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The Role of Worship in Christian Spiritual Formation

Dr  Alex Tang

Leiturgia (prayer/worship) is an important part of the Christian life and an important formative process.  Prayer and worship are the characteristics of God’s people. Worship may be understood as “pure adoration, the lifting up of the redeemed spirit towards God in contemplation of his holy perfection” (Harrison, 1984, 1193). In a broader sense worship may be honouring of God with prayer and praises. Worship in its broadest sense is service for God. While there is worship in the “sing-spiration” part of the Sunday service, it alone does not constitute worship. Worship is the whole service with its rituals or liturgies, Scripture reading and preaching, fellowship, and the sacraments.

Presbyterian Dudley Weaver placed the Reformed/Presbyterian worship service between the “prayer-book liturgical tradition” groups of churches, where liturgy was strictly followed, and the “free-church tradition”, where there were no prescribed liturgical rules[i] (2002, 30).  Singaporean theologian Simon Chan and others have been studying how liturgical worship influences spiritual formation (Chan, 2006; Chittister, 1990; M. Dawn, 1989).  The Christian church has a tradition of using worship, liturgy and the sacraments of baptism and the Eucharist as means of spiritually forming its adherents. While it is acknowledged that worship, liturgy and the sacraments is spiritually forming, the willing participation of the worshipper is also vital. The rituals can become a powerful spiritual encounter or it may be a boring, dull and routine. Another problem is the frequent repetition of the liturgy may be spiritually affirming, or spiritually deadening. Bauman (1994) highlights the role of liturgy in spiritual formation while Anglican Samuel Wells  (2002) examines how worship forms character. Chan sums it up well when he declares “worship could be said to be the defining characteristic of the church…This may be why in the Scriptures Christians are sometimes simply called worshippers” (Phil. 3:3; 1 Tim. 2:10; Heb. 12:28; Rev. 13:12-13; 14:11). Worshiping God is the “hallmark of the people of  God” (Chan, 2006, 43). Worship does have its role as a formative agent in spiritual formation but it is also Christian spiritual formative process by itself.

Liturgy in worship

Many theologians define liturgy as a sequential set of actions making up a “sacred structure or shape.” At the climax of this sacred shape is the Eucharist. Thus liturgy is what happens only in church services or mass. Anglican Samuel Wells (2002) concurs and sees each step or action of the liturgy as pedagogy[ii] . Each action or step of the liturgy conveys a spiritual lesson to the people involved in the liturgy. Lynn Bauman explains, “The term liturgy comes from the language of the New Testament itself. It comprises of two Greek words, laos meaning ‘people’ and ergon meaning ‘work’ (Luke 1:23; Phil. 2:17; Heb. 8:6). Together these terms signify that worship is a work that invites the whole people of God in the transforming sacrifice of Christ” (Bauman, 1994, 103). Liturgical worship has a contributing factor in Christian spiritual formation because it brings the worship into the daily life of the worshippers. These understandings of the liturgy as work implies the participants are to live out the liturgy (in their workplace) the rest of the week. (Bauman, 1994, 103-107). Liturgical worship is a power dynamic process for English-speaking Presbyterians and other Christians because the experience of continuing worship in churches and in their work will have a powerful effect on their spiritual formation.

While some theologian distinguishes liturgy and worship, especially those from non-liturgical churches, Singaporean theologian Simon Chan see no difference between liturgy and worship. Chan defines liturgy as “the people’s common response to that word (God’s calling), their acceptance of the Word, which constitutes them as the covenant people.”(2006, 41). This definition narrows liturgy and worship to a covenant celebration, rather to a celebration of the outward flow of grace. However, it is better to expand its understanding to beyond the rituals of the liturgy. Australian educator Ted Endacott adopts a middle point when he points out the importance of Sunday worship in connecting “traditional Christian beliefs and current experience” (2005, 14).

 A grateful community in worship

A worshipping community acknowledges their identity in God, in their relationship in God, and in their expression of gratitude for what God has done. A grateful worshipping community will be the strongest weapon for the Malaysian Christians including the English-speaking Presbyterians to survive in a religious pluralistic society, and against the Islamisation program of the government. A grateful Christian faith community has a sense of identity as one who receives from a God who cares and gives. The sense of identity is important especially when there are efforts from another religious community to displace that sense of community. Worship reminds the Christian faith community that they are poor yet rich in Christ.

Worship may be done in churches, at their workplace or anywhere at all. While in church, worship is the participation of the whole community, not just the act of the worship leader while the rest of the congregation sit as passive spectators. However, as theologian Marva Dawn insists, worship is a performance for the audience of One, not for one another[iii]. (1995, 82).  Dawn is writing in response to some churches where worship has become a performance. Celebrity worship leaders lead in the singing backed by professional standard musicians. The problem arises when people goes to the service because of the performance of the worship leaders and the music.  The worshippers are the audience watching the cues and leads of the worship leaders or the pastors. The focus is on the people on the stage. True worship is when the worshippers, the leaders and pastor all focus on God the subject of our worship, an audience of one. Dawn hasten to add that “because God is the subject, we always remember that we can only be actors because he acted first” (1995, 82). Dawn’s point is that everything done in worship should be for God alone.

 A communal sense of time

Closely aligned with a community’s worship of God is its sense of time[iv]. The Christian calendar gives a sense of the liturgical year which has bind Christian faith communities together in a common tradition of worship through the centuries[v]. It serves the function of marking time, and “continually orders the pattern of our spirituality into a remembrance of God’s saving deeds and the anticipation of the rule of God over all creation.” (Webber 2004, 27 italics author’s). The activities of the events commemorated are important because it reminds Christians annually who they are and their place in God or the Christian story.

According to Webber, “Christian-year spirituality” is a spirituality of being identified with the life and work of Lord Jesus Christ (2004, 23-24). However it does not stop there. It also allows the Holy Spirit to work in the Christians’ lives. Bruce Lockerbie, an educator, is convinced that the Christian calendar “has helped many Christians become spiritually more mature.”[vi] (1994, 141). Similarly Dubley Weaver, a Presbyterian pastor also finds that the Christian calendar is a “helpful way of helping children live the story of God’s love in Jesus Christ and emphasizing the distinctiveness of the Christian faith and commitment in the midst of a secular world.”[vii] (2002, 67). All this serves to remind English-speaking Presbyterian churches in Malaysia to go back to the liturgical calendar as many churches has abandoned it except for Easter and Christmas celebrations. Presbyterian/Reformed churches in other countries still follow the Christian calendar. For some unknown reason, this has been discontinued in the English-speaking Presbyterian churches in Malaysia. The Christian calendar is Christo-centric as is the process of Christian spiritual formation. Following the Christian calendar forces the English-speaking Presbyterian churches to plan their preaching and church activities around the life and death of Jesus Christ.

 Spiritual dimensions of the Sacraments

The sacraments of baptism and Holy Communion are important spiritual formation object lessons. In the act of obedience of being baptised, and indeed baptism itself, people may learn that they are set aside for God. In many Christian faith communities, this occurs after a person has gone through the catechumen or baptismal classes to learn the basic of their beliefs.

During the Holy Communion, the action with the bread in “take, bless, break, share” are again important reminders of Jesus’ sacrifice and redemption and the Christians’ responses.

The Reformed worship incorporates the spiritual formation processes found in the early catechism in liturgy worship services. These processes includes the focus on the praise and adoration of God, the participation of worshippers in worship rather than as spectators, a Word-centered liturgy, emphasis on preaching as a means of grace and the presence of order, dignity and grace (Weaver, 2002, 33-34). The Holy Communion, baptism and confirmations are also important aspect of the Reformed worship. Therefore spiritual formation takes place as people are reminded weekly of the creed, prayer and rules governing the Christian faith. “Formative worship” is an important dynamic process for Christian spiritual formation.

Conclusion

Liturgy, a grateful community, a communal sense of time and the sacraments are important characteristic of the Christian faith communities in their worship of the one True God. These elements also have an important role in the Christian spiritual formation of Christians who are involved in these formative processes. Worship is not only communion partaking but also transformative as worshippers are gradually being transformed into the character of those who worship in Spirit and in Truth.

 

Soli Deo Gloria

 

Bibliography

Bauman, L. C. (1994). Spiritual Formation Through The Liturgy. In The Christian Educator's Handbook on Spiritual Formation (pp. 99-110). Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Books.

Chan, S. (2006). Liturgical Theology: The Church as Worshiping Community (1 ed.). Downers Grove, Illinois: InterVarsity Press.

Chittister, J. (1990). Wisdom Distilled from the Daily: Living the Rule of St.Benedict Today. New York: HarperCollins Publishing Company.

Dawn, M. (1989). Keeping the Sabbath Wholly: Ceasing, Resting; Embracing; Feasting. Grand Rapids, MI.: William B.Eerdmans Publishing Company.

Dawn, M. J. (1995). Reaching Out Without Dumbing Down: A Theology of Worship for the Turn-of-the-Century Culture. Grand Rapids, MI: William B. Eerdmans Publishing Company.

Endacott, T. (2005). "Working the Circles": A Fresh Look at Mission, Worship and Christian Education. Australian Missiology Conference   Retrieved 7 February 2008, from http://www.groupsthatclick.com/files/missiolconf/Papers/Endacott.pdf

Harrison, E. F. (1984). Worship. In W. A. Elwell (Ed.), Evangelical Dictionary of Theology (pp. 1192-1193). Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Books.

Keating, T. (1987). The Mystery of Christ: The Liturgy as Spiritual Experience. New York: The Continuum Publishing Company.

Lockerbie, D. B. (1994). Living and Growing in the Christian Year. In K. O. Gangel & J. C. Wilholt (Eds.), The Christian Educator's Handbook on Spiritual Formation. Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Books.

Weaver, J. D. (2002). Presbyterian Worship: A Guide for Clergy. Lousiville, KN: Geneva Press.

Webber, R. E. (2004). Ancient-Future Time: Forming Spirituality through the Christian Year. Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Books.

Wells, S. (2002). How Common Worship Forms Local Character. Studies in Christian Ethics(15), 66-74.

White, J. F. (2000). Introduction to Christian Worship (3rd. rev. exp. ed.). Nashville: Abington Press.

 

Endnotes


[i] Weaver mentions three major liturgical streams. The prayer-book stream includes the Roman Catholic, Orthodox, Anglican and Lutheran has a liturgy format for all their churches. All their churches are required to follow the given format. At the other end is the free-church stream, which does not have a fixed liturgy or rules for governing the context and conduct of worship. Weaver mentioned the Presbyterians as being in between without mentioning the name of the stream. (Weaver, 2002) p.30

[ii]  Thomas Keating however, sees each step as a powerful spiritual experience. (Keating, 1987)

[iii] The worship service has become a performance or a theatre. (M. J. Dawn, 1995) p.82

[iv] In Ancient-Future Time, Robert Weber writes about the Christian practice of time. He divides the church year into two cycles: a cycle of light (Advent, Christmas, Epiphany) and a cycle of life (Lent, The Great Tridium, Easter).(Webber, 2004) He calls it “Christian-year spirituality”.

[v] James White indicates the presence of the Christian calendar indicates Christianity takes time seriously. Compared to other religions which did not take time seriously, Christianity shows a God who intervenes in historic time. (White, 2000)p.67-80.

[vi] Lockerbie make a strong case for observation the Christian calendar by giving six reasons.

(1) Observing the Year provides each Christian with opportunity to fulfill one of the most basic human instincts, the chance to start all over again, (2)The Year’s cycle provides those principles and discipline each Christian needs, (3)We need to walk with God’s people through history, to “walk where Jesus walked,” by means of observing the year, (4) Observing the Year means marking a season of several days or weeks rather than just one day, (5) Observing the year sets believers part from secularists for whom the holy-day has become a mere holiday and (6) Marking the season gives time to develop a biblical understanding or theology of the season.” (Lockerbie, 1994)P.136-139.

[vii] This is particularly important because typically children and youth are left out of the Christian calendar year except for Easter and Christmas where they are expected to perform for the adults, in the form of song items, skits, and dances.

 

 

|posted 1 March 2010|

               

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