Friday, August 04, 2017

Worship, and life

This summer I’ve read a couple of books on the subject of worship – Worshipping with Calvin by Terry L. Johnson, and The God We Worship by Nicholas Wolterstorff.  They are very different books, with rather different agendas, although both are coming from a broadly Reformed theological point of view.  The subtitles give a clue!  Johnson’s book is subtitled Recovering the Historic Ministry and Worship of Reformed Protestantism, and it is exactly what the First Crusade would be if the First Crusade had been a book about worship rather than a military campaign in the Levant; Wolterstorff, on the other hand, offers An exploration of liturgical theology, and is much more tentative in tone and expansive in message.  Johnson wants us to change our worship, back to an earlier and in his view more biblical model; Wolterstorff just wants us to reflect a bit more on what it is we’re doing in worship and what it implicitly says about our view of God.

Both books were interesting in their different ways, and I will probably have more to say about each of them over the next few weeks.  One thing they have very much in common, which is interesting for me as someone who has inhabited a particular brand of evangelicalism for some years, is the rejection of the idea that all of life is worship.  Here is Wolterstorff:
It is sometimes said that the Christian life as a whole is, or should be, worship.  In this chapter I have assumed that this is not true.  The Christian life as a whole is, or should be, an acknowledgement of who God is and of what God has done, is doing, and will do – an acknowledgement of God’s surpassing excellence.  I have argued that worship has an orientation that sets it off from our work in the world, namely a Godward orientation.  Of course it is open to a writer to declare that he will use the word “worship” to cover everything [in the Christian life].  But that leaves us needing some other word to pick out what I have called worship…  And it has been my experience that those who declare that all of life is worship almost always downplay the importance of what I am calling worship…  (p39-40)
I agree with Wolterstorff – it is an unhelpful thing to label everything as worship.  It removes a level of meaning from the word, and leaves us with only clumsy formulations to explain what it is we do on a Sunday (‘corporate worship’, ‘sung worship’).  In my experience, he is right that those who talk a lot about all of life being worship implicitly denigrate this corporate worship – or at least, I don’t see much joyful expression of adoration in those churches, compared to those which talk about the purpose of a Sunday gathering in terms of offering worship to God.

I’d want to ask another question as well: does declaring that all of life is worship (and therefore at least implicitly that there is nothing very special about the gathering of God’s people to worship) actually lead to a more worship-ful approach to life?  Or might it be that the recognition of worship as a particular, distinctive activity leads to a life that is more full of worship Monday through Saturday?  This is analogous to discussions of the Sabbath, something which I note with some discomfort as a non-Sabbatarian.  But it is at least a question to be asked: has our declaration that we now have rest in Jesus every day and therefore don’t need to observe the Sabbath actually made our lives more restful, or less?  I have a feeling I know the answer, and I’m not sure I will like it.

One thing I take away from these very different books is the need for more God-oriented, adoration-filled gatherings of God’s people to offer worship – in all the forms which that takes, including praise, thanksgiving, confession, intercession, listening.  To come into God’s presence and worship.  How lovely is your dwelling place, O LORD of hosts!


  1. spot on.

    “All of life is worship" rhetoric is more often used to disenchant us of sacramental/eucharistic/charismatic expressions, than to re-enchant us with a world God has graced with his presence and charged with his grandeur in his absence. Rather than taking the eucharist as a doorway/celebration which unlocks the meaning of life, we demean the eucharist by barring entry: "nothing is really happening here; you might as well be anywhere else".

    I recall Sydney Anglicans in particular pushing the "romans 12" line (if you like) in the early 2000s, using it explicitly to disenchant and discourage "charismatic" people from the “sacramental”, "old testament", "priestly", and "catholic" idea of, say, Matt Redman, that "this is a holy moment now, something of heaven touches earth; voices of angels all resound, we join them now. Come, come, come, let us worship god, with our hands held high and our hearts bowed down..." That, of course, is simply choral participation in the Anglican liturgy. It’s not quite the divine liturgy I’ve heard the orthodox sing, but still. It’s better than nowt.

    NB (charis meaning grace), I take the opposite of charismatic to be automatic (auto meaning self), and do not confuse the charismatic or eucharistic life with any old thing that passes for "charismatic" in churches - much of which (like anything) is automatic, "human, all too human", and rarely an expression of gratitude (eucharist) for the amazing grace (eu-charis) of god.

    1. In one Anglican church not too far from my abode (let the reader understand), the lyrics of songs used to be routinely changed - e.g. "here I am to worship, here I am to bow down" -> "with all my life I worship, with all my life I bow down". Which presumably was illegal under copyright law, but that would be the least of my concerns...

      Helpful note there on charismatic vs. automatic - a distinction I may well take over and use, crediting your good self of course.

  2. Great (for what it's worth cf

    Also: I like wolterstorff's move toward liturgy. Far too much "philosophy of religion" has been about natural theological arguments, and the relation between faith and reason; not much has been about, you know, religion - the idea of bodies animated in devotion toward icons hardly occurs to anyone as wise.

  3. Related reading from James Smith: 'You are what you love' etc

    1. I've not read any of James Smith's stuff (beyond his Twitter feed), but various people keep recommending it to me. Add it to the wishlist...