Conversation On Worship With Marva Dawn (Sep-Oct 2002)

By Matt Dabbs

Editor’s Note: John Ogren continues the conversation on worship with Marva Dawn.

John: Should we feel a certain tension between the church’s calling to be a worshiping community and its calling to be a missional community? Is there a healthy tension there and, if so, how would you characterize that tension?

Marva: Well there wouldn’t be a tension there if we had not gotten confused in our culture between what evangelism really is and what worship really is. In the early church the believers never understood worship as an evangelistic tool. The believers understood worship as what they did as believers. The earliest Christians, of course coming from the Jewish heritage, went to the temple and went to the synagogue for worship. They understood that witness was the way they lived in relation to their neighbors. In the United States worship has been turned to a kind of utilitarian purpose—that’s how we’re going to attract the unbelievers. But Scripture never ever talks about worship as the way to attract the unbelievers. Witness is always the work of the people of God, and we do that in daily life constantly—by the way we talk to people and how we live, in our work and in our neighborhoods and everywhere else. So I don’t think worship and witness would have gotten into a tension if we hadn’t misunderstood that. As we follow the biblical guidelines, instructions, descriptions (all three of those), we discover a healthy rhythm.Worship is the time when we publicly, corporately bring the praises that we have been doing all week in our lives into a corporate setting. It is a gathering of believers—technically somebody who’s not a believer can’t worship because that person does not know that God is worthy of worship. Being strengthened by that worship to know God better and deepened in our love and strengthened by the presence of the community, then we go out and live witness constantly. Now if on Sunday the local atheist wanders in, of course the worship will be witness, but that’s not its purpose.

John: What are some of the key or first mistakes that churches make at the expense of authentic worship?

Marva: I think the first mistake is to panic about numbers. God never asked for numbers. Numbers aren’t really a means by which anything ought to be measured if we’re being biblical. But we live in a society that crunches numbers and we get in a panic that the church is declining and then do the opposite of what we should do. If the church is declining, it’s because people don’t see that it offers anything different. So it seems kind of strange that if we don’t seem to offer anything different, our way to counteract that would be to become more like the world. So that’s the second mistake—thinking that the way to counteract declining numbers is to be attractive. I read a really tremendously insightful analogy in an article by Harold Best, who is Dean of the Conservatory of Music at Wheaton College. He said if we make that mistake about worship then we would have to rewrite the parable of the lost sheep and instead of, like Jesus, going out to find the sheep, we would try to make the sheepfold as attractive as the place to which the sheep wandered. [laughs] Isn’t that great? But then, he says, we would hide, of course, that it’s truly a sheepfold and then figure out how we’re going to tell them that’s what it really is.

John: How does a loss of mission impact a congregation’s worship?

Marva: Now that’s a really good question because of the fact that we really don’t recognize the sole— what’s the word I want—priority of God in our lives. I don’t like the word priority.We don’t recognize the fact that God’s really the central most important part of our lives, that we were created to worship God, and that the sign of our fall is that we worship money and numbers and comfort and self-aggrandizement and instant gratification and all the other idolatries that we get swept up into. We don’t realize what good news it is that in Jesus Christ we are enabled to be in intimate relationship with God. So we really need conversion, ourselves, in order to understand that Christ is our all in all. If Christ is our all in all then we can’t help but be sharing that. If we don’t have a burden for passing on the great good news of God to the rest of the world, it’s a sign that we don’t really understand it ourselves, and if we don’t really understand it ourselves than we really don’t know the importance of worship.

John: So renewal in mission will flow from a renewal of that—I know we’re staying away from the word priority— that highest worship of God.

Marva: Yes, and vice-versa. The more we practice loving our neighbors the more we will recognize our need to be in a public corporate worship setting. And how much we will long for the courts of the Lord, as the Psalms say, especially Psalm 84.

John: Is there a way in which the God of mission is revealed in the church’s worship? And with that: Is there a sense in which the congregation’s worship assembly can be an occasion for missions?

Marva: Yes, if we are faithfully reading text, paying attention to scripture text in worship, which is the best way we know to actually hear God speak to us, those texts are constantly about the world and about God’s love for the world. And I mean by that not only God’s desire to bring the good news of His own salvation to the world but also God’s concern for justice in the world and for us to be reconcilers and peacemakers and people who really care for feeding the hungry and clothing the naked and that sort of thing. I mean those are just in the text and the more we know God the more we will be driven to mission—I mean by an internal drivenness because we have the privilege of being the extension of God in the world. We are God’s agents, so the fact of our calling to mission is constantly in the text.

John: In light of the things we have been saying, what guidance would you give to the worship planning team in the local congregation?

Marva: Well, I’m very concerned about how the church is failing to equip our children with the faith. I asked countless teenagers why they are Christian and they don’t really know.We are not passing on faith to our own families—much less to the world around us.What I would say to worship committees first of all is, before we talk about the practicalities let’s really learn what worship is; let’s study scripture texts about worship; let’s ask the why question before the what question. Secondly, let’s try to set aside our worry about whether or not people will like it. The question is whether God likes it. That’s a major paradigm shift, and I think worship committees need to really wrestle with that. How are we going to try to help people not be consumers here? That’s the way our society trains us, and because it’s so dominant in our culture it’s almost impossible to break away. It requires us to rethink what we are going to do in our Bible classes, in our Sunday schools, in our conversations and fellowship times and social service projects to try to help people really be converted to a love for God that frees us from worshiping for the sake of how good it might make us feel. For more online and print resources on worship, go now to wineskins.org for links, bibliography, and articles you won’t want to miss.New Wineskins

John Ogren

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Profile photo of Matt DabbsThis author published 1577 posts in this site.
Matt is the preaching minister at the Auburn Church of Christ in Auburn, Alabama. He and Missy have been married 12 years and are raising two wonderful boys, Jonah and Elijah. Matt is passionate about reaching and discipling young adults, small groups, and teaching. Matt is currently the editor and co-owner of Wineskins.org.

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