SYDNEY, AUSTRALIA—Last weekend, Deborah and I were in Auckland, New Zealand, for our Every Nation Oceania conference. This week, we are in Sydney for our annual Asia & Oceania Regional Leadership Team meeting.
Traveling around the Every Nation world, I have the privilege to participate in Sunday worship services in many different cultures and languages. I have worshiped with our brothers and sisters in Chinese house churches; I have worshiped in a converted cockfighting pit in Colombia; I have worshiped at medieval cathedrals in Europe; I have worshiped in contemporary megachurches in the Philippines. Just last weekend, I worshiped in a small Pentecostal church in rural Georgia. The cultural contexts of these worship services vary wildly—and this affects things like worship language, worship style, worship environment, meeting size, and service flow.
However, whether we are in Shanghai or Fusagasuga, Oxford or Nashville, certain core elements of Christian liturgy transcend cultural variation. Through singing, preaching, communion, giving, and fellowship, churches around the world and across the centuries have been participating in the same liturgical practices that emerged in the earliest days of the New Testament church in Syria-Palestine.
Why or how have these elements of Christian worship persisted across time and space for over 2,000 years?
First, we find these liturgical elements practiced in the Bible (especially in Acts). Second, Christian leaders recognize that worship is not ultimately about expression; it’s about formation.
If unique cultural expression was the primary goal in worship, then it wouldn’t matter if churches in twenty-first century Lagos continued with ancient liturgical practices developed in first-century Jerusalem. They could find their own ways to express their love for God, which may or may not include singing, preaching, and communion. But for some reason we continue to worship in the same ways that Christians throughout the ages have done.
As beautiful as it is hear God’s praises sung in hushed Chinese in a house church and as powerful as it is to hear the word of God preached by our young Colombian leaders in a cockfighting pit (formerly owned by Pablo Escobar!), diverse cultural expression is a secondary goal in worship. The primary goal is spiritual formation, or discipleship.
In other words, the most important actor in worship is not us (as humans) but God.
While we often think that Sunday worship is primarily about expression (what we do to/for God), it is actually more about formation (what God does to/in us). Why? Because when we gather together as a church to worship God, He comes by His Spirit in our midst and changes us. He doesn’t just transform us in a nebulous way, but rather, he comes and transforms us through the repeated “rituals” of Christian worship. Singing, fellowship, preaching, communion, giving—these powerful liturgical practices are God’s way of revealing Himself to us and transforming us by His Spirit.
In communion, God engages our eyes, our hands, our mouths, and our stomach, and reminds us in very tangible ways of his incarnation, crucifixion, and resurrection.
In preaching, God engages our ears and our minds—and through His spirit, He convicts us of sin and calls us to repentance and faith.
In singing, God engages our vocal chords and our emotions—and trains us to love Him with our whole heart, mind, soul, and strength.
In giving, God engages our material possessions, the bills and cards and accounts in your back pocket—and trains us to trust Him and His provision and to denounce the idol of Mammon.
In fellowship, God engages our social lives—and reminds us that our primary group identity is not our nation or our ethno-linguistic group or even our natural family. But rather, it is the people redeemed by Christ’s blood from every tribe, language, people, and nation.
This is how worship works. And whether we realize it or not, this is what God is up to on Sunday morning.