Worship as Pastoral Care: Timeless Insights off a Dusty Bookshelf

Zac HicksUncategorizedLeave a Comment

A dear pastor-friend of mine has been experiencing early-onset Alzheimer’s disease, but, with the generous heart characteristic of his ministry, he decided to make hay while the sun was shining.  So, he graciously invited me over to his home and plunder his impressive library.  After wiping off some dust, I believe I found a gem. 

When I saw Worship as Pastoral Care, by William Willimon, my heart simultaneously leapt for joy and wept.  It leapt for joy because I’ve been thinking about that very topic in the last year and wondering why not much has been written on it.  It wept because I was hoping to write the book myself so that I could make millions (yes, millions) off of the sales of that bad boy.  Oh, well.  After reading Willimon, I realized that I was way out of my league and ill-equipped for the topic at hand, anyway. 

Ironically, after reading this book published by Abingdon in 1979, nothing about it felt dated except the publishing date itself.   The field of psychology has progressed, so perhaps his research and findings in those areas are dated, but I wouldn’t know it, especially because Willimon’s analysis and observations seem so timeless and relevant. 

Willimon’s thesis is that too much of how we think about “pastoral care” has been built on modern models of psychotherapy—one-on-one “clinical” therapy—as opposed to the biblical model of the pastor as priest.*  He contends that one of the primary ways that pastors execute the duties of pastoral care is through worship planning, preparation, and leadership.  But Willimon is quick to point out that liturgy is not a tool:

“My thesis…is not that we should use the liturgy as a new method of pastoral care but that the liturgy itself and a congregation’s experience of divine worship already functions, even if in a secondary way, as pastoral care. The pastoral care that occurs as we are meeting and being met by God in worship is a significant by-product that we have too often overlooked” (p. 48).

Indeed!  Still, Willimon goes on to articulate the ways in which the field of psychology informs and aids how we understand worship as pastoral care.  One of the more eye-opening lenses through which we can view worship is psychology’s concept of “approach/avoidance.”  Human beings, when encountering heavy, awe-inspiring realities such as religion and “God,” exhibit behavior that on the one hand attracts them for the purpose of seeking comfort (approach) and on the other hand repels them because of fear (avoidance):

“In worship we are participating in the twofold process of being brought into a relationship with the Divine as well as being protected from the Divine.”

Willimon goes on to analyze “worship-behaviors” that may reveal people’s deeper discomfort with the very presence of God:

“Even the incessant clearing of throats, whispering, coughing, rattling of gum wrappers, and aimless activity that usually goes on in a congregation on Sunday morning may be a direct, if unconscious, attempt to avoid getting too close to the mystery” (p. 79).

What an observation!  I have never thought about the fact that noise and clamor on Sunday morning may be tied to conscious and sub-conscious discomfort of some with being in the very presence of Almighty God. 

My main takeaway from this book is one of both affirmation and confirmation that, as I plan and lead worship, week in and week out, I am fulfilling a real and vital function of pastoral care.  This makes sense of my own (Reformed) tradition.  If the Word and the sacraments truly are means of grace (special vehicles through which God reveals Himself and nourishes His people and for which there is no comparable substitute), and if these means of grace are given by God to be ordinarily “dispensed” in the context of corporate worship, then what I do as a worship planner and leader is pastoral care of the highest order.  I don’t need to feel guilty that my weekly calendar is not loaded with one-on-one counseling sessions, as though I am neglecting an aspect of my pastoral call.  Of course, pastoral engagement does involve those one-on-one times.  Nevertheless, I care for God’s people by leading worship and through planning the liturgy. 

Worship leaders need to note all this, both to be encouraged and to realize that they have a burden.  They should be encouraged that their job is more than “pumping up” and inspiring people on a Sunday.  They have the privilege of caring for souls.  But this is a weighty privilege.  That means that we must think deeply and pray fervently when we plan worship.  We must walk that tightrope of intentional leadership without manipulation.  The songs we choose, the readings we speak, the prayers we utter, the music we play—they all have the ability to shape souls.  What kind of souls are you shaping?


*Protestants who bristle at this label should recognize that the pastoral office still carries priestly roles, even amidst our strong belief that Christ is our great High Priest and the only mediator between God and humanity (1 Tim 2:5).

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