Wednesday, March 08, 2006

Thoughts on Worship

Christian Worship: History, Theology and (my) Practice

I have been working on my definition of worship since I arrived at Fuller to study it. I have yet to find a suitably succinct, witty phrase to sum it up. Before this class, I defined it as “communication with God in any form from any thing.” That seems okay generally, but it doesn’t stress some important aspects that this class has brought to my attention. Two concepts in particular “fence” Christian worship for me: it must be Trinitarian, and it must be about, to, and for God.

My belief in the centrality of the Trinity stems from the strong emphasis I place on historical precedent – I truly believe in the divine inspiration of Church tradition. A Trinitarian focus is difficult to prove from the Bible alone, but because the Church has worshipped in a Trinitarian way – back to the earliest rituals – I believe it is correct. It is striking how so much worship that purports to be Christian has moved far away from reflecting this fundamental belief about God.
This became apparent as we read and discussed Trinitarian worship, or the lack thereof, in modern worship – particularly in the music, as analyzed by Lester Ruth. Shortly after reading Ruth’s and Witvliet’s essays I attended the worship service about which I wrote my music analysis, and my ears picked up the Trinitarian language in our music and texts. That day’s service represented an appropriately holistic view of God. Later on in our class I learned about Pentecostal Oneness. Although I cannot judge their theology from my place of ignorance of their tradition, I will say that it got me thinking again about how important the Trinity is to my definition of worship. One other interesting comparison is from my internship, where all year I’ve been interacting with devotees to all the major world faith traditions. To define what we do in Christian worship over against their piety is quite difficult (especially for a good pluralist like me who believes they are worshipping the same God!). The one thing that we Christians uniquely believe in is the Trinity. This sets us apart from the polytheistic religions, from Judaism and Islam, and even the Latter-Day Saints (although they self-identify as Christian). To worship as a Christian, then, one cannot merely worship Jesus Christ. Christian worship must also include the Father and the Holy Spirit.

A second part of my Christian worship definition that this class has influenced is the idea of worship being necessarily directed to God. At first glance, this may seem obvious. But in fact, individuality has crept into Christianity in such a big way that I fear for our ability to see past ourselves. We hold our own stories, hurts, passions, preferences, and biases so dearly that we almost always set about crafting a “worship experience” that is much more for our own benefit than God’s. Do we even know how to get outside ourselves long enough to truly praise God or truly intercede for the world – or our enemies?

In this I am not denying the effectiveness of monastic ways of praying, although I do believe that corporate prayer is healthier because it pulls us out of our own heads. I also am reticent to say that “personal story” is not relevant, but I think I am getting close to asserting as much. The cosmic story of God, which we are invited to join, is the ultimate reality, and anything that has to do with my person is so insignificant and selfish in comparison that I would rather get away completely from worship that mentions “me” at all. I do believe that God gifts us individually, and we are important to Her as children, but the gifts and the childhood are inextricably bound up in our place in the Kingdom of God – and that Kingdom is about God’s story, not ours. The survey of worship history and theology in this class has made the sheer magnificence of God’s work in the world apparent to me, and I can only respond with awe at the privilege of joining this communion of saints.

All of this explains, then, why I prefer a church home that uses ancient liturgical texts, pays attention to a Trinitarian focus, and emphasizes the cosmic story (although I recall from my music paper a nearly equal blend of personal and cosmic elements in that service). I am truly amazed by the inspiration evident in our prayer book and hymnal. We have multiple liturgical practices that allow us to go deeper into faith (for instance, right now with Lenten disciplines), to reaffirm our baptism (as we will at the Easter Vigil and anytime we baptize), to reconcile with one another and with God, to live into the yearly renewal of nature and the story of Jesus (from Advent through Pentecost)…I could go on and on. Our liturgy feeds me with ritual nourishment even as it pulls me away from myself and into praying and living for others.

Our church uses the most traditional and historical order of worship: gather, Word, Table, dismiss (I prefer the term “send”). The Services of the Word and of Holy Communion are about equal in length (sometimes the latter is a bit longer). Ministers for both are a mix of clergy and laypeople. The first half primarily prepares us for the second: we read God’s word, hear it unpacked, recite our creed, pray for the world, confess our sins, and share the peace, all to ready ourselves to enter the presence of God at the Eucharist. The entire service is an affirmation of our connection to God, the world, and especially to one another in the Christian community, which is solidified through our weekly enactment of the drama of Christ.

When a church uses a liturgy that has been so carefully prescribed, with ancient roots and the best modern theologians overseeing its production, the congregants are truly blessed. I have very few complaints about our worship, but there are always a few things to mention. Our music definitely lacks a world flavor, and we never use other languages in speech or song. We do not offer sign-language interpretation and our altar is up a set of stairs (although we take communion out to those in wheelchairs, they are prevented from, say, acting as oblation bearers). We pray for and minister to the homeless, but are not great at welcoming them as equal members of the Body, even though they do regularly attend (sitting in the back). We have a wonderful program for educating children about the liturgy (Catechesis of the Good Shepherd), but our adult education is dismal – and adults are the ones visibly participating every week! There are many things I would change about our worship, primarily to make it more inclusive, helping the church reflect its cosmic-story commitment even more. We are good at proclaiming the Kingdom of God – but I am not sure we are always reflecting it in its entirety.


Anonymous said...

Thanks for this post -- I really enjoyed reading your reflections on worship in general and Christian worship in particular. I'm especially interested in the service structure you describe, and in the ways it diverges from the one I know and love. :-)

Bill Gnade said...

Dear Feminarian,

You mention not using other languages during worship. I know that Latin does not really count, but many of us use it. One cool thing at All Saints', the little parish to which I belong, is the Pentecost Sunday lectionary readings, read simultaneously throughout the congregration in Latin, Greek, Italian, German, Spanish, and any other language a parishioner knows how to read. It is indeed a holy noise, a rushing wind of tongues, but a noise that makes such great sense. I am sure it is done elsewhere; it is a powerful liturgical moment.

Last week I wrote extensively about what worship is; about the need for more and not less formality in worship. I know you are busy, but if you want to read what a "quasi-evangelical" Episcopalian thinks about liturgical worship, you might want to check out the series, which begins here. It did generate a decent amount of conversation, particularly among our anti- and non-liturgical brothers and sisters in Christ.

I would cherish your thoughts.

Peace be with you,

Bill Gnade

Anonymous said...

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I am a musician, and I would be honored if you would check out my music. All music on my site is free for download. Anyway, don’t want to be a pest, I just thought that I’d share.

“All my music is free.”

Anonymous said...

Thank you for your thought provoking post. When thinking of worship I think we all have a tendency to reduce it to something we do in the context of a church service instead of it being a lifestyle. That is why we seem to reduce it to a certain style or elements of a liturgy. That is also why we(the church) get into petty spats about contemporary vs. traditional, high liturgy vs. no liturgy, hymns vs. choruses etc.

I believe worship is much more than all these things: it is about service, ministering, honoring God in all we do, everyday. It is a lifestyle that affects and deepens our experience in corporate gatherings of the church. A book that expands on this thought is "Wired: For A Life of Worship" by Louie Giglio. I recommend it to anyone who wants to broaden their view of what true biblical worship is really about.