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Our Inestimable Privilege: Full, Conscious Participation in Worship

Often worshipers confuse the object of Christian worship with the source of Christian worship. Re-orienting the focus of our worship is complex, but encourages active participation and helps focus on the true purpose of worship.

John Witvliet

It is our experience and conviction that congregations struggle the most to experience worship renewal when they become disconnected from the one who is not the object of our worship but the source of our worship.

Re-orienting the focus of our worship is complex and constant. It calls us to consider not just what our ministers and musicians do, but what we as worshipers do, and to not just debate what should happen in worship, but to reflect on how worshipers can participate in what does happen.

One of the best ways to start this conversation is to talk about how people experience worship. Questions such as, 'What do you find to be engaging? What do you find to be compelling?' prompt more meaningful exploration of purposeful participation in worship than the question, "What do you like?"

Other questions that probe for worship's purpose may sound like these:

Questions to Ask in the Car on Sunday Morning

On the Way to Church
What is the central prayer I am eager to express today?

On the Way Home
What aspect of God’s beauty did I see today?
How did today “change my mind” in ways that help me think more scripturally?
What was my central prayer in worship today? How did worship expand my prayer life, either in lament, thanksgiving, praise or petition?
What song can I hum when I wake up tomorrow morning?

Things to Say to Your Ministers and Musicians After Church on Sunday

Instead of:
Impressive music today.
Very clever sermon.
What a nice song.

Consider
You helped me pray today.
That sermon or hymn was not easy, but it was worth it.
You let scripture change my mind about something today.
I’ll be pondering that thought (or humming that tune) all week.

As we begin this deeper conversation and anticipate its continuation (including much more at this section of our website), we are guided by these words of wisdom:

Let us engrave this useful lesson upon our hearts, that we should consider it the great end of our existence to be found numbered among the worshipers of God; and that we should avail ourselves of the inestimable privilege of the stated assemblies of the Church, which are necessary helps to our infirmity, and means of mutual excitement and encouragement. By these, and our common sacraments, the Lord who is one God, and who designed that we should be one in him, is training us up together in the hope of eternal life, and in the united celebration of his holy name.
—John Calvin, Commentary on Psalm 52:8

In the restoration and promotion of the sacred liturgy, this full and active participation by all the people is the aim to be considered before all else; for it is the primary and indispensable source from which the faithful are to derive the true Christian spirit; and therefore pastors of souls must zealously strive to achieve it, by means of the necessary instruction, in all their pastoral work. . . . . The Church, therefore, earnestly desires that Christ's faithful, when present at this mystery of faith, should not be there as strangers or silent spectators; on the contrary, through a good understanding of the rites and prayers they should take part in the sacred action conscious of what they are doing, with devotion and full collaboration.
—Constitution on the Sacred Liturgy, Vatican II
- Sing all. See that you join with the congregation as frequently as you can. Let not a slight degree of weakness or weariness hinder you. If it is a cross to you, take it up, and you will find it a blessing.
- Sing lustily and with a good courage. Beware of singing as if you were half dead, or half asleep; but lift up your voice with strength. Be no more afraid of your voice now, nor more ashamed of its being heard, than when you sung the songs of Satan.
- Sing modestly. Do not bawl, so as to be heard above or distinct from the rest of the congregation, that you may not destroy the harmony; but strive to unite your voices together, so as to make one clear melodious sound.
- Sing in time. Whatever time is sung be sure to keep with it. Do not run before nor stay behind it; but attend close to the leading voices, and move therewith as exactly as you can; and take care not to sing too slow. This drawling way naturally steals on all who are lazy; and it is high time to drive it out from us, and sing all our tunes just as quick as we did at first. ...

Above all sing spiritually. Have an eye to God in every word you sing. Aim at pleasing him more than yourself, or any other creature. In order to do this attend strictly to the sense of what you sing, and see that your heart is not carried away with the sound, but offered to God continually; so shall your singing be such as the Lord will approve here, and reward you when he cometh in the clouds of heaven.
—From John Wesley’s Select Hymns, 1761

One other point for discussion is how worship breaks down our misdirected loyalties even as it builds up our deepest loyalty to God. Every act of praise is a strong act of negation as well as affirmation. Every time we sing praise to the triune God, we are asserting our opposition to anything that would attempt to stand in God’s place. Every hymn of praise is a little anti-idolatry campaign, as Walter Brueggemann explains: “The affirmation of Yahweh always contains a polemic against someone else. . . It may be that the [exiles] will sing such innocuous-sounding phrases as ‘Glory to God in the highest,’ or ‘Praise God from whom all blessings flow.’ Even those familiar phrases are polemical, however, and stake out new territory for the God now about to be aroused to new caring.” When we sing “Praise God from whom all blessings flow” we are also saying “Down with the gods from whom no blessings flow.”

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