How do you worship?

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What is the practice of corporate worship in your church? Here are some thoughts spurred on by this article by Aaron Niequist, a worship leader in Chicago. To quote Niequist:

It recently occurred to me that 95% of modern worship music is about God or about me. We largely sing about who God is (“Good Good Father”), what God has done for me (“This is Amazing Grace”), and what I’m going to do for God (“The Stand”). I affirm all three of these postures as deeply good and necessary.

However, Jesus didn’t only teach about God and me. Much of Jesus’ teachings were about how we treat one another and how we treat “the other.” In fact, Jesus directly tied our love for God to our love for others, and directly linked God’s forgiveness for us with our forgiveness of others. (Matt 6:15) Notice how much of his most famous sermon (on the mount) explores how we treat those inside and outside of our community, rather than our own relationship with God. We find this all over the scriptures (the laws of Moses, Paul’s letters, etc). God seems intent on creating a holy people, not just billions of holy individuals. Much of what it means to follow God in the way of Christ has to do with how we treat each other.

Niequist has clearly been influenced by the recent work of Glenn Packiam and James K. A. Smith, who themselves have been influenced by the early church saying “lex orandi lex credendi”–the rule of prayer is the rule of faith. In other words, the way we worship forms the way we believe.

Accordingly, as Niequist writes, “an unbalanced practice of worship will form us into unbalanced people.” More pressingly, if our practice of worship is centered around “God and me,” it will form us into an individualistic faith– one where our sacrificial love for the neighbor and the stranger is an optional “add-on,” not an integral part of the Gospel.

Niequist advises a path forward for worship leaders,

At the end of each month, look at every song, reading, prayer, and practice in your services and ask:

(1) Did we worship God for who God is?
(2) Did we help people express their personal love/devotion to God?
(3) Did we empower our community to speak to each other
with psalms, hymns, & spiritual songs?

(4) Did the worship open our hearts (and lives) to those outside of our tribe?

God, me, us, everyone.

This is not the thrust of Niequist’s article, but one thought that struck me is how well the traditional liturgy is able to respond to his proposed set of questions for worship leaders:

  1. God: Worship of God for who God is–The hymns, songs, and prayers that focus on who God is, particularly the prayer of Adoration of the Trinity that begins many liturgical worship services.
  2. Me: Personal expression for God–Confession and Assurance, where the people silently confess their sins before God and neighbor before praying the corporate prayer of confession.
  3. Us: Speak to each other with psalms, hymns, and spiritual songs–The spoken, chanted, or sung liturgy.
  4. Everyone: Open our hearts to those outside our tribe–The intercession of the church for the life of the world.

Of course, the manner in which this is implemented in the traditional liturgy can be better or worse. However, I think this question-set helps respond to some critics of traditional liturgies, who claim liturgy is a “dead” form of worship. The key question for liturgy is whether it is true or false, not whether it is dead or alive.

I am someone who accepts that there is room for experimentation in traditional liturgies. They are not handed down by the Angel Gabriel on stone tablets, and they can and should be carefully adapted to better speak to changing cultural contexts.

But I think the question-set above shows the danger of unthinkingly throwing away traditional liturgies in favor of more “relevant” styles of worship. There is no such thing as a neutral style of worship. Everything is a liturgy–a repeated pattern of behavior in which we order our worship. If we are not careful, we may end up buying into reigning cultural idols, and unwittingly train the congregation in a different Gospel.

In modern America, this would mean that through our worship, we would train the congregation to be consumers, spectators, and fans of Jesus–not sacrificial disciples in community and on mission.

Back to the article–Niequest suggests some ideas on how to faithfully answer the four questions he posed, and I encourage everyone, regardless of church background, to read them. I particularly liked this portion on “Everyone”:

Finally, our worship practices must open our hearts (and lives) to those outside of our tribe. John Robinson states powerfully in Honest to God:

The test of worship is how far it makes us more sensitive to “the Beyond in our midst”, to the Christ in the hungry, naked, homeless, and the prisoner. Only if we are more likely to recognize Him there after attending an act of worship is that worship Christian rather than a piece of religiosity in Christian dress.

Whoa. This messes with me. And it challenges us to always frame our worship experience (1) Inside the grand story of what God is doing in human history, and (2) In context of a beautiful and broken world that God loves so dearly. This can happen through songs about God’s love for the whole world (which are unfortunately hard to find), praying for current events, worshiping with those outside our tribe, and hearing stories from people involved with the poor and oppressed among us. My friend Kellye Fabian created a fantastic practice called “praying through photos.” She finds 6 online photos from that week that capture the pain and need in our world (usually 3 local and 3 global), and leads our community in a time of prayer for the deeply loved son or daughter in each photo. Whether focused on Syria, Paris, Chicago, or Palestine, this has been a profoundly shaping worship practice.

An excellent idea. Again, read the rest of the article here.

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