Why Study Worship?
Telford Work

"Where your treasure is, your heart will be"
God takes worship seriously (Deut. 6:13-15)
Scripture is a collection of worship texts
Christian claims depend on worship practices, not just vice versa
"Sit at my right hand" (Ps. 110:1)
"Jesus is Lord" (Phil. 2:11, Rom. 10:9, 1 Cor. 12:3, Acts 2:36, John 20:28, etc.)
"Lord, come!" (1 Cor. 16:22)
"Baptizing them in the name of the Father and the Son and the Holy Spirit" (Matt. 28:19)
Christian community is organized around worship
The story of salvation begins and ends in worship
 
Two Objections
Why not rather study the objective sources on which worship is built? (propositionalism)
Why ruin the raw experience of God by analyzing it? (expressivism)
 
Answer: Christian worship is Christian life
Human claims and experiences are embedded in the detailed life of concrete communities
Christian life centers in corporate worship of the risen Jesus
Two reminders: What Jesus and I did this Christmas break


"Where your treasure is, your heart will be" (Luke 12:34). So Jesus told his listeners that life is worship – either of God alone, or of other gods.

Christians take worship deadly seriously. In fact, we stake our lives on it – risking our futures on the repeated public claim that Jesus of Nazareth really is who he said he is, that God agreed in raising him to eternal life, that somewhere he reigns right now, and that someday he will return and lead us into the presence of our holy God. We worship a God who brooks no rival, who forever cuts off all who serve other gods. If we're wrong about how we worship, then we're finished. You and I might not take worship this seriously, but God certainly does.

Worship as the Shape of Christian Life

Christians can't get away from worship. The most profound texts of Scripture are worship texts. In fact, the texts of Scripture are worship texts, period – the canon of Jewish Scripture was born in the scrolls that were allowed into the Temple for liturgical use, and the authoritative lists of Old and New Testament texts that marked out the contours of Christian Scripture are lists of the texts which were allowed to be read in Church. In the Bible's world, worship establishes theology, not just the other way around. Moderns would like the faith to proceed in a nice neat line of argument from logic to history to theology to worship. Yet the most cherished doctrines of Christian faith, the ones that changed history and remade the thinking of the Christian community, emerge from Christian habits of worshipping the risen Jesus, and seek to explain those habits more intelligibly. New Testament writers repeatedly make the case for Jesus' lordship based on the Psalms. Based on song lyrics! "The Lord says to my lord, 'Sit at my right hand'" (Ps. 110:1). This is the most quoted Old Testament text in the New Testament. If the first Christians had not reflected on their own worship habits, we would not have a New Testament (or an "Old" Testament), let alone doctrines of Trinity or Incarnation.

Our communities are organized around worship. The word "church" translates a word that simply means "gathering" – that is, gathering for worship. The first Christian churches were house churches, combining the familial (shabbat) and communal (synagogue) dimensions of Jewish worship. We associate on the basis of common worship. We enter into fellowship by baptizing – by welcoming newcomers into the table fellowship of our worship services. Christians dissociate by excommunicating – by barring offenders from the same table fellowship. Christian life is a world of symbolism that centers on Sunday morning gatherings to remember our dead and risen Messiah.

Creation is ordered toward worship. Israel is a worship-shaped people. The life of Jesus is one long act of worship. The Church is a temple of the Holy Spirit – a place of worship. The story culminates in a world gathered around the divine throne in eternal worship.

Two Objections

Okay – worship is important. But why study it? Here, perhaps, many Christians would raise objections. Why not save our energy to study the sources of worship – the Bible, Christian doctrine, Church history – the foundations on which our worship is built? And then why insist on analyzing what is ultimately mysterious? Why not just experience it?

These objections describe two popular, and impoverished, understandings of how Christian faith works. The first George Lindbeck calls [cognitive] propositionalism: This is the idea that Christianity comes down to sets of true (or false) propositions. These propositions are the substance of the Christian faith. What we do with them matters, but it is secondary and comes afterwards.

But ask yourself: Do propositions really exist by themselves, apart from those who claim them in the contexts of their lives? If they do, then what do they do for us? If I take a church's true-false doctrine exam and get 100%, but I am not bearing the fruit of the Holy Spirit, or growing to look more and more like Jesus, or carrying his presence to the ends of the earth, or enjoying the relationship with God that he won for us, then so what if the propositions are true?

Many evangelicals spend much of their time in school arguing for propositionalism. Maybe that's why evangelical theology has not been very interesting in a long time. The amazing thing is that the same evangelicals spend a lot of their time in church and on missions arguing against propositionalism. It is not enough to know that Jesus was raised; one must walk down to the "altar" and confess him as Lord and Savior. Salvation is a matter of worship. (By the way, where did all the altars in our churches go?)

The second position reflected in those objections is something Lindbeck calls [experiential] expressivism. This is the idea that Christianity (and every other "religion") is a disposition of the heart, which comes before propositions, before language, at the pristine beginning of human thought. For instance, Friedrich Schleiermacher claimed that all the world's religions are expressions of a common impression of our "absolute dependence." What we do with that impression matters, but it is secondary, and comes afterwards.

But ask yourself: Setting aside the problem that this claim can never be proven, and that it contradicts everything that is contradictory and mutually exclusive in the different "religious" traditions of human communities, do experiences really exist by themselves, before analytical thought intervenes? Aren't our experiences rather informed by our expectations, thoughts, actions, habits, worldviews? Do I experience the fullness of joy before it is called "joy," or must I learn about it for me to experience it in its fullness? Think back to puberty. Why did you start experiencing it more deeply, much more deeply, as people explained it to you?

Many liberals spend much of their time in school arguing for expressivism. Maybe that's why liberal theology has not been very interesting in a long time. The amazing thing is that same liberals spend a lot of their time in church and in the world insisting on particular forms of language for describing what is supposed to be universal. Why care about gendered language for God if the prelinguistic experience is what really matters? It is not enough to feel things that we later describe as God; we feel what we already know and confess as the God of Jesus Christ. Salvation is a matter of worship.

Against these two positions Lindbeck argues for a "cultural" or "linguistic" vision of the faith. Borrowing from Ludwig Wittgenstein, Lindbeck takes the life of the Christian community to be the setting and animating context for thoughts and experiences. What do Christians mean when we say that Jesus is Lord and Savior? "Meaning is use," Wittgenstein and Lindbeck contend. The meaning of Christian language is the use of Christian language. And the fundamental use of Christian language is in gathered, corporate worship.

Head knowledge, that favorite of the eighteenth century, is body knowledge. Heart knowledge, that favorite of the nineteenth century, is body knowledge. And the body knowledge that defines Christian communities is the body knowledge of their worship practices. Here especially is where we work out our salvation.

Even if I've met these objections to your intellectual satisfaction (and I don't see why a few mere paragraphs on each one would do that), I expect to see them resurface repeatedly in this course, continuing to exert influence from their places deep in our intellectual (and anti-intellectual) culture. You may well find yourself frustrated with the apparent trivia of this or that "little" part of a Catholic worship service: what do all these gestures have to do with Jesus? That is probably your propositionalism peeking through. Or you may find yourself frustrated with all of the focus on outward actions rather than inward intentions. That is probably your expressivism peeking through. Try to make a mental note of your irritation, and ask whether it is really as innocent as it seems to be. (Ironically, as we proceed through the course, you will see both of these ideologies in the concrete worship practices of modern Christians! And there you can ask whether these epistemological convictions produce healthy worship and healthy worshippers.)

Two Reminders

Let me offer a personal illustration for one overriding reason I'm teaching this course. Worship is where two or three are gathered in the name of the one who has promised then to come. Worship is where we experience the presence of the one who promised to be with us always. Worship is where we find God not just in the third person, but in the second person.

I am, I think, in the midst of a crisis of faith brought on by September 11, and exacerbated by the reactions of Christians, Muslims, and modernists. This is a confusing season for me. The world has changed; I have changed. Old certainties have been giving way to new problems and questions and doubts. Old personal strengths have faltered in the face of old and new personal failings.

Over Christmas break, two moments more than any others have broken through my malaise. The first was the pre-Christmas worship service at Christian Assembly Foursquare Church, my church in L.A. The rock 'n' roll service at C.A. was pure joy. A metaphysically powerful "O Holy Night" brought us to our knees as we heard its angel voices. A drama brilliantly deconstructed the Pelagian Victorian sentimentality of "A Christmas Carol," which our culture accepts as a substitute for the true gospel of Jesus. A jazz "Chestnuts" for the offertory offered one of the best 'secular' Christmas tunes, along with Caesar's money from our pockets, back to its creator in adoration.

The second moment was the Christmas Eve Eucharist at St. Mark's Episcopal Church, were my two boys went to school. As Christmas dawned, my sister and I sang "Silent Night" with the taste of the Communion wine still on our lips, imagining (or perhaps recollecting) a brief respite for the one destined to die for the sins of the world. I could barely choke out the words through my tears. My world is one of comfort. A night in a manger would be an insult to you and me, but it was a fleeting moment of peace for our infant king. Grace is free, my friends, but it isn't cheap. We were bought for a price.

These services were desperately needed reminders that only the way of Jesus Christ, from the manger to the cross and from the tomb to the throne, has any hope for righting the world. I've needed such reminders over and over since 9/11. And more than anywhere, I have seen and heard and tasted and felt and smelled them in the liturgies of God's people. I have rarely deserved worship's gifts less, nor appreciated them more.

Where a people's treasure is, there their heart will be. Worship – the time and energy we spend adoring our creator and redeemer and sustainer – is the treasure of the Christian heart. I am here to discover it, savor it, dive into it, and multiply it. Come along with me, and see it interpret and teach and train us as we trace the steps of our risen Savior.