Worship as Gospel Target Practice

Zac HicksWorship Theology & Thought1 Comment

I continue to slowly read through James K. A. Smith’s book, Desiring the Kingdom.  It has fast become one of the three most important books on worship I have read in the last decade.  The book’s central point is pictured through a hundred different metaphors and explored from a hundred different angles.  I would like to tease out just one metaphor.  Smith says, 

The liturgy is a “hearts and minds” strategy, a pedagogy that trains us as disciples precisely by putting our bodies through a regimen of repeated practices that get hold of our heart and “aim” our love toward the kingdom of God.*

In other words, worship is like target practice for our hearts.  What is the function of target practice?  Whether you’re a rifleman, a basketball player, or Katniss Everdeen, target practice serves one primary purpose: to train your muscles and senses through repeated action to hit bullseye, so that when you’re in real life, the real game–when it counts–you are able to hit true with almost instinctual, subconscious automaticity.  A basketball player will shoot free throw shots in the practice gym over and over again so that, when they’re on the line in the game, they almost can’t miss because, from the tips of their toes to the top of their head, they’ve so trained their body that it is as if they can only make the shot.

Worship “rituals,” thoughtfully planned, purposefully led, and intentionally engaged, have a very similar effect on the “aim” of one’s soul.  Smith frames this aim in terms of the “kingdom,” hence his book’s title reveals that worship causes us to “desire the kingdom.”  Complementary to that idea, I’d like to testify that good worship causes us to be a people patterned according to the gospel.   

I have been a participant in gospel-shaped worship services for over a decade now.  This means that I’ve been worshiping in service contexts where, either through song, scripture, spoken elements, sacrament/ordinance, or some combination of the four, there are explicit moments in the service where we’re walking through the pattern of:

(a) God’s glory, power, and holiness
(b) our sin, rebellion, brokenness, and unworthiness
(c) God’s provision of a Mediator to bridge the vast chasm between (a) and (b)

In more formal (high church) contexts, this is often called (a) the Call to Worship / Praise; (b) the Confession of Sin; (c) Assurance of Pardon / Absolution.  It is the “gospel shape” that Bryan Chapell (in Christ-Centered Worship) observes is a part of all the major Christian worship traditions from the earliest times.  It is the core of the “Great Tradition” that Jim Belcher (in Deep Church) identifies as the common river from which the various tributaries of Christianity branch.  

Walking through this gospel-shape week in and week out for over ten years now has made me a creature of habit the other six days of the week.  When I stumble into sin daily, when I walk with my wife and my kids through their sin daily, an instinct quickly emerges and my heart starts raining gospel free throws.  I find the crushing power of God’s glory over me, and I am brought low.  I cry “uncle” and admit my sin before my Maker.  And God ministers His good news of Christ, through the Spirit, to my heart.  I have just acted out and performed what I “rehearse” every Sunday.  I have just hit bullseye because of each Sunday’s relentless target practice drills.

As worship leaders, pastors, planners, and worshipers, it behooves us to think long and hard about what our worship services aim us toward in both content and form.  Thoughtful worship leaders most often think about content: What is the theology of the songs, the spoken elements, the prayers?  And we should ask quite clearly, “Is the gospel there?”  But we also need to probe the question of form: Does the flow and rhythm of the worship service walk through the gospel story?  Is the gospel not only proclaimed in the content of the songs, but do we actually progress through the steps of glory, sin, and grace?  

In many ways, the more I plan worship services, the more I boil it down to one fundamental evaluative question: “In how many different ways are we proclaiming the gospel this Sunday?”  I certainly expect to hear it in the preaching, but I want it to saturate our prayers, songs, responses, readings, and celebrations of baptism and the Lord’s Supper, too.  And I also want it proclaimed in form.  I hope that the gospel story has been “remembered” (in the robust, Koine sense of anamnesis) in at least three different ways each Sunday.

So the question is before us: If the gospel is not the target for your services, what is? 


*James K. A. Smith, Desiring the Kingdom: Worship, Worldview, and Cultural Formation (Grand Rapids: Baker, 2009), 33.

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