October 19, 2017

Redeeming a Dirty Word

Today’s post is by guest blogger, Chaplain Mike

Those of you with sensitive ears, cover them for a moment. I’m about to utter a dirty word.

OBLIGATION.

Let me give you another one.

DUTY.

I confess to being partially accountable for the fact that these are dirty words to many today, for I grew up in the American Baby Boomer generation. We came of age in a society of rules and manners, of authority and expected norms of behavior. And we rebelled, hard.

My generation wrote “Question authority” on blackboards across the country. We grew our hair long. We wore jeans with holes and patches and girls cast away their bras. We publicly protested the war. We dug rock ‘n roll and advocated the recreational use of drugs. We promoted free love. “If it feels good, do it,” was another of our slogans.

We didn’t believe in respecting our elders simply because they were elders. After all, most of them were hypocrites, living by somebody’s made-up code on the outside, screwed up on the inside and behind closed doors. And don’t even talk about how messed up their politics were. For us, conformity was the worst crime (at least conformity to the norms of “good” society).

I saw this change happen and I remember when things were different. When I went to junior high, we had a dress code. For boys, no hair below the tops of the ears. Shirts tucked in. Belt required. No blue jeans, no sneakers. You said, “Yes, sir,” and “Yes, ma’am” when addressed by an adult. You asked permission to speak, and when you did you called grown-ups by their last names and appropriate titles.

You also went to church. That’s what good people did. It was your duty. It wasn’t your job to question such things, especially if you were a child or teenager.

But we didn’t like or accept this society of rules and duties. We felt obliged to nothing. Our duty was to be true to ourselves. We didn’t care about appearances; we wanted things to be “real”. We craved “authenticity.” We sought “experience” and when we copped a good high on something, we called it “truth.”

I had a spiritual awakening in 1974, became a pastor in 1978, and for more than three decades now have seen how this thinking has affected the church, particularly in the area of worship.

In most of evangelicalism, the old rules have been simply thrown out. The church has rejected principles of objectivity, tradition, form, repetition, and authority, and has replaced them with notions of subjectivity, spontaneity, freedom, and personal preference. It is no longer “the Divine Service,” it is “my worship.”

With an ever-growing bag of technological tools at our disposal to make it happen, Christians have more and more become a people for whom worship simply is not worship unless it gives me a tangible “high.” As a worshiper, I must have an “awesome experience” of God’s presence and power to feel like I’ve worshiped. God’s “truth” is defined as that which comes home to my heart with powerful emotions and a sense of being somehow “transformed.” The worship music of the past 40 years has by and large unashamedly focused on cultivating an ecstatic intimacy with God. Anything rote or not immediately appealing to the “heart” is cold, formal, and dead.

Pastors have joined the “get real” movement. They no longer wear the robe or hide behind a pulpit, but wander around a stage dressed casually, talking “authentically” about their own lives, dealing with topics that are “relevant” to their target audience.

In every area of the church’s worship—architecture, seating, music and the arts, order of service, sacraments, etc.—we seem intent on reworking and manipulating our practices so that they produce the most bang for the buck. For example, Willow Creek used to say the goal in their services was to create “moments” for people, moments of spiritual breakthrough, “aha!” moments, “wow” moments.

There is a whole lot of theology we could chew on with regard to this subject, but I simply want to introduce one contrarian notion to all this rubbish that says, “What I don’t feel can’t be real.”

Obligation.

Why do I worship God? Why do I attend a worship service and participate in it? The bottom-line answer is simply this: “Because I am obliged to do so.”

I owe it to God. I come to the worship service to give him his due. It is my obligation and duty as one created by God, redeemed in Christ, and baptized in the Holy Spirit to present offerings of worship and thanksgiving to him for who he is and what he has done for me.

Each week in the liturgy, we say:

Leader: Lift up your hearts.
People: We lift them to the Lord.
Leader: Let us give thanks to the Lord our God.
People: It is right to give him thanks and praise.
Leader: It is indeed right, our duty and delight…

Note the emphasis here. It is “right” to lift up our hearts in worship to the Lord. It is “indeed right.” It is our “duty” to do so. Only when we’ve established that fact do any words of emotion or feeling enter in—“It is our duty and delight…” In fact, it may be that the “delight” only comes as part of fulfilling the “duty”!

We resist this because we do not understand the concept of “obligation” or “duty.” Many of us, when we hear those words, think of something that is required of us that we really don’t want to do. An obligation means a burden of responsibility that is unpleasant and unfulfilling. To fulfill a duty means to perform a tasteless task while gritting my teeth and wishing I were somewhere else. And all because of somebody’s “rules.”

These words need to be redeemed.

I worship God because it is my obligation to do so. But this is not because some cruel taskmaster has laid an unwelcome duty on me. No! It is my obligation because of the very nature of things. It is “right” because it is is congruent with reality.

  • Because of who God is and because of who I am.
  • Because he is the Creator, and everything in this universe, including me, was made by him.
  • Because he sustains me every day of my life, granting me each breath and heartbeat.
  • Because he is my Redeemer and Savior.
  • Because he took note of my sinfulness and brokenness, took pity on me and gave his Son to die and rise again on my behalf, conquering sin and death for me.
  • Because he is my Comforter and Guide.
  • Because the Holy Spirit has taken up residence in my life, assuring me of the divine promises and writing God’s laws on my heart so that I may obey them.

Since everything I am and have has come from his hand, I am obliged to say “thank you.” It is my duty to bring my offering of praise. I owe it to him. I am fully aware that I can never repay him, and that is the last thing on my mind. I am simply recognizing my eternal debt to the One who made me and saved me.

Grasping this takes worship completely out of the realm of coming to a service to seek out an “experience” with God. Whether or not I have a “moment” is simply not the point.

The traditional liturgy of the church is designed first of all to enable worshipers to fulfill the obligation of giving thanks to our Creator and Savior for who he is and what he has done.

Whether I feel like it or not, I owe it to God.

Now I know some of you are going to point to the prophets and to Jesus and start throwing verses at me about the danger of going through the motions without putting your heart in it. And you are right. But you are talking about the diminished definition of “obligation” that we all grew up fearing.

The fact that something is a duty or obligation does not require anyone to do it as a mere formality. In fact, to truly recognize our obligation is the most foundational motivation of heartfelt obedience.

COMMENTS NOW CLOSED.

If anyone asks me why I go to church, I am not afraid to tell them: it is my obligation and duty. It’s simply the right thing to do.

Comments

  1. The pastor of my church at college once said something in a sermon that stuck with me. The church worked with a local homeless shelter to provide beds in the church hall for 10 men each night during the winter. Two people from the church would volunteer to stay overnight and get them settled with showers and cots, put out breakfast and coffee, etc. (Volunteers generally helped out anywhere from once a week to once every couple of months depending on their schedule.)

    The pastor said in the sermon that the church might not be able to provide this service next year if more people didn’t put their names on the schedule to help out. He said several people had told him they didn’t want to do it anymore because “they weren’t getting anything out of it.”

    He said, “The purpose isn’t for you to get something out of it, though it’s nice if you do. The purpose is for these homeless men to get something out of it – a warm and safe place to sleep. The purpose of volunteering is not so that you can feel good; it’s because you as a Christian have an obligation to help those who wouldn’t be helped otherwise.”

    • And what’s more, if you don’t do anything that you don’t get anything out of, who exactly are you? If you’re a little mercenary scrounging up whatever spare coins you can find on the floor, how can you really be the salt of the earth? The punishment is clear, some fine clear day your mind will enter its own Hell! A Hell, composed, by in large, of knowing you are trash.

  2. Thank you, MIke.

    I sometimes think that the feminization of the church may be part of the reason why there is a stronger reliance on the emotional. Though I know that there very divergent views on this idea, I believe that the feminine side of human existence is much more emotional, which is both a strength and a weakness. I notice that many of the young evangelical women I have met find Pentecostal and Baptist traditions much more attractive than, say, Presbyterian or Lutheran churches. I believe that it is because the Pentecostal / Baptist style of Christianity can be much more emotionally driven.

    As for the issue of not having one’s heart right in worship, I believe that the heart is more than emotions or feelings. It is much deeper than that. An evangelical worshiper can have all the emotional experiences that count as “being fed” and still not have their heart right with God. I know because that is what God showed me about my own.

  3. I like this post.

    I do not agree with all of what you have written but I do share your heart on this.

    Soli Deo Gloria

  4. Louis Winthrop says:

    Whenever somebody tries to tell you what your duty is, hold onto your wallet.

    The youth movement of the 1960’s had its excesses, to say the least, but then so did their conservative parents. (Hello–civil rights movement? The Vietnam War?)

    Okay, so how are we to decide what our duty is? You will probably point to the Bible and religion, but who gets to interpret the Bible, or speak for religion?

    The essay asks, ‘Why do I worship God? Why do I attend a worship service and participate in it? The bottom-line answer is simply this: “Because I am obliged to do so.”’

    To which I answer, “Why?”

    The part about having to attend church strikes me as especially arbitrary (where is THAT written?), but I would question even the part about worshipping God. Values can’t be imposed from the outside, but have to come from within. (Something we learned in the 1960’s!)

    • Louis, I understand. You represent the view of the skeptic in this discussion. And from your perspective what you say makes some sense. My post, however, presupposes the acceptance of a theistic universe and the Christian story. Without some agreement on these presuppositions, I’m not sure we have a lot to talk about on the issue at hand.

      • Louis Winthrop says:

        We can assume a theistic universe without admitting that this is enough to decide ethical questions. As for “the Christian story”–well, if you want that story to include the assumption that we have a duty to go to church on Sunday, then I guess there’s not much left to say beyond “damned hippies.” But that leaves us with a very self-serving (to church people) concept of “duty.”

        • The duty is to worship the God to whom I owe everything. If God is my Creator, I owe him everything. If God redeemed my life in Jesus, I owe him everything. These are logical conclusions that grow out of theistic and Christian premises.

          And, in my view, fulfilling these duties means accepting and participating in some form of the Great Tradition of Christianity with regard to how Christians practice worship. I need not agree with all of that tradition to do so.

          • …fulfilling these duties means accepting and participating in some form of the Great Tradition of Christianity with regard to how Christians practice worship. I need not agree with all of that tradition to do so.

            Therein lies the rub for most of us castoffs. Generally, those of the GTOC expect, if not demand, that we do agree with the tradition(s)–that is considered the duty and obligation, Ecc. 12:13, Micah 6:8, and Rom. 12:1 notwithstanding.

            Call me another skeptic on this one.

  5. One of my favorite Old Testament passages is Isiah 1. “Who has required of you this trampling of my courts?” God goes down the list of raising hands, burning incense, saying prayers etc. that are annoying him. Who required these things? Well, he did actually. But his complaint is that hands being lifted are not holy, they have blood on them. The worshipers are guilty of unconfessed sin. He tells them to “Stop doing evil, learn to do good.” Then all of those things, done with a pure heart and a clean conscience, will be worship. Even in the OT, they needed to be right with God before performing their obligation or else it didn’t mean anything.

    • I think I affirmed this in the post. Doesn’t change the fact that worship is an obligation.

      • “Doesn’t change the fact that worship is an obligation.”

        I didn’t mean to imply that it did. God himself required them to enter his courts, burn the incense, say the prayers, et al. But with the symbolic blood of guilt on their hands, their “worship” disgusted him. Jesus told the Pharisees they kept the letter of the Law, but missed the spirit of the Law. The Law handed down by Moses was supposed to teach the Jews something about God; they kept the Law while still missing God.

        We are obligated to worship; but if don’t worship in spirit and in truth, we are not in God’s will and he is not pleased.

    • Or did He? Maybe part of the point is that you aren’t required to do such and should act out of your own heart, like the vines. I know a lot of the point of Romans is that sin et cetera is its own Hell, the unfortunate side of that being that some people really are vessels of destruction raised long-suffering to, like Pharoah, humiliate themselves and destroy themselves, and thus glorify God.

  6. Thanks for the interesting post. I am probably the same age as you and grew up in a church that was awfully big on obligation. Sunday morning service, Sunday night service, Wednesday night prayer meeting, all of these were viewed as obligations. This church was very efficient in persuading people to teach Sunday School, lead Awana etc. because it was our obligation as good Christians and submissive local church members. That church culture has almost disappeared and I think this is a change for the better. It can be easy to confuse an “obligation” to a local church to a relationship with the Holy God. I moved to a different area when in the early 1980’s and found a church that emphasized the first and greatest commandment. It was a wonderful change for me and I find now that I am doing more than I previously did, not out of a sense of obligation, but because I want to and it fulfills me. I understand your point and can’t entirely disagree with it. However, by stressing obligation, we run the risk of a rule oriented, legalistic religion rather than a living faith.

    • I agree with you more than you think. What is crucial is that we understand our TRUE obligations before God.

    • I think both of these are missing the point. though maybe the duty and obligation one is a little bit closer to the truth. The real point is, who the heck are you anyways? And who are you becoming?

  7. Thomas Merton wrote several times about how those who flocked to monastic orders in his lifetime out of a search for meaning, truth, and belonging were met with oppressive authoritarianism and rules. Most left after a short time.

    I think the term, “seeker sensitive” has made us all a little cynical. The term has become associated with narcissism. This is unfair and short-sighted. We can’t expect anyone to commit themselves to institutions or symbols to which no meaning has been communicated. I recently read that one of the pitfalls of Christian education is pumping out answers to questions to which the students haven’t asked themselves yet.

    There was a time when even in this country most everyone was in one way or the other associated with a church community. Everyone could be expected to do things out of obligation to the common group. I didn’t matter if the any ultimate questions were answered; they were basically a captive audience. This isn’t true anymore. Secular groups and symbols have taken on more meaning than those found in the church. The church doesn’t hold a central place in peoples lives anymore – whether or not they spend their lives there. I have been in churches where members were coerced into attending meetings, but apart from obligation, those meetings meant nothing.

    I don’t mean that the church should provide meaning in a pragmatic way, such as providing meetings on financial planning or marital improvement. I think this is where the seeker-sensitive movement failed. Rather, it needs to provide a foundation of meaning and truth upon which our lives can be built – or extend, like spokes on a wheel. The challenge is that American evangelicalism in particular lacks philosophical depth. People deep down inside are struggling with the big questions, such as the meaning of life and estrangement, but they don’t know how to articulate them. The search comes out in other ways, such as in a hunger for entertainment or superbowl parties, or social services; and the church gladly responds to those superficial desires, but it never challenges people beyond to the ultimate questions, like Jesus moving the woman at the well from physical water to Living Water; or the crowd from bread to the Bread of Life. Some followed and committed themselves to Jesus; many didn’t. We can’t forget that the goal is to see people come into a personal relationship with God, not to be good church attenders. The church meetings and functions play a role in that relationship, but they never take the place or mediate that relationship.

    • “I don’t mean that the church should provide meaning in a pragmatic way, such as providing meetings on financial planning or marital improvement. I think this is where the seeker-sensitive movement failed. Rather, it needs to provide a foundation of meaning and truth upon which our lives can be built – or extend, like spokes on a wheel.”

      Amen. Enough of the moralistic therapeutic deism.

      However, I would not put all seeker-sensative churches in that category. Some are emphasizing that foundation.

    • Was there ever really a time when most everyone was associated with a church in this country? Putting aside the non-Christian peoples that have long histories here (Jews, freethinkers, spiritualists…), I think I’ve seen stats claiming that weekly church attendance, even at its high, was only 60% or so.

      • Not really my point. Just that there was a level of cultural expectation.

        • There was a level of cultural expectation -among Christians-, sure; just like now. Only there are fewer of us, and we seem to expect less of ourselves and one another with regards to religious attendance and contribution.

          But I can’t believe that non-Christians ever went to church in any numbers because it was ‘the thing to do’.

      • Weekly attendance underestimates the number. I am a faithful, active member of my church. Thanks to work, etc. I attend maybe 2/3 of the Sundays.

  8. The God of the Universe has caused His name to dwell in a special way where HIs people are gathered. He is present there in a way He is not present at the golf course or the beach, or wherever else we tell ourselves we can commune with God apart from His Word and His people. He alone is the source of forgiveness and life. Everything we have or are comes from Him. The scriptures say from His fulness we have received grace upon grace. Therefore I am compelled to be in church, wether I am able to explain it and give a reason for it or not ; wether I ‘get anything out of it ‘ or not. ( Probably the wrong categories anyway.) I just need to be there. At the end of the day I am with the disciples who said ” Lord, to whom shall we go? You have the words of eternal life.”

    • Word.

    • I agree with what you say, but want to add that most of the greatest times of communion I’ve had with God AND with the saints have occurred at get-togethers outside the structures of the formal 501(c)3 institution that I have called my local church for over 30 years… including our times at the beach!

      • Steve,

        I mention the beach and the golf course because they are commonly referenced by those who shun worship attendance and the communion of the brethren as places of equal spiritual benefit to the individual Christian. They are not.

        I am not saying it is not possible to gather at the beach with others for worship and fellowship. You can. My comment was directed towards the idea that as a Christian you don’t need the church, but that you can ‘roll your own’ Christian experience somewhere else.

    • I don’t think that’s really true. The church is for community, teaching and mission, life is for praise.

  9. I’m trying to figure this sort of thing out. To what extent am I obligated to continue attending church? Or, more specifically, the one I now attend? I am a professed member. This seems to imply some level of obligation. But the longer I attend, the more I feel my church is dead.
    I mean nothing against the people. Most are very good. But discussion and drive are nonexistent; our theology seems to presuppose that John Calvin was infallible. There has not been a minister in our church for over sixty years, discounting a very short period recently when my grandfather preached there before his death. The ‘theological school,’ where ministers are trained, is empty and has been for a long time. There are applicants; they are all refused. Not really *truly* called to the ministry, I guess. There have never in my memory been new members, except those born into the church.
    So, I think; why shouldn’t I be the one to revive it? I could give it a shot. I have an interest in theology. I’m not interested in ministry, but how much do one’s *interests* really matter in such cases? But it’s no good. If I ever let on what I really think about, say, the age of the earth; if I ever suggested we might use translations other than the KJV, or that perhaps watching television sometimes will not condemn you to eternal hellfire, I’d be straight out. I could not remain honest and a minister at the same time.
    So what do I do? Endure zombie sermons, transcripts read aloud in monotone over and over? Watch the church die? Leave? to where?

    • A wise man once said: “If your horse dies, dismount.”
      Lukas, if your church is really as dead and devoid of the Spirit as you describe, then I would advise you to get out before it kills your faith. Sure, God has called us to duty and obligation to both Him and our fellow believers — but I don’t think He has called us to remain chained to a corpse until spiritual gangrene sets in.
      Now, I have no idea what God has in store for you or with what group of believers He would have you serve. If you do leave your present church, then maybe you need to take a season discovering how to be faithful and dutful to God outside the bounds of organized religion. Concentrate on things like seeking and worshipping God with your family, being a faithful representative of Christ in your workplace and community, being a true and loving friend to the people God has placed in your life, and spending more one-on-one time with God in prayer. And, maybe, after you’ve done some searching and seeking and detoxing from negative religious baggage, the Lord will see fit to place you somewhere in His church body where you can be faithful in an environment that is alive with His love and Spirit. At least, that is what I pray for you.

      • One of the reasons I wrote this post grows out of my own personal experience. As I have testified on this blog, I myself am in the “wilderness” right now when it comes to understanding where I fit with regard to a particular church tradition and local church family. I’m as lost as I have ever been when it comes to figuring this out.

        However, one firm place I have found, one oasis in the desert, is this concept that I am simply obliged to worship the God to whom I owe everything.

        I’m still trying to find the answers to my specific “church” questions, but for now, this is where I find a place to stand.

        • Yeah, I can dig that. Despite my best intentions and sincere desire to know God better, the majority of time I skip prayer, church, etc. is because I “don’t feel like it.” Sometimes having set times and days and whatnot helps get over that. But when I’m by myself, unless I do have a sense of obligation and duty, what are the chances I’m gonna do something that I just don’t feel like doing?

  10. Reminds me of what I’ve always referred to these as the Christian curse words: discipline, commitment, perseverance, serving, submission. There are probably a few others.

  11. RonP wrote, “I don’t think He has called us to remain chained to a corpse until spiritual gangrene sets in.”

    Interesting, graphic metaphor there, Ron!

    Lots of interesting things in Pastor Mike’s post and the responses, but I have to be at work early today so I am off for now.

  12. Just found you Blog Pastor Mike,
    Really liked this post and you hit the nail on the head. It isn’t just in the church as a society we do not believe we have any obligations. We stick out parents in homes; ignore our children expecting society to rear them. We ignore our neighbor and look the other way when we see someone on the street that could use a simple hello or a sandwich. When we see someone on the street, the mall, the bus who could use a word of conviction we turn our eyes down to the street. There was a time in America where we felt we had obligations to our family, church, neighbor, Community and Country. We paid our taxes and our tithes. Most Pastors will tell you that regular tithers are few in the church. They like their religion, like their entertainment, Free and unchallenging.

  13. I’ve never quite fully understood this notion of choosing one’s own duties and obligations. Common sense and a little etiquette dictate that if a friend gives me a gift, I say thank you. Does this somehow make it wrong because a person is taught that instead of coming to it on their own?

    And if we have the obligation to say thank you to a friend for a gift, how much greater is the obligation to God who has given us everything? All this subjectivist talk just seems like an excuse for people to make their own terms instead of living by the terms dictated to them by God. The irony is that everyone would be happier if they (truly) lived by God’s terms, because God designed us that way.

    • Amen, Denise!

      There is also great benefit in deciding to act in a certain way, even when we don’t feel like it. Haven’t we been in situations where we weren’t feeling particularly cheerful or enthusiastic, but decided to act as though we were? When we make the decision to behave positively, inevitably we end up in a better frame of mind.

      (BTW, I really like your blog!)

    • well said.

  14. Yeah, screw the baby boomers! I don’t trust anyone over 40, especially with my finances!

    In seriousness though, I never think of liturgy as an obligation. It is something i want to do. Enduring power-point presentations feels like a burdensome obligation.

    I get my worship experience from the real presence in the Eucharist. I do not get it from stage lights power point.

    I do not feel offended if a homily is not “relevant” to me, but I do get annoyed/bored at a 45 minute sermon.

  15. Thank you so much for this post! I really needed to hear it this morning. As a young pilgrim trying to straddle the fence between liturgical and post-evangelical ‘traditions’, I get caught up in the mindset that if I don’t get covered in warm fuzzies during a church service, the point has been lost. Worship has been unfulfilling simply because I, myself, haven’t felt it. Thanks for reminding me that it is not so, and that whether or not He makes His presence known in a more tangible way at any given moment, our God is always worthy and deserving of praise.

  16. I read something recently where a young adult told his parent that he wasn’t going to church because he found God more by being in the woods, on the lake, etc. So his parent responded something to the effect of, “That’s good for you, but not for me!” and the author went on to say that we support one another by being present during worship. He said what if we all decided to not go to Mass (or services) that week and someone wandered back to church who had been away for a long time or who was just finding faith in God for the first time. That person would find the church building empty. Of course, some of us who come from large congregations may say that would never happen, but the point is that there is “power” in numbers and God was aware of that when he told us to come together as a people for worship. I am not “one to talk” because I only attend Mass when it is not going to interfere with my husband’s plans. (He is not a Christian.) But I do the best I can. And yes, there will be time when worship seems to lack life because the participants perhaps are tired. But we stick with it, knowing that God wishes this of us and that we are not always going to get the warm fuzzies. Chances are that you may be more apt to get the warm fuzzies in your private prayer time. Corporate worship is a whole other thing from private prayer and works to bring us together as children of the Kingdom of God.

    • TOTALLY off-topic, but I am very interested in mixed marriages of your sort. How does that happen? Your posts speak of a sincere faith. Where did hubby come from? And what plans does he make that interfere with church?

      • Kozak, later tonight I will send Pastor Mike an email and see if he can send it to you. Because what I want to say is of such a personal nature, I don’t know if Pastor Mike will want it posted here or not. If he tells me to go ahead and post it, then I will.

        Thanks for your interest and concern!

  17. Now I know some of you are going to point to the prophets and to Jesus and start throwing verses at me about the danger of going through the motions without putting your heart in it. And you are right. But you are talking about the diminished definition of “obligation” that we all grew up fearing.

    No. I’m reacting to the bait and switch when someone talks about obligations to God when they really mean obligations to “the traditional liturgy of the church.”

  18. Mike,

    Do we owe God everything? Does He deserve nothing than our very best? Absolutely!

    Now how do you communicate that in the best way to people who are all rebels at heart, not just the boomer generation?

    I would suggest that returning the words “duty” and “obligation” back into our religious vocabulary is not going to do the trick. Language is a funny thing. You want to fill terms with a different meaning than the culture around you and your audience still will hear a totally different thing. You were anticipating that misunderstanding yourself in your post. Do you really want to give a lengthy explanation every time you make a statement that is bound to be misunderstood?

    What inspires you personally not to go with the flow? I doubt it’s just the memory of “the good old times” or a church environment that focusses on objective doctrine as opposed to feel-good-experiences. I don’t think it’s in the end about methods, styles, use or non-use of certain words at all. God has all kinds of ways to draw us back to Himself, to fill our vision again with the awesomeness of His love and grace, and to make us WANT to follow Jesus with hearts and minds without anyone having to ever bring up the word “duty” or “obligation”.

    All we can do IMHO is pay attention to our personal devotion and faith-walk, and trust it will be used to inspire others. The heart of the communication of the Gospel message is an open invitation. No pressure, no coercion, no manipulation, no guilt trips – and also no military-like calls to duty. Let’s allow the Holy Spirit to do the work of both wooing and convicting, our culture critique is not going to do it!

    • To me, this understanding that I am “obliged” to worship God has been one small life preserver that has kept me afloat in my faith in the midst of a raging sea of religious subjectivism and evangelical lunacy.

      It IS that voice of the Spirit, saying, “When you strip away everything else, this remains–God is the Creator and I am the creature; Jesus is the Savior and I am the redeemed sinner; the Spirit is the Renewer of Life and I am the dead man walking.”

      I am obliged to live in this reality. This is what we “openly invite” people to.

      • Louis Winthrop says:

        At the risk of taking away your life preserver, there are many ways to conceive of the relationship between God and man. Some see us as his subjects or slaves (or as you put it, debtors). Other, equally biblical traditions see him as family, or even as a lover.

        Too often, “worship” comes across as a kind of spiritual brown-nosing. (“You are so great, O Lord, please give us what we want, and don’t smite us or let the wife find out. Amen.”) But why would God want people to grovel? If I were him, I’d be more impressed by honesty. So when you say people have a “duty” to worship him, this runs counter to that.

        The fact that he created the universe gives him no special rights over us that I recognize. We don’t own our children (or want to). And unlike human parents, God doesn’t need our emotional support.

        • I don’t see that anything I’ve said evokes the idea of “groveling” before God like a slave. Neither does the concept of Creator lead to the idea that he “owns” us.

          The obligation as I see it is completely natural. My parents don’t own me, but I owe them a great debt. They gave me life. I therefore honor them and express gratitude to them. I owe a debt of thanks to a friend who gives me a precious gift. A soldier who feels a debt of gratitude for the benefits of living in his country does his “duty” when he enlists to serve. This is all purely natural and relational. This kind of obligation or duty is not opposed to love, but actually an essential ingredient of it.

          • Headless Unicorn Guy says:

            I don’t see that anything I’ve said evokes the idea of “groveling” before God like a slave. Neither does the concept of Creator lead to the idea that he “owns” us.

            It’s possible that Louis did time or started out in an aberrant church that had these attitudes, picked them up as the Nature of God, and never shook free of them. From the above, sounds like overemphasis on God’s glory and greatness to the point of Worm Theology — a problem Islamic theology has had throughout its history. When God’s supreme Importance means nothing else (like you or me) can ever have any importance, you get the above images of God etched into your core.

            A similar thing happened to me with eschatology and afterlife — I later learned what I was first taught was inaccurate, but those first teachings go DEEP.

      • Fair enough.

        You may also find that there are plenty of believers out there who would say that the only thing that has rescued their faith is a better understanding of God as their Abba Father (or “Papa” as William Young and many others would say) apart from a reference to objective authority and reminder what we owe Him.

        Isn’t it interesting and quite amazing how the same Spirit can heal and preserve in such different ways?

        • The point of the post, however, is not how this “rescued my faith.”

          These words and concepts need to be reintroduced because they shed light on objective reality, on the very nature of life in a God-created and redeemed world, and the gratitude we owe in response.

  19. On the topic of duty and obligation in response to God for His goodness – consider Luther’s Catechism, the First Article of the Apostles’ Creed. My 12 year old confirmation students can tell you what our obligations to God are, and why:

    I believe in God, the Father Almighty, maker of heaven and earth.

    What does this mean? I believe that God has made me and all creatures; that He has given me my body and soul, eyes, ears, and all my members, my reason and all my senses, and still takes care of them.

    He also gives me clothing and shoes, food and drink, house and home, wife and children, land, animals, and all I have. He richly and daily provides me with all that I need to support this body and life.

    He defends me against all danger and guards and protects me from all evil. All this He does only out of Father, divine goodness and mercy, without any merit or worthiness in me.

    For all this it is my duty to thank and praise, serve and obey Him. This is most certainly true.

  20. Let me add one more thought to clarify what I meant:

    Yes, we owe God, our spouses, parents, friends, our community, our country so much.

    The One we owe most is Jesus Christ. And yet I don’t ever recall Him saying to His disciples or His church something to the effect: “You owe me!”

    As a matter of fact, whenever someone does use that kind of language, the whole atmosphere and dynamics of a relationship changes dramatically. This is where only too easily grace is changed back into law.

    There is nothing more appropriate than the commandment lo love God with all our being and our neighbor as ourselves. The Ten Commandments made that clear enough long before Jesus walked this earth. At the same time, it was an expectation that turned into a curse since no sinner has ever been able to live up to it. No one could keep it, not back then when it was first given and no one is able to keep it today perfectly either.

    Is it therefore irrelevant or outdated? Certainly not. It still remains God’s will and something that any real friend and lover of God will want to pursue. But we don’t ask for it in this way. We don’t demand it. We know that only Jesus ever fulfilled it. I believe when it comes to the motivation to love and worship God the way He intended it, it’s on the basis of gratitude for His gift apart from any expectations. It’s grace all along or it is not grace at all.

    • Josh, I’m afraid you’re missing the point. We’re obliged BECAUSE of grace. Period.

      • Yes … ships passing in the night, I’m afraid.

        • Josh, what is different in what you perceive me to be saying than what you wrote: “I believe when it comes to the motivation to love and worship God the way He intended it, it’s on the basis of gratitude for His gift apart from any expectations”?

          • Here’s the difference: I can always say to God personally as an expression of gratitude that is already there, “I love you! I worship you! You have done so much for me!”

            But as soon as I turn to someone else (including a Christian brother or sister) and say, “You really owe God!” (especially because I see gratitude missing) it becomes a very different story. Does that make any sense?

            • OK. But did I put it that way in the post? My intention was to look at this concept from my personal point of view, and give testimony to a lesson I myself have learned. Yes, I did put it in a broader cultural context, but the point was not to point to someone else and say, “You owe God.” Was it?

              I concluded by saying, “If anyone asks me why I go to church, I am not afraid to tell them: it is my obligation and duty. It’s simply the right thing to do.”

              Does that square with how you read it? Are you simply trying to make a complementary point?

      • Pardon me for breaking in — if grace lays upon me yet another obligation I owe to God, it is not grace at all. If after all that Jesus has done there is still one thing left undone, then he died in vain, because I cannot meet the obligation. It’s the one sin, then it seems, I will never be forgiven of. Saying I owe anything to God presumes I have the ability to pay what I owe–to fulfill the obligation. I can’t, and I will never be able to. What then?

        Chalk it up as another on the long list of my failures before God. The more I go the more it seems Jesus didn’t accomplish much.

        Looking at it another way, do we hold up “obligations” and “duties” between one another in our interpersonal relationships? Like husband to wife, parent to child? Is that really how we are to get along?

        None of it makes any sense.

        • As a Christian, Justin, why do you worship God?

          • Rather than succumb to the temptation to be pedantic about what “worship” is, I will just jump to the honest (no, really!) answer: I don’t know.

            I also can’t tell you why I fell in love with my wife. Or why I love my kids. The answer is always the same. I don’t know why. I just do.

            • Justin, thanks for being willing to discuss this. I appreciate your comments and honesty.

              As for me, I worship out of glad response to who God is and what he has done for me. I love him because he first loved me.

              And because he loved me first, I owe him everything. Now it’s clear that I can never repay him. I can never love him back perfectly (or even very well). Nevertheless, I owe him this debt of gratitude, and under the New Covenant, the Holy Spirit enables us to offer him thanks and praise from hearts of love.

              The same is true in human relationships: “Owe nothing to anyone—except for your obligation to love one another” (Rom 13.8).

              • At the risk of being labeled as a quibbler…

                Is a rational justification based on objective facts for my worship of God–or my love of my wife–required for it to be valid? Because the more objectively and rationally I consider God, the more I am pushed away from any faith in him. If I view my personal relationships in a rational or objective way, the more I realize my friends and family are not to be associated with–oh, and neither am I–and any thinking man would cut bait.

                But I don’t, in either instance, because the subjective value of the relationships carries more influence than the objective reality.

                Second — I’m no greek scholar, but I know enough rudimentary greek and textual criticism to know that the word “obligation” is not in the text–some translations use it, some don’t. Which begs the obvious question…

          • When you make Christ the Lord of your life, Salvation is a free gift. Such as my giving you a car. You can choose to place that car in a garage, let it sit. You can also choose to do the upkeep on the car. Wax the car, take nice long drives in the summer and truly enjoy that free gift. I see salvation like that. What value is it if I hide it in my heart. How do I honor the giver when I refuse to tell others that He gave me a gift. How do I honor those in my life if I do not tell them that they too can get a free car?

            We worship God because he alone is worthy. We are OK with fawning over people who make movies, sing in bands, make touch downs, but we baulk at the creator of the universe. I have always found that odd.

            Our relationship with God cannot be one sided. It can be a relationship where we just ask, take and pull. If we want the most out of the relationship, we must be willing to give as well as take. We need to work on the relationship with God, just as we would any other relationship. How do you feel when a loved one truly thanks you when you do something for them. How do you feel when your spouse says they love you, and you see the twinkle in their eye. How do you feel when they make you a nice dinner on a hard day, or bring you home flowers? When we tell others about God, or help His works financially, those are the flowers we give.
            When we receive a gift, we have a responsibility once we accept it. It is not a cost, but a responsibility. If you feel you have no responsibility towards the free gift of God’s love, I would wonder what the value of the gift is to that person. If that person does not understand the value, did they actually receive it?

  21. To be honest, I got mixed messages from your post. On the one hand you are trying to distance yourself from a negative way of understanding duty and obligation. On the other hand, you seemed to slam Willow Creek and their efforts as “rubbish” and wish that we’d be back to the time where institutional authority was not questioned, period.

    If the latter wasn’t your intention, then yes, it would be solely complementary in nature. We can continue this conversation tomorrow, if you wish but I need to go. Thanks for your efforts to come to a mutual understanding!

    • Josh, you can read this in the morning. Thanks to you too. I was hoping this post would create discussion.

      The only thing for which I “trashed” Willow Creek was the concept they themselves have communicated concerning what their services are about. The philosophy expressed was that “worship” must be programmed so as to create “wow” moments for the audience. In other words, worship is about people on stage doing something that will stimulate a subjective emotional experience for those who come, a “high” if you will.

      My point is to say that this is not worship. Worship is based on the objective, on reality, on the fact of who God is and what he has done. The word means, “to acknowledge worth or worthiness.” Worship, then, is not be about me seeking a subjective experience, but about offering my response to the objective reality of God as Creator and Savior.

      • I’m not sure what happened to my original reply to this last answer. Anyway, in case you didn’t see it:

        I agree wholeheartedly that worship is not about creating emotional highs. And I’ve had too little contact with Willow Creek personally or through their own media to be able to come to a fair judgment if this is really their philosophy or just a general perception of the end result of a process that focusses so much on spiritual seekers.

        In terms of troubling worship trends in evangelicalism, I can certainly see where you’re coming from and would agree as well, particularly regarding the overall quality of song writing in contemporary Christian music. But that’s an entirely different topic altogether.

        Why do I worship? I would say: because God has opened my eyes to the fact that He is worthy to be praised, cherished, served. That’s almost the same as saying, “it is my duty” but not quite.

  22. Wow, Chaplain Mike, I actually agree with a lot of things you said in the article. I especially liked the way you poked at the Willow Creek type of worship that is quite common among evangelical churches these days. If so many Christians knew that worship was primarily about Him and not primarily about them, we wouldn’t have this spiritual malaise that a lot of evangelical churches these days experience. There are some Sundays where I just don’t want to worship God – due to a stressful week or some other triviality I am hung up over – but now that I know that I “owe it” to Him every Sunday I feel that no matter what I went through during the week I can worship God with a full heart knowing that I have an obligation and duty to fulfill for my Maker, Saviour, and Lord.

  23. I find myself agreeing with your conclusions, but not your prepositions. As one of the few non-Christians kicking around here, I don’t start from the same perspective as you. However, if there is a God who created everything, a simple thanks is more than just good manners.

    I also agree about duty, in a more general sense. While the radicals of the 60’s and 70’s were right to advocate a massive change in a society that told over half its population that they could not care for themselves, but needed husbands to be actual people and told another quarter that they were nothing but trash because of the color of their skin, they stepped a tad too far. In seeking to destroy the injustices in the world, they lost themselves and forgot that as humans, we owe a debt to each other and those who created us and support us. Whether that view extends only so far back as ones parents, or goes back to God, we have a duty to thank those who did this regularly for what they have done for us. The simple act of providing thanks does not diminish the one thanking, a fact that I think has been forgotten.

    Because of our differing starting points (I have an unreasonable grudge against the word presupposition and thus endeavor not to use it), I may have missed the point of your essay. I hope I didn’t, as I found it reinforcing my view that I have a duty to do my best to help others, which is always welcome in the cynicism of today’s world.

  24. A few thoughts here

    I wondered if maybe part of differing perspectives comes from a Calvinistic versus Arminian mindset looking at two different sides of the coin. Calvinism focuses on God’s sovereignty, while Arminianism focuses on mankind’s free will.

    As for myself being an Arminian, I like the words of Bruce Cockburn’s song “I was a dweller by a dark stream” in which he writes: “You wanted us like you, as choosers, not clones.” Obligation and duty are words that really strike me the wrong way, I worship God because I want to, not because I have to. I follow Christ because I want to, not because I am obligated. Sure I am prompted to respond because his love and sacrifice for me, and those are the things that make me want to respond.

    For my second thought I am reminded of the text of Leviticus 26. Choosing to follow God or choosing to not follow God each had a set of consequences associated with it. In this Old Testament case the Israelites were told that if they followed God they would be blessed, and if they did not then God would be hostile towards them. It was a choice that they had to make, and they did make numerous times throughout the Old Testament.

    Christ gives a choice as well. He had sacrificed himself for us, and we have the responsibility to accept or reject that. We respond, love for love, because he first loved us. I reread the post and looked at the list of reasons why we are “obliged” to worship. Most of the world sees that same list and says “no thank you”. There is no obligation in that list. But I do respond to that list, not out of obligation but out of gratitude.

    If I save the life of a drowning man is he obliged to give me anything? No, but he will often respond out of gratitude.

    One final thought: As a worship leader I want to give people an opportunity to respond to the greatness of God, whether it be through the majestic strains of organ and choir in a Cathedral, or through some of the more powerful praise music of today, or in the slilence of a small group prayer time. Jesus says “Love the Lord your God with all your heart, soul, mind, and strength.”. Worship is a whole body experience and to me obligation and duty just speak to one small corner of my mind.