The Super-Concentrated Practice of Public Worship

Q

I have recently been reading some literature that speaks about public worship as a “concentrated form of Christian practice.” I like the sound of that phrase, but I can’t define or explain it. Can you help me?

A

About a year ago, my own pastor introduced the “passing of the peace” in our Sunday morning service by saying this: “We now share Christ’s peace with each other—a highly concentrated ritualized ‘snapshot’ of how we are to treat people all week long.”

This gets at the idea vividly. Christian liturgy expresses in a concentrated, compressed, and highly focused way some of the fundamental habits of the heart that we live all week long. The pastor’s pithy introduction powerfully framed our mutual greeting, providing a fresh way of thinking about a customary practice.

Liturgy and life are, to be sure, very different things. But the moves we make in liturgy—the patterns of speech we practice, the spiritual muscles we exercise—are replicated all week long in the faithful Christian life.

Directional Arrow Key

↓ God speaks to us
↑ We respond to God
←→ We speak to each other

IDEA: If you have a written service order, consider taking the past month’s orders and placing the relevant arrows next to each act of worship to depict who is speaking to whom. Is there a healthy dialogue going on between God and those gathered in your congregation, or is it a one-sided conversation? You could also invite your congregants to add the arrows to their worship bulletins as a means of educating them about what is happening in worship.

If you don’t publish a service order, work instead with the planning document or list you provide for worship leaders. Find those worship orders for the past few months or analyze recent videos of worship, asking the same questions about who is speaking to whom in each part of your worship. —JB

↓ Call to Worship and God’s Greeting. The first thing we do in worship is pivot toward God to listen to and to respond in obedience to God’s invitation. “Pivoting toward God” is a needed daily practice. We live the Christian life not as “prompting people” but as “responding people”—living all of life responding to God’s call and invitation. God acts first. We respond.

↑ Acts of Praise. In worship, we sing songs of praise together. In life, we drive home on a rainy day and are surprised by the joy of an unexpected rainbow or a beautiful sunset. Internally, we could simply say “what an interesting phenomenon.” But instead, we learn to respond, “Praise God from whom all blessings flow.” Our private doxology echoes Sunday’s communal doxology.

↑ Prayer of Confession. In worship, we practice naming our sinfulness and pivoting toward Christ for salvation. In life, we need to make dozens of these mini-pivots every day, dying to self, rising to Christ.

↓ Assurance of Pardon. In worship, we hear the good news of forgiveness, receiving it with joy. This never grows old! Each time we remember our inclination to self-centeredness and sin with remorse, we can recall and savor this good news and resolve to turn from our sin.

↑ Intercession and Lament. In worship, we sing Psalm 13 or other expressions of lament and prayer. At home, we encounter the news, with its daily litany of wars and rumors of wars, violence, and racism, and we say not merely “OK, time for the game show now,” but “How long, O Lord? Have mercy, O God.” Lamenting what is wrong with the world is a vital, truth-telling Christian practice.

↑ Offering. We practice releasing money we are tempted to clasp and clench—sanctifying the firstfruits of what God has entrusted to us. Then, all week long, we are called to use money in ways that make clear it belongs to God, not to us.

↓ Scripture and Sermon. In worship, we listen attentively to the reading of Scripture to discern God’s call in our life. Listening attentively to Scripture is also a central practice for life between Sundays. In worship and life, we are called to “eat this book” (as Eugene Peterson so vividly described it).

↑ Prayer of Dedication. When we sing or say “take my life that it may be consecrated, Lord, to Thee” we are acknowledging that we will need help obeying (God’s agency), and also saying that our actions matter (our agency). All week long, we live both relying on God’s agency and exerting our own—a grace-filled dance of sanctifying obedience. While justification is 100% God’s work and 0% ours, sanctification is 100% God’s work and 100% ours. That’s a holy form of Christian mathematics.

↓←→ Lord’s Supper. Among its many layers of meaning, we come to a meal designed to obliterate the distinctions between rich and poor (1 Cor. 11:22f; James 2:1-7). This refines how we view people within the body of Christ and how we relate to them all week long. We also come to a meal that reminds us just how much we depend on God’s feeding to nourish our souls—just as much as our bodies require physical nourishment from food.

↓ Benediction. The final word in worship is not a command, but a blessing. Any commands rehearsed in worship are set within the context of God’s desire for us to flourish and God’s promise to be with us. This helps us remember that we live all week long “in the shadow of God’s wings” and that there is nothing that can separate us from God’s love. Receiving God’s benediction is a pretty powerful image of what becoming a Christian and living as one is all about.

So that’s the idea. Within the space of a single worship service, we work each of these fundamental spiritual muscles. Sometime the link between liturgy and life is very explicit. I might wake up in the middle of a night of anxious sleeplessness and hum to myself a song of comfort we sang on Sunday. Perhaps more often, the link is implicit. We absorb in worship ways of responding, speaking, and feeling that we aren’t even fully aware of. Those patterns quietly but firmly shape our souls and prepare us to respond to life’s circumstances in Christ-shaped ways.

This is not the only way to think about liturgy, but there are many, many advantages to approaching liturgy and life in this way. Here are a few:

  1. This vision challenges us to think about what basic moves we need for liturgy to include. Some of our liturgies are deficient and really can’t support a full-orbed Christian way of life. Oh, that we would learn to see liturgy as a powerful resource, rather than a barrier to vital Christian living and witness!
  2. This vision frees us from the burden of thinking that we need to do an entire week’s praise, or giving, or fellowship on Sunday morning.
  3. This vision challenges us to look for the direct echoes of worship in everyday life—to savor those moments during our week when we re-engage one of the basic practices of liturgy.
  4. This vision provides many lifelong worshipers with fresh ways of framing what we do together in public worship.
  5. This vision provides a simple way to teach children and new believers many of the fundamental habits of heart and mind in what it means to be Christian. “Look at what we do together” and “learn to echo it all week long.”
  6. This vision resists the problem of a split between liturgy and life, between worship and justice. It casts a vision for integrity between what we do on Sunday and how we live all week long—responding to the urgent words of the prophets who lamented ritualism disconnected from life (e.g., Isaiah 1 and many other texts).

At your next worship committee or council meeting, or you next choir or band rehearsal, ask how your congregation might grow in their understanding of public worship as a “super-concentrated Christian practice,” and see more fully the deep connections between worship and life.

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