Colossian Blog
November 9, 2011 | James K.A. Smith

Glossary – Worship: Expression and Formation

Glossary – Worship: Expression and Formation

James K.A. Smith, Senior Fellow
November 9th, 2011

The Colossian Forum emphasizes the centrality of Christian worship as a resource for theological wisdom—the practices that “carry” the rationality of the tradition—as well as the space in which we are conformed to the image of Christ—one of the primary ways that we acquire the virtues of Christ (Col. 3:16).  However, in order for that claim to make sense, it might be helpful to clarify what we mean by “worship” in a full-orbed sense.

By “worship” we mean more than music or singing.  In many contemporary churches, we have fallen into the habit of talking about the “song service” as “worship,” which is a prelude followed by “teaching” (i.e., the sermon)—perhaps with another opportunity to “worship with our giving” after the sermon.  In some ways, this narrowing of the meaning of “worship” is part of a bad habit that we picked up after the Reformation:  the tendency to reduce worship to expression.  After the Reformation, and especially in the wake of modernity, wide swaths of contemporary Christianity tend to only think of worship as an “upward” act of the people of God who gather to offer up their sacrifice of praise, expressing their gratitude and devotion to the Father, with the Son, in the power of the Holy Spirit.

Obviously this is an entirely biblical impulse and understanding: if we don’t praise, even the rocks will cry out.  In a sense, we are made to praise.  The biblical vision of history culminates in the book of Revelation with a worshiping throng enacting the exhortation of Psalm 150 to “Praise the Lord!”  However, one can also see how such expressivist understandings of worship feed into (and off of) some of the worst aspects of modernity.  Worship-as-expression is easily hijacked by the swirling eddy of individualism.  In that case, even gathered worship is more like a collection of individual, private encounters with God in which worshipers express an “interior” devotion.

But over the course of Christian history (including the Reformation), worship was always understood as more than expression.  Christian worship is also a formative practice precisely because worship is also a “downward” encounter in which God is the primary actor.  Worship isn’t just something we do; it does something to us.  Worship is a communal practice that is one of those “habitations of the Spirit” described by Craig Dykstra: a tangible, embodied, communal rhythm that is a conduit for the Spirit’s transformative power.  Worship is a space where we are nourished by Word and sacrament—we eat the Word and eat the bread that is the Word of Life.

This is why, for centuries, Christians have described worship as a “sacramental” encounter—a place where the transcendent God meets us in the tangible, tactile elements of bread and wine and water and Word.  Word and sacrament are specially “charged” spaces of the Spirit’s formative power, which is why the form of worship is important.  These are not just channels through which we funnel our praise up to God; they are also embodied practices through which the Spirit of God shapes our imagination.  Christian worship that is gathered around Word and table is not just a platform for our expression; it is the space for the Spirit’s (trans)formation of us.  The practices of gathered Christian worship have a specific shape about them precisely because this is how the Spirit recruits us into the story of God reconciling the world to himself in Christ.  There is a “logic” to the shape of intentional, historic Christian worship that performs the Gospel over and over again as a way to form and reform our habits.

For further reading

Shane Claiborne, Jonathan Wilson-Hartgrove, and Enuma Okoro, “Introduction” to Common Prayer: A Liturgy for Ordinary Radicals (Zondervan, 2010).

John Witvliet and Emily Brink, “Prologue” to The Worship Sourcebook (Faith Alive/Baker, 2004).

James K.A. Smith, Desiring the Kingdom: Worship, Worldview, and Cultural Formation (Baker Academic, 2009).

Michael Horton, A Better Way: Rediscovering the Drama of God-Centered Worship (Baker, 2002).

Mark Labberton, The Dangerous Act of Worship (InterVarsity, 2007).

John Jefferson Davis, Worship and the Reality of God: An Evangelical Theology of Real Presence (InterVarsity Press, 2010).


James K.A. Smith is a Senior Fellow of The Colossian Forum and professor of philosophy at Calvin College.


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