“Let the word of Christ dwell in you richly, teaching and admonishing one another in all wisdom, singing psalms and hymns and spiritual songs, with thankfulness in your hearts to God.”
Many of us have come to believe that authentic worship is an intimate, personal experience. Even when we worship together with other believers, we tend to keep that same frame of mind. It’s true that private worship should yield personal revelation and deepen our faith, but is that the main goal when we worship with our gathered community?
This is an incredibly relevant question. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. said that eleven o’clock on Sunday morning is “the most segregated hour in America.” Pastor Leonce often reminds us that even now, decades later, this is still a heartbreaking reality in our country. We separate ourselves along the boundaries that have formed in our society: class, culture, and preference to be sure. Sometimes it’s the discomfort of differentness that wedges us apart, but often, we choose to maintain our separate paths because we disagree about how things should be done. Whenever possible, we need to seek a biblical understanding so that our preferences don’t take over. The Bible unifies where our partialities would only divide.
So let’s explore the question further. If the main goal of Sunday morning worship relates to personal experience and inward revelation, then the way that worship is outwardly expressed is not really important. The depth of the personal experience is. The more meaningful and “real” the personal encounter seems, the better.
If this is your understanding, then more exuberant worship expressions likely seem distracting, annoying, or out of order. They “get in the way” of personal revelation. But could it be that our conception of worship is incomplete, that our own presuppositions are the problem? Let’s shift our focus to at least consider a worship model that is different from the one that so many of us are familiar with. Let’s consider worship that is rooted in history and community.
If the purpose of corporate worship goes beyond personal experience, then it matters how we outwardly express ourselves. The visible expression is significant, not just the inward experience. Our worship is meant to include and affect the people around us.
In The Christian Faith, Michael Horton goes to great lengths to unpack the origins of our deep-seeded desire for personal revelation over communal expressions of faith. According to Horton, Christianity in our culture is often fused with western philosophy. Descartes’ idea of collapsing inside oneself in the search for truth is our intellectual heritage and continues to affect our lives and our faith to this day. An important distinction needs to be made. Horton points out that “biblical religion is based on historical events: not on eternal principles or natural cycles, but on the report of God’s mighty deeds in creation, providence, judgment and redemption.”1
Christianity is supposed to be rooted in the history of God’s interaction with his covenant people and in the story of his coming into the world to save them. It’s about remembering the saving actions of the living God and believing in him to act again and again. God’s personal redemption is publicly celebrated, and it leads to the building up of the entire church body. The ultimate purpose of worship is not to understand higher concepts of ethics and morality so that they can be used for individual betterment; it isn’t to stir up an undeniable emotional experience. Personal revelation is meant for public testimony. In our western society, it is popular to ransack religion for its “relevant” principles or to prepackage selected phrases as soul-medicating narcotics. What is lost is the historical context of the covenant between God and his community—the point of it all.
When considering the purpose of public worship, Horton examines Paul’s letter to the Colossians. “The goal of such singing in public worship was not individualistic, either in terms of mystical contemplation or self-expression, but the enveloping of the community in the gospel.”1 In our western understanding, this idea is almost foreign. We have largely come to limit worship to its personal applications.
Even if I happen to be worshipping beside you, my worship certainly isn’t about you in any way. It’s still a private event between God and me, just like your worship is an exclusive affair between God and you.
But that’s a sad, incomplete view of biblical worship. It isn’t enough for it to be personally meaningful. It must then be genuinely expressed for the benefit of the whole church body. The goal of worship goes far beyond introspection and understanding to produce outward expressions of belief and public testimony that stir up the faith of the community. While we are singing, we are teaching, admonishing and encouraging our brothers and sisters in Christ. At the same time, their worship is doing the same for us. The personal effects of worship are deepened and confirmed in the context of the community.
Our worship truly flourishes when our individual revelation is shared. That’s what we miss out on when we prioritize our own interaction with God and devalue the gathering of his community. Your worship cannot live up to its full potential without other people. That’s why podcast Christianity is not sustainable. Alienated religion eventually assimilates under the pressure of culture. Personal experience is never enough to sustain the entirety of the Christian walk; it has a purpose beyond the person that has to be lived out in a social context.
Horton points out that in the end, Descartes is left pondering the truths of the universe alone. His personal revelation only drives him further into the seclusion of “the self,” looking for more truth. In contrast, the healthy pursuit of God in community is fulfilling to the individual. If your worship is stifled, it may be that it has been cooped up for too long. If you don’t value different worship expressions, it may be that there is a deeper issue: you don’t value worship beyond “the self.” A worldview that values worship in community is crucial to seeing the redemption of God play out in our lives and in the lives of others.
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