“If your idea of God, if your idea of the salvation offered in Christ, is vague or remote, your idea of worship will be fuzzy and ill-formed. The closer you get to the truth, the clearer becomes the beauty, and the more you will find worship welling up within you. That’s why theology and worship belong together. The one isn’t just a head-trip; the other isn’t just emotion.”

N.T. Wright

Before I formally started studying theology, most of what I knew about God came from the education and observation I received in the independent (nondenominational) church. One of the things that I learned in church was how to worship God. Like a number of Christians, I mainly worshiped God through singing songs. Every Sunday I’d go to church with my family and we’d sing worship songs with the rest of the church and then we’d listen to a preacher preach for an hour. After that was over, we’d finally be able to go to lunch. I slowly came to the understanding that worshiping God solely meant singing songs with the rest of the congregation. This understanding was frustrating for someone who was not only an introvert but also someone who simply disliked singing. I didn’t mind listening to someone else sing, but I wasn’t really interested in doing it myself. In the independent church, one thing that is commonly found during worship is the outward physical expression of an inner Holy Spirit connection to a worship song. This may include the lifting of hands, fluid body movements and even crying. I had no problem with other people engaging in worship this way, but even though, I too, was filled with the Holy Spirit, I simply could never get to this point of outward exuberance. I would discuss this problem with those closest to me, but I’d always get a response like, “you need to focus on God not those around you” or “you should pray about it.” Now don’t misunderstand; this was excellent and sometimes helpful advice that was not incorrect, whatsoever, but it never did seem to solve my problem. I simply struggled with engaging in this kind of worship.

However, when I entered college I began to become introduced to different denominational churches in a new way. The professors in the theology program would encourage their students to visit different churches and experience different theologies first hand. One of the churches I visited was of an old liturgical denomination. Before I continue, I feel that one thing needs to be addressed; James K. A. Smith, one of my favorite authors, I believe, describes what some of you are thinking about now:

“For some of us, especially those of us who are Protestant evangelicals, “liturgy” is going to sound like a bad word. It’s loaded with connotations that make us suspicious: it sounds like “vain repetition,” the dreaded “religion” that is an expression of human effort. In short, we might react to “liturgy” as if the very notion is bound up with salvation by works, salvation by ritual observance.”[1]

This is exactly what I thought about the practices of the liturgical churches, at least until I actually went to one. However, my own experience in a liturgical church revolutionized my view on worship. Marva Dawn, author of the book Reaching Out without Dumbing Down states that liturgy is meant to create “a powerful environment of God-centeredness.”[2] Traditional liturgical worship is supposed to create an atmosphere where it is easier to focus on God while you worship Him. The problem that most people have with liturgy arises when liturgy becomes man-centered rather than God-centered. Smith states:

“worship is not for [one’s own benefit]- it’s not primarily meant to be an experience that meets my felt needs nor should we reduce it to merely a [teaching] on desire…”

I firmly believe that most Christians agree with Smith yet they disagree on what God-centeredness entails. For example, does God-centeredness mean that we solely sing songs about Him before the teaching starts or does it mean that we read His Word followed by a routine of call and response prayers directed at the Father and for the Father, followed by a hymn or two praising His glorious works? After my experiences in the liturgical churches, I came to the conclusion that both were (at their core) God-centered. The contemporary gathering filled with exuberant songs and the liturgical repetition of prayer, hymns and textual readings were both viable worshipful expressions of adoration made through the Holy Spirit. Personally, I found the traditional liturgical worship more appealing; each time I entered this form of worship I walked away with a new found peace. I once asked someone why this might be and their response is something I’ll never forget. They said that this peace was “the result of my heart of worship joining in unity with 2 millennia of worshipers as well as millions of worshipers across the world that day doing the same liturgical habits as I had been doing. The peace was my spirit responding to a united form of worship.” No matter how stressed, overwhelmed or lost I felt, my participation in this traditional liturgical worship continued to bring my focus back to God and my relationship with Him. After experiencing this, I began to tell people what I had discovered, but to my dismay, the people I knew didn’t respond the way I expected. They responded with disdain, worry, and doubt. This confused me. I saw the beauty of both the contemporary and liturgical forms of worship, so why couldn’t they?

I had found a new struggle; I had discovered a form of worship in which God had taken his proper place at the center of my worship and yet those around me didn’t understand and didn’t want to understand this new found joy I had. I didn’t know what to do. That is until I entered an unforgettable theology class. In this class we were discussing the first 7 verses of Psalm 95:

Come! Let’s sing for joy to the Lord!
Let’s shout out praises to our protector who delivers us!
Let’s enter his presence with thanksgiving!
Let’s shout out to him in celebration!

For the Lord is a great God,
a great king who is superior to all gods.
The depths of the earth are in his hand,
and the mountain peaks belong to him.
The sea is his, for he made it.
His hands formed the dry land.
Come! Let’s bow down and worship!
Let’s kneel before the Lord, our Creator!

For he is our God;
we are the people of his pasture,
the sheep he owns.[3]

As we were reading through these verses, my professor said something that stuck out to me. He invited the class to compare verses 1-2 and verse 6. After some discussion he began to point out some of the words in verses 1-2, words such as, “sing,” “shout,” and “celebration.” Then he began to point out some of the words in verse 6, words such as, “bow down,” “worship,” and “kneel.” He then told us that the author of this psalm used words of excitement and exuberance as well as words of submission and calmness in order to praise God. God is meant to be praised both exuberantly and calmly. The calming liturgical worship of traditional liturgical churches honors God just as much as the contemporary worship found in independent churches. After hearing this, I felt almost as if God had given me permission to worship Him in the liturgical church. I had finally discovered my heart of worship.

Worship is one of the most fundamental elements in a Christian’s life. Yet, it is not meant to be about the Christian, it is meant to be about God. Theology helped me discover the true meaning of worship. It helped me to see the bigger picture of worship as a whole. Above all, through the study of theology, God spoke to my heart and gave me the ability to worship Him without hesitation. Theology renewed my ability to honor and glorify my God.

[1] James Smith, You are What You Love (Grand Rapids: Brazos Press, 2016), 51.

[2] Marva Dawn, Reaching Out without Dumbing Down (Grand Rapids: Eardmans, 1995), 79.

[3] Psalm 95 (NET).

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