This last year and a half will take some time to unpack. The grief of so many deaths, the emotional toll of social distancing, fear, division, and the growing fissures in the world around us and our own churches must be attended to. There is much for us to learn.
Early on in the pandemic I had an email exchange with a pastor in Africa. I asked him what his church did for congregants when it needed to shut down due to Ebola. The answer was that they didn’t do much when it came to worship; families simply worshiped together. They chose a passage and read it, shared their thoughts, and sang together. The church spent its energies meeting the physical and emotional needs of the community.
That exchange really struck me when I compared it with how much God’s people in North America seemed to depend on the institutional church for their spiritual sustenance. Many were at a complete loss when the church could not meet in person for worship or other programming. They were at a loss for how to lead their own households in meaningful worship. They lacked the knowledge to attend to their own and their children’s faith formation. It seemed as if the people of God in North America had subcontracted their spiritual life to the institutional church. And so the church responded with extraordinary efforts to try to fulfill that contract. Some churches felt the impact of that contract in discussions of when and how to begin worshiping in person again. Of course there were exceptions to this characterization, but before you dismiss this assessment as being too harsh, think through where your church’s energies were spent and why.
I understand that our people were overwhelmed. Parents in particular were adjusting to having their children home all day for online education while at the same time having to transition to working remotely or scrambling to find additional childcare. People were justifiably worried about their jobs, their health, and the health of those they loved. These were stressful times—times the North American church had failed to prepare for.
It would be an interesting exercise to ask your congregants, “If you were alone on a deserted island, how would you nurture your faith? If you had children or teens with you, what would you do to nurture their faith? If the island wasn’t deserted but you found people who didn’t know the gospel, what would you do or say?” Would folks be able to give a robust response? Each Christian should be equipped both to answer those questions and to live the answers out—not on a deserted island, but in their everyday living, by engaging practices that will sustain their faith even if they are all alone. The role of the church is not to do the practices for its members, but to help them develop these practices and support them over a lifetime.
How are we as the church preparing our people to face the inevitable difficulties in this world? How do we help our people become spiritually resilient so that, if the institutional church is not fully available, they can find spiritual sustenance on their own and provide it to others?
How do we give our people the necessary tools to worship on their own or to lead their household or small group in worship? Do we need to create a new program for faith formation and spiritual disciplines? I don’t believe so. I contend that much of this can happen through our communal worship.
Worship finds itself in the interesting position of being not only a spiritual discipline, but also one of the places that Christians are formed in the disciplines. I would argue that the formation that occurs in worship should not happen as much through “teaching sermons” as through the act of worship itself and through the practices we include in worship.
the gospel, what would you do or say?”
For example, while it’s good to have a sermon on the importance of confession and forgiveness, if we don’t actually practice confession and forgiveness within worship our congregants won’t know how to do so on their own. The repetitive act of confessing our sins to God and receiving God’s forgiveness forms us over time. It becomes part of our spiritual DNA. The words of the liturgy remind us that sin isn’t just doing wrong; it’s equally sinful not to do something we know is right. When the Holy Spirit itself or people in our lives confront us with our sin during the week, then, we know we ought to confess, and we know how to confess. More importantly, we know we are forgiven, and we know how to extend that forgiveness to others. The repetition of confession and forgiveness in our worship also helps teach our children about the need to confess and receive forgiveness. We practice it with them ourselves when we tell them we are sorry and ask them for forgiveness. We practice it with our children when squabbles break out between siblings and in the prayers we lead them in. The encounter we have with God, the dialogue of confession and forgiveness, forms us over time and equips us to disciple others.
Everything we do in worship forms us. As pastors and worship leaders, we can choose to let formation happen unintentionally, possibly leading to malformation, or we can do it intentionally, in a way that helps our congregants become spiritually resilient. The questions then become: What practices do we need to include in worship so that we have the “spiritual memory” to practice them in our daily living? What faith practices form us as Christ’s disciples?
What these practices are and what they look like will most likely vary from place to place. Some practices we will naturally be drawn to, while others may require us to be more intentional. We have much to learn from each other as each community likely excels in some practices and needs to grow in others.
Over the next several issues of Reformed Worship we will consider what these spiritual disciplines or faith practices might look like in worship. It is an echo of Jamie Smith’s teaching in Desiring the Kingdom: Worship, Worldview, and Cultural Formation, where he writes, “Discipleship and spiritual formation are less about erecting an edifice of knowledge than they are a matter of developing a Christian know-how that intuitively understands the world in light of the Gospel.” It is also another take on the “vertical habits” language that we have previously highlighted in RW (see tinyurl.com/RWverticalhabits).
We begin with this issue by focusing on worship practices around the reading and preaching of God’s Word, learning about practices that help connect corporate worship with our daily faith practices. I am excited to present the many practical suggestions and wisdom generously shared in the articles along with the quality worship resources you’ve come to expect. In future issues, we will continue to look at different practices related to elements of worship while still providing you with worship resources around the Christian year.