Reflection #25, part 2, on Worship in the Contemporary American Church

This is post number 25, part 2, in a series of random reflections I have been amassing over the past couple of years since retiring from steady, local-church, “weekend warrior” worship ministry.  These ruminations are in no particular order, and they vary in significance.  I welcome discussion on any of them.

Reflection #25: Perhaps the reason so many worship leaders in contemporary American evangelical churches function mostly as song leaders or old-school music directors is that churches greatly underestimate the potential for corporate worship to change lives.

Last week I argued, based partly on John Witvliet’s “The Cumulative Power of 2017_Witvliet_headshot_359 Transformation in Public Worship” in Worship That Changes Lives (ed., Alexis Abernethy), that, despite numerous indications to the contrary in contemporary worship in the evangelical American church, congregational song has the power to transform lives–as much as any sermon or other liturgical action.  To support the claim that corporate worship can facilitate great spiritual transformation, Witvliet offers five specific areas formed when we worship together.  While not specifically focused on the people’s song, I believe these apply to our worship sets, which surely function as an element of worship.  Of course, for many (at least colloquially), “worship” = “congregational singing.”  Here, then, is Witvliet’s take on what actually is formed in worship.

Part of what is formed in us is explicitly conceptual.  Worship both presents concepts and “practices concepts.”  For example, we hear repeated references–and perhaps an occasional explanation–of the Trinity, but we also experience prayers offered to the Father, through the Son, in the Spirit, prayers that invite us to imagine God as the One who is before us, alongside us, and within us.  We hear the claim that Jesus is God’s Son, who became human for our salvation.  But we also practice this claim when we take bread and wine that are provocatively given to us as “the body and blood of Jesus.” . . .

Second, part of what worship forms in us is a new perspective on life in all its dimensions.  The writer of Psalm 73, perplexed at the success of the foolish, testifies that upon going “into the sanctuary . . . [he] perceived their end” (v. 17).  Participation in worship offered a perspective, a point of view, that helped the writer see life in an altogether different way.  Through the lens of worship, all the idolatries of money, sex, and power–even if only in a momentary glimpse–are put in their proper place. . . .

Third, part of what is formed in us is a set of emotions.  Worship helps to sculpt the emotional landscape of our lives.  The melodies, rhythms, and harmonies of worship evoke and shape certain emotions in us.  They may allow us to experience grandeur or gratitude or lament in ways that will happen in no other part of our lives–affections that, because they are offered in the name of God, become permanently attached to our minds and hearts with our notion of God and true spirituality.  Some churches form in worshipers a deep awe; others shape a profound exuberance.  Others . . . manage to teach worshipers to express genuine and honest guilt, but in ways that allow the grace of the gospel to melt that guilt away. . . .

Fourth, worship forms us in certain relationships–with both God and each other.  Worship enacts a conversation between God and the gathered community.  We learn to hear God speak words of comfort, assurance, challenge, and correction.  We speak [and sing] words of praise, lament, gratitude, and confession.  All these words only make sense as expressions of [a] fundamental relationship.  Likewise, worship enacts relationships with others.  As we gather at the Lord’s Table, worship forms us to consider each other as brothers and sisters in Christ, regardless of age, gender, race, or socioeconomic class.  Worship forms us to act toward each other as fellow servants, as fellow saints in patterns of interaction that do not come naturally to us in any walk of life.

Fifth, part of what is formed in us are certain virtues.  Hearing a courageous preacher helps us imagine how we might summon courage to speak the truth.  Speaking a penitential prayer of uncommon honesty might quicken our conscience to perceive our own patterns of personal dishonesty.  And each of these discrete, individual virtues [is] deepened through the fundamental way that worship calls us to take ourselves out of the center of the universe. . . . Or, as Michael Lindvall puts it, “Worship is the weekly practice at not being God.”  In a culture of self-centeredness, worship is one of the few activities that has as its intrinsic purpose to “decenter” ourselves, to see what it feels like not to be the center of the universe in which we live.

In sum, the nature of what is formed in us is wonderfully complex: in worship we practice certain convictions, perspectives, emotions, relationships, and virtues.  This formation is as rich and wondrous as sanctification itself, a wondrously fulsome process by which the Spirit grows new dimensions of holiness and Christlikeness in every aspect of our lives.

Worship leaders, doesn’t this just make you want to let out a shout?  Doesn’t it call all of us to be more than band directors?  What an awesome privilege–what a terrifying responsibility–we have when we view worship and its power to transform lives in this manner!

The Lord be with you!

Coming next week (Lord willing): “Yeah, but” thoughts on the transformative power of corporate worship.


About Warren Anderson

Emmaus Road Worshipers is written by Dr. Warren Anderson, Director of the Demoss Center for Worship in the Performing Arts at Judson University (Elgin, Ill.), where he also directs the Judson University Choir. A Judson alumnus, he has served his alma mater in a number of capacities over the past 30+ years, especially the chapel ministry, which he led for 22 years. From 1982-2016, Dr. Anderson served six different churches--American Baptist (X2), Converge, Evangelical Free Church of America, Roman Catholic, and United Methodist--as a "weekend warrior" worship musician/pastor. He is a former member of the editorial board of Worship Leader magazine. The views expressed in this blog are not necessarily the views of Judson University.
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