Take a moment to recall a recent worship service where you experienced the presence of God and left feeling spiritually “filled.” What created that sense of fullness for you?
Was the music powerful and moving?
Did the sermon resonate with your soul, as though the preacher were speaking directly to you?
Did someone share a testimony that encouraged or challenged you?
Sometimes the Spirit moves in unexpected ways and we leave with the same sense of contentedness as when we push our chairs back from a delicious meal. What creates that experience in worship?
Instinctively, we assume that this has to do with the service itself. It is what happens when talented musicians play songs we love, or when the service speaks directly to our lives, or when the preacher is a gifted communicator and insightful Bible teacher. We evaluate the service as we might a gourmet restaurant, crediting the chef or the wait staff for an unforgettable experience.
But what if the difference is actually something else?
Six commands for worship
In the call to worship found in Psalm 100, the psalmist sketches a picture of meaningful worship in strikingly different terms than we often use.
In four short verses, the psalmist issues no fewer than six commands to guide the worship we offer in response to God’s merciful, faithful love: be joyful, gladly serve God, sing in God’s presence, understand who God is, give thanks, pray.
For this psalmist, worship is what we do, not what worship leaders and preachers do. It is what we give to God, not what we get from God (though there is an invitation to receive as well).
If this is true, then what meaningful worship demands is our physical participation in the service (to the degree that we are able).
It is not enough to just go to church on a Sunday morning and wait for God to move. Worship requires engaging as actively as possible: singing the songs, praying the prayers, following along with the preaching (entering the Bible reading, taking notes, etc.).
To not participate is like going on a date, but refusing to eat dinner and choosing to pay attention to your phone rather than your conversation partner. Worship is not a spectator sport.
More than that, our participation is not merely external, which can become empty ritual, but equally internal, what theologian Cipriano Vagaggini calls “an encounter of the soul.” It requires emotional, wholehearted participation, attending to, and meaning, the words we sing and pray. It requires intellectual participation, actively listening not for the preacher’s voice but for the voice of God, who speaks in every church on every Sunday in every part of the service.
Of course, just as there can be physical limitations to our participation, there also can be spiritual limitations: distracting circumstances, a tumultuous inner world, and, yes, parts of the service that make it difficult to focus. Even so, meaningful worship requires us to actively offer ourselves to God, opening ourselves to an encounter with him.
Meaningful worship requires my full participation, inside and out, body and soul.
This means that meaningful worship is much more of a discipline than an experience.
Like exercise, it is something we commit to, something that demands our disciplined choice to fully exert ourselves, in anticipation of the satisfaction of having had a good workout. Of course, we prefer some exercises over others. Some days it is easy to work hard, and on other days we simply go through the motions (and even then, doing it is still better for us than not doing it!). There are days when we “feel it,” and days we don’t. What matters is the sheer discipline of showing up every Sunday, and giving ourselves as fully as possible to worship the God who has given himself fully to us through Jesus Christ by the power of the Holy Spirit.
To return to our initial metaphor, worship is not like fine dining, where we are at the mercy of those who prepare the meal and those who serve it up, hopefully to our satisfaction. Meaningful worship is more like a potluck dinner, where we each do the work to bring something – ourselves.
In meaningful worship, we give something before we get something.
Meaningful worship is a commitment to try everything, even the “dishes” that are not initially appealing, in community with those we love, with the anticipation of sometimes being surprised by unexpected delights.
Most importantly, it is the place where everyone eats their fill and is satisfied by the unmistakable flavour of the love that permeates each dish.
May you discover the fullnesss of potluck worship.
[Michael Krause is the teaching pastor at Southridge Community Church, St. Catharines, Ont. He is a PhD candidate at McMaster Divinity College who is researching worship and formation in the evangelical church.
Michael, thanks for this article. I especially appreciated that you located worship as a spiritual discipline, not simply an experience. To expand on that, I’d suggest that worship (in the New Testament) is primarily a way of living all of life so that God is revered. I base this, in part, on the New Testament writers never naming a Christian gathering a worship gathering, and on Romans 12:1-2. I also recognize that on a few occasions, worship is named as one activity within gatherings of the first Christians. With that in mind, I would like to add 2 features to your list of what makes worship participatory: in addition to emotional and intellectual engagement, I’d add bodily engagement (e.g. singing) and relational engagement (doing the same activity altogether at the same time).
Thanks for your comments, clarifications, and expansions, Andrew. I endorse all of them. Surely, whatever we do in Sunday services has a particular function—worshipfully re-covenanting ourselves to the God who redemptively reveals himself in Jesus Christ—but its intention must be to transform whatever we do outside of Sunday services—which is our entire lives— into worship as well.
I’d love to find an alternative label for what we do when we gather on Sundays. In addition to your observations above, I’d add that worship is used colloquially to refer to only one component of the Sunday gathering, the act of singing together. However, sadly, the primary (only?) alternative, liturgy, is a word that, for many, suggests something that Catholics and Anglicans do: smells and bells, the recitation of Creeds, and so on. And it grows cumbersome to continually write, “devoting ourselves to the apostles’ teaching and to fellowship, to the breaking of bread and to prayer”! I’m open to suggestions!