The famous Anglican archbishop William Temple provided perhaps the best definition of worship that I have ever read:
Worship is the quickening of the conscience by the holiness of God, the feeding of the mind by the truth of God, the purging of the imagination by the beauty of God, the opening of the heart to the love of God, and the devotion of the will to the purpose of God.
I think Temple’s definition is both full and theologically sound. I have discovered, over many years of worship in some of our most conservative evangelical churches, that true worship is quite uncommon. We put so much stress on “feeding the mind by the truth of God” that we do next to nothing to “purge the imagination by the beauty of God.” Our theology is so Word centered, in the very narrowest of senses, and our doctrine of creation is often limited to debates about the length of days in Genesis and the age of the earth, so we miss beauty. We treat physical matter, drama and art, as irrelevant to worship. Natural revelation is unimportant to many of us, at best. We reason that the physical world is to be destroyed in the final day so what difference does it make now? In such a theology only spirit matters.
What many younger Christians are finding in our day is that you can both feed the mind and purge the imagination in fresh and obviously biblical ways that do not necessarily fit the cultural box of certain forms of preaching and singing. I experienced this today in our neighborhood church, The Lutheran Church of the Master in Carol Stream, where we attend when I am not ministering elsewhere or we are in South Holland at First Reformed Church. The theme today was: “In Worship, God Calls.” We were invited to “become a part of God’s story” from the start to the finish. We began with a reading from Matthew 13:34-35. We sang in response, “Shout to the Lord.” Pastor Tom Lyberg then read the story of Israel’s entrance into the land of promise from Deuteronomy 24:1-11, with a simple explanation of the biblical account.
This opening stanza of the liturgy was followed by a biblical storyteller, Dan LeMonnier, who recited a narrative. Dan has developed a public ministry of dramatically reciting whole portions of the Bible, most all of which are long narrative sections. And most of what he did today was done from memory, which made it even more effective. He used both his voice and his bodily actions to act out very effectively what he was reciting. In the first dramatic portion he gave us all of Genesis 2 and 3. We then sang, “There is Joy in the Lord,” a simple and appropriate congregational response. A short litany was then followed by another long dramatic narrative, the story of the conversion of Saul of Tarsus in the book of Acts. Then we sang an old favorite hymn: “I Surrender All.” The dramatist effectively recited the conversion story of Paul and acted out portions of the story brilliantly. For example, he fell down under the bright light of the vision on the road to Damascus, shielding his eyes and hearing the voice of the Lord Jesus speaking to him from heaven, etc. The next reading Dan gave us was from Matthew 15:1-20, the story of the prodigal son. Never, in all my life, have I ever heard this story so powerfully spoken to my imagination and mind. We recited The Apostles’ Creed, passed the peace to one another, gave our gifts and then offered the prayers of the gathered church in a responsive manner. Then came the Lord’s Prayer.
Finally, a dramatic recitation of Matthew 28 brought the whole story to its proper conclusion, with the resurrection and the Great Commission filling out the liturgy. The benediction and a closing song gave an appropriate end to the service: “Go, My Children, with My Blessing.” My heart was opened afresh to the love of God and my will resolved again to be devoted to my Savior. I had, very simply, truly worshiped God.
Far too many conserative congregations place so much stress on preaching, undersood in the most limited way as a long exposition of a text with very detailed academic apparatus self-consciously centered within the homily, that the imagination plays virtually no part in the church’s worship. This kind of sermon is given according to an established cultural form which is often rooted more in rationalism than in the storyline of the Bible itself. (You will not find this type of sermonizing in the Bible itself.) Because of this approach to the pulpit, reading and hearing the Scripture seems out of place more and more. Frankly, it bores us.
Because of this modernistic approach to the handling of both Scripture and oral proclamation powerful reading is often lost on the church. I have been in dozens of evangelical churches that read only a few short verses, or often no Bible texts at all. And many ministers, or lay readers, do a very mediocre job of reading the Scriptures in public. Hearing these particular readings today moved my soul to magnify the Lord and fired my imagination wonderfully like few services I have particpated in as a Christian.
The Word of God is truly powerful! We say we believe that it is but our practice often denies it. It contains a great story and we ought to tell this great story much better than we do.