Wednesday, September 12, 2012

What Does Worship Do?

by Nicholas Zork
from Best Practices for Adventist Worship, September 9, 2012

There is a major assumption that has shaped Christian understandings of worship in the West since the Enlightenment (although its roots reach much further back). And this assumption is evident in Christian perspectives across the theological spectrum. The teachings of the Hebrew prophets, Paul, and Jesus emphasize the importance of ethical, embodied, practices---practices intended to restore justice, bring healing, and enable transformation. But Enlightenment philosophers marginalized Christianity---and religion in general. They perceived Christianity not as a collection of practices that shape what we do but a list of beliefs that shape what we think.

As a result, daily life---our embodied practices---became viewed as a political and economic reality; and religious life---our worship and prayer---became understood, in contrast, as a fully inward, spiritual, and conceptual phenomenon. In the West, Christians from the classically liberal to the fundamentalist have largely embraced this assumption. Despite significant theological disagreements, most Christians now seem to presume that the essence of the Christian faith is not correct practice but correct thinking. And worship, within this shared paradigm, is seen as an event whose primary purpose is to communicate this correct thinking.

The problem with focusing on belief is not that it leads to an emphasis on doctrine. As Adventists, we should emphasize correct doctrine. Doctrine is vitally important. In all three Synoptic Gospels, Jesus asks Peter, "But who do you say that I am?" It matters how he and we answer that question. And it matters how we interpret the rest of God's written Word through the lens of the Living Word---Jesus Christ.

The primary problem with the assumption that following Jesus is essentially a matter of correct thinking is the false implication that following Jesus is somehow separate from our social, economic, and political practices. The suggestion that following Jesus should have economic and political ramifications involves more than a call to resist the consumerist excesses of Christmas or seek justice when we vote in elections. Truly following Jesus has practical, economic and political implications for our lives and worship that are much more local, daily and challenging.

Because of our Enlightenment assumptions about Christianity and Christian worship, we tend to approach worship planning with a central and often unspoken question in mind: what will our worship practices mean? More specifically, how will our songs, prayers, sermons, and other actions change the way worshipers think? Such questions of meaning are essential but ultimately insufficient. They fail to fully address the Biblical priority of an embodied faith that tangibly impacts our world. What if we were to add a series of questions along a related but often ignored trajectory: what will our worship practices do? More specifically, what type of participants, community and world will our songs, prayers, sermons, and other actions help create?


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