Cheap Worship

Dietrich Bonhoeffer is well known for coining the term “cheap grace,” a fallacy in our faith where we think of grace as “the Church’s inexhaustible treasury, from which she showers blessings with generous hands, without asking questions or fixing limits. Grace without price; grace without cost!” Alternatively, he urges the Church to pursue costly grace: “Costly grace is the treasure hidden in the field… It is the pearl of great price… Costly grace is the gospel which must be sought again and again, the gift which must be asked for, the door at which a man must knock. Such grace is costly because it calls us to follow, and it is grace because it calls us to follow Jesus Christ.” In essence, Bonhoeffer calls us to not take our discipleship — our following Christ — lightly. There is a costly sacrifice involved; a regular offering given. We are not to treat our discipleship as something that can be discarded and picked up whenever we want — it is costly!

David modeled this kind of costly discipleship in his worship. In the very last chapter of 2 Samuel, David is called to worship the LORD on a particular plot of land belonging to Araunah the Jebusite. But this plot of land was a threshing floor, not a place with an altar for worship. Araunah, recognizing that David was the king, happily offers the land, sacrificial animals, and additional worship supplies to David for free so he could build an altar and offer a sacrifice. But David would not accept this offer from Araunah; he says to him, “I will not offer burnt offerings to the LORD my God that cost me nothing.” So David pays full price for the land (he would not accept any kingly discount!), builds an altar, and worships the LORD.

But this example should lead us to examine ourselves today: Is our worship costly? or is it cheap?

By now, most of us have already fallen into new patterns for worship; we’ve adapted to Zoom and virtual/remote worship. But I think it is worth our time to pause and consider how we have been shaped by these new norms.

One of the great losses we have with Zoom worship is the lack of a practiced corporate identity. There is an essential togetherness that is present when we are physically together. We sense one another. We hear one another’s voices — both in liturgy and in song. We notice when people stand up, sit down, raise their hands, drop a water bottle, rush out with a crying infant. We notice when people are distracted (and if we’re honest, we also notice when we are distracted and attempt to hide our feed-reading and double-tapping from those around us — we know we shouldn’t be doing it!). Whether we realize it or not, just by “going to” church, we are active participants in one another’s spiritual formation — encouraging one another, just by our presence, to engage and be attentive to our God; through our actions, we are saying to one another, “We’re worshiping together.” We inherently (we don’t have a choice!) “give up” our individual rights when we meet in person. But all this is lost on Zoom.

When we attend virtual service, we have a level of autonomy not present at an in-person service. Rather than having to give up our individual rights, we get to keep them. We don’t have to get dressed. We don’t need to travel or even leave the house. No one notices our silence if we abstain from liturgy or song (we’re supposed to mute ourselves!). We don’t have to been seen. Mics on mute; cameras off. Worship at home is easy! There’s an intoxicating power that comes from being able to turn a worship service to God on and off.

I recall early in the pandemic I was in a gathering of ministers and lay leaders from around the city where our main speaker was so overjoyed at the convenience or in-home worship! He started going on and on about how we need to adapt to the times and move on with technology and the future! He even went so far as to say he hopes things stay this way; “Look at all the people you can now reach!” “There’s so much untapped potential on the Internet!” I believe this thinking is seriously misguided; it incorrectly postures us into thinking that worship should cater to our comforts and conveniences. It forgets that when God called us to himself, he called us to belong to a people. When we attend a worship service, it is not a service to worship ourselves.

There is a voluntary giving up of our comforts so that we can direct one another to worship Christ. Honestly this isn’t that costly compared to other times and places. But in our culture and society that elevates individualism above all else, it is not an easy thing to give up. My hope is that it is the least we can do as we try to discipline ourselves at home to embrace our corporate identity as a church. May we practice giving up for one another that we may point one another to worship God. Every Sunday morning, may we have a heart like David: may we dare not offer to God that which cost us nothing.

Postscript: If you’re curious, that piece of land that David bought from Araunah the Jebusite shows up again in scripture. This costly piece of land is the site upon which David’s son, Solomon builds the Temple to the LORD. David’s faithful and costly worship becomes the foundation — literally — upon which all of Israel and Judah worshiped the LORD.