Those who resonate with modern worship often feel as though a services filled with liturgical elements besides singing are not conducive to a “spirit of worship” because it does not flow, but rather stutter-steps. However, defining a “spirit of worship” purely in terms of how it moves and engages one’s heart betrays a misunderstanding about what corporate worship is, at its core. (And don’t get me wrong, here. I believe in flow, for both free and liturgical settings, and I seek to plan services with flow.) But when we’re getting down to fundamentals, corporate worship is primarily an act, not an experience.* If a person leaves worship not having been touched emotionally or not having been engaged passionately, have they still worshiped? Yes! Why? Because worship is an act and only secondarily an experience. Worship is about walking through certain rituals (some churches have a broader array of rituals than others…but all have them) that the Bible guides us to engage in (like prayer, singing, preaching the Word, Lord’s Supper/baptism, etc.). Those rituals therefore embody how God wants us to worship Him, and when we enter into the act, we are worshiping as a people!
Where does experience fit in? The experience of worship follows as a blessed by-product of the act of worship. When we are truly engaged in and with the acts and rituals of our liturgy, God stirs our heart to respond, not only physically and intellectually, but emotionally as well. Seeking an experience with the living God is not bad. But making the experience one’s primary rubric for whether or not one has “worshiped” mis-prioritizes God’s design. This has been a helpful way of encouraging my own congregation to get beyond mere feeling as the worship-rubric. Sometimes feeling is absent (see many of the Psalms) or even antagonistic toward God (see Habakkuk and, again, the Psalms), and nonetheless we are summoned to worship God. Whether or not we have “worshipful feelings” (what are those, anyway? goosebumps? heightened euphoria? psychological tranquility? intense pleasure?), we can still say we’ve worshiped. The further danger, here, that many insightful worship thinkers have pointed out, is that when we are seeking a worshipful experience, are we aiming at worshiping God or worshiping worship?
Trust me, I long for the emotional/feeling component, too. There’s a wholeness (a shalom) that God intends for worship–full engagement of body, mind, and soul, and when all those things align, it is a truly other-worldly, powerful, transformative experience. But when it’s not there, I’ve moved past hyper-analyzing myself, the worship service, the things that were “wrong” that prevented me from gaining that experience. I just chalk it up to my humanity, and I remind myself that God no less receives my worship when my experience falls short of bliss.
I believe this is a crucial thought for worshipers out there.
*Though I’ve felt and understood this for a long time, the act/experience comparison is a helpful, concise summary, the insight of which I received from a short worship article written by Sam Downing, pastor of City Presbyterian Church in downtown Denver, in a worship bulletin (around 2006).