To have a god is to possess a self­understanding, and to be a self is to have a god. Worship, then, is both at the same time, an honoring of our god and an enactment of our self­understanding.

Christian worship is the portrayal of those gathered as the forgiven ones, the thankful ones, the dedicated ones. This is just who they must grasp themselves to be when God the Father, Son and Holy Spirit becomes their God.

Selfhood and Symbol

Modern men are becoming newly aware that selfhood inescapably involves some kind of self­conscious participation in communal symbols through which one is enabled to grasp or become who he understands himself to be. The questions of who I am or of how I can find meaningful symbols are being grasped as the questions which are prior to all of our queries about life. These issues are indications that the twentieth century is urgently involved in the problem of worship.

A primary emphasis of the church is therefore upon understanding selfhood and worship, and these are but two sides of the same coin. This concern informs and illuminates all other aspects of the program. The members both worship together and study about worship. In order to grasp the inner meaning of worship, one must participate in the activity of worship itself, at least as an empathetic spectator.

In this activity, we rehearse our consciousness of the event that discloses the meaning of our selfhood in our finite situation: that meaning without which men who have seen too deeply and too much cannot live. Here, self­understanding and the symbolic dimension of life converge as our common worship.

Whatever else the Body of Christ is, and whatever else its task may be, it is first of all a body that gathers together to worship God in Christ. Worship is her focal activity without which all other endeavors lose their meaning and all other missions become perverted. Any work which the Church performs in her varied ministries to the world, which does not flow out of the experience of common worship may be good from one or another perspective, but it is not Christian.

Reflection in this area necessarily makes us more keenly aware that the worshipping community is a part of the total Church, if for no other reason than that as a member of the Common Body of Christ we are participating in the judgment and renewal which God is working among all his people in our time at the point of the meaning and nature of Christian worship. The worship of the Church is only one of the areas of her life which is under divine assault, but it is a major one and, it might be said, a particularly painful one. Man seems to be more easily driven to re­examine his intellectual life than to question the substance of his worship. Nonetheless, the Church today is questioning and this is the beginning of renewal.

The common worship of the local congregation informs and nourishes the total program: its common study, its life together, and concern for service in the world. Outside of common worship, study together becomes a matter of mental exercises or barren intellectualism rather than a vital effort to understand the faith that is within us and to bring all our knowing and living into captivity to Christ. Without common worship, life together becomes but one more attempt to find security in the establishment of a mutual admiration society rather than a common loyalty to Christ through which we become responsible selves in the midst of life as it is. In the absence of common worship, common witness in the world becomes simply the promotion of the Church of the cultural status quo or some humanitarian ideal rather than our pointing to God's love in all dimensions and orders of life

The Church today is not raising the problem of worship in an abstract fashion but is concretely asking the question of what we as the People of God are doing when we gather to worship. In raising this issue the Church has been made painfully aware of much idolatry. We have come to see that in actuality we sometimes gather together to glorify some psychological state of peace or self­unity, and often our services are ordered to create such states of being. At times we honor some cluster of social ideals and thus shape our services to empower men to realize them. Sometimes we worship some abstract metaphysical concept which serves to delight the mind, or some cosmic force which can be manipulated on behalf of our noble ends. All of these are false objects of worship. The Church, when it is the Church, does not come together to experience peace of mind nor to have its ideals lifted nor its batteries recharged. It rather gathers to understand itself anew before the Word of God in Christ and hence before the God who gives that Word in Christ.

The Word Beyond our Words

The total Christian service is a dramatic representation of this Word without which mankind is without hope. The Word of God in Christ is precisely that where man has no word, there is a Word. The Word of God in Christ is that just where all of man's words to himself about the meaning of life become vain and empty, there is a WORD. The Word of God in Christ is that just where there is human darkness there is light, just where there is human loneliness man is not alone; just where there is human despair there is hope. The Word of God in Christ is that man as he is, in his anxiety and guiltiness, as creature and sinner, is infinitely and groundlessly loved, received, valued, accepted. This is the Good News by which the Church is continually nourished. It is the Gospel which she delivers to the world. Whenever the Body of Christ gathers together as a church it is to receive and to declare this Word of God in Christ. Whatever worship may be in other religious communities, this is the core and substance of Christian worship.

Queries often arise among Church folk, as well as those outside the Christian community, as to why the people of God come again and again to worship or why an individual can't worship Christianly by himself. Such questions are based upon a misconception of the nature of the Gospel. The man of faith lives in God's love for him, but this is something which he never possesses or lays hold upon once and for all. The man of faith is forever and continually dependent upon this Word being spoken to him. Again and again and again he must hear it. Again and again he must gather with others to hear it. Precisely because he does not own it, he cannot say it to himself. He must HEAR it - and this means from another. Only where two or three are gathered together in His name is Christ the living Word in their midst. We go to church, or gather to worship in order to hear the Word from another, and in order to speak the Word to another. We harken and declare. Our gathering is not based upon a mutuality of feeling or our common needs but upon the necessity of giving and receiving the Word. This is what is meant by the priesthood of all believers. Not that every man is his own priest, but that every man is priest for the other in his declaring the living Word. Or perhaps, to put it better, we all declare the Word to the other one, and all the others declare it unto us. We each do our own hearing, and we cannot hear for another, but we can only hear when the other speaks, and the other can only hear when we speak. For just this reason, worship is at the center of the Church. There is no faith in Christ save in the midst of a worshipping body where the Word is uttered and appropriated.

Worship and Witness

We have spoken of the Church as the gathered community. But the Church is also the scattered community. The Body of Christians assembles for worship and reflection and fellowship but it also disperses into the world. Neither one nor the other but both constitute the Church. The two are inseparable: worship and witness. We gather to worship and scatter to work. We withdraw to hear the Word and return to the non­Christian world as witnesses - each in his own station, his own situation, his own task. Wherever God has placed us at this time, we are called to cultivate creatively God's good earth, to witness to God's great love in all that we do, to live responsible lives for God's glory. Thus our common ministry necessarily flows out of the hearing of God's Word of acceptance from the Body of Christ. And because we are ever and utterly dependent on the Word of God's forgiveness, we again return to worship. To live in Christ is to live in the decisive awareness of God's love, which enables us decisively to live a life of service. To be a man of faith is to serve within the world, but where there is not a gathering in Christ's name, there is no genuine going forth in this name.

The Inner Nature of Worship

Why do we worship one way and not another? What is the meaning of our forms of worship? Or, to put this question more precisely, just what is the Body of Christ doing when she gathers together in worship?

Much attention is being given to this question in all branches of the Church today simply because we are increasingly being made aware of our ignorance here. Few have anything but the vaguest understanding of the Christian service of worship. Because of this the Church is vitally concerned that each person grasp the internal meaning of Christian worship. While regularly engaging in worship together, each is given the opportunity to understand what is being done.

To return to the question: what is the Church doing in her act of worship? This is not an abstract but a very concrete question. The meaning of worship in general is not the concern here. There are all sorts of worship as there are many different gods to worship and a multitude of self­understandings to be grasped in worship. The question the Church raises, simply because she is the Church, is the meaning and nature of Christian worship. Second, this is not an objective question to be answered by the impartial mind of the scientist in us; it is rather a confessional question which calls for answers from the point of view of involvement. The question is really this: what does the Church understand herself to be doing as she engages in worship? In the third place, this is one of those questions, the answer to which everyone knows until the question is asked. And when it is asked it necessarily discloses deeper and intimately personal questions as to who our god is and who we choose to be. This means that such inquiry is likely to be painful, for it is likely to call for that self­knowledge before the God "to whom all hearts are open and from whom no secrets are hid," which demands repentance.

The Christian community is that people who have been laid hold upon by that God who is the God and Father of the Lord Jesus Christ and who through that encounter have come to understand their lives in a certain way. When this community gathers to worship it is dramatically enacting this self­understanding before the God who gives this self­understanding.

There are several implications here. One is that to worship as a Christian is not to be a spectator watching a drama performed by others such as the clergy and the choir. It is to be involved as one of the actors. The community as a whole is involved. Functions differ but the play is a unit and there are no star roles.

Secondly, he who goes to worship in search of "religious feelings" to be experienced or of "religious ideas" to which he can assent has not yet grasped the meaning of common worship of God. Christian worship is the response of the total man precisely because it involves the core of the self. The question put to the worshipper is not how do you feel or what do you know, but who do you choose to be in the light of God's activity in Christ?

A third implication which has particular significance for the comprehension of the inner meaning of Christian worship is that the God that is worshipped and the self­understanding given in worship determine the basic structure or form of worship. If, for instance, the great god nation is worshipped and the worshippers understand themselves essentially as children of the nation, the forms of worship will have a certain pattern. In Christian worship the God in Christ determines the inner structure or the dramatic movement of the service. Regardless of how radically different Christian liturgies may be on the periphery, at the core they have a common denominator. In the area of thought, though the Church has many theologies, there is one common witness to the Lordship of Jesus Christ. So behind the great variations in worship, be they Methodist, Reformed, Lutheran, Anglican, Roman or Baptist there is a common structure. This means that whenever and wherever the Church gathers to worship, in the east or in the west, in the first century or in the twentieth, in Romanism or in Protestantism, the dramatic act is at the heart one and the same. As God is enabling our age to be more concerned with what historic Christianity affirms than with what any particular denomination believes, so He is opening our eyes to the unity of our worship. In this area as well as in others we are by God's grace recovering our oneness in Christ and beholding anew that we are all a part of a "great cloud of witnesses."

The Threefold Structure of Christian Worship

How then are we to talk of the common structure behind the varied structures of Christian worship? First of all, the order of service of the Body has within it a threefold division. One part has to do with confession and pardon; a second, with praise and witness; the third part, with offering and dedication. Neither in their nature nor order are these three parts arbitrary, and whenever one looks amid the endless variety of forms, these appear in one shape or another and will continue to do so as long as people congregate in the name of Christ. This is true because these three divisions, like three acts in a great drama, tell the story of the life of the one who stands before God in Christ. They present the self­understanding of the people who are encountered by the Word of God. In the words of one interpreter, here is the story of our life embodied in the Christian drama of worship.

"In the midst of my sinful attempts either to go on about my own affairs apart from God or to 'worship' God in my own way, God suddenly confronts me with his (sic) Word (which, when written down we call the Bible, when concrete in events, we call Christ), which is the terrifying announcement that I am a sinner and that I cannot worship God in this condition. In the face of such a revelation, I can do no other (if I am to respond Christianly) than fall on my knees and confess myself to be indeed that which I have been shown to be - a sinner before God and man. Without this acknowledgment, I am only an impostor when I try to stand before God and worship him. But for those who confess their sin, he is faithful to forgive. Such forgiveness enables me - nay, commands me - to rise and praise God, to thank him for his innumerable benefits, and to hear with understanding his demands upon me in his Word. But if I confess such faith in such a God, it behooves me to cease my anxious care about my future, about the dangers which I fear might overwhelm me - and to offer all such concerns to him who cares for us, and who has assured us today of his care in all the Scripture we have heard.

"Tomorrow, of course, I have forgotten that I can trust him, and that he cares for me; I am again attempting to live life on my own terms, attempting to find security in the passingness of life, attempting to avoid the hands of the One who gives both life and death, both Yes and No, both Cross and Resurrection. And as one who has forgotten, I am suddenly confronted by a Word which declares me to be a sinner, and calls me to repentance, and once more I am given his grace to enter another day - and so on, day after day. This is the story of my life."*

Just what is this structure behind the structures in Christian services, this common core beyond the differences? In brief, it is the portrayal of life as it is known and lived before the God in Christ. It is a story with quite distinguishable movements or themes: guilt, redemption and new life in the community of Christ.

Actually the Christian service of worship is three services in one. It is a service of (1) confession and pardon, (2) praise and dependence and (3) dedication and offering. One may conceive of it as the great drama of our salvation in three acts with a prologue and epilogue.

Christian worship begins with an ascription to God. This is calling to mind which God this drama is enacted before. This activity is the prologue.

Act l: Service of Confession

When we stand before that God who loves us in Christ, we know ourselves to be sinful people, and this is where the Church begins. Act One has two scenes. In the first the community is engaged in repentance.

In some services an appointed member rises on behalf of all to call the gathered ones to be who they are before this God. This is a summons to leave the world of false worship, pretension and self­sufficiency and to assume responsibility for their sins against God, themselves and their fellow humans.

In response to this call, the congregation bows or kneels in general confession. Here the community is discovered unto itself - faithlessly afraid of life, filled with guilt and anxiety, closed toward the future and cut off from fellow beings. In this knowledge, they humbly acknowledge their common sin before Almighty God.

The dramatic element in this episode is intense and sweeping. Dead ones who pretend to be alive here die together. Faithless ones who boast to God of their righteousness together face their lives. Blind ones who imagine they can see, together become blind.

The second scene - reconciliation - is an answer to the first. The penitents crying out of the depths are now confronted in one form or another with the Word in Jesus Christ - that God receives us just as we are, forgives us of our sins and raises us from bondage to the past to a new future. Such a word is news to those who know they are dying. It is good news, as the congregation together appropriates anew the love and forgiveness of God.

In some services this declaration or pronouncement is called absolution. In others, comforting words or words of assurance. By whatever name, it is the remembering together God's eternal forgiveness in Christ.

This light of divine forgiveness penetrating the darkness of man's sin completes the movement in Act One. A people dead and buried is now raised from the grave. The blind see, the deaf hear, prisoners are released, sick are made whole and the sting of death removed.

Some readers may observe here that they have attended Christian services where no Act One as described here appeared. True. Some services do seem to begin with the second act of the drama of our salvation. Actually, Act One is performed behind the scenes. In certain instances before the people gather, the priest or pastor rehearses this part of the drama by holding up before God the sins of the congregation and receiving on their behalf the divine mercy. In other cases, the people are supposed to prepare themselves in the quietness of their prayer closet for the service by searching their hearts, repenting their sins and appropriating God's grace.

The Office of Preparation is the necessary beginning of Christian worship. Where it is not present, worship may be going on, but it is not the Christian community which is worshipping.

Act One, then, is the rehearsal of crucifixion and resurrection. It moves from unacknowledged sin to confession and from confession to forgiveness. Godly sorrow is transformed to Easter joy. The congregation thus is prepared for the joyous mood of praise and thanksgiving which permeates the second art

Immediately they break forth in songs as they behold once more that all things are made new. "Lift up your hearts," one may sing, while the rest respond, "We lift them up unto the Lord."

Act 11: Service of the Word

If the mood of Act One is basically godly sorrow, the mood of Act Two is joy in the Lord. The players here are those who in the first act were delivered from bondage. Now, like the ancient Israelites on the far shore of the Red Sea, they sing and dance before the Lord. They are the ones who have been crucified and raised again.

That Last Reality, which hitherto they feared as their enemy - that One who appeared as the destroyer of all their causes and meanings - that One who writes a great NO over all their lives, they are now able to receive as their Father. Their hostility toward God, the Maker and Limiter of their life, has been overcome in their repentance and their receiving unto themselves God's forgiveness.

It must be emphasized that honor is not given here to some idea or feeling which may be called God. Nor is it offered to some super­human being which relieves them from the responsibility of historical existence. It is precisely from these false gods that they have been delivered.

The true God which they now worship is that which meets them in life as the one who brings all to be and all not to be - the One who is present in every life situation - of joy or sorrow, of success or failure, of birth or death.

At the edge of the desert of life, at the side of the grave of death these actors raise their hymns of grateful praise to the Lord of Life and Death. Strange and glorious sight!

Act Two closes with a mighty affirmation of faith. Whether this be in the form of a proclamation by the whole cast or a word of witness by one member on behalf of the whole cast is not important, perhaps. The important matter is, be it creed or sermon, that it is not an expression of assent to intellectual concepts, but a poem through which the congregated declare that they are, by His grace, the children of the triune God.

At this point in the service a voice cries out, "Let us pray."

The worshippers now turn to the future tasks of responsibility in and for the world.

Act III: Service of Dedication

The concluding act in the Christian drama of salvation is a great pageant of offering.

There is a double action here which is nevertheless a single movement. The players are presenting themselves unto God - all they are, all they value, all they possess - yet marching into the life of the world for responsible involvement.

In the beginning of the drama these folk were called out from their idolatrous attachment to the world. Here at its close, they are returning again to the world in obedience to God. Having been delivered from bondage to the world, they are now released for a free and open life in and for the world.

The first scene begins with acts of petition and supplication. The players are not engaged in magical manipulation of cosmic powers, but rather they are surrendering into God's hands their future and destiny. The worshippers have turned their daily cares over to the One whose forgiving presence is everywhere and precisely here in the darkness of the unknown tomorrow.

With their needs in God's hands, they are free to turn their concern outward toward their fellow creatures about them. In the prayers of intercession, whether these are in the form of collects said by all, or litanies read responsively, or pastoral prayers on behalf of the whole congregation, or silent supplications spontaneously interrupted by one or another of the members who lead the group in special intercessions-here as above the whole congregation is participating. Even when all do not utter the prayers, the "amen" said by all at the end of each is the sign of common appropriation.

The worshippers are here offering up themselves to God by placing in His hands the world which has now become their world and offering up themselves in presenting to God their responsibility in and for their world. In brief, the players, having received themselves and the world as gifts from God, are offering them back again.

Prayers are made for the Church and then for the home and the state, the economic life, the educational institutions, and the international structures. The worshippers then turn with particular concern for those living at the far edge or forced out of these natural orders. Intercessions are now offered for the poor and the hungry, the sick and those in prison, for the outcast and those who have lost the kindly light of reason and those who are on beds of death. In this action the community is boldly involving itself in life as it is and daringly entering into the existence of other creatures.

The second scene of this Act of Dedication is the presentation of the offering. Here these worshippers again offer up themselves in offering unto God their worldly possessions. It is an offering that is made not a collection which is taken.

Whatever is given is but a token indicating that all of our goods are gifts to be used in responsible living in the world. At the close of the procession, a prayer of dedication is made signifying that this action is intended for God's glory and the service of the neighbor. At this point the players break forth into a doxology or hymn of praise to God the Father, Son and Holy Spirit, which is a fitting finale to Act Three and the whole drama of salvation.

Act Three is a dramatic enactment of life in the Holy Spirit. It is a life of utter dependence upon God and utter responsibility for the world, a life which expects grace in every future. Such life in the Spirit is a gift to all who rejoice in the Lord through the forgiveness of their sins. After the epilogue, which may consist of a hymn which once again indicates and honors the God we stand before, plus a benediction, the actors leave the stage. They go out to live the lives they have dramatized of perpetual repentance, thankful praise and creative love.

One day - tomorrow perhaps - they will return to rehearse again the drama of their salvation that they may remember anew who and WHOSE they are.

Joseph W. Mathews

* From Wesley Orders of Common Prayer, John Wesley (edited by Edward C. Hobbs), Nashville, Tennessee: National Methodist Student Movement 1957.