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The Heart of Worship

Learning to Inhabit the Liturgy for the Life of the World

When “faith and vocation” books speak of “connecting Sunday worship to Monday work,” they often mean overcoming the false dichotomy between individual Christians’ personal, private faith and their public lives. This is captured, for example, in the subtitle of pastor Tom Nelson’s book Work Matters: Connecting Sunday Worship to Monday Work. From this perspective, the primary task of integrating faith and work is to instill a biblical worldview in Christians on Sundays and encourage them to make connections to their weekday work. There is much to commend in the worldview approach to discipleship, but is this the best pedagogical approach to Christian formation?

The Limited Return of Worldview Formation

I have found much help on this subject in recent years from James K. A. Smith’s writings on philosophical anthropology—philosopher-speak for talking about basic views of human nature and human flourishing. Every pedagogy has an implicit philosophical anthropology, and Smith pulls no punches in explaining where popular approaches to Christian discipleship need to be reformed. He writes, “If all of life is going to be worship, the sanctuary is the place where we learn how” (“Sanctification for Ordinary Life,” Reformed Worship, March 2012). This statement takes on a specific meaning in light of Smith’s underlying view of human nature.

According to Smith, humans are what they love and worship (homo adorans). Going further, humans are liturgical creatures (homo liturgicus) whose loves are formed by the constellations of their everyday rituals. Thus Smith focuses on how Christian liturgies (not only preaching!) form human desires through embodied practices. Smith’s philosophical anthropology is helpful for those focusing on the integration of faith and work because it begins to show what discipleship looks like when we think about forming our loves, not just our minds. This is why the sanctuary is where we learn how to worship God in all of our lives.

Bringing church to work or the other way around?

Assuming Smith’s understanding of the human person, I became interested in a slightly different question: In what ways do the experiences of work affect how Christians experience corporate worship? I spent six months in three churches exploring this question. I sat down and listened to people from a range of backgrounds tell stories about their experiences and anxieties in their work. Of those I interviewed, some were fresh out of college, others were retired, and still others were struggling with unemployment. Many were trying to navigate their way up the career ladder, while many others were attempting to navigate multiple roles and jobs such as parenting or caring for aging parents. What I found was surprising and counterintuitive.

Of the seventy-seven parishioners I interviewed, those who had a robust spirituality to deal with challenges of work talked most about practices that helped them bring their weekday experiences and emotions into corporate worship. Instead of stopping with a theological explanation of why their work matters to God, these people spoke personally and specifically about how they carried their workweek into Sunday. This dynamic impacted the way they inhabited worship and encountered God.

When you ask someone about the role corporate worship plays in their life, you get a privileged view into their spirituality. Some described Sunday worship as a time to “refuel” after a tiring week. Others referred to worship as a time to be still. One woman put it this way: “Often, Sundays are the only time in my week when I am alone with my thoughts before God.” Still others said that, in corporate worship, they actively bring the week’s stresses and strains—as well as victories and successes—before God.

Along with these encouraging examples I also heard a significant number of people who felt that to truly engage in worship and focus on God, they must leave their weekday concerns at the sanctuary door. The theology reflected in that feeling reveals the bifurcation of the Christian faith that many of us make between our private and public lives.

Those for Whom Worship Really Matters

My research on Christian experiences of faith and work taught me how to inhabit the liturgy of corporate worship more faithfully. Whereas I am often disconnected from my emotions throughout the workday, I interviewed Christians again and again who engage in the worship liturgy mindful of the past and coming workweeks. A few people commented that it is the disconnect between the songs and prayers in the liturgy and the hardships, injustices, and stresses in their workweek that is formative for them. One man’s interview stands out.

My wife and I adopted the practice of rehearsing what trumpets of praise, ashes of repentance, and tears of lament arose out of our workweek while driving to church each Sunday. This practice prepares us to bring all of life from our everyday parishes before God in corporate worship.

John is a vice-principal at a public high school in Los Angeles County. Throughout his tenure as an administrator there have been many hardships involving parental abuse, student violence, and even death. Amid these work experiences the regular rhythm of corporate worship plays a critical role in his spiritual vitality. Here’s how John describes it:

Oftentimes Sunday is the first time I’ve sat still and had space in which to process my week. Sometimes it’s the dichotomy between what I’ve experienced at work and the words and the beauty of what I’m hearing sung that hits me. We sing words like, “Everything’s good in the world, God’s in control, God loves you.” The words don’t necessarily match up with what I’ve experienced all week long. So it becomes really important for me to sit and hear those words and to remind myself of the truths and to process through the difficult experiences from work. At times, I find myself asking, “Where is God in this? Why does God let these things happen? How do I move forward? How do I help this kid . . . this adult?” I try to bring all of this into worship and allow God to speak into these experiences—allow God to make sense of it for me, and allow it to change my heart. Because it’s easy to build up a thick layer and insulate yourself from the pain of others.

John is not alone in this experience of worship. I could tell similar stories of nurses, teachers, and business people, as well as those who are retired or currently unemployed. Their experiences of work reinforce for them how much is at stake in liturgical practices and how desperately they need worship that helps them intercede for others and be reoriented to God.

For the Life of the World

I find Nicholas Wolterstorff’s work on liturgy particularly helpful for rooting discipleship in a Reformed ecclesiology. He argues that Christian liturgy is not simply to form our inner, spiritual lives. It serves a critical role in forming the church to serve God’s purposes in the world. As we gather, we bring the trumpets of praise, ashes of repentance, and tears of lament on behalf of our everyday parishes of neighborhood, workplace, and city before God in worship. And, through the liturgy, we are then nurtured in God’s story and can carry hope, strength, and courage back to those people and places to which God has called us (“Liturgy and Lament,” Perspectives, June/July 2012).

The interviews had such a profound effect on me that my wife and I adopted the practice of rehearsing what trumpets of praise, ashes of repentance, and tears of lament arose out of our workweek while driving to church each Sunday. This practice prepares us to bring all of life from our everyday parishes before God in corporate worship. This is one practice that has helped transform worship from simply being an occasion of personal enrichment, detached from our everyday discipleship throughout the week.            

Empowering Christians to Engage in Worship for the Life of the World

I have encountered thoughtful and grounded liturgists, worship leaders, and pastors in the churches I studied. And yet I often am asked at conferences, “What do I do if I am at a church in which the liturgy does not make room for such offering of the workweek to God?” or “It is not uncommon at my church for those leading the service to say or imply that we should ‘leave our cares at the door’ as we enter into worship.” Here again I find it helpful to simply let the experience of one person I interviewed speak to this issue.

Jennifer is a speech therapist who works with stroke victims at a hospital. Her work is meaningful but challenging and stressful. When I asked her about what gives her strength and stamina to do her work day in and day out, she immediately replied, “The benediction.” Taken aback, I asked her to explain what she meant. “I always have my patients in the back of my mind,” she said. “When their faces come to mind I simply say a prayer for their healing or for wisdom on how to treat them. So when we say the benediction at the end of the service on Sunday—‘May the blessing of God Almighty, the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit, be upon us and through us with all those to whom he sends us, now and forever, amen’—I hear God saying to me, ‘Go out and serve these people on my behalf.’”

What is amazing is that no one told Jennifer to participate in the benediction this way. She developed this practice intuitively—and, I might add, unbeknownst to those who craft and lead the liturgy every Sunday! As we saw in the story of John, the vice-principal, although a person may not have influence over the structure and content of the liturgy, they can be empowered to inhabit the liturgy in ways that bring God into the hard realities of their life and work.

When a song of praise is placed on the lips of the congregation, worshipers may feel a prompting from the Spirit to cry out in lament for the hiddenness of God in their life or in the life of someone they know or love. Similarly, if a Scripture passage about the coming of God’s kingdom is read, a worshiper may have a deep conviction that their community’s life does not coincide with images of “swords being beaten into plowshares” or of unity between “tribes, tongues, and nations.” Their response may be to cry out to God in repentance.

The movements of the liturgy need not be straitjackets that lock worshipers into a single posture or response. Instead, the liturgy should be a dynamic conversation (proclamation and response) through which God speaks to his people and makes room for their reply. This exchange is the heart of worship in which worshipers talk directly to God and not simply about him.

In this conversation facilitated by the liturgy, I find wisdom in the words Cornelius van der Kooi once spoke to me: “The Holy Spirit is the final preacher, teacher, and worship leader. And it is his activity in the worshiping community to which we should be attentive.” What I heard again and again in my interviews were accounts of God encountering Christians in Sunday worship as they give voice to the trumpets, ashes, tears, and petitions from their workweek before God.

As every seasoned pastor knows from post-sermon conversations, what is preached and what is heard is not always the same thing. There is a surplus of meaning that extends beyond what we intend. Sometimes this causes consternation in preachers; other times it is a surprise blessing from which they also benefit. This is true not only during the preaching, but also in prayers, songs, silences, and sacraments of the liturgy.

The invitation to worship leaders and parishioners alike is to find simple practices by which we bring the joys and strains of our week before God as our sacrifice of worship. In this liturgical time and space, we look to the Spirit of God for guidance and strength through Scripture, sacrament, and fellowship as we are sent out to pursue our priestly role for the life of the world.