Last summer I met with a pastor who serves a church near a large campus. As the university grew in prestige, it attracted thousands of international students, many of whom had little exposure to Christianity. So the church began to reach out to them with language classes, tutoring, and members who “adopt” students into their homes.
The church also changed their Sunday morning worship service. They threw out anything that doesn’t support outreach. Their Vision Statement reads: Each and every element of our Sunday worship service must revolve around the ultimate purpose of the Church: which is mission. Nothing in their worship service is sacred:
- Worship songs
- Prayers of Confession and Assurance
- Sermon topics
- Whether to use a Call to Worship, Apostles’ Creed, or a Benediction
I applaud their service (which is great), but their vision statement is wrong. Mission is part of our purpose, but the ultimate purpose of the Church is worship. And our passion for service is our biggest barrier to unadulterated worship.
Jonathan Edwards said, “It is true that by doing great things, something is worshipped, but it is not God.” When we turn our hearts from worship to deeds, we forge the idol of mission.
Deeds and Misdeeds
The history of faith is the battle of idols. The first of Ten Commandments prohibited idols, and it is the most repeated command in all of Scripture. If it needed to be repeated hundreds of times for millions of believers, should we expect ourselves to be immune?
Old Testament idols were obvious because they were physical images adopted from the surrounding culture. By the time we get to the New Testament, Israel has completely rejected Baals and Ashtaroth. Instead, they worshiped their own deeds. But these are still idols.
- Many will say to me, “Lord, Lord, did we not prophesy in your name, and cast out demons in your name, and do many mighty works in your name?” And I will declare to them, “I never knew you.” (Matt. 7:22-23)
- Woe to you, teachers of the law and Pharisees, you hypocrites! You travel over land and sea to win a single convert, and when you are done, you make them twice as fit for hell as you are yourselves. (Matt. 23:15)
We are called to deeds (faith without works is dead), but mission itself is not the ultimate mission of the church. Worship is. Anything else is idolatry, just as it was for the Pharisees.
The “Why” of the Father’s Pruning
We worship whatever most brings us life, be it career, family, or service. That’s why the Father prunes branches which bear fruit: we too easily gaze down our branches and declare, “What glorious leaves and what magnificent grapes.” Pruning sets our sights back on the vine for life.
Jesus says, “Whoever abides in me and I in him, he it is that bears much fruit.” It is the ultimate invitation from God: a connection and interpenetration with him of heart, mind, soul, and life. It is intimate theology.
The cattle on a thousand hills belong to God; he doesn’t need our sacrifice, yet he invites us to worship. Likewise, he doesn’t need our service, yet he invites us into partnership with him, to be co-laborers with him in worship and mission.
In the counterintuitive alchemy of spiritual life, if we aim for fruit we get barrenness, and if we aim for intimate worship, our very lives become the crushed grapes and broken bread which nourish the world.
P. S. There is a purpose in God’s salvation, for us to worship; but that involves a real relationship with God. We don’t worship a being who is distant but one who is close, who wants intimacy, who wants communication with you.
To grow in that divine dialogue, please watch the video bel0w (What are we saved for?), and please consider buying, Hearing God in Conversation.
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