In chapter four of The Great Giveaway, David Fitch deals with two forms of evangelical worship services — sermon-centered worship and song-centered worship. He begins his chapter with a fundamental question, “How do you know good worship when you see it?” As a staff member at a couple different churches, this question always surfaced. And the usual answer focused around the worship event itself — the music, the mood, the activity, the emotions, the song selection, the musical style, the preaching, the worship team’s skill and performance, etc.
But Fitch answers the question, “Simply put, faithful worship reveals itself in the shape of the lives it produces.” You know worship is “good” when it produces Christlike lives.
Fitch argues that unfortunately, the typical evangelical worship service contains an inherent design flaw that prevents it from properly shaping Christlike lives. I’ll bypass Fitch’s arguments regarding the postmodern critique of knowledge (through sermons) and experience (through singing) and cut to the chase:
“Evangelicals go to church on Sunday yet are unaffected because we either sit passively in a lecture hall taking lecture notes for later use or we indulge in a rock concert/pep rally that titillates our emotions but leaves little to order our selves into the glory of God.”
Instead, worshippers need to be immersed into something larger than our selves in order to form our selves into that reality. That something is worship that “orders our desires, orients our vision and livens our words through art, symbol, prayers, mutual exchanges, participatory rituals, readings of the Word, and the Eucharist every Sunday morning.”
However, both forms of evangelical worship are incapable of immersing worshippers into this kind of life-shaping experience because they “put the worshiping self at the center of worship.” That’s the design flaw of typical evangelical worship.
If the sermon is the centerpiece of the worship event, then the listeners are at the center of worship. He or she comes to the Scriptures and sermon analyzing and deciding which portions to believe and apply.
If the singing is the centerpiece of the worship event, then the singers are at the center of worship. The songs become a vehicle of the worshippers’ self-expression to God.
Either way, the worshipper remains the center of worship, and thus in control during worship. According to Fitch, although the Holy Spirit’s involvement in worship is assumed, the Spirit cannot truly transform without permission as long as the worshipper remains in control during worship. “One’s mind when firmly in charge cannot transform itself.” Rather, in such situations, the mind can only reinforce the ways it already thinks. The results:
“Individuals enter worship and use the sermons and songs totally unaware of the fact that they are but furthering their own schemes, which are already in place… Therefore, contemporary Christian worship turns inevitably to self-indulgence based in whatever it is we bring to worship that day.”
The direction evangelicals must turn is back toward life-giving liturgy that is structured around “call and response” and incorporates art and symbol as valid mediums of truth. In other words, worship must move from the mere communication of the concept that Jesus is Lord to the holistic immersion into the reality that Jesus really IS Lord.
“By reordering our worship liturgically, embodying it through art and symbol, and re-sacralizing the mysteries of the Word and Eucharist, we can recapture the shaping of our people’s imaginations for the lordship of Christ. Such a worship may take practice and therefore require patience because we have been so addicted to appeasing our ‘selves’ in worship as opposed to shaping our ‘selves.'”
Fitch suggests several practices to restore life-giving liturgy. Because this post is already long, I will simply summarize his main points to stir our imagination:
1. Restore liturgy and make it accessible through explanation and contemporary language.
2. Pattern worship after the rhythm of “Call and Response” so that sermon and songs are not forms of self-expression, but responses to the presence of Christ made real through Eucharist, Scripture, symbol, and art.
3. Revive the Church calendar so that it reorders our whole lives around the rhythms of Christ.
4. Reinvigorate the Eucharist by both placing it as the dominant activity of worship and reviving its mystery and power.
5. Use candles and other tactile symbols so that our worship can be visualized and ritualized in a way that invites us into God’s transcendence and mystery.
6. Use the visual arts to present the narrative of God in Scriptures in a way that requires the worshippers to submit to, participate in, respond to, and enter into.
7. Sing substantive music that both avoids individualist self-expression and exceeds emotional catharsis and becomes a communal response to the goodness and glory of God.
8. View the sanctuary as a sacred art gallery that displays God’s beauty and invites the worshipper to participate in God’s truth that is embodied visually and tangibly.
Mark has a good post on liturgical worship from the Orthodox tradition that captures a lot of what Fitch is saying. You can read it HERE.