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A Feast Called Worship
An interview with author, theologian, educator and passionate worshipper Marva Dawn. She was the keynote speaker at the CMU's Refreshing Winds January 2007 conference.

Marva Dawn is well-known across North America for her passionate concern for worship. She is the author of 20 books, including Reaching Out Without Dumbing Down; A Royal Waste of Time: The Splendor of Worshiping God and Being the Church for the World; and How Shall We Worship? Biblical Guidelines for the Worship Wars. Dawn, 58, is a theologian and educator with Christians equipped for Ministry and a teaching fellow in spiritual theology at Regent College, Vancouver, B.C. She recently talked about worship with CMU Blazer editor John Longhurst. She will be the keynote speaker at the Canadian Mennonite University (CMU) Refreshing Winds January, 2007 conference.

John Longhurst (JL): What is the purpose of worship?

Marva Dawn

Marva Dawn (MD): The purpose of worship is to honour God and give Him the praise He deserves—period. Too often we try to use it for evangelism. But the purpose of worship is not to attract new believers. That's our job, as Christians. We bring people to Christ, and then we bring them to worship. It's a cop-out to count on the worship service to do that.

I realize that I'm a bit of an odd ball for saying this, since so many churches today offer "seeker sensitive" services to get people to go to church. I think this is a serious theological misunderstanding. Church is not a place we "go to." Instead, it signifies what God's people are. We are called away from the idolatries of the world to gather with our fellow believers in worship and fellowship and education, and then we are called out from that gathering, having been equipped and empowered by it, to go back into the world to serve it. When we participate in corporate services, we worship God because God is infinitely worthy of our praise—the focus is not on "attracting" anybody.

In the corporate encounter with God that the worship service provides, those participating are formed more thoroughly to be like God and formed more genuinely to be a community. The result will be that all of us reach out to our neighbours in loving care and service and witness, with the result that they might perhaps want to come with us to worship the God to whom we have introduced them.

The Bible never says that the goal of worship is to attract unbelievers. The goal of worship is to praise God. The goal of worship isn't to get us anything, but to turn our attention to God, who has blessed us so richly.

JL: If that's the case, why do you think so many churches are using worship to do outreach?

MD: It's because the church in North America today has lost its vitality. Instead of transforming our culture, we are being transformed by it. Many churches take their model for worship services from talk shows on TV. The pastor is the host, introducing the entertainment, and the congregation is the audience. It's become all about marketing—finding a niche a church can serve, whether it's boomers, youth, 'tweens or older people. But catering to only one group of people doesn't give us a very big sense of the church.

JL: It seems to be working—churches that use that model are growing.

CMU students worship at the annual fall retreat.

MD: That's true. But I think a lot of it is sheep stealing—people leaving their own church to find a better show on Sunday morning. Whatever is most entertaining and fun will always draw people. Church services that speak of biblical themes of discipleship, sacrifice and cost have a hard time competing with those that promise to make me happy, wealthy and healthy.

The Bible never says that the goal of worship is to attract unbelievers.

JL: What should a worship service be like?

MD: Worship is supposed to be a feast. and just like a good meal includes all sorts of different kinds of food, good worship involves many different kinds of activities—confession, absolution, praising, petitions, singing, Bible reading, explication of the Word, intercession and benediction. a lot of worship today contains only a few items from the menu—it's an empty feast. I'm especially saddened by how little the Scriptures are read in many churches; that is one of the most important things in any worship service. Good worship uses all the gifts of all the people—young and old.

JL: What about the issue of music?

MD: Many people make the mistake of confusing musical style with worship. It's not a matter of singing hymns or choruses—any style can be used to worship God, and all kinds of music should be used in worship. But the music should pass some difficult tests in order to be useful: Is it faithful to Scripture? Is it directed towards God? Is it about God? Too much music being used today is narcissistic—it's about us and how we feel about God.


Don't get me wrong; there are some very good contemporary pieces that call us to faithfulness. I'm not opposed to contemporary music. It's just that we shouldn't have a steady diet of only that style, or of any other style, for that matter. We need contemporary music, hymns, classical music, Gregorian chant, folk, roots, African, jazz or Taize and many others. each style has its place in the church. We need the whole music of the whole church to help bring us together to worship God.

It grieves me when I hear people say they don't like one kind of style or another, or they refuse to sing when a particular style that's not their favourite is used in worship. To me, that shows they don't love others in their church enough to sing somebody else's song. If a church is a community, then it needs to sing the songs of the whole community, not just one group.

Style is not the crucial thing. The key is to carefully sort music and forms and styles and choose what is theologically appropriate and musically excellent. This winnowing process has usually already been accomplished in the case of songs that appear in hymnbooks and worship books. Though there are notable exceptions (as in the case of violent words or unsingable melodies), the hymns and liturgies that have stood the test of time have done so because their content is strong and their music felicitous. The most important question to ask in planning worship is not what style of music to use, but how we can best glorify God.

JL: The theme of [the] Refreshing Winds [conference in January 2007] is Worship as Reconciliation. What does that mean to you?

MD: Reconciliation is God's goal for humanity. God wants to reconcile us to Himself. God is in the business of breaking down barriers. He also wants us to be reconciled to each other, and worship is one way we can do that. Worship can bring us together and unify us. Unfortunately, it's doing the opposite today—worship is driving us apart. The "worship wars" have become so destructive. It's heartbreaking to see churches divide into contemporary and traditional services—one for young people, the other for older people. That means seniors can't share their songs with youth, and young people can't help seniors learn their new songs.

As long as we think that worship is about the style of music I like, it will keep us apart. Good worship brings people together as we focus on God and praise God. And when we are reconciled to one another, we can become a reconciling people in the world, bringing others to God.

JL: In our post-Christian and post-modern culture, some say we need to abandon the past if worship today is to be relevant. Do you agree?

MD: No. One thing that defines post-modernism is rootlessness. Many people today have no sense of history; what's happening now is the most important thing. But this means that the great traditions of the Church don't get passed down. We have no sense of the testimony of God's people throughout the ages. That's one of the main problems with the style of worship being used in so many churches today. I don't think that the Church's worship language has ever been as narrow as it is now. By choosing only one style for worship, churches don't link us to our Christian forebears.

I believe that the Church must provide an alternative to the culture—not adapt to it. But to do that, we need language, customs, habits, rituals, institutions, procedures and practices that uphold and nurture a clear vision of how the Church is different and why that matters. If our worship is too much like the surrounding culture it will be impossible to teach what I like to call "altar-nativity"—an alternative Christian way of viewing the world.

In our worship, we are formed by biblical narratives that tell a different story from that of the surrounding culture. We gather together in worship to speak our language, to read our narratives of God at work, to sing authentic hymns of the faith in all kinds of styles, to chant and pour out our prayers until we know the truth so well that we can go out to the world around us and invite that world to share this truth with us.

JL: You've been criticized by many for your opinions about the state of worship today. How does that make you feel?

MD: It's been a painful journey. I've been misunderstood by lots of people. I've been accused of hating contemporary music—I don't. I've been called a curmudgeon, a traditionalist. But I'm not. I just want to see the whole Church included in worship.

At the same time, I've been encouraged by how many people want to thoughtfully engage this important issue. That includes many young people. A lot of young people today are realizing that the treasures of the Church from the past are being lost. They want to recover the ancient language of faith. They want more liturgy. They want more depth in the songs they sing. They want to be challenged to live lives of service and sacrifice, to make a real difference in the world.

There have been times when I have felt like giving up. But the Spirit won't let me go. I've had diabetes for 40 years, my eyesight is bad, I have hearing problems, one leg is crippled, I had cancer and I had a kidney transplant last year. I shouldn't still be around, but God is keeping me alive for a reason. I feel a calling to do this work of teaching and writing. Every book I've written is one that I have felt called to write. It was as if the words were fire in my bones.

JL: What is your hope for the Church's worship?

MD: My prayer is that our worship will form us to be a people who dwell in God's reign and then carry God's kingdom wherever we go—people who are equipped to reach out to the culture around us with words of truth and deeds of faithfulness. I pray that God will grant our churches such worship—for His glory, and for the love of the world.

Marva Dawn will speak four times at the Refreshing Winds Conference, January 18-20, 2007 at CMU. For more information, visit

Originally published in Blazer, Fall 2006.




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