Worship is what makes us Christian

“Worship is what makes us Christian.”

I first heard those words over coffee with Justin. We were fellow Lutherans in our third year of seminary classes, both called to parish ministry, and I was trying to find out more from Justin about these liturgical dramas he kept writing for daily chapel services (don’t scoff—they’re awesome) when he said, “Worship is what makes us Christian.”

I had to pause for a moment to take that in, because I’d never heard it before. I was surprised, and curious, and later on, a little disturbed. I was three years into seminary and it had never before occurred to me to think of liturgy, this thing we get together and do every Sunday, as an event that defined me as a Christian? What else hadn’t I learned in seminary?!

(That sound you just heard, by the way, was the ironical laughter of hundreds of pastors remembering their first calls.)

Perhaps more to the point, if I didn’t think of worship as the formative thing that made me a Christian, what did I think it was?

Poking more closely at that question actually yields a perfectly reasonable response, maybe the same one you’d have given: before that conversation with Justin, I would have said, “Belief in God the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit.” And this is true. But what I’d never seen before is that that response is actually saying something else: that faith is synonymous with intellectual assent. I believe, and therefore I am Christian.

When we say that worship is what makes us who we are, we are saying that being Christian is not just an act of intellectual assent, it is an act, period. We’re saying that Christians aren’t defined solely by what happens in our heads, but also through what we do with our bodies—and even more significantly, in what God does with us when God gathers us as the Body of Christ. We are also saying that faith is not born fully formed in a moment of rational choice, but is actually formed and reformed through liturgical practice.[1]

Consider C.S. Lewis’ tongue-in-cheek explanation of that concept from The Screwtape Letters. As one demon writes to another:

Wikimedia Commons.

“One of their poets, Coleridge, has recorded that he did not pray ‘with moving lips and bended knees’ but merely ‘composed his spirit to love’ and indulged ‘a sense of supplication’. That is exactly the sort of prayer we want….At the very least, [humans] can be persuaded that the bodily position makes no difference to their prayers; for they constantly forget, what you must always remember, that they are animals and that whatever their bodies do affects their souls.”[2]

We might take exception to Screwtape’s demonic snark, but we can’t deny the truth of his point. When Lewis, through Screwtape, makes the claim that choosing whether to kneel or not while praying is a choice that actually matters, recent scientific evidence supports his conclusion. Research has shown that arranging our facial muscles into a smile makes us feel happier,[3] and that changing our body posture alters our hormone levels.[4] While no one that I know of has yet undertaken a study of what happens in our brains when we submit to the ritual motions of a Sunday morning (that would be really cool, by the way—anyone looking for a research project?), worship is an embodied experience, and what we do in those bodies shapes who we are.[5]

In writing about the Rule of Benedict—basically the medieval rulebook for how to live in a monastery—Nathan Mitchell claims that “ritual is not only a way Christians negotiate their access to the Sacred; it is also their way of editing experience, ‘rewriting’ personal history, and appropriating a new identity.”[6] The curious thing about the Rule of Benedict, according to Mitchell, is that intellectual assent and spiritual readiness for worship were secondary considerations for taking part in regular worship: the primary value of participating was the training of bodies in order to produce a holy people.[7]

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Of the Sunday gathering, Evangelical Lutheran Worship liturgists wrote, “regular keeping of Sunday gives a gospel rhythm to all our days and to our entire lives.”[8] They take their cue for this from generations of Christians who have gone before them, to whom the weekly gathering around bread and cup were vital: “We have to celebrate the Lord’s Day. It is our rule,” said the martyrs of Abitina. “We could not live without celebrating the Lord’s Day.”[9]

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How is it that this Sunday gathering, this thing for which I was so reluctant, as a teenager, to leave my warm bed, was so important to those forty-nine Christians of the early church that they considered it a matter of life and death? What is the connection between the essentiality of the Sunday liturgy and the forty-nine people whose lives were thought so holy that the Church still remembers them, two millennia after they have died?

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The children’s book The Little Prince offers a fable-like answer. In the book, the eponymous Prince tells the story of meeting a fox who asks to be tamed: “If you tame me, then we shall need each other. To me, you will be unique in all the world. To you, I shall be unique in all the world…” The prince agrees, and returns to visit the fox the next day, but the fox objects:

“It would have been better to come back at the same hour,” said the fox. “If, for example, you come at four o’clock in the afternoon, then at three o’clock I shall begin to be happy. I shall feel happier and happier as the hour advances. At four o’clock, I shall already be worrying and jumping about. I shall show you how happy I am! But if you come at just any time, I shall never know at what hour my heart is to be ready to greet you … One must observe the proper rites…”

The Sunday assembly is the rite through which God “tames” us, teaching our hearts to long for the divine presence, training our eyes to see reminders of our beloved in the world around us, shaping our deepest longings so that we desire nothing in the world more than we desire God’s nearness.

Alexander Schmemann, a famous Eastern Orthodox liturgist, suggested that original sin “does not consist primarily in disobedience, but in ceasing to be hungry for God alone, and therefore, in seeking fulfillment elsewhere.”[10] Through participating in the rites that shape us into a holy people, we find our hunger restored: “The practices of holiness, the acts whereby the assembly bears witness to the truth of God, are like beggars’ hands out for mercy, naked bodies presented for the cloak.”[11]

Associated Press image, originally found on “Christianity Today” website. Follow image URL for original location.

[1] The Augsburg Confession points in this directing in Article V, where it states that God instituted the office of preaching, giving the gospel and the sacraments. Through these means, “[God] gives the Holy Spirit who produces faith, where and when it pleases God, in those who hear the gospel.”

[2] C.S. Lewis, The Screwtape Letters (New York: Macmillan Co, 1943).

[3] Daniel Goleman, “A Feel-Good Theory: A Smile Affects Mood” New York Times, (July 18, 1989). http://www.nytimes.com/1989/07/18/science/a-feel-good-theory-a-smile-affects-mood.html

[4] Dana R. Carney, Amy J.C. Cuddy, and Andy J. Yap, “Power Posing: Brief Nonverbal Displays Affect Neuroendocrine Levels and Risk Tolerance” Psychological Science 21, no. 10. (October 2010), 1363–1368.

[5] Cf. Frank Senn, Introduction to Christian Worship (Minneapolis: Fortress Press), 189-195.

[6] Nathan Mitchell. Liturgy and the Social Sciences (Collegeville: Liturgical Press, 1999), 75.

[7] Ibid, 73-4

[8] Gail Ramshaw. Keeping Time (Minneapolis: Augsburg Fortress, 2009), 8.

[9] Qtd. in Ramshaw, Keeping Time, 9.

[10] Frank Senn, New Creation (Minneapolis: Fortress Press, 2000), 64.

[11] Gordon Lathrop, Holy People: A Liturgical Ecclesiology (Fortress Press, Minneapolis: 2006), 226.


2 Replies to “Worship is what makes us Christian”

  1. Victoria, There actually is a study being done in Helsinki with a group of liturgists and other folks. They are studying the embodiment of worship and lived worship. It’s actually quite interesting. One of the people is a Episcopal priest who is looking at the physical activity involved in Orthodox worship.

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