The Work of Worship: inhabiting an alternative world

The stakes are high in worship. The world made available to us by the principalities and powers is deeply embedded in the practices and assumptions of our daily lives. There are a multitude of assumptions that sponsor our behaviors and interactions with each other that have nothing to do with the gospel. In fact, these assumptions are so deeply embedded that we scarcely think of them or recognize them as values upon which we should reflect. We simply assume that this is the way of things. And often these assumptions are honored the one place where they should be challenged–in our worship.

Take for instance the way we think about ourselves as persons. We think of ourselves as autonomous. We are persons because we are self-contained. (Contrast that with the more theological notion that we are persons because we are in relation). And by that we mean at least that what is most real is the stuff that happens inside me: what I think, what I feel.

I know this because this is what people say about church or God or faith to me. They don’t say it just that way, but they say it nonetheless. I hear it when people tell me why they’re going to another church or why they did or did not like worship that day or why they go to church in the first place. I hear things like, I didn’t get much out of that today, or I didn’t care for the songs, or this church isn’t meeting my needs, or that as long as things are good between me and God I don’t really need to be a part of a worshipping community.

And I know this because of the way many worship planners and preachers think about what goes on in worship (I include myself here). It seems clear to me that we design and execute worship, especially within the free church tradition, primarily to evoke some response in the interior life of the individual. This is true in more traditional churches that emphasize cognitive dimensions of faith, or in more contemporary worship that emphasizes the heart (a false dichotomy to my way of seeing things, but I digress). Either way, we act as if the thing that is most real is what happens in the interior of the individual.

We think of the church and its worship as a filling station designed to support the needs and aspirations of the individual. Or, as one of my students once said it, we think of church like a spiritual gym. You’re more likely to stay in shape if you belong to one, but its really not necessary.

This is not the gospel. In fact, it might be the opposite of the gospel. The one thing that the gospel cannot be is the notion that the world revolves around my dreams, wishes, and aspirations. The gospel, more properly, is that God is bringing into view a new reality ordered by a different set of values and relationships in which God is sovereign, and not the individual. And part of this new ordering means an alternative social reality will come into view–the Kingdom of God–where people learn to live no longer for themselves, but for the one who gave his life for them so that they might live for others. The world given to us by the principalities and powers is not the only world available to us. There is another world now in view, one we are scarcely prepared for. A world that will require of us repentance, a new orientation, new practices of life and new allegiances. And it is this world that we rehearse in worship. It is this world that we inhabit and proclaim as real when we gather. We announce and participate in what we accept by faith to the the real world among all the false and distorted worlds we know. This is the work of worship.

I think without some sense that this is the work of worship, it is impossible for a church to have a missional imagination.

The implications of this are far ranging, and I think much more powerful potentially than any changes we might make in worship style. Let me give you one example of what difference this might make in our worship imagination and I promise I’ll give you more in posts to come.

I know a church that has two services and practices communion differently depending on which service you attend (I could write a bunch here. What kind of assumptions have to be in play to make a decision to practice this way?). In the first service they pass trays. In the second service they get up and go to tables (Again, I could write a lot here about the unspoken assumptions). In the second service, unbaptized children tend to participate at the table. In the first service, the emblems fly over their heads while they draw or play with action figures. This has caused some questioning, at least among some, about the participation of children in communion. If your primary point of reference is the experience of the individual, then you might focus on an individual’s status. Are they baptized or not? Or you might focus on the interior capacity of a child to truly appreciate what is happening. Do they know enough to participate meaningfully?

But what questions would you ask if worship is enacting an alternative world with new social realities. One thing that made the ministry of Jesus striking was his welcome of those otherwise unwelcomed in his world–like children. And it also seems that the power of the table as a Christian symbol lies at least in part that this is a place of welcome where alternative social arrangements come clearly into view. The participation of children, at least potentially, is a way for us to say we are enacting a new social reality in which the first are last and the last are first. It is meaningful even if the children don’t fully understand what is happening.

Do you see the difference?

About Mark Love

I am the Dean for the School of Theology and Ministry and Director of the Resource Center for Missional Leadership at Rochester College. Part of my job includes directing a master's degree in missional leadership, a situated learning degree. I am married to Donna and have a son, Josh Love, who is a practicing new monastic in Abilene, TX. With Donna, I have also inherited three great daughters and two amazing granddaughters.
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5 Responses to The Work of Worship: inhabiting an alternative world

  1. Sean Palmer says:

    Dr. Dr. Mark

    My children have always taken communion. Part of this is due to the fact that they’ve always been in Episcopal schools that served the Eucharist, and partly because of what you suggest. We are partaking and sharing in the finished work of Jesus not punching our “in/out” card. Increasingly, I find that parents of my generation encourage their children to participate. It was through communion that my daughter’s learned and memorized the words of institution in 1 Corinthians. At 8 and 5 they don’t fully understand the implications of those words and the crucifixion event – but at 37 neither do I.

  2. Kerry Jones says:

    Do you think excluding unbaptized children from communion is probably something passed down from our Catholic history? I like the idea of including them. Can you imagine children being excluded from the passover feast? It was a practice designed by God to teach the young and remind the old. I look forward to hearing more!

  3. Chelan says:

    I’m loving the posts here, Mark. In fact, I’ll go ahead and shamelessly steal some of it to share tomorrow with our church.

  4. Chelan says:

    P.S. I love sharing communion with our kids. We tell them we’re sharing it with them now, as we do our faith, but some day their faith will be their own. But perhaps we ought to think about faith as something that’s always communal (read: communion-al), never really our own at all.

    • Mark Love says:

      Chelan, I think it’s good to say they will own their faith one day. Faith is a personal thing, not a private thing. There are certainly ways that our inner dispositions and beliefs are important. They are, however, secondary to the larger social reality that is coming into view.

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