Thursday, December 07, 2017

Lift Up Your Hearts: Experiencing Communal Worship as Prayer

Prayer is the absolute core of Christian worship. When we gather together in the name of Christ, we ought to be using each element of the service to direct the gaze of our hearts toward God. As the old liturgy commands: “Lift up your hearts!” And the response is: “We lift them up to the Lord!”

I often advise the parishioners in my church to imagine that our worship service is taking place before the throne of God in heaven and that we are participating in the ongoing, eternal service of worship that is perpetually poured out in the heavenly courts (because, in a very real sense, we are): to imagine ourselves, each Sunday morning, as part of that great throng of worshipers described in the visions of Revelation.

This Godward focus of the worship service is not an escapist fantasy or a merely individualized experience that pulls our attention away from our neighbors in the next pew: on the contrary, this is an immersion into reality as it truly is, and into the fully communal nature of the people of God. Rather than ignoring my neighbor in the next pew, a Godward focus in worship binds me to that neighbor more closely than ever, through the unity of our shared devotion and the realization of our oneness in Christ Jesus, revealed nowhere more powerfully than in the spirit of worship. Like metal particles all drawn together toward a single magnetic pole, we truly become one when we are pointed in the same direction, toward a single object of mutual adoration.

It is this directional spirit of focusing on God, this attentiveness to his presence, that makes prayer the binding core of all Christian worship. Whatever we do, whether singing songs, giving offerings, joining in a liturgy, attending to a sermon, or celebrating Holy Communion, we are doing those things unto God.

In point of fact, this sensibility about worship is really the most important thing there is to say about the practice of worship. Leave behind all your quibbles about personal preferences regarding styles of music, formal and informal liturgies, dress codes, and all the rest. None of it matters next to worshiping “in spirit and in truth,” no more than whether you’re worshiping in Jerusalem or on Mount Gerizim (John 4).

Now, I’m not saying that our preferences are unimportant in worship. We all have styles of music that we like and varieties of the Christian worship service that we feel more comfortable in. And that’s fine—it’s wonderful to be able to have forms of worship that speak so easily and so well to our hearts. One of the marvelous things about the sheer vastness of Christian diversity is that our many beautiful traditions have created hundreds of different forms of worship: from ancient, chanted liturgies that haven’t changed in fifteen hundred years, to fresh new worship choruses being pounded out by the drums and electric guitars of modern praise bands. There’s nothing wrong with enjoying the style of worship that you enjoy.

There is something wrong, though, with letting your preferences disrupt the unity of the Body of Christ. In many cases, the church in which you are a member will not gear itself entirely to your own personal preferences. You’ll find that you share your church with large numbers of people from other generations, other cultures, and with other personalities, many of whom will not like the music that you like and who will prefer an entirely different form of service than the one you prefer. In far too many cases, this has been the spark for petty squabbles that mount into full-on church conflicts. Sometimes, the unity of the Body of Christ is torn because people decide that they simply can’t abide with a minor change in the form of their church’s worship.

Not only is that circumstance a tragedy, it is entirely avoidable. Mature, godly Christians—those who have learned how to worship God “in spirit and in truth”—know that it’s not really about me and my preferences anyway, as nice as it might be when a church service aligns with those things: no, it’s really about God. And we can turn our focus to God in almost any form or style of worship service we find ourselves in. One of the healthiest spiritual disciplines for a Christian is, every now and then, to go on a “field trip” to a worship tradition that is very unlike your normal one, and intentionally try to connect with God through the form of worship that they use. The forms we Christians use are many, but there is only one God, and he is everywhere present, especially when two or more are gathered in his name.

I’ve been in worship services that consist entirely of a liturgy chanted in ancient Greek (and in which you’re almost never allowed to sit down), and I’ve been in services that share more with rock concerts than they do with other forms of Christian worship. Neither form is my absolute favorite, but I enjoyed both, and I was able to turn my heart toward God in both, and to glorify him as part of the joint worship of his people. Anyone can do it, in almost any situation. There are, of course, exceptions—incidental circumstances, such as music being so loud as to cause physical discomfort, or services that are so poorly led that they tend to distract one’s attention from God rather than direct it towards him—but those are the exceptions, not the rule. The worship of God’s people, whatever the outward form, is still worship, and any Christian who shares the same Holy Spirit with the other believers engaged in that worship can, with a little prayerful intentionality, find ways to worshipfully connect with God.

This is an advisable practice not only when visiting other churches, but even in your own. Keep a mindfulness about you at all times. Remember what you’re doing there, and remember for whom you’re doing it.

When you’re singing hymns or worship songs, sing them with the intent directionality of prayer: don’t just read blindly over the words on the page or on the screen; speak them with your spirit, and let your heart rise through those words to contemplate and praise the eternal Godhead.

When you’re repeating well-known lines of liturgy, keep an awareness of what you’re saying, and mean every word of it. Say those lines to God, and not just because those are the lines you’re supposed to say.

When you’re giving your offering, be conscious that you’re doing it as an act of worship, as unto God. You can imagine that you’re a God-follower in Old Testament times, leading your animal up to the Temple to be sacrificed before the Lord. Too often, we let familiarity suck the intentionality out of our worship: use your imagination, your joy, your musical or artistic sensibilities to bring back that intentional focus on God in every act of the worship service.

When you’re listening to a pastor or other leader speaking out in public prayer, let your spirit follow along with the words they are saying. Don’t just keep your “Amen” till the very end; let your spirit breathe an “Amen” after every line, to join your prayer with theirs. If you have trouble with this kind of mental focus while being silent and trying to listen, you might try something I’ve begun to do when praying silently along with a spoken public prayer: use a simple chant of the “Amen,” and sing it along in your mind while the pastor prays. In the back of many hymnals, there are tunes for learning various “Amen” chants, sometimes up to a seven-fold Amen. And if you’re the sort whose mind likes to wander off during public prayers, letting yourself sing through an Amen-chant during those minutes is a good and practical way to join in the spirit of prayer and keep your heart directed Godward.

The bottom line is this: when we worship God, we ought to be actually worshiping God: not just singing songs or mumbling lines or sitting on a church pew fantasizing about lunch. That kind of focus is not always easy to attain: our minds naturally tend to wander. But learning to make your worship an exercise in prayer—in simply talking to God—can go a long ways toward teaching you how to become the kind of worshiper the Father seeks, those who can lay aside the incidental circumstances of form and structure, and simply worship in spirit and in truth.