Why do we worship?
The obvious place to start with this question, at least for me, is that we worship in response to God’s revealed goodness. Because God is worthy to be worshipped – we worship. That might be a great place to start theologically, but my intention in this post is more to give a sense of how worship functions within a congregational setting. These are important to understand if we are concerned with improving the quality of our congregational worship.
I would like to break this down into psychological, sociological and spiritual effects, but as we will soon see that is a bit tangled up. It is hard to separate the psychological benefits from the spiritual and the sociological benefits; the psychological benefits seem to fall directly out of these other categories. So we’ll explore the benefits of worship from the psychological vantage and identify how each benefit is also sociological and/or spiritual. Just to make this clear, psychological benefits are those that affect the person, hopefully in a positive way. The sociological benefits are those that affect the dynamics of the group or congregation. And the spiritual benefits belong to the category of transcendence, in other words they affect the participants faith. One might add that a worship session can be an effective cardio programme, but that really depends on the degree of physical movement within the liturgy. I am not convinced that movement is a prerequisite to good worship, even though I do admit I love to dance in worship (at the back and not wearing tights).
Untangling the Benefits
When we talk about what worship does for the participant, it orients them towards a horizon of hope (spiritual and sociological). It makes us aware that God can and does step into our lives. It reminds us that God is intimately involved with every aspect of our existence, and that alone is enough to give us hope. Another way of seeing this is that worship makes space for encounter with the divine. This is why we see spontaneous healings happen in the midst of the singing. It is also why sometimes folks are overcome by the presence of God. Why in the midst of the sacramental acts people find profound meaning. Those are all great things when they happen, but they are not our focus or reason for worshipping. But they are definitely a benefit to both the worshipper and the congregation.
Worship lets us feel like we belong (sociological). Good worship, I should hasten to add. Some worship is exclusive in nature when it should be invitational. God is revealed as the one who opened his arms to the world, for us to turn around and close those arms does an injustice to the revelation of the Christian God. So when we worship in the community, we identify that community as our own. It also joins us to the whole Church that worships God, because this is what we all do.
Worship also models unity in a healthy way (sociological). In a good worship setting there is a variety of responses to God. A common liturgy unites us, but our responses are our own. Some lift their hands, some sing boldly, some meditate in quietness, some dance, some cry, some laugh, some kneel, some prostrate themselves, some contemplate, some pray, some vocalize, some... well you get the picture. Healthy worship invites the congregants to respond to God individually and corporately. It is quite amazing when this is functioning well. There is a sense of freedom and safety that envelops you when you worship in a healthy environment. There is an invitation to let down your guard and be yourself. That is a gift, one we should always foster. For the sceptics I want to hasten that I’ve experienced this in a high Anglican liturgy and I’ve felt the lack of it in a lively Pentecostal liturgy. This needs to be fostered, it should never be assumed.
Worship also orders our priorities (spiritual and sociological). Life can get pretty complicated and we can easily lose sight of a healthy rhythm of living. Worship presents a framework of priorities that we can find deep comfort in. That order is God, community and self. When we put God first we are really acknowledging our dependence on God. This is so important when all our cultural myths revolve around the individual. It is no wonder we see so much frustration in the Western world, we live well beyond our means (and I am not just referring to how we live financially). But worship turns our focus on God who meets us in our place of need. Secondly worship places us into the context of the community. We worship together not to make a bigger noise, but because we are in this together. We are joined together as family and learn in worship how to live as that family. We not only need God, but we need each other. So in worship we serve each other sacramentally as a sign of our life together as a sacrament of the Kingdom. And finally worship doesn’t lose the importance of self; it just places self in the proper perspective. Worship is nothing without the worshipper.
Worship informs our mission as a Church (sociological and spiritual). The liturgy makes it clear that we are not a bless-me club. The liturgy orients us towards the world; it gives us the resources to be Christ’s body in the world. Some people think it just gives us resources to get through life, but this is part of the operative evangelical myth (something I am going to blog on soon). This myth takes Jesus’ gospel formulation “The Kingdom of God has come” and twists it into “Where are you going to spend eternity?” That is worth unpacking because it has been quite destructive historically. Worship is not giving you a fuel up so you can make it to the next worship session. No worship is a picture of God stepping into the world that empowers our own lives for living. Worship gives us life so that we can be life in the world. We gain peace so we can bring peace. We a filled with love so we can love. We are comforted so that we can comfort others. We are empowered so we can bring a powerful message of word and deed to others. We are healed so we can heal others. We are given hope so we can give hope to others. This is our mission. Good worship doesn’t lose sight of this.
I am sure there are other benefits to worship. I think there is enough here to chew on for a while. Next I’m going to share my history of worship, some of the highlights of my life as a worshipping Christian. I actually wrote that one already, but I want to tweak it still. As always I look forward to your comments.