worth of God (he is not worthy of worship if you might slip on non-existent but possible ice, or if you have a better errand to run). The ease with which you miss worship is the scandalous accusation that worship should be accommodating and doubly convenient. It is too bad that I have to write this way, and after conversations with other pastors, this is a problem in a majority of the churches.

Midwest American churches swell with pretenders. Oh, sure, these same pretenders can pontificate on the woeful condition of our politics and economy (they see clearly into earthly matters), but what they don’t see and bemoan is the defaming of Jesus revealed by an endemic convenient-based worship. Please, don’t be upset that I write about worship, but be ashamed if your worship is easily withheld from God because of trivial inconveniences. Be ashamed if you are more in-tune with the woes of America politics, but are aloof to the real spiritual condition of your heart and your church. Be ashamed if you are more concerned about yourself, your job and your family than you are about the sanctioned public worship of the family of God.

Scenario 4: Let’s say there is a school program or sporting club that involves my kids on Sunday mornings. They grow up so fast, and these are formative years. Will I let them regularly participate in such events? No, I won’t, and it is precisely because this is a formative decision — one by which I get to teach them the primacy of worship. Did they think worship is only supposed to be convenient? Worship is costly, even in the small things. I never teach children to miss worship (Jesus said, “Let the children come to me, and do not hinder them”, Luke 18:16). I lead people into the worship of Christ, not away.

“But, of course,” you say, “you are a pastor.” Really? Do you think that is the reason? Well if you think so, then I have really caught you in a trap. For if this is you, then you seem to think there are two levels of Christianity. Consciously or otherwise, You think the pastor is dedicated to worship because he is paid — being a member of some kind of professional tier of Christian. Wrong! A worshiper — be he a pastor or otherwise — is dedicated to worship because Jesus is awesome. That is what you are missing. Pastor or not, we must be sold-out passionate for Christ. Worship is ultimate, and it was ultimate before seminary or ordination. It is ultimate because of the indwelling of the Holy Spirit. If Jesus is passionate for the church (he died for the church), then we do no better than to join him in his passion! Do you think Jesus would miss worship to go watch a kid throw a ball, play a piano or ride a horse? Kids can do those things any time! Jesus was a good Jew. Jesus is God. He lived and observed God-centered worship. Jesus is not like you, and we can’t justify our lack or worship by dragging him down into our devotion to kid programs.

“Yeah,” you say, “but what if the kids practiced all year and this was their big performance?” You see, this is the problem with people who want an escape. You knew this on the front end (or you didn’t care and didn’t check before you started down the path). As I said before, there are exceptional moments which call us away from public worship. But the real issue here is the heart desire. So, let me make it easy for you: Do what you desire. If you sign up for programs or activities that you know will take you away from worship (and which trains your kids that worship is second), then that is what you desire, and you are leading children down the same path.

This next scenario is slightly related to the last. I am not trying to lay down law here, I am trying to help you explore your life choices through scenarios. And if I can map out some suggestions — suggestions which are reasonable to people who champion the worship of Jesus — then maybe you will have the mirror necessary for your soul. I pray that this is helpful advise from one worshiper to another.

Scenario 5: What if you have a relative who gets their kids involved in such programs, and then they ask you to come watch their kids. What then?

I suggest you ask them this: Will you come to worship? Do they want you to go watch their kids, yet they won’t worship Jesus? Don’t we live our lives for worship? The fact that they practiced for an event is not more powerful than our passion to be with Christ. Do you not see the warfare here? All kinds of objections are arising in the heart of the one who looks for an escape, “What is worship? Didn’t Jesus honor the kids? Wouldn’t God want me to enjoy my kids this way? You are a legalist….”

My best advise is this: Do what you want. I hope you want Jesus — on his terms. I hope the creator is more precious to you than the creation, especially when creation pulls you away from worship to sing the world’s songs, to dance to its tune, to play its games, or to be inspired by its outstanding performances.

I would not need to speak so plainly if this scenario were not dominant in the church of middle-class America. My experience is this: People who miss worship for kids programs are destined to leave the church when they get challenged on this, for they not only love their lives, they don’t want to be challenged to make Christ supreme beyond the boundaries of convenience.

Everyone can celebrate kids in our culture — it is the easiest thing to do (and at one level, there is nothing wrong with it) — how about giving up the culture’s system and adopt a new one? How about adopting a life of white-hot passion for Jesus? If we really want to celebrate children, we’ll invite them to join us. How about teaching children to organize their Saturday night activities around our need to awake and go to worship with the people of God? The Jews took the Sabbath very seriously; some of us can’t even take an hour of worship seriously when we let kids interfere. Satan distracts us with great ease.

One last scenario:

Scenario 6: What if you have to stay at the bedside of an infirm and dying spouse, or remain with a sick family member in the hospital? What if a loved one is dying, and you must remain by their side? — In this scenario, the sick person is someone who has been dying over a period of time; I am not describing a child, a sibling, a parent, a close friend or a spouse who has suffered a violent accident the night before.

You want to minister to a sick family member who is dying slowly (or who may die). I suggest to you that you will not honor them by absenting yourself from regular Sunday worship.

If I myself am terribly harmed or sick, you will give me the greatest comfort if you leave my side for a time to go be with God’s people. We Christians want you to worship Jesus. The fact is, people who cling to the dying and refuse to even worship for one hour, are clinging to the dying. Let go. Go and worship and then return. Make Christ ultimate.

“But what if they die while I am away at worship?” Then your worship was costly. If your loved one died when you left to worship, then you honored God, and that inspires the dying. It is right and fitting that even in death, the dead are not given preeminence over Christ. Many times we don’t know the hour of their death, so you must leave this scenario in the hand of God, and trust that when worship is costly that it is honoring.

I could stay in the hospital non-stop as a pastor, and never attend Sunday worship — there is a non-stop flow of people wracked in pain, suffering in anguish and close to death. But the tragedy of a dying humanity must not trump worship, nor dethrone it from its place of priority. Indeed, we honor the sick when we leave their side and go to and participate in the public worship of God. In our actions, we tell them that Jesus trumps death. And in their dying, they are refreshed to learn that Jesus is supreme in all things — they want to know that. It is a great act of mercy to leave the sick and dying to go and worship God. It tells them that the one they are about to meet is King.

People die slowly and over weeks and months. We could miss a lot of worship in the name of tending to the dead. I have known too many people who linger with the dead and miss worship continually in the name of remaining with their dying friends and loved ones. Strangely, these same pretenders will leave the hospital for other reasons (any reason besides worship). They excuse themselves for hours to go and eat or to meet with family; they will leave the hospital for many hours to go home and freshen themselves, sleep, shower and change. They leave for time to work, pay bills, run errands, and all the rest. They are more than willing to leave the side of the dying for all kinds of reasons, but not very often will they leave on Sunday morning for a few hours to go and worship. In this, they tell the dying that Jesus is second. The dead are about to meet Christ — and they are about to enter his presence possibly confused because so-called Christians ranked Jesus lower than showers, food, errands, work and all the rest.

If you really want to help the sick and dying, go and worship. Jesus, in his greatest act of worship was doing what was best for others. Your worship is not for the saving of souls, but worship is for the good of others as well being that which we owe to God. Worship inspires the lowly who can’t be there with us. Leaving the infirm for the worship of God emboldens the dying as they see anew that God is first and ultimate.

The reason this idea is foreign to the pretend-worshiper is because God is not really ultimate in the heart of the convenient-driven worshiper. Worship is not ultimate to them. They have exchanged a passion for the creator with a passion for his creation.

The Cross teaches us this: Worship is most significant when it is most costly. It teaches us that worship is least relevant when it is most convenient. My proof is Jesus. The greatest act of worship cost Jesus his life. The Cross of Jesus is the high-point of worship acts committed on earth. Jesus showed us true worship. It was painful. It was deadly, even as its benefits extended to the little ones among us. True worship is this way. And if we only worship in convenience, then God is not receiving our worship, and we are not truly loving the sick, the dying or our own children. Some of us worship a lot, but mostly when it is convenient. When it is most costly is when it would be most relevant.

I am sure you agree that you want the kingdom of God to advance. How important is it to you? It will cost you. The Cross teaches us this: Worship is most significant when it is most costly, and least relevant when it is most convenient. My proof is Jesus; it cost him his life.

As often as you can, gather with your church on Sunday to worship God — in so doing, maybe you will even lead children to the one who worshiped God for our everlasting good.

This article was published under Worship.

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