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Worship’s Focus: Seeking the Face of God

by Mark Horst

Mark Horst is a pastor at Excelsior United Methodist Church in Excelsior, Minnesota. This article appeared in the Christian Century, November 11, 1987, p. 991. Copyright by the Christian Century Foundation and used by permission. Current articles and subscription information can be found at www.christiancentury.org. This material was prepared for Religion Online by Ted & Winnie Brock.


Recently I received another invitation to attend a "worship experience" at a nearby church. Now, I have nothing against a worship experience, for I have had some of my most powerful, most moving, most transforming experiences in the midst of Christian worship. Nonetheless, I am dismayed by the popular phrase "worship experience" to describe the church’s corporate worship. Worship has the capacity to transform us, because it focuses our hearts and minds on God -- God seen in one another, in ourselves and in the world around us. However, the phrase "worship experience" suggests that worship is important because it induces feelings. In this context worship is focused more on the worshiper than on the One worshiped.

I have various sorts of experiences as I worship, but I would be mistaken to call many of them worshipful. Some days I resent the mumbling couple in the pew before me. Occasionally I’m annoyed by a fly buzzing slowly past me (and I’m reminded of a line from a hymn my grandfather claimed to have sung: "There may be flies on you and me, but there ain’t no flies on Jesus") Once in a while I feel twinges of boredom as the sermon wears on, or pangs of regret as my mind wanders back to the letters I meant to write the past week. Sometimes I get downright crusty about the predominance of mediocrity in much of the church’s worship -- a flaky prayer, an inaudible lection, a tacky anthem.

In my least sanguine moments, I think that the primary purpose of worship is to force us to be patient with one another, to practice the Christian virtues among our fellow believers. Fortunately, people do attempt to practice these virtues -- or our "worship experience" might become a "brawl experience." In the midst of worship we experience the ambivalence of Christian community: its joy and its agony.

Worship often evokes good experiences for us which, though good and pleasing in themselves, are still not worshipful. We may be overwhelmed by the beauty of the organ music. We may adore the children’s choir. We might chuckle over the pastor’s jokes. We may even get teary-eyed during the anthem. Yet none of these perfectly commendable occurrences can appropriately be called worshipful experiences.

We need to ask ourselves what a true worship experience is so that if we had one, we could recognize it. Certainly we can’t define such an experience simply by means of a particular sensation. With only that, we might confuse the effects of an antihistamine tablet with the movement of the Holy Spirit.

Part of our problem with worship is that we ask for a particular experience to designate as the "worship experience." In The Abolition of Man (Macmillan, 1978) , C. S. Lewis points to a similar confusion in modern aesthetics. He says that insofar as the aesthetic judgment "this is sublime" can be reduced to a statement about the speaker’s feelings, it must be translated "I have humble feelings." Lewis argues that to equate "this is sublime" with "I have sublime feelings" is incorrect reasoning. In other words, the emotions that prompt a certain judgment and the judgment itself are almost opposites.

Therefore it is wrong to suppose that worshipfulness comes from an experience that we might isolate as a "worship experience." Instead, a sense of worshipfulness goes together with a range of feelings, including humility, wonder, awe, mystery, joy, peace, contentment, fellowship. People discover the possibility of having worshipful experiences only when they forget about their own experience altogether. For we are the most worshipful when we are the least conscious of the worship itself. Good worship is self-effacing; instead of calling attention to itself, it serves as a channel, a vehicle, through which we see ourselves and God more clearly. Worship should be like the icons of the Orthodox Church. These are intended not as objects of worship but as images and transparencies that direct and focus the worshiper’s attention on God. Like the icon, worship should point to a reality beyond itself.

This is not to say that aesthetic considerations are inappropriate to worship -- by no means. In worship God comes to us in, with and through the beautiful and festive dance we call the liturgy. But this great choreography must be shaped by faithfulness to God rather than by the subjectivity of the worshiper.

Only then can we hope to know those wonderful grace-filled moments; times when through prayer and song, listening to and reciting the familiar words of grace and the stories of redemption, our hearts soar; times when we are caught up in the stream of love -- when we sing praise to God with all our hearts and minds and souls and strength -- which flows from us to God through the ministry of Christ and his people and which we return to God with prayer and praise.

The current phrase ‘worship experience" merely serves to confuse us. Those who worship with the expectation that the act ought to generate certain experiences for them will undoubtedly have many experiences. But they will probably not be the sorts of experiences that Christian worship offers to those who seek only the face of God through song and prayer, preaching and sacrament. Liturgists can generate many powerful experiences, but when experience is the aim, this becomes cheap theater at best and manipulation at worst. Both are repulsive substitutes for an encounter with the power of the living God.


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