Saturday, 13 August 2016

Who Acts in Worship? A Brief Critique of Worship as Self-expression

What are we doing when we worship? If anything, we are responding to what God has already done for us in Jesus Christ. Our triune God is active in the sacraments, in the Word, and even—yes, I’ll say this, somewhat guardedly—even in our singing if it proves to be a place of genuine encounter between God and Christians. True worship is a participation in the life of the triune God, where the Holy Spirit leads us to the Father through Jesus (cf. Eph. 2:18). Our liturgies, however structured, however informal, are God’s action: it is God who acts in the sacraments and God who acts in the Word. I don’t believe that participants in liturgy are passive recipients as such; while we contribute nothing to God’s action, we still actively respond (by the Spirit) to God’s gracious calling. But the emphasis of worship is on God—not on us, but on God.

James K. A. Smith builds on this train of thought. The primary actor in worship is the triune God; if it is not, then the primary actor is me, and worship becomes little more than self-expression where I declare how devoted I am to God. The important thing here, Smith notes, is that worship must be sincere and novel: ‘If I worship in order to show God how much I love him, I might start to feel hypocritical if I just keep doing the same thing over and over and over again.’ (James K. A. Smith, You Are What You Love: The Spiritual Power of Habit (Grand Rapids, MI: Brazos Press, 2016), p. 75). Thus anything that approximates to ‘traditional’ worship is regarded as poor or inauthentic or even as ‘works righteousness’ that tries ‘to “earn” God’s favor’ (p. 76). The problem here, as Smith recognises, is that ‘the worship-as-expression paradigm makes us the primary actors in worship [and] breeds its own kind of bottom-up valorization of human striving that slides closer to works righteousness’ (p. 77, emphasis original).

But if worship is not about me expressing my love and commitment for God, what is it? Smith continues,

Instead of the bottom-up emphasis on worship as our expression of devotion and praise, historic Christian worship is rooted in the conviction that God is the primary actor or agent in the worship encounter. Worship works from the top down, you might say. In worship we don’t just come to show God our devotion and give him our praise; we are called to worship because in this encounter God (re)makes and molds us top-down. Worship is the arena in which God recalibrates our hearts, reforms our desires, and rehabituates our loves. Worship isn’t just something we do; it is where God does something to us. Worship is the heart of discipleship because it is the gymnasium in which God retrains our hearts. (p. 77, emphasis original).

Is it possible that the common but implicit identification of worship with singing fosters an understanding of worship as self-expression? If so, is it time to place less emphasis on the songs, even the hymnody, and focus instead on the psalmody? Or will even this lead to self-expressionism?


  1. Smith is on to something. I think that we will constantly be at odds with ourselves when it comes to worship. True worship is counter to our natural inclinations and it is hard to move from me-centered to God-centered. Yet, we must. Worship that is centered on the Lord's table, I think, helps the most by keeping the focus on what God has done.

    1. I'd agree. But I remember reading in an Ian Stackhouse book that the singing section has effectively replaced the Eucharist as a sacrament. If this is so, then I think the Church has lost its way a little.

  2. As a slightly conflicted 'worship leader' in a mildly charismatic Anglican church, I find this topic fascinating and I'm not entirely sure what I think!

    On the whole, I think I agree with Smith to a large extent. In my experience, worship that's approached primarily as self-expression can lead to all sorts of pitfalls and excesses, some of which Smith touches on.

    However... I'm a both/and sort of guy, and I wouldn't want to swing to the opposite extreme. I'm not sure that self-expression is wrong in worship, just that it's best when it isn't the dominant factor. The biblical psalmists are often expressing their own emotions, needs and even perceptions of God, and I think we're okay to do that too.

    For me, worship is a complex and multi-faceted thing, but at its heart is an encounter with the living triune God in which we're in some sense changed. I do believe that God is the primary active agent and initiator / source, but that we participate and play our part too, and that self-expression can be a valid element within the overall mix.

    1. Yes, I think Smith probably over-eggs the pudding so that his mentions of interaction with God in worship are somewhat lost. He has in mind many of the modern worship choruses and specifically refers to Here I am to worship, where the focus is ostensibly on my action.

    2. Interesting - I take the point but I'm not sure that's an entirely fair criticism of the song, which I rather like so I'll defend it with a degree of bias ;)

      The verses of that song focus on God and his action in the world and on us - 'Light of the world, you stepped down into darkness / Opened my eyes, let me see'.

      The 'So here am I to worship' chorus is therefore set up as a direct response to God's action, rather than simply as a decontextualised instance of self-expression. In context, I'd see that as perfectly valid, though I do understand Smith's wider concerns.

      I'm not sure that the worship as a form of works righteousness criticism is entirely valid either. I think there's always a danger of works righteousness in any form of Christian activity, but surely the determining factor is our underlying motivation. Striving to express our devotion in worship may (or may not) be misguided, but I'm not convinced that it's all that often used as an attempt to earn divine favour.

    3. Yeah, I don't mind it, either. In fact, it's one of the few modern choruses I have downloaded using iTunes.

      But I think I'd be a bit more hesitant than you to justify it in a way. I can appreciate that the chorus's chorus is a response to God's action, but there's something almost smug about it: 'See, Lord, here I am to worship.' But otherwise, yes . . .

      But I'm also quite hesitant to ascribe too much power to motivation. I'm inclined to think that ensuring one's motivation to worship is right is also a form of works righteousness - it's me worshipping from a supposedly pure heart. But if true Christian worship shows us anything, it's that our hearts and motivation are anything but pure.

      Smith's wider point is that humans are creatures of habit and so need to live within the right framework or story in order to cultative right habits (ie., virtue) instead of bad habits (ie., vices). He sees much of the modern worship industry as a form of present-day consumerism. The book is definitley worth reading (he says, as he ploughs through it, slowly).

    4. I think it depends where you put the emphasis - 'Here I am to *worship*' is a little less smug perhaps...

      Perhaps I'm not as fussed about works righteousness as you! I don't see it as a problem that we're involved in the process and that we act in some sense independently, or without it all having to be 'from God' or 'by God' exactly... I'm not a Calvinist, so though I agree that our motives are always mixed and our hearts always impure to an extent, I'm not sure that is as much of a problem as you suggest. But I may be misunderstanding you and I'm almost certainly misunderstanding orthodox Christian theology!

      So I certainly agree that we'll never worship with a pure heart, but I'm not sure it's wrong to try.

      I take Smith's point about humans being creatures of habit and I like the idea of living within the right framework or story, though I'm not entirely sure how that works out in practice... I certainly agree that much of the modern worship industry is a very consumerist phenomenon which makes me pretty uncomfortable. But I think that's more a symptom of our modern western culture and mindset which has filtered through to or 'infected' our approach to worship and to Christianity more generally.

    5. What Smith's saying about 'works righteousness' seems entirely apposite to me. If some do regard practising 'traditional' forms of worship (e.g. using set liturgy week in, week out) as 'vain repetition' and inauthentic, then the antidote to that would be to be novel and authentic - hence the need to use as current a hymnody as possible. But this, for Smith, leads to its own form of 'works righteousness', because the underlying attitude appears to presume God's pleasure with and acceptance of only novel and authentic forms of worship. I don't think this has anything much to do with divine action and human response in worship as such; it's more about a mindset that presumes God will only accept our worship when it's 'from the heart'. I guess it's the equivalent of saying that inclusion within a particular group is possible only by wearing the right clothes or by saying the right things. No churchmanship is immune to this, of course, but there is, for me, something insidious about many of the songs used in services these days; I just do not know how they contribute to the service beyond being an outlet of praise - but in such a way that they just reinforce the idea that worship is self-expression rather than something done primarily by the triune God. (And I don't think being Calvinistic has anything to do with this - not least because I'm not a Calvinist!)

      Regarding your final paragraph: basically, Smith encourages adopting the daily use of the Church's historic patterns of liturgy because these are rooted in Scripture, and it's Scripture that shapes us and provides a counter-story to the one we imbibe through secular culture.

    6. Yes, I see your point (and Smith's). I have certainly come across the thinking that worship and prayer have to be 'from the heart' or 'authentic' in order to be acceptable, which I strongly disagree with.

      And yet... I do see their point a little too, in some contexts. I grew up in a tradition where rote-praying often felt like the norm, and where sometimes the point of church seemed to be to get through all the liturgy as quickly as possible, without engaging either the heart or brain.

      So I do think that our hearts and minds (and bodies) should ideally be engaged in some sense when we pray and worship, and that we do actively participate in the encounter... but at the same time that it isn't ultimately about us, and doesn't rely on our spontaneity, authenticity, eloquence or anything.

      So the main point is that God meet us and he does stuff, but I think we're involved in the process. Perhaps sometimes only by turning up.

      And I'm still not too bothered by works righteousness... ;)

    7. Well, formal liturgy (e.g., that of Common Worship) could easily be said by rote. And I'm sure it is, and often. But the repetition is a way to internalise biblically informed phrases and attitudes so that adoration, confession, intercession, etc., become virtuous rather than a chore.