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.

 

Suggested Posts
TCF Welcomes Student Intern Josh Webb
January 18, 2017 | Jennifer Vander Molen
TCF Welcomes Student Intern Josh Webb
Last week, The Colossian Forum welcomed Josh Webb as our new student intern in the Operations and Communications department. Josh is an undergraduate student at Calvin College, where he studies in the religion and music departments. He will be working with us during the spring semester as he completes his degree. Along with his studies and internship, Josh works part-time as the Director of Music Ministries at Leighton United Methodist Church in Caledonia. He and his wife, Kate, married in June of 2015 and currently live in Jenison. Together they enjoy hiking, traveling, and movie marathons! Josh was drawn to The Colossian Forum by a shared passion for seeking grace and discipleship through conflict in the church. He is also looking to gain new work experience before graduating. He will be assisting TCF in several areas including weekly marketing and communications tasks, compiling and editing an e-book, and a market research project. Welcome to the team, Josh!
Finding Our Limits
January 11, 2017 | Michael Gulker
Finding Our Limits
Dear Friends, Many people undertake a practice of reflection during the holidays and in preparation for a new year. In that spirit, I took time to reflect on God’s blessings and provision here at The Colossian Forum over the past year. Perhaps the greatest gift of 2016 is one that came as a surprise: our limits. Not that we’re surprised to have limits, we’re quite aware of them (along with our flaws). No, the surprise was in how the limits themselves became gifts. Of course, limits don’t always feel like gifts, especially in our achievement-crazed culture. Throughout 2016 we kept bumping up against them though: financial limits, time limits, and limits of our abilities. As a creature of our culture, I have to confess these limits often didn’t register as gifts at the time. But as finite creatures of a good God, we can learn to receive limits as gifts meant for our good. For instance, through our limits we learned to depend upon each other as teammates. We had to rely on friends to help us where we couldn’t help ourselves. For example, despite the fact that we didn’t have the financial resources to run the Beyond the Creation Wars conference in October, Andrews University allowed conversation and friendship with our partners Darrel Falk and Todd Wood to continue to unfold. Our friends at Front Range Christian Schools in Littleton, CO are likewise hosting a public conference with Darrel and Todd at the end of this month, again, largely without our help. We also discovered new friends we didn’t know we had because of our limits. Some of these friends helped us take our work in new and exciting directions that we couldn’t have imagined. Others simply took our work and ran with it in new directions without us. We had to let go of control. And in doing so, we found that God is quite capable of running the cosmos even when we’re not at the helm. Go figure . . . We are still facing limits in this new year. The demand for The Colossian Way experience continues to grow and now well exceeds our funding base. How much of that need we are able to meet lies outside our control. Numerous organizations have contacted us desiring to take on and help distribute The Colossian Way. We certainly want to broadly circulate what we’ve learned and are grateful and humbled by these potential partners. Still, we’re not sure if or how those partnerships will happen. But we’re learning to trust that God will continue to provide in unexpected ways. My prayer is that we all grow in our awareness and gratitude for the different ways God’s provision touches our lives and our world. This may even take the form of being thankful for our limits! In this new year, I hope our limits will keep before us the truth that it is God, and not us, who’s doing the work. We truly appreciate all of you who keep supporting The Colossian Forum in your prayers, your volunteering, your gifts, and your limits. This post is excerpted from our January prayer letter. To receive the prayer letter in your inbox, click on the button below. Subscribe! To the monthly prayer letter.