Worship As Spiritual Formation: 5 Theses (Brannon Hancock)

As I mentioned in my previous post, I’ve been out on the worship conference circuit this summer, raising awareness for our new Worship Arts specialization, that can be taken as part of our Master of Arts in Ministry degree, or along with the Master of Divinity. Two weeks ago I was at the National Worship Leader Conference in Dallas, the fifth and last of the “tour,” representing the seminary and teaching workshops on “Worship As Spiritual Formation” and “The Worship Leader as Pastor.” Having now shared these talks multiple times in various venues throughout 2015, I’m about ready to retire them, at least in their present form. But before I do, I thought I might share one of them here. So, without further ado, and for the sake of brevity, here are the first 5 of my “10 Theses” on Worship as Spiritual Formation – I’ll share the other 5 next time. (Note: this is also pertinent right now because Colleen Derr and I are teaching Congregational Spiritual Formation together to our Marion onsite cohort, and I can’t talk about “CSF” without talking a whole lot about worship.)


THESIS 1: “we were created to worship” – famously, Augustine begins Book 1 of his Confessions (c. 400) by proclaiming, “Great are You, O Lord, and greatly to be praised…And man, being a part of Your creation, desires to praise You…You move us to delight in praising You; for You have formed us for Yourself, and our hearts are restless till they find rest in You.” Similarly, the first question and answer of the Westminster Catechism (1646) reminds us that humanity’s purpose is “to glorify God and enjoy Him forever.” Repetition for emphasis: we were created to worship. (In fact, my friend Brent Peterson even used that as the title of his book on worship!) In Desiring the Kingdom (2009), James K.A. Smith defines man as “homo liturgicus” – we are “liturgical animals” who simply cannot *NOT worship.* Now, Smith (and I) don’t mean “liturgical” in the sense of scripted liturgies or “high-church” worship, but rather, that our natural tendency as human creatures is to devise rituals and bodily practices that organize and help us make sense of our lives. These practices reflect our desires, the orientation of our “loves,” and that which we love, we worship.

THESIS 2: “worship is corporate before it is personal” – this is not a statement about importance but about primacy or priority – “which comes first.” In short, there was always a church, a worshipping community called together by God, well before *I* came along. Christians aren’t created ex nihilo (“out of nothing”), and we aren’t a bunch of autonomous individuals on our own little journeys of self-discovery and spiritual enlightenment. The God who is a communion of Three Persons created us in the Divine image, and this God works redemptively through the created order – through matter, through nature, through people with bodies, through the Body of Christ called Church.

In a very real way, I don’t know how to pray, how to worship, how to read the Bible (etc) apart from faithful Christ-followers who have gone before me – parents and Sunday School teachers, preachers and youth pastors, poets and theologians like Charles and John Wesley, and so on, back through an unbroken thread in the tapestry of apostolic faith. Now, by no means do I want to denigrate personal worship; a Christian life punctuated only by corporate worship on Sundays but never engaged in personal worship is anemic and unhealthy. Personal worship Monday through Saturday is vital, but corporate worship is far more than just the “overflow” or the “icing on the cake” of the Christian life. Instead, think of corporate worship more like the cake pan that forms and gives shape and structure to the Christian life. Without it, we’d be a mess.

And by the way, it’s not “private worship” – worship is personal, but it’s never private. Even if no one else is physically present, when we worship, we’re joining with “the whole company of heaven,” in the words of one liturgy, “singing the hymn of your unending glory.”

THESIS 3: worship is the work of the people”before it took on specifically religious meaning, the word “liturgy” had to do with a public act or service to the community. (So it’s appropriate that we call it a church service.) Thinking of worship as liturgy emphasizes the public and communal nature of worship. The church is a body – the Body of Christ. We call it “corporate” worship, after all, because it’s the worship of the corpus (note the linguistic similarity to corps and corpse), the Body. It’s not the work of the pastor or priest, and certainly not the work of the worship leader and music team – it’s the work of the entire congregation, the faithful people of God, offering up their praises and their selves as a living sacrifice to God. The congregation isn’t the “audience” (please never use that term to describe your “crowd” on Sunday morning!), but rather, the congregation is the performer (I’ll leave that in the singular), performing as one for an audience of (Three-in-)One.

THESIS 4: “we become what we worship” – if we worship that which we supremely love, then eventually we begin to take on the values and the character of the object of our worship. We know this from ordinary life, don’t we? Have you ever noticed how the more time you spend with a close friend or family member – someone you truly love and admire – the more you begin to mimic and adopt their mannerisms, patterns of speech, maybe even aspects of their personality or how they dress? Their habits (good or bad) tend to rub off. You grow alike as you grow together. In a similar way, if we love our jobs, our money, and our “stuff,” our imagination begins to be consumed with accumulation and preservation of wealth. We slowly buy into the “myth of scarcity,” and our concern becomes mainly for “us and ours.” We develop vices that the world calls virtues, like pride and greed (which are “deadly sins,” actually!), and wink at our sin with jokes about “workaholism.” We grow to see ourselves in terms of production and consumption, rather than creatures who depend upon a loving Creator for our provision.

The first sin, and the root of all sin, is idolatry – putting something other than God in God’s rightful place. If we cannot *not worship,* then our worship of anything other than the one true God – the God who raised Jesus Christ from the dead – means we are guilty of idolatry. By orienting our desires toward the God who was in Christ, and following Christ’s example of obedience to the Father, we offer our worship toward the only One who is worthy to receive it. Doxology, after all, has to do not only with giving glory (doxa) to God, but also with recognizing and responding to the glory of God – seeing God aright, for who God really is, and giving God due praise and adoration. In so doing, the Holy Spirit makes us more and more into the likeness of Christ, restoring the Imago Dei, the image of God within us. As Brother Lawrence puts it in The Practice of the Presence of God, “We must know before we can love. In order to know God, we must often think of Him. And when we come to love Him, we shall then also think of Him often, for our heart will be with our treasure.”

THESIS 5: “the shape of worship shapes us” – the rituals and liturgies (religious or secular) that fill our lives ultimately form our imaginations (our vision of the good life) and instill within us a certain identity (who we believe ourselves to be). In other words, worship is formational. In Desiring in the Kingdom, Smith reminds us that “there are no neutral practices” (p. 83); the practices that we are immersed in are “intentionally loaded to form us into certain kinds of people – to unwittingly make us disciples of rival kings and patriotic citizens of rival kingdoms” (p. 90-91). The most powerful of these practices – what Smith calls “secular liturgies” – seek to form us into good consumers, for instance, or good citizens, or “fans.” Alternatively, the liturgies of the Christian faith are oriented toward forming us into faithful Christians. Ergo, worship is also trans-formational. Its goal is to send us out different than we came in. The fancy Latin phrase that we worship scholars like to toss around is lex orandi, lex credendi, lex vivendi. In plain language, the way (or law) of prayer is the way of belief, which is the way of living. Or, if you prefer: right worship is the way to right belief and a good life – and the converse is true as well: worshipping poorly leads to wrong beliefs and a lousy life. (I’m riffing on Stanley Hauerwas a bit there.)

The historic “four-fold” shape of Christian worship involves: (1) our being gathered, in Christ’s name, in the presence of God, in the power of the Holy Spirit; (2) the Word – receiving Christ through Christian proclamation; (3) the Table – receiving Christ through the sacrament of communion; and (4) our being sent, or dismissed, to be Christ’s Body in the world, having been fed by his Word and the symbols of his body and blood. Just think about how powerfully and deeply, at not only the intellectual level but at the bodily level, that “shape” shapes us. We are drawn into a Divine rhythm of being called together for worship; filled up with and formed into the Body of Christ; and sent back out into the world as Christ; only to come back together 7 days later (the time of creation), on the day of resurrection, to begin again. In a very real sense, this is how Christians are made, and made new.