Church as Worship Culture
By: Rubel Shelly

Worship is spiritual formation for the Family of God. It teaches us the vocabulary and grammar of the Kingdom of God. It slakes the thirst we once tried to satisfy by drinking from the world’s poisoned well with the living water of Holy Spirit-presence. It affirms and celebrates the life goals of the Kingdom of God – not money, sex, and power but righteousness, peace, and joy in the Spirit. It offers truth in a world of lies. Love in a world of hatred. It provides healthy relationships in a world of cold indifference.

The late Abraham Heschel wrote: “Worship is a way of seeing the world in the light of God.”[1] Perhaps Heschel was drawing from his Jewish heritage when he made that insightful observation about the nature of worship. The Hebrew people had been in bondage for 400 years to Egyptian overlords. They had been oppressed outsiders. They had been poor and wretched and miserable. Generation after generation, they had been taught the mindset of slave-poverty, slave-identity, and slave-life. Now they were free people at the base of Mount Sinai. But it would take a long time to get the slave-mindset out of them. That would be Yahweh’s immediate task in their midst through Moses.

So he called Moses onto the mountain (Ex. 19), gave him the Ten Commandments (Ex. 20), detailed a series of laws about how a covenant people should live in community (Ex. 21-24), and reams and reams of instruction about building a worship center (Ex. 25-31). Why do you think the tabernacle was so important? Why was that big tent pitched in the middle of the twelve tribes? Why was it illuminated by a pillar of fire at night? A worship culture would reveal Yahweh as the center of their life together in community for the next 40 years!

They didn’t worship 24/7! But their worship defined their new way of experiencing the world. It didn’t pull them away from the desert or family problems or menacing enemies, but it did remind them to deal with all of them by trusting in the Lord. Aaron and his sons, the tent and its furniture, the sacrifices and the songs – all combined to remind the Israelites of their new identity. Not slaves but free. Not bound to Egypt but pilgrims to a Promised Land. Not Pharaoh’s but God’s. Worship would be their way of seeing their situation in light of God. Why should we not think of its place in our lives the same way?

[1] Abraham Heschel, I Asked for Wonder, ed. Samuel H. Dresner (New York: Crossroad, 1983), p. 20.