Shaping Souls

Starting a Conversation about Faith Formation in Worship

In her engaging introduction to Christian spirituality, Debra Rienstra describes her experience of church during her childhood years:

No matter how long I live, no matter how many other churches I belong to or visit, I suppose I will continue to have dreams of being a little girl at Alpine Avenue Church, running around the balcony after the service, pounding down the steps to the basement before catechism class on Wednesdays, counting the ceiling panels during the service. . . . My growing-up church enters my dreamscape, I suspect, as a symbol of a more important architecture. Church is about shaping the soul so that we might bear the presence of God. . . .
—So Much More: An Invitation to Christian Spirituality, Jossey-Bass, 2005. page 162. Also see Reflections on page 48 of this issue.

In both intentional and unintentional ways, the church is engaged in nonstop soul-shaping. This may happen, as other sections of Rienstra’s memoir suggest, through preaching, sacraments, music, and art. For you, it may be a haunting melody from a Sunday school chorus, the smell of fresh bread on a Lord’s Supper Sunday, or the vocal inflection of a much-loved pastor. Or it may happen as a little girl counts ceiling tiles during a service that has gone on a bit too long. Any of these sensory experiences can become for us a symbol of a spiritual architecture, for good or ill. Because church life is all about God and God’s ways with us, everything we do in church shapes how we imagine God and God’s ways with us.

This breadth can make any attempt to describe worship’s formative power seem hopelessly complex. And indeed, we can never fully comprehend the breadth of the Holy Spirit’s mysterious work. Still, there are many fruitful ways to describe worship’s formative power, each focused on slightly different aspects of human experience. Let’s review some of these ways. As we do, consider taking time for a discussion of these themes with a small group, church leaders, worship committee, or with a friend over a cup of coffee after church.

Talking Points

Find five or six people in your community who aren’t members of your church. Ask them if they have any impressions about your congregation’s approach to race, gender, money, the environment, or politics. Then test those comments—are they true? Consider also asking the same question of five or six young adults who have recently joined other churches. What implicit messages do they think your congregation conveys?

Gesture and Movement

First, focus on the gestures, postures, and movements of worship. Both intentionally and unintentionally, worship forms us in deep bodily patterns that shape patterns of thinking, feeling, and relating to others. Some churches form us to raise our hands as an act of exuberance. Others teach us to kneel as an act of humility. Some teach us to reach out beyond our comfort zones to greet strangers in our midst. Others form us to listen attentively to a carefully crafted public speech.

Some years ago I attended a worship conference that featured very different types of services with music led by organ and choir, jazz combos, and praise bands. Regardless of style, what struck me was the powerful way in which worshipers’ bodies acted out well-rehearsed habits. One service began with the processional hymn “Lift High the Cross.” The organist announced the hymn with a dramatic trumpet stop. I couldn’t help but notice the person in front of me, clearly habituated to this type of service, who within a second of the organ’s first note, stood straight up, grasped his hymnal with two hands, and extended his arms to hold the hymnal in a rather regal position as if he were joining the choir’s well-rehearsed symmetrical procession. It was a bodily position of reverence, solemnity, and awe.

Another service began with Michael W. Smith’s “Agnus Dei.” A worship leader with a guitar began by playing the introductory chords; the drummer added a subtle pulsing rhythm on the cymbal. The person next to me, clearly habituated to this type of service, immediately lifted her hands gently, looked longingly upward, and closed her eyes in prayer. It was a bodily position of intimacy, engagement, and awe. Both gestures were immediate. Both had been ingrained through prior worship experiences. Both communicated a powerful sense of affect. Both not only reflected, but also shaped, the worshiper’s emotional life.

Talking Points

What kinds of bodily actions are prominent in your worship? What kinds of emotions do those actions not only express, but also form? Be sure to include what may seem like “passive” gestures and postures too. It is an heroic accomplishment to form a community to listen attentively to a twenty- or thirty-minute sermon!

Engaging the Senses

Second, consider sensory competencies. One of those sensory competencies is clearly visual. Worship trains us, in part, for good or ill, through what we look at and how we attach meaning to what we see. A person’s sense of the significance of the cross is shaped quite differently if she attends a church with a prominent crucifix than if she attends one with an empty cross. Repeated use of images of Jesus as an Anglo or African figure quietly reinforces implicit messages about race and ethnicity, but also about Jesus. Iconoclastic traditions do not escape this visual formation. The whitewashed walls of a Puritan meeting house convey a formative influence just as much as the soaring heights of a baroque cathedral. Each space suggests what true piety is like. Each space forms us by making certain kinds of activities possible, by creating a certain kind of atmosphere, and by reinforcing particular theological convictions.

Another sensory competency is aural. This includes, but is certainly not limited to, how we are formed to engage music. What more soul-shaping force can we imagine than the songs we sing? Even when we are tired or depressed, old songs well up within us and dance on our plaintive, whistling lips. When we are old and can remember little else, we are still likely to recall the songs we learned in childhood. Music has the uncanny ability to burrow its way into our spiritual bones. Part of music’s power derives from its physicality—a good reminder that sight and sound are just as much bodily competencies as gesture, posture, or nonverbal communication. Music requires breath. One thing that distinguishes song from speech is the sustained breath it requires. Athletic skill is a matter of muscle memory. So is singing. It depends on physical exertion. One reason we remember songs we’ve sung is that our physical exertion is another means of imprinting the memory of that song on our soul.

Both sight and sound, and for that matter smell and touch, are formative influences. Their precise formative power is relatively difficult to pin down. Often we can’t fully perceive how a given visual or aural environment has shaped us until we leave it. Yet few worshipers would dispute that they have been shaped by certain visual and musical experiences, by the associations that come with the fragrances of communion wine or fellowship meals, or the sounds of pealing bells or praise teams rehearsing.

Talking Points

How are the senses engaged in worship in your congregation? What meaning do people express based on what they see and hear? What about smell, touch, and taste? Consider asking shut-in members of your community what smells and sounds they miss.

Language Forms Us

A third way to think about worship’s cumulative formation is by comparing it with language acquisition. The language we learn as toddlers in our native land and other languages we learn as we travel or move about the globe form in us habitual, almost instinctive patterns of thought and ways of engaging the world. If a culture teaches us a dozen words for different kinds of snow or musical styles or attributes of God, we very likely attend to snow, to musical styles, or to divine attributes with more acute and discerning awareness than if it only teaches us one or two words. If a culture teaches us to say thank you after we receive a gift, we are quite likely not only to learn a form of polite speech but also gratitude, an entirely new emotion or affect than we might otherwise experience.

As with every other cultural experience, participation in communal worship gives us a language to say things we wouldn’t have come up with on our own. We know that a breathtaking sunset evokes a response, but it is the church that teaches us to say “Praise God from whom all blessings flow.” We can’t sleep after watching another news documentary about hunger, and it is the church who teaches us to say “Lord, have mercy.” The church gives us practice at saying things that form in us new capacities for relating to God and to each other—much like a parent who, by teaching a toddler to say “thank you,” is hoping not just to help his child to be polite, but also to form in him or her the capacity for gratitude.

Language, then, not only reflects our thoughts but shapes our thoughts. It creates new modes of relating to other people. It evokes and awakens new emotions—emotions we might not have experienced were we not given the words to name them and form them in us. We live most faithfully when we let those speech patterns, and the deeper relational capacities they develop, become our daily, spontaneous responses to God, the world, and those around us.

Talking Points

How has worship in your congregation formed you to say certain things to God and to each other that you would never otherwise have said? Does the language used in your church stretch you in good, constructive ways?

Worship Forms Us

So far we’ve seen that worship forms us not only through the explicit messages that are communicated, but also in a quiet, more subterranean way, through bodily gestures, sensory perceptions, and the language it invites us into. When the Holy Spirit is working to help us hear God’s Word and to prompt our prayers, the Spirit can work through multiple dimensions of our experience, on multiple levels.

The complexity (and wonder) of all this is even greater when we consider the nature of what exactly is formed in us. Indeed, there is multiplicity not only in how formation occurs, but also in the content of that formation.

Part of what is formed in us is explicitly conceptual. Worship both presents and practices concepts. We hear, for example, repeated references—and perhaps an occasional explanation—of the Trinity, but we also experience prayers offered to the Father, through the Son, in the Spirit—prayers that invite us to imagine God as the One who is before us, alongside us, and within us. We hear the claim that Jesus is God’s Son who became human for our salvation. But we also practice this claim when we take bread and wine that are given to us as “the body and blood of Jesus.” While concepts don’t begin to exhaust Christian faith and life, Christianity does make wonderfully rich and life-giving conceptual claims.

Second, part of what worship forms in us is a new perspective on life in all its dimensions. The writer of Psalm 73, perplexed at the success of the foolish, testifies that it was “in the sanctuary that I perceived their end” (v. 17). Participation in worship offered the writer a perspective, a point of view that helped him see life in an altogether different way. Through the lens of worship, all the idolatries of money, sex, and power can be put in their proper place—even if only momentarily—a displacement equally important whether we are eight, thirty-eight, or eighty-eight years old.

Third, part of what is formed in us is a set of emotions. Worship helps to sculpt the emotional landscape of our lives. The melodies, rhythms, and harmonies of worship evoke in us certain emotions. They may allow us to experience grandeur or gratitude or lament in ways that will happen in no other part of our life—affections that, because they are offered in the name of God, become permanently attached in our minds and hearts with our notion of true spirituality. Some churches form in worshipers a deep awe, others shape a profound exuberance. Others manage to teach worshipers to express genuine and honest guilt, but in ways that allow the grace of the gospel to melt that guilt away.

Fourth, worship forms in us certain relationships with God and with each other. Worship enacts a conversation between God and the gathered community. We learn to hear God speak words of comfort, assurance, challenge, and correction. We speak words of praise, lament, gratitude, and confession. All these words only make sense as an expression of a fundamental relationship. Likewise, worship enacts our relationships with others. As we gather at the Lord’s table, worship forms us to consider each other as brothers and sisters in Christ, regardless of age, gender, race, or economic class. Worship forms us to act toward each other as fellow servants, fellow saints—patterns of interaction that do not come naturally to us in any walk of life.

Fifth, part of what is formed in us are certain virtues. Hearing a courageous preacher helps us imagine how we might summon courage to speak the truth. Speaking a penitential prayer of uncommon honesty might quicken our conscience to perceive our own patterns of personal dishonesty. And each of these individual virtues is deepened through the fundamental way worship calls us to take ourselves out of the center of the universe. In a culture of self-centered interest, worship is one of the few activities that has as its intrinsic purpose to “de-center” ourselves, to find out what it feels like not to be the center of the universe.

Talking Points

List these five categories on a board: concepts, perspectives, emotions, relationships, and virtues. Then see if you can generate at least five items per category. My guess that you’ll find one or two of these categories fairly challenging—and that will point you to a good area for further reflection.

Implicit Messages

For all this goodness, however, we often fail to sense the cumulative transformative power of worship over time. Consider two factors that may contribute to this.

First, much of it happens implicitly, without recognition or overt attention. At the college where I teach, a group of social scientists and rhetorical experts have been observing congregations’ attitudes about a number of significant political and cultural issues: the environment, gender roles, race and ethnicity, and political attitudes. The upshot of their work is that the most significant formative role that congregations play on these matters has to do with both the seemingly insignificant messages that they convey every day and the things they simply take for granted. Here are a few examples:

  • When it comes to creation and the environment, what a congregation prays for or says on Earth Day pales in significance to the casual, informal messages it conveys about the earth on other days. The quiet, implicit messages, reinforced over many months, have a powerful shaping effect.
  • Young women who grow up in churches with female pastors are likely to absorb the possibility that they too could be a pastor much more readily than if they grow up in a church where there are no female leaders (the opposite is also true).
  • If a congregation only ever prays for its own nation, but never for the other nations of the world, wouldn’t we expect young, impressionable Christians to begin to assume that their own nation was more aligned with God than others?
  • Congregations that are never intellectually challenged in worship may come to assume that intellect has very little to do with faith. Congregations that never allow space for emotional engagement can come to assume that emotions are not a key part of faithful spirituality.

To summarize: public worship gives off powerful cues and reinforces attitudes towards nature, gender, race and ethnicity, and national and global identity. It reinforces certain political agendas. Worship both reflects and shapes a worldview and way of life. And much of this formative power happens very quietly.

A Good Word for Habits

Second, note that the power of many of these modes of formation is generated out of their regular, habitual use. Formation arises out of deeply seated habits. None of this, however, has made “habit” a good word for most people in church. “Habit,” like “ritual,” pushes up against a tide of resistance. Indeed, in many contexts the only worship habit that seems desirable is that of endless innovation. In much of North American culture, we are habitually wired to resist habits.

Fortunately, patterns in broader culture help us see the thinly veiled superficiality of that approach. Even a quick stroll through Barnes & Noble leads to section after section of books whose advice depends on habit formation. Advice for exercise programs insists that almost nothing of long-term advantage is accomplished if you spend three hours in the gym one day attempting to lift thousands of pounds of weights; much is gained if you spend thirty minutes three times a week trying to lift just a little more than you could the month before. Business literature focuses on disciplines in books like the Seven Habits of Highly Effective People. Literature on marriage or family relationships focuses on re-sculpting the habits of communication and intimacy that sustain a relationship over months and years. This literature bears quiet witness to a deep spiritual truth: healthy habits—healthy disciplines—are crucial for healthy bodies, minds, and souls.

Talking Points

What habits—for giving, for personal devotions, for family life—does your church recommend? Do people have a positive view of these habits?

Complications and Caveats

But if all of this is so, you may be thinking, why in the world aren’t lifelong churchgoers better people? Isn’t this view of cumulative transformation hopelessly naïve? And indeed, there are some complications.

For one, participating in worship is not the only formative power in our lives. Even lifelong worshipers are formed also by advertising, shopping malls, television, friends, and families. These too have rituals, habits, gestures, and language that form us.

For another, we can inoculate ourselves from the formative power of worship. One way to do so is to think of going to church in superstitious terms, as if hedging our bets with God. If we participate in worship by simply hoping that our being there will cause God to bless us, what we are doing really amounts to practicing something other than Christianity. We would, in fact, be “going through the motions.” We would be practicing hypocrisy—saying things to God we don’t mean. Spiritually speaking, the sin of hypocrisy is one of the most vexing antidotes to formation. It cuts our external actions off from internal attitudes. We may even become well-practiced at not meaning what we say or do.

Third, some of this formation depends on our attentiveness. A person who attends worship reluctantly, perhaps with a spouse or parent, and works to avoid active engagement with liturgical action is less likely to be transformed by the experience. Some of us are kept from attentiveness by powers beyond our control: clinical depression or ADHD, for example, might significantly affect our aptitude to enter into worship.

Fourth, external factors can also turn upside-down a lifetime of formation like an earthquake that changes the flow of rivers. One experience of abuse or injustice in church can lead us (understandably) to turn away from everything that congregation stands for, casting aside years of formation.

These caveats are important. They remind us how messy ministry is. In nearly every community the deep formative power of worship offers a mixture of good and bad. Congregational leaders can never be in control of all this formation. Indeed, the wheat and tares of vital Christianity appear in every facet of Christian living, including worship.

But these caveats need not slow or stop our grateful reception of the Spirit’s cumulative transformative work over time. Compare them to the complaints of a reluctant exerciser. “Why exercise when my eating habits will only put on the calories I am taking off?” “Why exercise when I am likely to simply stop in six months and lose everything I’ve gained?” “Why not go on sinning so that grace may abound?” As in every other area of Christian life, we gain wisdom when we hold on to vital truth about faithful ministry with open-minded awareness of the dangers and downsides of the claims we embrace.

In sum, participating in worship over time shapes our souls in a variety of ways. It exposes us to and gives us practice in ways of talking, seeing, and gesturing that form the categories in which we think, talk, and gesture about our faith. It helps us experience emotions that may be new to us, emotions we would never have felt or cultivated on our own. It not only speaks about virtue but forms us to become virtuous over time. Worship is a powerfully forming and transforming force. This is, in part, what Romano Guardini meant when he spoke of liturgy as a force that “goes out like ripples into the world,” or what Walter Brueggemann means when he refers to liturgy’s “world-making” quality. Liturgical participation quietly but powerfully sculpts our souls.

Talking Points

End your discussion with a prayer of gratitude for the amazing work of the Holy Spirit to form faith in all these ways!

If this article intrigues you, see also “Talking It Through: A Group Discernment Exercise in Faith Formation,” (p. 42) for which a variety of church leaders were asked five questions about the formative practices in their churches. —JB

John D. Witvliet is director of the Calvin Institute of Christian Worship and professor of music and worship at Calvin College and Calvin Theological Seminary in Grand Rapids, Michigan. He also teaches in the religion department at Calvin College.