The “How” of Worship

This is the final in a three-part series on worship. It began with the “why” of worship, followed by the “what” of worship. This final post is on the “how” of worship.

Among the many “hows” I could give, I’ll focus on three. First, we worship expectantly. We believe that God is alive, that God desires to speak, to heal, and to transform. Thus, when we gather for worship, it is essential that we do so expecting God to work in our midst. In the prayers, the songs, the scriptures, the sermon, and the sacrament, God desires to work in us – both individually and corporately. However, if we come to worship without an openness to meet God, we’ll likely not. It is possible that, like St Paul, God will speak to us in spite of our posture toward him, but it is much more likely that we’ll hear from God, experience God, if we are listening and open.

This doesn’t mean that you have to be full of faith when you come to worship. It is entirely possible that you might come to worship feeling confused, angry, or disinterested. In the midst of these emotions (which, if we’re honest, we all experience from time to time – even the clergy!), we can still come with a posture of openness, asking God, in the midst of our confusion, anger, or apathy, to speak, to heal, or to transform. So, we come to worship expectantly, believing that the risen Christ is in our midst, that the Holy Spirit is at work, and that God the Father is calling us to himself.

Second, we worship bodily. For many Christians, especially historic Protestantism, worship is primarily about the mind. Gaining a new insight into scripture or theology or ethics is the main point. On the other hand, most “contemporary” churches focus on entertainment – music, drama, and video – and a sermon centered more on self-help (i.e. “Five principles for managing your finances) than on scripture or theology. In both of these contexts, the worshipper takes a passive posture, receiving information or being entertained.

Liturgy, however, means “work of the people,” thus requiring the active participation of the worshipper. So the practices of standing to sing, kneeling to pray, verbally affirming our faith, receiving the bread and wine, and, along the way, making the sign of the cross, genuflecting, and raising our hands all allow us to engage, to participate in worship, rather than simply learning a few facts, being entertained, and heading out to brunch.

Interestingly, both liturgical and charismatic worship, at their best, seek to resist the passivity of the intellectual and entertainment /self-help models. Most charismatic worship services begin with 20-25 minutes of singing, and there is great freedom to be expressive – raising hands, singing loudly, and even dancing are common (all of which, by the way, are biblical).

After the sermon, which is often focused on the deep love that God has for each one of us, the congregation is invited to respond, coming forward to receive prayer for healing (both physical and emotional), deliverance, and an assurance of God’s love. In other words, in an intellectually focused worship service, the congregation might hear an explication of a story of Jesus’ healing, in an entertainment / self-help focused service the congregation might be given three principles to avoid negative self-talk, but in a charismatic service, the congregation is invited to experience healing themselves.

Likewise, in a liturgical church like ours, we act out the drama of our salvation, culminating in an invitation to the Eucharist, where, in the mystery of real presence, Jesus, and all his saving work, is present to us, and we take and eat, thus experiencing communion with Christ. Nowhere is this dramatic enacting of the story of salvation more present than in Holy Week.

On Palm Sunday we gather outside with palms, singing praises to Jesus as we walk in the sanctuary. Then we read the entire passion narrative, with the congregation playing the part of the crowds who, just after singing praises to Jesus, cry out “Crucify him! Crucify him!” On Maundy Thursday we re-live the Last Supper, washing each other’s feet and sharing the Eucharist, followed by an all-night prayer vigil. On Friday from noon – 3 PM we walk the stations of the cross, and, finally, on Saturday night we gather in darkness, gradually lighting the sanctuary as key passages from the Old Testament are read, culminating in the Great Alleluia, the ringing of bells, and the splashing with baptismal water, usually followed by a great party.

In seminary I invited a friend to participate in all of the Holy Week services and, after Easter, I asked him what he thought. His response was instructive: “In my church we hear the story, in your church you actually do it.” So, the bodily component of our worship is essential. We “practice” the drama of salvation, which leads to a deeper experience of the gospel, and we thus develop a greater capacity for transformation.

Finally, we worship corporately. The word corporate, of course, comes from the Latin word corpus, which means body. The body is one of the primary biblical metaphors for the church, used several times by St Paul. A body has a fundamental unity, yet is comprised of diverse parts. As a Christian community, the ground of our unity must be the gospel of Jesus Christ. If we ground our unity in anything else – nationality, ethnicity, or especially tempting for us, “Anglicanism” – we are thinking too small, and thus vulnerable to unnecessary, and even scandalous, division. It’s not that nationality, ethnicity, or Christian tradition are unimportant, it’s just that they can’t be the “main thing.”

Within our unity in Jesus Christ, then, there is diversity. We all have different stories, different backgrounds, and different gifts. St Paul, in writing about the church as a body, notes that everyone has something to contribute to the health of the body, and that Christian worship ought to allow for everyone to use their gifts for the sake of the body. That is why listening to each other, learning about each other, and appreciating each other is so important, but it is not easy. It might be easy to come to worship as an individual, not aware of those around you (except, possibly, as distractions).

It’s also easy to come to worship with people like you, with your friends and neighbors. The more challenging, but more biblical and more transformative, practice, is to come to worship with people you wouldn’t spend time with otherwise – people not like you, people who may even make you uncomfortable. Yet, if we are grounded in Jesus Christ, he creates a deep, spiritual communion that transcends differences of culture, nationality, and socio-economic status. We learn that everyone has something to contribute, everyone’s story is edifying, and, thus, we need each other to worship well. In this we anticipate the great scene of heavenly worship, in which those from “every tribe, tongue, and nation” are gathered around the throne of God, singing praises.

Interestingly, the tradition of the church is that a priest isn’t permitted to celebrate the Eucharist alone – there must be at least one other person present. Also, the great reformer John Calvin, when asked if it was better to hear God’s word privately or corporately, said the latter, as, in our fallen state, we are much more prone to self-deception left on our own. In a corporate assembly, in the presence of brothers and sisters, in the presence of Jesus who said, “where two or three are gathered, I will be in the midst of them,” we are able to hear God’s word in its fullness.

Why do we worship? We worship in response to God’s revelation in Jesus Christ. What do we do in worship? We gather and are sent, we sing and we pray, we hear and respond to God’s word, and we are nourished, in the words of the Book of Common Prayer, by “the spiritual food of body and blood of Christ” in the Eucharist.

Now, how do we worship? We come to worship expectantly, we engage in worship bodily, and, finally, we worship in the context of the church, the body of Christ, which grounded in the gospel of Jesus Christ yet beautifully diverse. I believe that, as we engage in worship framed in this way, we will grow, both individually and corporately, into “the full stature of Christ,” empowered to bear witness to the gospel in this world desperate to know, and be known by, our great God.