Lent 2024, Day 20: Worship.

As part of my coursework for the class, Worship & the Christian Life, that I’m taking, I had to read the first chapter of Worship for the Whole People of God, Second Edition by Ruth C. Duck. She discusses five components of Christian worship- ritual, revelation, response, relationship, and rehearsal- and examines the components that constitute a holistic theology of worship. Despite Christians coming from a myriad of different denominations and traditions, most of our worship (from Eastern Orthodox to holyrolling Pentecostals) fall into these five types. I want to share part of it here:

Worship as Ritual
In ritual, groups perform symbolic words and actions. Repeated
ritual builds communal identity and the individual identity of mem-
bers, through recurrent performance and common symbols, while
adapted or newly created ritual may also interpret life experiences.
In their book Mighty Stories, Dangerous Rituals, Herbert Anderson
and Edward Foley define ritual as “ordered, patterned, and shared
behavior, but more than that, it is an imaginative and interpretive
act through which we express and create meaning in our lives.”
Ritual is an important part of human life; pastoral theologian David
Hogue reports that scientists studying the brain have discovered
that humans are “hard-wired ” to form rituals both as individuals
(the daily morning walk, the way of brushing one’s teeth) and as
groups. Margaret Mead wrote, “I know of no people for whom
the fact of death is not critical, and who have no ritual with which
to deal with it,” though birth or marriage may be treated lightly.
Rituals help people deal with the passages, crises, challenges, and
mysterious realities of their lives.

Ritual is an important dimension of Christian worship. Geoffrey
Wainwright has written that “worship [can be] seen as the point of
concentration where the whole Christian life comes to ritual focus.
The regular patterns of Christian worship (gathering on Sunday,
observing Lent and Eastertide, participating in summer revivals) form
Christian identity. While people within some Christian circles regard
the regular rituals of other Christian groups suspiciously as empty
repetition done without feeling, in truth every congregation has its
rituals, whether done by rote or enthusiastically enacted. Repeated
words form an important part of a congregation’s memory, whether
they are from a book of worship or an oral tradition. For example,
African American Christians often pray words similar to “We thank
you, God, for waking us up this morning, and we thank you that our
bedsheets did not become our winding cloths [shrouds].Barbara
Holmes has referred to this tradition in a poem: “For enslaved Afri-
cans during the / Middle Passage, / joy unspeakable is the surprise /
of living one more day, / and the freeing embrace of death / chosen
and imposed. Such repeated prayers are important for the lives of
worshiping communities.
Ritual may also involve repeated actions: moving around the sanc
tuary to greet other worshipers, coming forward for Communion, or
performing motions of prayer (from making the sign of the cross in
Anglican or Catholic worship to “falling out” in an ecstatic experience
during a charismatic service of worship). Ritual involves what we know
by heart —^words, songs, actions. Many a newly arrived pastor has been
surprised to discover a congregation’s most-beloved rituals, revealed by
the outcry heard when they are omitted or changed. Rituals often bear
more meaning than it might appear.

Worship as Revelation
Revelation, as a theological theme concerning Christian worship,
emphasizes God’s real presence in liturgy through means God has
given. Reformed (Calvinist) Christians seek God’s revelation through
the reading and interpretation of Scripture. In different ways, Quakers
and charismatic Christians seek God’s revelation through the moving
of the Spirit in their worship and their lives. Many Roman Catholics,
Methodists, Episcopalians, and others seek God’s revelation in the sac-
raments of baptism and Eucharist, looking to these and other means of
grace as doorways to sanctification and true life in Christ. They find in
Eucharist the real and transformative presence of Christ, and in bap
tism the gift of the Spirit. The beauty of these emphases on revelation
is their confidence that God, Source, Word, and Spirit, is among us to
welcome, teach, encourage, feed, and commission those who worship
in the name of Jesus.

Worship as Response to God
Evelyn Underhill (1875-1941), an Anglican theologian who reflected
much on worship and spirituality, defines worship as the response
of creature to Creator: “Worship, in all its grades and kinds, is the
response of the creature to the Eternal…. There is a sense in which we
may think of the whole life of the universe, seen and unseen, conscious
and unconscious, as an act of worship glorifying its Origin, Sustainer,
and End.” In this understanding, worship expresses the response of
humanity (and all creation) to what God has done, is doing, and will
do; “We love because God first loved us” (1 John 4:19 alt.). Our acts
of worship are inspired by the creativity, the wisdom, the holiness, the
justice, the goodness, and the love of the triune God. Any understand
ing of worship that did not incorporate the idea of worship as response
to God would be inadequate.

Worship as Relationship
If, as Charles Wesley wrote, God is “pure, unbounded love,” then an
adequate understanding of Christian worship must include some focus
on growing relationship and genuine encounter with God. Worship as
relationship brings together God’s revelation with our human response,
both by witnessing to and embodying God’s love and by drawing us
to respond in love toward God, one another, and the whole creation.
Scripture, sermon, sacrament, and song reveal God relationally, not
mechanically through correct words and actions. In turn, we respond
in our human ways— bringing the whole of our lives before God and
expressing our love and our devotion through the full breadth of our
human words, rituals, and arts. It is God who first loved us and called
us forth, yet in worship Christians share in mutual giving and receiving
with the Holy One. Here also is the mystery of a relationship of love:
much is revealed, yet much remains mysterious.
Evelyn Underhill writes that Christian worship is conditioned by
the “great dogmas of the Trinity and the Incarnation.” Understand-
ing Christian worship as relationship is grounded in the Trinitarian life
of God: In Christ through the Spirit, divine love has been poured out
on our hearts and into the world. Hoyt Hickman has defined worship
as “encounter with the Living God through the risen Christ, in the
Holy Spirit. In worship we praise the living, eternal Source of all
being, we break bread with the risen Christ, and we seek the Spirit’s
inspiration to enliven all we do in the church and world as the body of
Christ. Through the sacramental presence of the Divine in all things,
Christians participate in the life of God in worship and daily living.
Methodists tend to gravitate toward a focus on relationship in
their theology of worship, since John and Charles Wesley emphasized
both divine grace in the sacraments and the need for human response,
accepting infant baptism as a means of grace, yet calling for an adult
response (and perhaps conversion) to a life of personal and social holi
ness. In a relational understanding, baptism is incomplete without a
covenant of love in which God and humans participate; it is an act in
which God graciously gives Godself to persons who respond in faith
and commitment.
Evangelical Christians also tend toward a relational theology of
worship— were not the great revivals focused on opening one’s heart
and life to relationship with a living God who was calling in love to
restore a straying people?
A relational theology of worship holds together the conviction that
God truly is present, revealing Godself in worship, and the conviction
that worship is not complete without the church ’s response in faith and
love. Further, just as presents, cards, and flowers become more than mere
rituals or commercial exercises in the context of loving relationship, so
the relationship between God and church gives meaning to our rituals.

Worship as Rehearsal
John Burkhart, a Presbyterian teacher in Chicago, provides the name
for this last main understanding of worship: “rehearsal, ” that is, wor-
ship as a way of practicing love, justice, and peace in preparation for life
in the world. He writes:
Since God’s will gives movement and pattern to reality, shaping
history to its redemptive goal, worship takes on the dimension of
rehearsal. . . . discerning the plot, finding roles, developing and
refining characters, and practicing arts, lines, and gestures, in the
drama of a history graced by God—- In the dimension of rehearsal,
worship is to be judged by whether and how it transforms those
who worship.

Worship is rehearsal when the gathered church is changed and
inspired to take its part in God’s drama of transforming life in this
world. Eucharist, then, is a model of sharing food and other necessi
ties of life and of creating the table “where you are more welcome than
anywhere else on earth.” It is a model of sharing love across human
boundaries similar to Jesus’ table sharing with tax collectors, prosti-
tutes, and sinners— here life eternal is revealed in the present.

Which type of worship most spoke to you? Maybe a few did? Or all five? You can buy the book here.

Share your thoughts