If you’ve read this blog in the past, you might know that during the program (school) year, I write about the upcoming Narrative Lectionary Bible reading from the perspective of faith formation. In the summer, I like to focus on the more general topics that I’m both passionate about and relate to what we do here at Spirit & Truth Publishing.
So, I’m now working through a blog series on “What Is Faith Formation?”. In Part 1, I defined what I mean by “faith formation” in Faith Formation: Shaping a Relationship. [Go ahead, read it, I can wait 😉.] In Part 2 here, I’m looking at worship as faith formation.
Faith Formation Defined
As a brief refresher, the definition I use for faith formation is Every action, experience, or relationship that nurtures a transformative relationship of trust with the triune God and shapes the way we see and interact with God’s world. It’s a broad definition since I think that faith formation has a broad scope. Faith formation is definitely not limited to what happens within the walls of a church building, nor any other church-sponsored event. However, the internal aspect of the church’s mission is faith formation. This means that everything a church does should relate to faith formation (or spreading God’s kingdom, the external aspect of the church’s mission), a topic I plan to cover in Part 5 of this series.
If I’m going to make the argument that worship is faith formation, I’d better explain what I mean by “worship,” right? I’ve spent a fair amount of time thinking about what the general definition of worship is, being that I wrote an elementary-aged curriculum on the topic. This is what I came up with: Worship is anything we do to show God our love for all that God has done for us. It is what we are doing when we obey the greatest commandment.
Worship vs. the Worship Service
Clearly then, worship is not limited to a church’s worship service or any specific practice or ritual that we do to worship God. It is about our whole lives. But, gathering for corporate worship is one of the main reasons a local congregation exists. Our entire lives should be devoted to worshipping God, but specific practices like singing, praying, sharing in communion, and learning about Scripture are valuable to help us worship God. And, these practices are just easier to do when we gather for corporate worship, which also has the added benefit of encouraging us to build relationships with fellow disciples (fellowship). So, worship cannot and should not be limited to a worship service, but a worship service is an important practice for doing worship and training disciples for lives of worship.
Corporate Worship and Faith Formation
What event happens at your congregation most regularly with the largest attendance? The weekly worship service (or services), right? This makes corporate worship the single most important faith formation event that a congregation does. Period. Of course, this claim assumes that a worship service is faith formation. Is it though? Well, the singing, praying, listening, partaking, and learning we do in a worship service nurtures a relationship of trust with God and shapes the way we see God, ourselves, and the world. So, yes, it does appear that worship fits our definition of a faith formation experience.
Worship and the First Commandment
This brings us to the question of the purpose versus the effect of worship. The purpose of worship is to obey the first commandment, to show God our love. Worship is for God, not for us. However, the effect—and, in part, the design—of a worship service is to form our faith. Worshipping God strengthens our faith and prepares us to go out and spread God’s kingdom* in the world.
What Does This Mean?
In short, a worship service is your primary (and often only) means to provide faith formation for your congregation. So, don’t screw it up. If you are going to do it, you need to do it right (not perfect, since that’s impossible). By “right,” I’m not talking about the style of music, liturgy (or not), lectionary, or preaching (though I do have very clear opinions on those topics). I mean that worship should be engaging.
A vastly oversimplified example of what not to do: A very long time ago, the Bible was only available in Greek. That’s great if you spoke Greek (living in the eastern part of the Roman Empire), but not so much if you didn’t (living in the western part of the Roman Empire). So, a guy named Jerome decided to translate the Bible into Latin, the language of the common people, which eventually was called the Vulgate (Vulgate relates to our word vulgar = common). Now, the common people could not only understand the worship service in their native Latin but also the reading of the Bible! However, the language “froze” in worship and Scripture, so that even when the common people no longer spoke or understood Latin, the church still used Latin. A change that was intended to make worship accessible became a way that made worship inaccessible.
This process has happened multiple times in church history, so it’s not limited to the Roman Catholic Church.
Effective Worship = Engaging Worship
For worship to be effective, both to help disciples worship God and form faith, people need to understand what’s going on and be able to engage with it. Some of this has to do with the willingness of people to put in the work, but it is mostly the responsibility of worship leaders (faith formation leaders) to make the service engaging.
How? A good start is to go through each part of the service and ask:
- Do older children youth, and newcomers feel welcome?
- Can they easily understand what they are saying or hearing?
- Are you able to keep their attention throughout the service?
- Are there ways for them to actively participate in the service?
Target: The Young and Visitors
You might wonder why I suggest targeting older children, youth, and newcomers. First, there is a good chance that older children, youth, and newcomers all come to a worship service with similar lack of understanding about what is going on, and they might have the same level of investment in the way things have always been (i.e. little to none). And, if you don’t attract and keep the young and visitors, your church will die. Finally, if you can make your worship service engaging for the young and visitors, then it will likely be engaging for your established, adult members, too. But, please, please don’t “dumb down” your service for the kids! Not only will this turn off adults, but kids really don’t like being talked down to. If you want more suggestions on how to think about worship in this way, I happen to have a blog post specifically on Engaging Worship!
God’s blessings on your faith-forming work!
Gregory Rawn, Publisher
High-quality tools make faith formation easier! Check out our resources for all ages on the Narrative Lectionary, as well as elementary-age worship education, cross+generational confirmation, and even special orders.
* I use the term “spread God’s kingdom in the world” to describe the (external) mission of God’s church deliberately. Different people from different theological traditions interpret that phrase in different ways. For some, the focus of spreading the kingdom is to tell other people about Jesus. For others, the focus is on serving others, alleviating suffering, and advocating for justice. Use your own interpretation of it and go do it!