Opinion: What is worship and is it really ‘essential’?

Rev. Dr. Richard Kannwischer/Photo by Dan Johnson
Rev. Dr. Richard Kannwischer/Photo by Dan Johnson

Is worship essential? My answer as a 20-year church leader may surprise you.

I am privileged to serve as pastor of Peachtree Presbyterian Church in Atlanta, Georgia. Over 7,000 people make it their “house of worship,” and I deeply miss the in-person gathering, singing, celebrating, and confessing that we call worship each week. Online worship can be a wonderful temporary substitute, but it is not the same thing as being “in the room where it happens.”

I also share the shock and bewilderment many people of faith feel when politicians declare casinos and abortion clinics “essential” while dismissing religious gatherings as unnecessary. I sympathize with those who see this as a slippery slope that could topple religious freedom.

Still, I don’t believe that Christians’ big challenge during this pandemic is whether we are allowed to worship. It’s whether we know what worship is.

“Avodah,” the word for “worship” in the Hebrew of the Bible, also means “serve” and “work.” Paul the Apostle taught that “your spiritual worship” is to offer yourself — all that you are gifted to do — to serve God and others.

Therefore all of life is an act of worship. Worship can’t be reduced to a gathering on a Sunday morning. In its full sense, worship encompasses all the loving work of God’s people, every act of compassion and grace.

So you could shutter every church building in the world and true worship would continue. Church facilities may have been closed to certain gatherings over the last few months, but let me be clear: the church — the people of God, the body of Christ — has never been closed. It has been unleashed.

The congregation I serve is packing 6,000 pounds of food each week for families in need of food sustainability. Engagement in online studies and groups exceeds pre-COVID numbers. The first Sunday after Easter — historically one of our lowest-attended Sundays of the year — had more “attenders” than last Christmas Eve!

I’m not touting numbers to argue that the pandemic is good for ministry. I’m saying that it reveals the sincerity of the mission behind the ministry.

It is perilous to confuse a business model with mission. Music labels that clung to selling CD’s while the digital revolution swept the industry missed it. Railroad companies that failed to diversify to motor and air travel missed it.

As my friend Will Mancini writes in his forthcoming book, “Future Church,” “If you start with a culture of mission, you get worshippers, but if you start with a culture of worship you get worship services. Between these two lies all the difference in the world.”

If we are driven to return to our “houses of worship” even at the expense of the health of our flocks and the community at large, maybe we are less secure in our mission than we realize. Maybe we even misunderstand worship itself.

When I visit our ministry partners in Africa, Asia and Central America, I witness vibrant worship in far more restrictive and hostile circumstances. Seeing their struggle for justice firsthand, I will never take for granted the incredible privilege of religious liberty we enjoy in this country. I cherish it and will even fight for it.

But as my teacher and mentor, the late Dallas Willard, used to say, “How common it is for a person to stand up for his rights. How rare indeed it is for one to stand up for his responsibilities.”

So yes, worship is essential, but the church’s worship in today’s crisis will be defined by how we step up to our responsibilities, not how we stand up for our rights.

Since we are to “seek the welfare of the city” as the prophet Jeremiah urged, self-preservation — especially for the organization of church — is not the true worship of the church. Even Jesus gave himself up in love for us all at the cost of his own life.

His example is telling for all who claim his name. For in time, everyone becomes like what — or Whom—they truly worship.

Rev. Dr. Richard Kannwischer is senior pastor of Peachtree Presbyterian Church in Atlanta, Georgia. He earned his Doctorate of Ministry from Fuller Theological Seminary and Master’s degree from Princeton Theological Seminary.