An Audience of One isn't the Heart of Worship

If corporate worship was just between you and God, then it wouldn't be corporate.

One word you won't often hear on a Sunday morning is "performance." In the church I grew up, a solo performance during the service was called special music. I think the special part was supposed to be the lack of congregational involvement. Unlike what the worship team did, these numbers were like separate offerings to God--they were only between him and the performer.

But even though the performance wasn't meant for us, we all knew the real reasons folks made these offerings publicly: parents wanted to show off their kids, older kids wanted to show off their piety, and adults wanted the accolades hidden in phrases like "God has given you a wonderful talent" or "The Lord was pleased with your gift today." The self-righteous reek of pretense is noxious enough to make us want to call their impurely-motivated presentation sin.

So we condemn their labors and rebuke them for not performing solely for God. Whipping open our Bibles to Galatians, we're quick to accuse them of desiring the approval of man, not the praise of God. Even if they're performing in front of an audience of dozens, hundreds, or thousands, we remind them that they should only be performing for an audience of one.

This is an odd phrase because unless everyone has blindfolds and earplugs, performing for an audience of one in public is logistically impossible. Not only does it expect a person to simply ignore that all eyes are on them, it expects those eyes to enjoy the performance for God's sake, not their own (e.g. you can say "Amen," afterward but "Good job" is pushing it). Furthermore, it raises a difficult question: why bother gathering if it's just about God?

We love saying that worship is only about God because it makes us sound like our spiritual priorities are biblical and mature. But this only makes sense for personal worship. It doesn't address why God would expect us to come together as a church if we were meant to worship individually.

Though I didn't realize it at the time, this was precisely the conflict I wrote about a couple years ago. I stopped leading worship because after doing it for most of my life, I didn't know what worship was apart from playing an instrument. As I see it now, that was because I was expected to focus completely on God while I was surrounded by other people. And for someone as introverted and self-conscious as me, that was more than a little difficult.

It's not unlike attending a birthday party where you don't know any of the other guests. You're completely focused on the birthday boy or girl because they're the only person you know. But at the same time, you don't know how to interact with them because you've never done so in front of strangers. It's awkward. Especially when your $5 Lego set gift sticks out like a sore thumb among the G.I. Joe action figures and Boyz II Men cassette tapes (not that I would know). Suddenly your offering feels trite and less personal.

But ask any guest of honor at a birthday party and most will tell you that the goal of the party isn't for them to have everyone's attention. They just love having all of their friends in one place making memories together. They may be the object of the party, but the focus is spread out as different folks mingle. Similarly, maybe we can worship together with God as the object and not always the focus. If that idea scares you, it's probably because that would mean Victoria Osteen was right.

Last summer, Joel Osteen's wife made a comment that stirred up a lot of controversy:
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. 
While she admitted later that she could've chosen her words better, she didn't retract her statement. Now I might not agree with her emphasis on the individual, but she does remind us that God doesn't just do things for his own good but our good as well. And that could include the very thing that we think has the least to do with us.

Worship may be about God but that doesn't mean it can't be for us. Once we realize that the church is crucial to our relationship with God, then taking pleasure in each other becomes crucial to worshiping him. He made music beautiful and some people really good at it. Which means that the worship service isn't the last place people should be showing off; it should be the first. Thus, enjoying each other in the presence of God may very well be the heart of worship. And that includes enjoying how it feels to perform for those he loves.

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