One of the things about worship I remember from my high school years was the sense that it was mostly pointless. I don’t recall ever making a big deal about not wanting to participate, after all it was a good time to see friends, but I would have had a hard time making a case that worship was valuable. What “participating” in worship probably meant for me then was sitting in the back, standing when absolutely necessary and singing only at Christmas and Easter. The lowest points of worship for me were the responsive readings and the recitation of the creeds from the back of the worship book. At the time, these were new, cutting-edge resources for worship leaders in those church circles. To me they were, and here I quote my younger self, “mindless incantations.” If I valued worship of any type as a high school student, I valued what felt like genuine self-expression. It had to authentic, from the heart, to have any value at all.
Worship is a part of congregational life that is one of the most rewarding and challenging. For many congregations emotions run high when it comes to preferences about the form and content of worship. Ancient churches, for example, were divided over how they should describe Mary the mother of Jesus in their liturgy. It was this question that spurred some of the early church’s most penetrating thinking on the mystery of the Incarnation. The debate was whether Mary should be described as theotokos, meaning the bearer or mother of God, or as christotokos, which was a lesser title identifying her as the bearer or mother of Christ. Worship in the ancient church was diverse for more than theological reasons though. Culture and language were the roots of other differences. Even so, most congregations maintained a similar arc in their corporate gatherings. They began with a period of gathering or welcome. Then they moved to listening to scripture and an accompanying sermon. From there, they would share in communion and then would complete the service with an act of sending. Within that arc, though, local culture was influential.
There has always been a tension between the values of diversity and unity in Christian worship. We don’t even have to look to high school students to get a sense of that. Worship occurs at the confluence of the Christian tradition, with its many forms, and a particular cultural context. Worship also occurs at the juncture of personal preference and communal purpose. Individuals are drawn to particular forms of worship, with peculiar tastes in music, preaching or prayer. These preferences are valid. However, I’m learning that if our sense of communal worship doesn’t move beyond that level, then worship simply becomes one more manifestation of the way the market has shaped us into consumers.
Worship has a communal and formative purpose. I was not aware of this as a high school student, and I don’t know if I would have appreciated it if I was. But I have come to see worship as our first line of response to the devils of violence, consumerism, nationalism, narcissism and the many other evil forces that haunt us. I think it works this way in several ways.
- First, worship is political. It is more broadly and fundamentally political than, for instance, the narrow act of voting. Corporate worship deals with our inner allegiance and our understanding of power. It relativizes national boundaries and expresses alternative forms of solidarity.
- Second, worship is a profound economic event. When we give of our time to worship we are saying something about what we value. When we give of our resources in connection with worship, we express our priorities. When worship involves our sharing together it says something about what we think our things are for.
- Third, worship is about beauty. It is aesthetic, not just in what we think sounds or looks nice, but in the sense that in worship we express what we think is worthy of admiration. The aesthetics of worship play a role too in our expression of glory and gratitude to God. It’s one thing to say “thanks” in a sloppy or formulaic way. It’s another for thanksgiving to be a heartfelt expression that draws upon our best efforts.
- Finally, in all this, worship is not only expressive, as my younger self believed, but formational. If our worship is richly layered and engaging, the other important aspects of our congregational life refer to it. Our Christian education programs explains the points of reference in worship. Our work of mutual care is an outworking of both the priorities we name in worship and, hopefully, of the way it moves our hearts.
I’m convinced that congregations that realize the importance and potential of worship can be found in all parts of the Christian family. In fact, one of the things that helped me better understand worship in a Mennonite context was worshiping with Anglicans and Reformed folks. What’s helpful is to think about a congregation’s worship, not just from the perspective of theology or personal preference, but to try thinking about it like an anthropologist. What do our forms of worship say about power, about what matters, about who is valuable, about a group’s sense of identity or fear? Questions like these can help us work out way into the importance and potential of worship in new ways.