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.

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  1. Steve Scott January 29, 2007 at 1:10 am

    I’m not surprised that an Anglican would place such an emphasis on beauty. Much of my Christian experience has come within Reformed Baptist circles. We tend to associate use of creation with idolatry, as if we can’t possibly enjoy it without worshipping it or that it necessarily constitutes a distraction to worshipping God alone. Most church buildings I’ve been to in these circles have been bland with no stained glass, etc. Our definition of worldliness is a reductionist one, from “the lust of the flesh, lust of the eyes and boastful pride of life” to “touching with the flesh, looking with the eyes and just plain living.”
    When the second temple was built, the elderly wept because of its inferior beauty and glory. Imagine their reaction if a typical evangelical church building were built instead.

  2. skylinerfan January 29, 2007 at 1:27 am

    I must agree with your observations having spent 14 years in the Reformed Baptist movement myself. I have come to appreciate the use of liturgy in worship and have wondered from time to time if Baptists could not develop a liturgical approach to worship that would be reflective of their theology and at the same time engender a greater degree of worship. I have worsipped myself at St. Paul by the Lake in Chicago as well as attending Christmas eve services at Duke Chapel in Durham – both were services that left me with a sense of being in the presence of the Holy of Holies.

  3. Helen January 29, 2007 at 6:39 am

    Why does the word ‘worship’ usually only refer to what happens when I am not about my daily life?
    If I don’t follow Jesus in my daily life than I am implying he is not worth much.
    So, all the time, my life is either an act of worship or anti-worship.
    Imagination is SO important, but Christians are often afraid of it. It’s another of the many pieces of ground that the more separatist Christians have lost by labelling it ‘dangerous’ – the playground of Satan, as it were.
    I wrote on a blog I host blog today about the power of story
    It’s actually as much about the _value_ of imagination as anything else.
    If Christians are sanctified that really should include their imaginations too, imo. It’s not as if God overlooked that part and so Satan still gets to rule over it.
    Beauty and our imagination and emotions are all linked together. As (I think) you pointed out, John, worshipping with our whole mind and heart will bring all those elements in.
    It seems to me that everything comes back to fear. The fear that to do anything _different_ is to stray off the straight and narrow path. But I don’t think it’s beauty, imagination and art which are either side of the narrow path. I think it’s such things as complacency and legalism and abuse of power.

  4. Gene Redlin January 29, 2007 at 3:03 pm

    This is refreshing. I find that for me much reinforcement of Good Theology comes thru Good Worship.
    I find sometimes singing good music in the quiet under my breath will clarify and stun me with the beauty of Jesus.
    I am a “Fan” (a term I HATE to use in this context) of some of the more edgey and perhaps underground worship stuff. Things we probably won’t use in the Lutheran Church anytime soon. Too intimate, too pasionate, too emotional for most Lutherans. Music that takes me away in passion.
    But, Thats what good worship music should do, play in your head and more important in your spirit all day long.
    It’s better than the alternative.
    Once we start to get a spiritual look at the Beauty of Jesus I don’t know if we can ever avert our gaze.
    Thanks for a great article on a difficult and contentious subject.

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