There are many valuable ways to study the history of the church; church historians often trace the development of creedal theology, recount the lives of key theologians and church leaders, or study significant events in the life of the church. Each of these is a valuable way to understand how we arrived where we are today. Some of the most helpful examples of general church histories of this kind include Justo L. González’s The Story of Christianity (HarperOne, 2010), Zondervan’s two volume Church History by Ferguson, Woodbridge, and James III (2013), and Mark A. Noll’s Decisive Moments in the History of Christianity (Baker, 2012).
I am convinced, however, that one of the best ways to truly understand what lies at the core of the Christian faith is by studying its worship. You see, the Christian religion is more than its theology; in fact, very often what truly constitutes the central commitments of Christianity in various stages of history actually differs from the prominent creeds of the period. Rather, one of the most accurate indicators of the central convictions of a church or movement is the way that it worships.
Yet, I think it’s safe to say that most evangelical Christians don’t realize this about their worship. Worship is what we do when we gather for church on Sunday—we sing some songs and listen to a sermon that hopefully will give us some practical advice for the week. Worship for most evangelicals tends to focus on methodology: How many songs will we sing? What instrumentation will we use? In what order will we organize the service? How we worship is based on cultural conventions, preferences of the people, or tradition. What matters is what we believe and the sincerity of our hearts; how we worship is simply the authentic overflow of our hearts toward God.
However, corporate worship does something far more significant than many Christians recognize—liturgy forms our religion. But the reverse is equally true—religion forms our liturgy. It’s the age-old chicken-and-egg question: which comes first? The answer depends on from which perspective we’re looking. From the perspective of leaders among God’s people who have given intentional considerations to these matters, religion forms liturgy. But for most Christians who have not thought much about it—leaders and laity alike—liturgy has formed their religion without them even knowing it.
I am convinced that a central solution to problems we face today in evangelical Christianity is to recover a lost understanding that worship involves more than simply expressing devotion to God through songs we enjoy; rather, worship forms the very core of who we are as Christians.