Worship – a Duty

At a recent leadership team meeting I presented the deacons with a series of goals which I thought we should adopt. One such goal related to worship. There I stated:

“At a time when the combined Sunday worship attendance rarely exceeds our membership, we need to work for the day when Sunday attendance never falls below 365! In communicating the vision, we need to begin by speaking of Sunday worship as part of the very essence of Christian discipleship – worship is not just a delight, but also a duty. In the words of my sabbatical dream, our prime goal is to ensure that ‘Sunday is a day not to be missed’”

To my surprise some of the deacons were unhappy with the wording. In particular, they objected to describing worship as ‘a duty’. ‘Duty’, they argued, is an old-fashioned concept, and using it in the context of worship will only turn people off attending our services. So, following the meeting, I altered the wording, and talked of worship being “not just a delight, but also key to our growth as Christians”.

But I now wonder whether I was right to make. I raised the issue with two Anglican friends, who immediately reminded me that at every Anglican celebration of the Lord’s Supper, worship is described as “a duty” – indeed, in the words of the old Book of Prayer, “a bounden duty”. In the Anglican Eucharistic liturgy, the prayer of thanksgiving begins with this preface:-

Lift up your hearts
We lift them to the Lord (ALL)
Let us give thanks to the Lord our God
It is right to give him thanks and praise (ALL).
It is indeed right, it is our duty and our joy,
at all times and in all places
to give you thanks and praise,
holy Father, heavenly King,
almighty and eternal God,
through Jesus Christ your Son our Lord.

There was a time when ‘duty’ was a noble word. “England expects every man to do his duty”, was the signal that Nelson sent to the British fleet before the Battle of Trafalgar. Robert E. Lee, the US Confederate army general declared:

Duty is the sublimest word in our language. Do your duty in all things. You cannot do more. You should never wish to do less.

Unfortunately, in some circles ‘duty’ has become a negative word. Indeed, according to one wit, ‘duty is a task we look forward to with distaste, perform with reluctance, and brag about afterwards’. Duty can sometimes be contrasted with desire, as if the motive behind the former is less noble than the latter: so, it has been said that ‘duty makes us do things well, but love makes us do them beautifully’.

Yet duty is essentially a good word. Our English word ‘duty’ derived from an old French word which means something which is “due” or “owed”. And worship is part of that which is due. The Psalmist, for instance, constantly exhorts us to worship God. In the opening words of Psalm 147: “Praise the Lord! It is good to sing praise to our God; it is pleasant and right to praise him”. Here surely we see that worship is both a duty and delight.

Jesus was in the habit of weekly worship (Luke 4.16), and so too should we be. In days gone by, there was precious little else to do on a Sunday than to go to church. Today there are so many other calls upon our time competing for our attention. Home work, exam revision, visiting family, entertaining friends, walking or running to raise money for charity, sporting activities of one kind or another… All these are good, but worship is surely a higher good. We have a duty to worship God.

But thank God, worship is more than a duty. For worship “is the most momentous, the most urgent, the most glorious action that can take place in life” (Karl Barth). Worship is the occasion when we become truly alive; when we humans, made in the image of God, begin to fulfil the very purpose of our existence by relating to the God who made us. It is the moment when we are caught up into heaven itself and join with the multitude around the throne, singing the praises of God and the Lamb. Worship is also joy and a delight.

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