Worship as Re-Formation

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When we talk about worship, what do we usually mean? Oftentimes I think we mean…well…what we do on Sundays.  Worship is about music and sermons, robes and hymnals, praise bands and ProPresenter slides. But this is not how the Bible understands worship. Worship is far deeper and more encompassing than what happens on a Sunday morning. In fact, Christian theologians throughout the centuries have argued that worship is, in fact, an inescapable reality of human experience.

The Inescapable Reality of Worship

In 2005, award winning novelist David Foster Wallace gave a commencement speech to the students of Kenyon College. During that speech he made the following insightful comment:

“In the day-to day trenches of adult life, there is actually no such thing as atheism. There is no such thing as not worshipping. Everybody worships. The only choice we get is what to worship. And the compelling reason for maybe choosing some sort of god or spiritual-type thing to worship — be it JC or Allah, be it YHWH or the Wiccan Mother Goddess, or the Four Noble Truths, or some inviolable set of ethical principles — is that pretty much anything else you worship will eat you alive.”

In fact, I would argue that worship encompasses all the ways we structure and order our lives around the things that we think will provide us with a sense of security, significance, and purpose in life. In short, we worship the idols we serve. Which is why, I would argue, worship is happening all around us, all of the time.

The Mall as Secular Liturgy

We can see it when we walk into a mall. The American mall – with all its sights, sounds, tastes, smells, and experiences – is a carefully crafted worship experience designed to appeal to our passions and capture our affections. It is what James Smith calls a “secular liturgy”. He defines a secular liturgy in a the following way:

“Secular liturgies capture our hearts by capturing our imaginations and drawing us into ritual practices that “teach” us to love something very different from the kingdom of God.”

And the mall isn’t the only place that we see this. These liturgies exist all around us. We find them in the workplace, the home, our schools, and movie theaters. Each one of them paints a picture of the “good life” which vies for our affections and desires. And here’s why this matters for churches: our people are constantly being discipled by the liturgies around them. St. Augustine once said,

“What really makes you who you are is what you love.”

Day-in and day-out we are being transformed. The worship of our world is shaping the hearts and desires of our congregation members, 24 hours a day, 7 days a week. So how will the church respond?

Beyond Sermons, Songs, and Slideshows

Sadly, our responses are far too limited, for we limit our own worship to 1-2 hours on a weekend; a time filled with a lot of sitting, some standing, and a whole bunch of stage time. Too often we only craft our worship services to speak to the head rather than the whole person. The result is that we teach people how to affirm our doctrines, but not really desire, love, and live out our faith. Again, James Smith is helpful, for he reminds us that

Christian worship needs to be intentionally liturgical, formative, and pedagogical in order to counter such mis-formations and misdirections. While the practices of Christian worship are best understood as the restoration of an original, creational desire for God, practically speaking, Christian worship functions as a counter-formation to the mis-formation of secular liturgies into which we are “thrown” from an early age” (James Smith, pg. 88, Desiring the Kingdom).

In many ways, being sacramental just lends itself to this, for God meets us in concrete and tangible ways in the Lord’s Supper and Baptism. For those of us who are part of sacramental traditions liturgies are a given.

But, let me be clear. This does not mean we all of a sudden need to start wearing robes and playing organ music. That’s not what I’m talking about when I talk about liturgy. Rather, we should have practices, rituals, and rhythms to our corporate gatherings that involve the whole person. I’m talking about sights, sounds, tastes, smells, and experiences which draw our communities into the story of God and the Gospel that we are preaching. That means our worship times need to be far richer and more encompassing than just sermons, songs, and slideshows. Furthermore, they should embody and encourage rhythms of life and being that then extend beyond our corporate times and into the daily patterns of our lives.

Worship as Re-Formation

So what would that look like? To put it simply, it involves the whole person. A transformative worship experience creates the space for people to encounter God. As such, it incorporates sights, sounds, tastes, smells, and experiences which re-form us around another story: the Gospel story. As sacramental people we have a lot going for us, because at the heart of our worship is a rich tradition of incorporating various elements to draw people into the story. A sacramental faith is fundamentally experiential. We don’t just talk about Christ’s sacrifice, we taste it when we receive the Lord’s Supper. We don’t just reflect on the Holy Spirit’s presence, we feel it when we are washed in the waters of baptism.

So, as you plan and prepare your worship times together, I would encourage you to think about the following things:

  • Get Visual: consider using drama, dance, images, paintings, sketches, or video to tell the story
  • Use the senses: we are physical beings, so include things people can see, smell, touch, taste and interact with. Candles, incense, food, creative stations, various postures, and so forth are great ways to do this.
  • Use ritual: Yes this means things like the Lord’s Supper and Baptism, but think of other rituals as well. Candlelight vigils, meditative worship like Taize, and other rituals can be extremely powerful.
  • Connect People: find ways to allow people to actually share stories, pray with each other (yes, in the service), or spend time receiving prayer from a prayer team
  • Go Beyond Sunday: what patterns, rhythms, and relationships are you drawing people into that can then extend into the week? Find ways of inviting your people into extended rhythms of worship beyond the Sunday experience.

This post originally appeared on the FiveTwo website. You can view the post here.

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