Feeling Religious in Worship

22 04 2010

Feeling Religious in Worship

As we continue to bask in this season of Easter (celebrating the risen Christ and preparing for His ascension and for Pentecost) it would do us well to reflect on how and why we worship.

For the past 40 years the question of how worship should be conducted seems to have been the controversy from which no church and no denomination has escaped unscathed.  Even the Roman Catholics who experienced a major change in their worship after Vatican II (1968) remain mired in debate and unsettledness.  In the Evangelical world the current controversy seems to center around differing notions of “traditional”, “contemporary” and so-called “emergent” forms for worship.  No end to the fighting is really in sight.  Some churches, who in recent decades, have managed to move from “traditional” (organ & hymns) to “contemporary” (praise band & choruses) now find themselves in controversy once again as a new generation rejects both “traditional” and “contemporary” in favor of things like candles, incense, chant, contemplative prayer, and frequent Communion.

I humbly propose a complete re-evaluation of two items that are at the heart of the “worship wars”:  the church and why she worships.

For most Evangelicals, there is a good feel for what the church does (outreach, Christian education, works of compassion, etc.) but relatively little thought about what the church is in her very, God created, nature.  In short, we Evangelicals desperately need a much clearer ecclesiology.  What the church does should flow out of who she is.  Precisely because this is so often misconstrued or not even discussed, the nature and purpose of worship is also misunderstood and misappropriated.

Too many seem to believe that worship is mostly about what it does for them or for the seeker instead of what it does for our Triune God.  Put bluntly, too many are addicted to the particular feelings that certain hymns or praise choruses evoke.  Naturally, there will be emotionally violent reactions and plenty of hard feelings when church leadership makes changes to the worship music.  How could it be otherwise?  The focus has become too much on ourselves and not nearly enough on our rescuing, holy, redeeming God.

A helpful contribution to this discussion has recently come from a Pentecostal, Evangelical Christian from Singapore:  Simon Chan.  The following quote comes from his 2006 book (IVP Academic Press) Liturgical Theology: The Church as Worshiping Community (pgs. 148-49).

Here Chan emphasizes that worship (the liturgy) should transform us more and more into Christ’s disciples—that worship is not just about giving expression to what we feel and think about God, salvation, etc.  Rather, the liturgy uses certain tools like praise, confession, prayer, Scripture, and sacraments to shape God’s people.

Chan states:

The liturgy is a “school” using these tools to train worshippers in the way of Christ.

[Chan then quotes Philip H. Pfatteicher, The School of the Church: Worship and Christian Formation (Valley Forge, PA: Trinity Press International, 1995) 104-5]

“The purpose of the liturgy is not to express our thoughts and feelings but to develop them, and like any good school the liturgy expands our horizon, liberating us from captivity to the moment and to the familiar. . . . Because the liturgy does not always express what we think or feel it has the potential to transform those who share in it.”

Theologically, we could say that the liturgy and Christian living are ontologically one.  The liturgy itself is the primary expression of Christian living, and Christian living is actualized primarily in the liturgy.  In the words of Joyce Zimmerman [from her book Liturgy as Living Faith: A Liturgical Spirituality (Scranton, PA: University of Scranton Press, 1993), p. viii)]:

“The deep, dynamic structure of liturgy is identical to the deep, dynamic structure of Christian living.  Liturgy and life are essentially related because they share a generic dynamic structure that gives access to an ever-deepening experience of their common referent:  the Paschal Mystery [the death and resurrection of Christ].  Herein lies the key to our understanding of liturgical spirituality.  What we celebrate in liturgy is none other than what we live as Christians committed to entering into the ongoing redemptive work of the Risen Christ.  What we live is the content of what we celebrate.[emphasis mine]

Liturgy and everyday Christian living “are but two expressions of the one gift of God’s paschal Presence to us.” [quote from Zimmerman]  If . . . to be a Christian is to be in the body of Christ then there is no Christian living apart from living out what is celebrated in the liturgy, since the liturgy is where the body of Christ is primarily manifested and actualized.  The objective celebration of the liturgy can therefore provide a way to critique our own inadequate Christian living.  It is perhaps more in its challenges to us than in reinforcing positive religious feelings that true spiritual formation through the liturgy takes place.  For if the liturgy only makes us feel good and never challenges us, perhaps the liturgy is not shaping us but we are simply making use of it for our own ends.  Keeping the critical function of the liturgy in view will have a significant effect on the way we approach liturgical celebration, as Zimmerman points out: [p. xii]

“When we celebrate liturgy and experience emptiness or boredom, we might see this as a critique of our life.  Pastorally, we generally assume there is a problem with the ritual itself or the way we celebrate liturgy (and often there is).  But there is another possible explanation:  If the thrust of our Christian living is not response to the Paschal Mystery [that is, Christ’s saving acts] , then no matter what we do to the ritual, its depth meaning will still escape us.  We worship neither to be entertained nor to feel good but to be transformed into the Body of Christ.” [emphasis mine]

In summary, liturgical spirituality begins with the fact of our being Christians, that is, baptized into the body of Christ; and by enacting the gospel, that is, the paschal mystery, the liturgy constantly challenges us concerning the living out of our baptismal faith within the body.  This challenge should lead to new appropriation of and a deeper penetration into the paschal mystery that the liturgy celebrates.  All these understandings help us see what it is about the liturgy that makes it formative.


Chan goes on in this chapter to talk about how believers cooperate with the Holy Spirit in worship to be miraculously transformed and healed, individually and corporately.  Ironically, the more “free” we try to be in our worship services in an effort to not stifle the Spirit, the more worship becomes man-centered and increasingly leaves little room for the Spirit to work.  The ancient liturgy of Word and Table infused with Prayer goes a long way to help us walk with the Spirit and thereby be transformed more and more into who and what God intended from creation.

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