This past Sunday, during the 9:45 Emergent Worship service I lead, I was preaching on the Minor Prophet Zephaniah, whose prophecy emphasized the deterioration of worship by God’s people, and the ways in which the leaders had contributed to this decline. There are other messages in the book, but worship kept jumping out at me each time I sat with the text. Through the discernment process over the course of the week before, I kept thinking that I often hear people incorrectly interchange worship with private devotion. I address this in my sermon, an educational moment if God ever presents one.
Worship is corporate in Christianity, and underscored by Jesus’ words: “For where two or three are gathered in my name, I am there among them” (Matthew 18:20 NRS). Christ tells is that when two or more gather in his name, as we do in communal worship, then he is present too. Not only is Christ in our midst, but he is made manifest in a miraculous way: the transformation of a group of Christians into the Body of Christ. This transformation and real presence of Christ is one of the things that cannot be duplicated by an individual Christian, and I suspect that Jesus thought it would be hubris for any one person to think they could fully manifest God the Son on their own. As clergy, I cannot do it all by myself either. My God appointed role is to lead others in worship, and whether that is just one other person or a thousand, my purpose is the same, but requires at least one other person to fulfill it. Honestly, I enjoy being able to lead a large gathering in our worship, but mostly because it is powerful to hear many voices united in proclaiming the mighty acts of God, singing the praises of the Lord, and lifting up their prayers as one. It is not about me, but us together.
Personal devotion is just as important, and bridges the gap that would exist between Sunday worship of one week and the next. Acts of devotion include: reading Scripture, being part of small groups like Bible Studies and prayer meetings, family and personal prayer, spiritual disciplines like fasting and abstinence, and singing hymns and other sacred music. While this list is by no means exhaustive, it does give some insight into the kinds of religious acts and activities that are important for individual Christians to grow their faith, deepen their wisdom, and sustain them over the course of time and during the midst of tribulations. God gave us these means of grace knowing that worship once a week for an hour or so would not be enough. A decade of ministry and a lifetime as a Christian confirms this. Worship is crucial, but it also needs additional commitment and fuel of personal devotion. Just as no personal devotion could ever fill the void that exists when we do not come before the Lord to worship together in community.
We worship together to give glory to God and praise for the blessings we have received. We also benefit from God graciously granting us God’s presence during worship, offering us insight into God’s Word through its proclamation and expounding in sermons, and being in the midst of others like us. As I said Sunday, we are not perfect or worthy to be in worship before God. We are those who recognize our need for God and God’s grace, and come to give our gratitude for receiving it through Christ Jesus. We come together with other imperfect and sinful vessels to be filled with hope, God’s love, and the limitless grace for those who repent, which we also do in worship. It is in the context of worship that we take part in the sacraments, those tangible signs of God’s grace: baptism and holy communion. During both sacraments, God cleanses us of the guilt we incur from our sin and discover justifying grace, which empowers us to go forth as renewed people freed from sin and death. However, we will all sin again, even if it is only unintentional sin, so we can come back to worship, continuously take holy communion, and receive the grace that comes from confessing our sin and receiving forgiveness.
As clergy, I can see the vast difference between the time when I am clearly engaged with my personal devotion and when I am not. My personal devotion fuels my passion and productivity in worship. It strengthens my connection to God through the Holy Spirit and that bond bears fruit. I come to exist in a framework of theological reflection, filtering everything I hear, see, and encounter through the lens of Christ. It provides me with limitless material for sermons, lessons, worship series, and blog posts, not to mention prayers. It becomes a means by which I provide current, contextual reflections for my congregation. It makes me a better pastor while making me a better Christian. When I am in a vibrant, healthy place in my personal devotion, then I am able to take the worship I lead to the next level also. I believe this to be a reciprocal statement for lay persons as well. I notice who sings with passion, singing the words as if they were your own. I hear those who speak the creeds and affirmations of faith with conviction. I can see the engagement on your face when I am preaching, and see the Holy Spirit moving through you as we worship.
So worship really isn’t about us. It has always been about God, and the community within which God is calling us to take our rightful place. We come as individuals to be melded into the Body of Christ, and we depart to carry that experience back into our lives, the spheres of influence that comprise our world. While back in our daily lives, we partake in the various means by which God connects to us, and sustains us until we can all come back together again in worship, and share in the rejuvenation that it brings to those who yearn for God. Worship and personal devotion are not the same, nor can one be a complete substitute for the other. They complement one another, and bring us to a fuller faith, a more mature relationship with God. The Church must respect the vital role of personal devotion and individual Christians must honor the place of worship in their faith. Together we will all grow into the Body of Christ God has called us to from the moment of our creation.