However, worship is the primary action of the Christian community, so we should really take a step back and ask ourselves, is this a good thing? Does the word experience communicate what we are seeking have happen in our worship? We should also ask the same question of service. I would start by taking a looking at our sources and see what they say about what our worship should be.
St. Paul gave a quick model for worship in his dialog with the Christians in Corinth: What should be done then, my friends? When you come together, each one has a hymn, a lesson, a revelation, a tongue, or an interpretation. Let all things be done for building up. 1 Corinthians 14:26 (NRSV) So, is this experience, service or something different?
To the Christians in Rome Paul would describe worship in the following way: I appeal to you therefore, brothers and sisters, by the mercies of God, to present your bodies as a living sacrifice, holy and acceptable to God, which is your spiritual worship. Romans 12:1 (NRSV) This one seems move us in the direction of service. One doesn’t just attend worship but presents oneself as a sacrifice. But still I think there is more than service going on.
In John 4, Jesus has a dialog about worship with a woman at well in Samaria: But the hour is coming, and is now here, when the true worshipers will worship the Father in spirit and truth, for the Father seeks such as these to worship him. God is spirit, and those who worship him must worship in spirit and truth.” John 4:23-24 (NRSV) Do the words experience or service capture what Jesus is trying to communicate to this woman who was need of acceptance and healing?
If you asked me which term is more biblical overall, it would be the word “service”. Forms of the Greek verb λειτουργια are used about 15 times in the New Testament and it can be translated as “to serve” or “offer service” and used on several occasions to describe worship. The English word “liturgy” which traditional churches use to describe worship, is the loan word derived from this New Testament term.
Words that can translated to the English word experience occur 10 times in the New Revised Standard Version. The King James only uses them 4 times. No Bible translation uses the word to describe worship. So, calling worship “an experience” is obviously a modern innovation. That need not be deal breaker if we keep to the core of what our worship should be but does it?
My gut reaction to using the word experience to describe worship is a negative one. The word is too passive. It has connotations of entertainment and its goal seems selfish and unfulfilling. It is too much like going to a concert or watching a movie and worship should be more. Yet, I must admit that as a pastor one of the blessings in my current ministry is “experiencing” the ministry of our worship leader and team he has assembled to lead our congregation in song. On countless Sundays over the years I have had to drag myself out of bed wondering how I could face the congregation I serve, only to have the worship inspire and encourage me to give. So yeah, part of great worship is the experience.
Even though the word service has a Biblical basis, I think it also is lacking. Worship is not just about what I can bring to God, it is what God can do with, for, and to me. If it is only about what we do, then worship can become drudgery. Unfortunately, I have witnessed this happen when we in the church make too many demands of those who attend. In summary, I suppose we should be careful about limiting the phenomenon of worship to the words we use to describe it or qualify it.
My choice for the congregation I currently serve is to let the word “worship” stand alone. I no longer use words like traditional or contemporary to qualify it. Keeping it simple helps preserve the idea of majesty and even mystery. For worship in Spirit and Truth that Christ describes will always be more majestic than our words. Worship should be “an experience”, but remember we are saved for a purpose which means it should be a “service” to live out our call. In all its unfathomable majesty worship should encourage, challenge, stimulate, comfort, heal, and all kinds of other things. For indeed our best worship is when we meet and come face to face with the unfathomable God.
As we come into the church’s great season of worship, I pray that worship in your congregation may be so wonderful as to be indescribable.