The Act of Worship

A major idea presented by Thomas Howard in “Evangelical Is Not Enough” is found on page 45. He sets the stage by noting the common occurrence of people in evangelical churches speaking of having received a blessing from a worship service, and concludes that these worshipers treated the church service as a “worship experience.” He then goes on to say,

The phrase worship experience missed the point. Worship, in the ancient tradition, was not thought of as an experience at all; it was an act. Or, if there was an experience, that part of it was a mere corollary to the main point. At St. Andrew’s, the people had come together to make the act of worship. They had come to do something, not to get something.

Starting from the foundation of worship as act (rather than experience), worship at St. Andrew’s looked much different from the evangelical worship of Howard’s youth. “No attempt was made to create a feeling of familiarity or welcome. And yet it was a vastly…warm church.” Seeing worship as an act meant that there was no attempt to create “group dynamics.”

I share Howard’s conviction that worship should be an act, not an experience. Unpacking this conviction is a whole other series of blog posts which I hope to write one day, so let’s progress to the next natural question — what form of worship should be acted out?

For Howard, it is the worship format of the ancient church. Speaking of forms in general, he says,

I felt that the distrust of rigid forms of worship might spring from innocence if not from ignorance. Those who kept insisting that “the liberty of the Spirit” stood over against such forms were forgetting the architecture of the universe. The liberating Spirit who brooded over chaos brought an exact, elegant, and mathematical order out of that chaos, and it was good…Clearly, to pit the liberty of the Spirit against set forms is to insist on a false distinction.

To this, I would say “amen and amen!” Howard goes on.

In response to the fear that things become rote, we may omit theorizing and ask for plain testimony from Christians who, decade after decade, repeat the same formulas. We will find from them that the formulas stay alive and salutary and that the set forms weather the passing of years somewhat better than the attempts at spontaneity, which themselves inevitably fall into rote that has the added disadvantage of being bad syntax and uncertain sentiment.

While agreeing with Howard’s observation that spontaneity itself usually falls into rote, I take exception to the first part of his argument. In my experience, people who grow up in churches where things are rote precisely do find them to be dead formulas. There are exceptions, of course, but many former Lutherans and Catholics and such will cite the presence of rote formulas as a primary frustration with their former fellowship.

Which brings me again to a major point that I’ve made before when it comes to selecting a liturgy. The point is not formulas vs. not formulas, rote vs. not rote, “liturgical” vs. “non-liturgical.” Regardless of how the act of worship is construed, the most obvious fact about it is that it is pure when offered from a pure heart. And how does one achieve a pure heart? Not through works, but by simply receiving the gift of God’s gracious forgiveness through Christ’s atoning work on the cross.

To formulate a worship act in hopes of achieving favor with God is to imitate Cain, whose sacrifice was rejected. But the heart of Abel, made alive by the acceptance lavished on the church by Christ, offers true worship, regardless of missed notes or fumbled syntax.

But there is still one step further to go. Because the Holy Spirit really is the author of form and order, we should expect that where He moves among His people, form and order will emerge.

That’s why the ancient forms do exist. The Holy Spirit moved, and forms were the natural result. But, following the pattern which has played itself out countless times in church history, the beautiful things the Author made soon became ends in themselves, leading to our modern problem of apostate churches lacking the Spirit but still having the forms.

It’s sad that evangelicals are suspicious of set forms, which after all, are often the final remaining sign that the Holy Spirit once infused His life through these now dead churches.


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