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Whom Is Christian Worship For?
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By Nicholas Zork

Whom is Christian worship for? If you are wondering why I would ask such a seemingly, and perhaps misleadingly, obvious question, you probably haven not been following the statement on worship theology that went viral this week. But if your Facebook feed is anything like mine, you are likely aware of comments made by a prominent Christian preacher during a televised service: “Just do good for your own self. Do good because God wants you to be happy,” she claims. "When you come to church, when you worship Him, you're not doing it for God really. You're doing it for yourself because that's what makes God happy. Amen?” If you are unaware of this statement and the social media righteous indignation that ensued, a Google search for Victoria Osteen should catch you up to speed. But my concern is less with what she said and more with most of the responses to it. The whole controversy surrounding her comments reveals less about “health and wealth” theology than it does about the rest of us who do not explicitly subscribe to that fallacy. 

The fact that some popular preachers teach worship and other religious practices as a form of self help is not news. We know this. So why the sudden shock and outrage? 

I have a couple suspicions regarding our inadequate responses to statements like the one above. And I hope you will believe that when I write “we,” I really do mean you and me (and especially me).

First, we are afraid that the preacher is right — at least in a descriptive sense: We do worship God for our own good. We do it all the time. Maybe our own happiness should not be our motivation, but it often is.

Second, and more significantly, the fallacious argument in question unearths — by being explicit — all the subtle ways we tacitly agree with self-centered worship in our practices. We all know that the easiest way to feel temporarily better about ourselves is to focus our attention on someone who is ostensibly “worse” than we are. The fact is, people cannot be divided into good and bad, better and worse. As Paul writes to the Romans, “all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God.” (Rom 3:23 NASB). At least the preacher in question is being honest about where she stands.

Let’s do the same: 

First, in theory, most Christians certainly believe that Christian worship is a response to who God is and what God has done. Namely, we worship God because God alone is worthy of worship. It is difficult to read Revelation 4 and 5 (and many other passages of Scripture) and deny this theology of worship. So, unsurprisingly, few people rushed to defend the idea of worshipping God for our own good. But correct or better thinking may not be the answer to what ails our worship of God. True worship springs not only from the fount of correct theology and doctrine but from ongoing encounters with the living God. Worship as a response merely to our own ideas about God is no less idolatrous than worship as a technology of our happiness. And, if we are honest, we practice this idolatry more often than we like to admit.

Second, God may desire lives of worship to benefit us but not in an individualistic sense. In the faux and fleeting vitriol of the online worship debate this week, one important perspective was oddly lacking: the relationship between worshipping God and serving our neighbors. People denounced the idea of worshipping God for our own good, but few questioned the basic “God-and-me” binary. What about our neighbors? Without a sense of responsibility for our neighbors, the vagueness of “doing something for God” creates a lot of latitude for well-masked self service. The church and its worship can easily become — metaphorically and quite literally — a tax shelter for celebrating and uplifting self.

The Prophet Isaiah minces no words in clarifying God’s perspective on such self-centered religiosity:

“The multitude of your sacrifices—
    what are they to me?” says the Lord.
“I have more than enough of burnt offerings,
    of rams and the fat of fattened animals;
I have no pleasure
    in the blood of bulls and lambs and goats.

When you come to appear before me,
    who has asked this of you,
    this trampling of my courts?

Stop bringing meaningless offerings!
    Your incense is detestable to me.
New Moons, Sabbaths and convocations—
    I cannot bear your worthless assemblies.

Your New Moon feasts and your appointed festivals
    I hate with all my being.
They have become a burden to me;
    I am weary of bearing them.

When you spread out your hands in prayer,
    I hide my eyes from you;
even when you offer many prayers,
    I am not listening.” (Isaiah 1:11-15 NASB)

The Prophet goes on to clarify the reason this worship does not please God. It is not a distaste for their choice of songs or the annoyance of a poorly played shofar. And it certainly is not that the worshipers have forgotten about seeking their own good.

Isaiah explains:

“Learn to do right; seek justice;
    Defend the oppressed.
Take up the cause of the fatherless;
    plead the case of the widow.” (Isaiah 1:17)

The greatest ongoing casualty of our self-serving worship practices is not God but our neighbor. If “even the Son of Man” — God incarnate — “did not come to be served, but to serve” (Mark 10:45) then our worship of Him must be concerned not only with the priority of God but also God’s priorities: our neighbors in this world, people who are broken, widowed, marginalized, maligned — people whom God loves and whom it is our joy to love and serve in worshipful response to the God who has loved and served us all.