Worship's Narrative Arc -- Christian Formation
I believe that worship stands at the center of the Christian faith. During this Easter season I have been preaching from the lectionary texts drawn from the Book of Revelation. This very apocalyptic book is also a book of worship. It reveals to us the importance of being engaged in fellowship with the Creator by offering songs of praise and thanksgiving.
Worship is one of my passions. I grew up in the Episcopal Church, and that liturgical tradition helped form me as a Christian in ways I didn't understand at the time. Though I left the Episcopal Church during high school and settled within a Pentecostal Community (with it leaving its deposit in my understanding of worship), for most of my adult life I have been part of the Christian Church (Disciples of Christ). The Disciples are a Free Church tradition that doesn't have a prescribed liturgy, though a liturgy of sorts emerged over time. Central to Disciples worship, as is true for the Episcopal Church, is the Table. Each week we gather at the Table to celebrate the Eucharist. That very decision helps form us as Christians, even if we don't always consciously understand how it is forming us.
With these introductory words I'd like to share a word from a new book by James K. A. Smith. Central to Smith's book is the premise that Christian worship, indeed, Christian discipleship is less about information (intellectual) and more about habit. Sometimes we think that habits are bad things, but perhaps not. So with this in mind I share this word about how historic liturgy helps form us:
Worship that restores our loves will be worship that restor(i)es our imagination. Historic Christian worship has a narrative arc that rehearses the story of redemption in the very form of worship--enacting the "true story of the whole world." And it does so in a way that speaks in the language of imagination, the part of us that understands in story. Intentional, historic liturgy restores our imagination because it sanctifies our perception -- it implants the biblical story so deeply in to our preconscious that the gospel becomes the "background" against and through which we perceive the world, even without "thinking" about it. Only when you are formed this deeply can you say as C.S. Lewis did, "I believe in Christianity as I believe that the sun has risen: not only because I see it, but because by it I see everything else." This is a "belief" that you carry in your bones. [You Are What You Love, p. 94].
When we share the Lord's Prayer each week, it can be, and often is, something we say by rote. But then at points in our lives it connects with God in a way that we had thought about. It was simply there to remind us to whom we owe allegiance. When we gather at the Table and share the words of institution we're drawn back to a meal that Jesus shared with his disciples. We remember, and as we remember, we participate in that meal with Jesus. For some of us, we do this each week. And often we do so by rote. It's simply something we do, but then at certain moments we recognize that God is forming us by this narrative arc. We discern God's act of redemption.
Worship is not simply singing a bunch of songs followed by a speech. It is a lot more than that. It is a connector to a long line of Christian experiences, that help form us as Christians.