I want to start a series of posts that explore the theological and formational aspects of some of the elements of worship: Why are these elements important? How do they form us as the Body of Christ?
It’s easy to dismiss liturgical worship forms and elements for many reasons. Maybe you’ve seen them done badly before, maybe you just associate them with "dead religion" and assume the deadness of the religion was because of the liturgical forms they used.
I’ve found, though, that a whole lot of thought went into the traditional liturgical forms that have been used for centuries, and I think it’s very unwise for us to just throw them all out. Mark Twain once said that when he was 15 he thought his father knew nothing, but that when he turned 25 he was amazed at how much his father had learned in 10 short years. Eventually teenagers become adults. Sometimes I think we in the evangelical/charismatic tradition (yes, it’s a tradition) need to realize that our ancestors weren’t as stupid as we think they were, and that perhaps it’s time to reintegrate the wisdom of the past into our current worship practices. So here are a few thoughts on what needs to happen before the worship service starts…
Even before the service starts, I think it’s important to have time and space for people to prepare for worship. We don’t just fall backwards into worship, it takes a conscious choice on our part to put aside other concerns in order to still the mind and focus the attention on God himself. Even the act of getting ready and "going to church" is important. Simon Chan says that "’going to church’ is what ‘churchgoers’ have to do on Sundays in order to be present in worship," and this isn’t some kind of perfunctory duty, but has "deep theological import." This time is different from the rest of the week – people leave behind their work, their home duties, and journey a different road, the path to "becoming church."
(Incidentally, this reminds me of a wonderful King of the Hill episode, where the Hank Hill family is looking for a new church. Lucky, one of their neighbors, is eating dinner with the family and comments, "Me, I don’t go to church, church goes with me. I’m worshiping when I’m drinkin’ a beer, diggin’ a hole, or fishin’ for trout." Luann, Hank’s niece, says, "Oh, that’s beautiful Lucky!" Hank retorts, "Luann, I happen to know it’s asinine." Hilarious every time.)
A conscious choice and sustained attention are required to participate actively and fully in worship. This is radically counter-cultural. Most people are used to things being done to them. We don’t have a time of preparation before attending to our TVs. We just turn them on and expect that whatever is there will grab our attention and stimulate us until we are ready to shut it off. Then we come to a church gathering and expect much the same thing. We expect to be able to show up and find something entertaining and stimulating to engage our attention for awhile. We expect it will be as easy to fall into worshiping God as it was to fall into watching Saturday Night Live the night before.
But worshiping isn’t like watching TV at all; it requires effort and attention on the part of the worshiper, and I believe people need time and designated space to really ready themselves for active participation in worship. An atmosphere of silence and quiet meditation before the service can be an effective way of accomplishing this (especially if there is a designated time after the service for conversation and catching up with friends).
The preparation for worship forms us as the Body of Christ in that it teaches us that much of what is important in life will require effort and attention on our part. Our culture’s default position is akin to the Nirvana lyric, "Here we are now, entertain us." We walk around assuming that we will be stimulated and when we aren’t we quickly lose interest – but the act of preparing for worship each week trains us to consciously push aside lesser concerns to focus on the One Thing Necessary, it can form us as people who know how to listen for God’s whispers in the midst of our frenetic pace of life. Who knows? It may even help us slow down and not live so frenetically, so we can be in better tune with the God who created and redeemed us.
‘A conscious choice and sustained attention are required to participate actively and fully in worship.’
To me, this sounds similar to having a conversation with someone you care deeply about. It causes me to think about the conversations I’ve had where I’ve been the listener, maybe with a small child, where they’re talking and I’m trying not to zone out because I care about this child, and I want to express that with my body language. If I am the person talking, and I notice the other person isn’t really listening to me, I feel hurt and question the value of the relationship with this person. Sometimes, as a way of showing importance in the conversation, I may try to find a place where we will be comfortable and interruptions will be minimal so our conversation will be the primary focus. Your post sounds as if you’re talking about different ways of taking steps to re-orient ourselves to gain greater focus.
Benjamin Sternke says
Yeah that’s what I’m saying, Carol – I like the analogy of a conversation with someone you care about. Thanks for the comment!
Not only is it a conversation with a person you care about, but it is by definition sacred and holy because it is a conversation with God. There is reverential demension, a transcendant dynamic that elevates this activity, transforming the mundane. It may be we need to learn to take our shoes off again in God’s Presence.
I’ll be following your thoughts on this topic. As one who “crafts” worship services i am always wanting refresh my thinking on what is worship.
Benjamin Sternke says
Thanks Dan, I’ll try to post regularly!