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Plumbline Author: Ethan Brue
Date: August 17, 2001
Topic: Wasting Time in Worship

Recently I have developed an interest in reading old engineering handbooks. I find them a fascinating account of our past. More than just the change from rails to roads, or vacuum tubes to transistors, it is interesting to see what past handbook editors have considered important for the engineer to know. For example, in the early 1900's a relatively new tidbit of engineering “know-how” filled the pages of engineering handbooks 1 ; a method of systematically organizing all factory operations termed “industrial management”. What is interesting is that as this topic is enhanced from edition to edition, the handbooks begin to suggest that such “systematic management” is not only useful for the factory, but for many other aspects of our lives. Jacques Ellul in his book The Technological Society addresses the worldview from which this particular engineering assumption has grown. He refers to it as technique. Technique for Ellul is a way of life that values everything in terms of its utilitarian end. It idolizes the systems that eradicate waste. As Ellul states, technique “is efficient and brings efficiency to everything” (p. 5).

An unplanned stay at a mega-hospital, or a recent conversation with an “automated” customer service representative, may have brought you face to face with how technique has devoured the quality of our time under a guise of efficiency. However, as Marva Dawn describes in her book A Royal Waste of Time, one of the most vulnerable victims of “technique” may be our regular worship together. Marva Dawn explains by saying , “To worship the LORD is _ in the world's eyes _ a waste of time.By engaging in it, we don't accomplish anything useful in our society's terms. Worship is a royal waste of time, but indeed it is royal, for it immerses us in the regal splendor of the King of the cosmos. As a result, we shall be changed _ but not because of anything we do. God, on whom we are centered and to whom we submit, will transform us by his Revelation of himself.” 2

I believe the conflicts that frequently erode and split congregations are many times rooted in these attempts to turn worship into a productive and useful time. As worshippers we have chosen to let spirit of technique dictate our worship rather than the spirit who dwells in us. For example, one group may see worship as a means to preserving a rich tradition. Another may see worship as a means to generate some needed enthusiasm and zeal. Yet another sees worship as a means of reaching out and evangelizing. But worship is not a means to anything. We worship simply because the God who has called us together deserves it.

Worship is at its core a corporate re-orientation for the people of God. And when God re-orients his people, they leave prepared to be who they were created to be - “the church”. Or as Marva Dawn puts it, they will stop just “going to church” regularly and start “being church” always. 3 God-centered worship transforms us to be the church; a church that receives from Him, among other things, the enthusiasm to evangelize with our lives, and the zeal to seek the wisdom of our traditions.

Beyond this foundation lies the challenge for worshippers. While there is no single recipe for a God-centered worship service, there are ways in which we can keep technique from dominating our worship. When every aspect of our worship is God-centered, classifications such as contemporary or traditional are meaningless distinctions. If our worship dialogue ends in the creation of separate contemporary and traditional services we have let worship become a means of satisfying tastes. Neither is worship a means of exhibiting the worship planner's creativity. To often the novelty that accompanies a healthy creativity can become a distraction so that the congregation cannot see “through and beyond” the word, song, or symbol to God the object of our worship. C.S. Lewis 4 compares a good worship service to a good dance. A person is never really dancing until he stops thinking about the next step. In other words a little slower rate of change and a little more time to learn would be helpful for those of us who have liturgical lead feet.

Most importantly, we must continually wrestle with how our particular congregation can best “waste time” in worship together. To do so it helps if you are using the right resources. For example, if you want to build a broader understanding of worship, I'd recommend reading Marva Dawn. If on the other hand, you want to build a new worship facility, I'd recommend reading an engineering handbook. However, if you want to build the church, I'd recommend spending time in God-centered worship. Because while technical authors like to think their subject matter is broadly applicable, engineering handbooks will never make good dance manuals.not if you really want to dance.

For Plumbline, this is Ethan Brue, Professor of Engineering, Dordt College

Specifically the “Marks” Standard Mechanical Engineering Handbook from the 1 st Edition (1916) to the 9 th Edition (1987).

From Marva Dawns book A Royal “Waste” of Time: The Splendor of Worshiping God and Being Church for the World (p. 1-2).

See Marva Dawns discussion of Churchbeing in A Royal “Waste” of Time: The Splendor of Worshiping God and Being Church for the World (p. 121).

As quoted by Marva Dawn in Reaching out without Dumbing Down: A theology of Worship for the Turn-of _the Century Culture (pp. 245-246)