Google says worship is “the feeling or expression of reverence and adoration for a deity.” This seems like a good definition. Worship is our response to God for who He is, what He’s done, for His character and acts of grace toward us. God delivers the goods, and we express our response in worship. Right?
Of course! It wasn’t a trick question. That is a true statement about worship, and one we’re not likely to disagree over.
And yet I don’t think worship as expression is a complete picture. I think there’s more going on when we gather. Here are a some questions to tinker with: What is God’s involvement in worship? What makes worship better or worse? If worship is our expression, then does the quality of worship depend on us? Does God need us to worship? If he does, then how can we say God is self-sustaining? If he doesn’t, then why do we spend so much time and effort on it?
This is a series of posts in pursuit of a more robust understanding of worship. I am not trying to throw your worldview into a tailspin. I am trying to open up the conversation to some new possibilities. I want to expand our vision of worship to include spiritual formation. I am doing this partly because I like new possibilities, but mostly because I think it will help us understand why worship is so important.
Worship as expression is easy to identify. It’s right there on the surface. But how does worship shape us? That’s a tougher question and may just require . . .
the obligatory sports analogy:
This is Andrew, our Music Pastor, with his wife Sarah at a Blue Jays game. Andrew and Sarah set aside time to drive into Toronto, pay for parking and walk with huge crowds through the arched entrances to climb the stairs to their seats to watch the game. Andrew dresses in special clothing. The jersey, at least, bears little resemblance to a common shirt. Both the shirt and the hat bear an emblem identifying Andrew as a Blue Jays fan. Andrew and Sarah arrive early. They watch the screens in eager anticipation of the main event. They take pictures of themselves here and post them on Facebook, Twitter and Instagram with clever hashtags. Then the event starts. With music, lights and sometimes fireworks the event kicks off. The heroes of the day are introduced with cameras and graphics on the big screen and the crowd is incited to cheer. There is music. The crowd quiets for the song and then–a strange sight in modern times–they sing along! After the music they take their seats and the game begins. They participate in call and answer games (let’s go Blue Jays let’s go!), group actions (the wave), and the most dedicated attenders even take notes.
Andrew loves baseball, and he expresses that love through regular attendance at the stadium. He also watches games at home or with friends in the comfort of someone’s living room. Without judging his eternal destiny, I can comfortably say Andrew worships baseball. And his worship takes the form of attending games, wearing certain clothes and participating in sports crowd rituals.
Now here’s the twist. Andrew expresses his baseball-worship by attending games. True. But it’s also true that attending baseball games shaped Andrew into a lover of baseball. Andrew’s love for baseball was shaped at a heart/gut level by attending games and watching them on TV since he was a little boy. On an intellectual level Andrew understands baseball, but it’s in his heart that he really loves it. Experiential elements like the noise, the whole stadium vibrating, the slight vertigo from the nosebleed seats, the images and words on the jumbotron, the sense of belonging cheering for your team . . . these things reach the heart. The experience captures our imagination, keeps us coming back and, over time, shapes us.
Baseball’s worship form was developed intentionally over time to create worshipers of sports and sports heroes. It does this by inspiring us and entertaining us. It presents to us a story of success that we can aspire to and participate in as a community. If we were to change the content of baseball’s messaging to some clever Christianese, we would not change the fundamental story of success that baseball presents. We would still aspire to athletic success, to the glory of competition, to the thrill of winning. These aspirations are inherent to baseball’s form: the game, the arrangement of the stadium, the marketing and promotion strategy. I am making a “the medium is the message” point here (for more on this topic see our series The Message of the Stage).
The connection is meant to be fairly obvious. The baseball stadium is like church. Winston Churchill famously said “we shape our buildings, thereafter they shape us.” I think we could extend this to say “we shape our gathered worship, thereafter it shapes us.”
If worship shapes us, then what we do matters.
You can worship baseball at a church gathering by wearing a Blue Jays shirt and taking notes on an Acer laptop (odd choice to sponsor a sports team, but I digress), but it will do very little to form someone as a Blue Jays fan. The “going to church” part may help form in us a love for God, but a love for the Blue Jays requires more than garments and gadgets.
In the same way, Christians can worship God at a baseball game by wearing a cross or displaying a tattoo of a Bible verse on our forearm, but after years of faithful attendance at baseball games they will not form in us a love for God. We will still form a love for baseball. And a faded tattoo.
To form a love for baseball, you should attend baseball games. To form a love for God, you should gather as the church.
James K.A. Smith explains why this is in his important book Desiring the Kingdom,
Human persons are intentional creatures whose fundamental way of “intending” the world is love or desire. This love and desire is always aimed at some vision of the good life, some particular articulation of the kingdom. What primes us to be so oriented—and act accordingly—is a set of habits or dispositions that are formed in us through affective, bodily means, especially bodily practices, routines, or rituals that grab hold of our hearts through our imagination.
You may want to read that again, then pause for some leading questions:
What “vision of the good life,” to use Smith’s term, is present in the form of your worship gathering? How does it shape you?
I’m not talking here about the content–words or lyrics or signage–but the gathering itself. The building, the arrangement of the room, what you do with your body, the order of the service, the elements that grab hold of your imagination are all part of a form that shapes our love and desire by engaging us in a story of success. But we can expand this question to the ways we worship outside the formal gathering. What does it mean to “offer [our] bodies as a living sacrifice, holy and pleasing to God” which Paul calls “true and proper worship (Rom 12:1)”? How does that shape us?
Shaping our love and desire sounds suspiciously like spiritual formation, so I think we’re on to something in our quest to expand our vision of worship. Next time we’ll look at some worship forms, new and old, and suggest some ways these forms can shape us.