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Worship isn’t just something we do; it is where God does something to us.

smithWhen we tacitly assume that we are the primary actors in worship, then we also assume that worship is basically an expressive endeavor. This is why we now constrict “worship” to the song service of our gathering, the time in the service when we can express ourselves. We think of worship primarily in a bottom-up framework, as a way for us to express our praise and show our devotion–as if worship gathers us to perform for God as our proverbial “audience of one.” When we think of worship in this way, then we also assume that the most important characteristic of our worship is that it should be sincere. If worship is expression of our devotion to God, then the last thing we want to be is a hypocrite: our expression needs to be honest, true, fresh, genuine, “authentic.”

But this creates an interesting challenge because sincerity and authenticity tend to generate a penchant for novelty. . . . Novelty is how we try to maintain the fresh sincerity of worship that is fundamentally understood as expression.

With the best of intentions, this “expressive” paradigm is then allied to a questionable distinction between the form of worship and the content of the gospel. . . .

In our desire to embed the gospel content in forms that are attractional, accessible, and not off-putting, we look around for contemporary cultural forms that are more familiar. Instead of asking contemporary seekers and Christians to inhabit old, stodgy medieval practices that are foreign and strange, we retool worship by adopting contemporary practices that can be easily entered precisely because they are so familiar. Rather than the daunting, spooky ambience of the Gothic cathedral, we invite people to worship in the ethos of the coffee shop, the concert, or the mall. Confident in the form/content distinction, we believe we can distill the gospel content and embed it in these new forms, since the various practices are effectively neutral: just temporal containers for an eternal message. We distill “Jesus” out of the inherited, ancient forms of historic worship (which we’ll discard as “traditional”) in order to present Jesus in forms that are both fresh and familiar: come meet Jesus in the sanctified experience of a coffee shop; come hear the gospel in a place that should feel familiar since we’ve modeled it after the mall.

The problem, of course, is that these “forms” are not just neutral containers or discardable conduits for a message. . . .

Expressivists assume theirs is the only way to understand worship, and so they impose their expressivism on historic Christian worship and see only insincerity and rote repetition. . . . But the practices of historic Christian worship are not just old, “traditional” ways that Christians gathered around Word and Table. They are rooted in a fundamentally different understanding of what worship is, a fundamentally different paradigm of the primary agent of Christian worship. . . . In worship we don’t just come to show God our devotion and give him our praise; we are called to worship because in this encounter God (re)makes and molds us top-down. Worship is the arena in which God recalibrates our hearts, reforms our desires, and rehabituates our loves. Worship isn’t just something we do; it is where God does something to us. Worship is the heart of discipleship because it is the gymnasium in which God retrains our hearts.

-James K. A. Smith, You Are What You Love: The Spiritual Power of Habit, 74-77.

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Scott Aniol

About Scott Aniol

Scott Aniol is the founder and Executive Director of Religious Affections Ministries. He is Chair of the Worship Ministry Department at Southwestern Baptist Theological Seminary, where he teaches courses in ministry, worship, hymnology, aesthetics, culture, and philosophy. He is the author of Worship in Song: A Biblical Approach to Music and Worship, Sound Worship: A Guide to Making Musical Choices in a Noisy World, and By the Waters of Babylon: Worship in a Post-Christian Cutlure, and speaks around the country in churches and conferences. He is an elder in his church in Fort Worth, TX where he resides with his wife and three children.

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