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Prayer and the Common Life by Georgia Harkness


Georgia Harkness was educated at Cornell University, Boston University School of Theology, studied at Harvard & Yale theological seminaries and at Union Theological Seminary of New York. She has taught at Elmira College, Mount Holyoke, and for twelve years was professor of applied theology at Garrett Biblical Institute. In 1950 she became professor of applied theology at the Pacific School of Religion, in Berkeley, California. Published by Abingdon Press, New York, Nashville. Copyright by Stone & Pierce 1968. The material was prepared for Religion Online by Ted & Winnie Brock.


Chapter 9: Congregational Worship


Thus far we have kept the discussion of ways of praying to private and family prayer. Some of the problems are the same, but others quite different, in regard to prayer and worship with others in church and chapel.

To revert to what was said in chapter one, prayer and worship are not synonyms though the terms for many purposes may be used interchangeably. Worship is the total attitude and process of reverent approach to God. It is therefore a broader term than prayer, for one may worship not only through prayer but through music and song, the reverent reading or repetition of scripture and creed, the spoken word of the sermon. To these may be added -- though they are found less frequently in the Sunday-morning service drama, pageantry, pictorial representation, even the dance. We shall deal in this chapter with worship as it is most commonly found in Protestant services. Though the main focus of attention will be upon how to pray within the service of corporate worship, no sharp lines will be drawn.

General Principles

Both as a means of bringing together what has been said in earlier chapters and as an introduction to this one, let us begin by stating certain essential principles which apply to prayer and also to worship in its larger setting.

First, worship must be centered upon God. It is not worship unless it is. Much that passes as worship is not worship at all, but aesthetic enjoyment, moralizing, or a more or less perfunctory doing of habitual acts.

Second, worship must be appropriate. This means appropriateness of form and diction, reverence and dignity both in conducting and participating in the service, a sense of fitness that God may be given "comely praise."

Third, worship must be unhurried. This means that it should neither drag nor be rushed along. To prolong the service too far is to impair its freshness and power by inducing restlessness and lack of attention. Yet public worship like private prayer requires time enough to relax before God, center attention upon him and upon holy things, enter into his presence without any sense of pressure.

Fourth, worship must combine alertness and receptivity in the worshiper. Though the service may be conducted by one person, it makes demands on everybody. In prayer God must be given a chance to speak. But God speaks only to ears that hear -- to hearts alert enough to respond.

Fifth, worship must be intellectually sincere. It is not primarily an intellectual matter but a form of personal approach to God. Yet this approach ought to have a frame of reference which coheres with and helps to create a Christian understanding of God, the world, and human life.

Sixth, worship must be accompanied by active service to God and other persons. True worship is no private luxury or evasion of life’s demands. Worship ought to drive us to action, action once more to worship. Even if it were not rooted in the Bible and tradition, a rhythmical sequence in human experience would call for corporate worship at least once a week. To try either to serve God without worshipping or to worship without service is to debase and enfeeble both pursuits.

Finally, worship must be related to the total life of commitment to God in faith. To try to pray as a fragmentary aspect of the Christian life is to court defeat. No life is as completely integrated as Jesus’ was. Yet every life can more nearly follow the pattern of Jesus by seeking a more perfect union of worship, trust, and moral obedience to the will of God.

Distinctive Elements In Public Worship

We shall now attempt to apply these principles, not one at a time but jointly, to the problems that arise in regard to corporate prayer. Although we shall approach the subject mainly from the standpoint of persons in the pews, the same principles need to be observed in praying from the pulpit.

To worship reverently and vitally in church is an art that involves a good deal more than simply going to church. It is more than a matter of assuming certain customary postures, singing hymns, listening to music, prayers, and a sermon, and going home again. All of these procedures are associated with corporate worship, but it is obvious that one can do any or all of these things without worshipping. This happens frequently, and when people say they get nothing out of it when they go to church, it may be suspected that their physical presence in church has not had a corresponding accompaniment in worship.

Church worship is the reverent, receptive opening of the soul to God in company with others of kindred intention. It is like private worship in all the attitudes of mind and spirit that are required. It is unlike it at several important points: (1) it is engaged in not alone but with other people, some and perhaps many of whom are likely to be strangers; (2) it is conducted by someone usually a minister or priest -- and is channeled through regular forms; (3) there are appeals to the eye in the sanctuary’s architecture and appointments and to the ear in music and spoken word which are not usually present in private worship; and (4) in the singing of hymns and the unison repetition of prayers and responsive readings there is opportunity for corporate vocal self-expression.

Let us ask now what each of these characteristics presents by way of opportunity or problem.

The Worshipping Community

There is great significance in the fact that in church one unites with other people who have in common the desire to worship God and declare their loyalty to Christ, yet in other respects may have very diverse interests. From its beginning Christianity has been a social enterprise. It has brought people together, not because they happened to know and to be attracted to one another but because they were seeking to be nourished by a common faith. This is not, of course, to deny the influence of other social factors in the forming of congregations. Usually in the first place family connections, then denominational affiliation, personal acquaintance with someone in the church, geographical convenience, custom, habit, curiosity, and many other matters determine who will be present on Sunday morning in any particular congregation. Yet there would be no church were it not for the fact that the worshipping congregation has its point of reference beyond any of these factors.

A community is a group of people united by a common interest. There are many forms of community in existence -- family, neighborhood, school, the people one works with or plays with, the team one plays on or cheers for, bridge clubs, political parties, labor unions, Rotary clubs, Masons, the "solid south," Florida versus California, the nation, and a host of other groupings in between. The only community which is world-wide in scope and has a perspective from which to transcend all barriers of nation, race, class, sex, language, custom, and culture, is the Christian church. Since churches are made up of people and people are fallible creatures at best, it never does this perfectly. Yet it succeeds remarkably in doing this not only on a world scale, as is evident in the very existence of the missionary and ecumenical movements, but in every local congregation where people of many private interests sit together to worship God.

The fact that a congregation is a worshipping community means that a church service ought to be judged by canons other than those appropriate to other group gatherings. One goes to a symphony concert for the aesthetic lift of hearing good music; to a lecture on current events to get some new ideas; to a movie for entertainment; to a ball game for excitement. Conceivably a church service can be at the same time beautiful, intellectually stimulating, entertaining, even in a sense exciting! Yet it does not exist for any of these purposes. It exists for the corporate worship of God, and ought to be judged solely by the degree to which it contributes to this end.

The first requirement, then, if a person is to worship vitally in church, is to go in a worshipful and not in a critical frame of mind. If as many alibis were found for not going to the movies as for not going to church, the movies would soon close their doors! In a whimsical mood a person quoted anonymously has given the following ten reasons for not going to the movies:

1. I was made to go too often when I was young.
2. Nobody ever speaks to me when I go.
3. They always ask me for money.
4. The manager has never called on me or my family.
5. The people who go do not live up to the fine things they see and hear in the pictures.
6. I get more out of my lodge, anyhow.
7. There is so much fighting among the picture houses.
8. Sunday is the only day I have for my family.
9. The pictures never get down to earth where I live.
10. I can be just as good whether I attend the movies or not.

If these thoughts, or even a few of them, possess the mind of the person who goes to church and sits looking around at those about him, both the mood of worship and his own sense of community with the group are forthwith destroyed.

Participation in Directed Worship

A second characteristic of corporate worship, we noted, is that it is conducted by a leader and proceeds through regular forms. This is true of virtually every form of Christian corporate worship. The most notable exception is the Quaker practice of silent meeting, and even here somebody is responsible for its beginning and end. The regularity of the forms varies greatly, from the most spontaneous occurrences among Pentecostal sects to the most dignified of liturgical services, but there is always some channeling to which the worshiper is expected to conform.

This element in a church service greatly reduces the worshiper’s initiative, for in the main the sequence of the worship is carried for him. He does not have to think what to do first and what to do next, for the printed order of worship or the leader’s spoken direction tells him. At a certain point he sings or at least, listens while others sing; at another he gives some attention to the sermon; at another he prays.

Or does he? This reduction of demand on the person in the pew is not all pure gain. It can be a great aid to worship, for tested forms and the direction given by a person whose vocation it is to conduct public worship can go far toward eliminating trial-and-error. Many who are baffled at the idea of conducting their own private devotions are able to worship helpfully under guidance at church. But on the other hand, this reduction of outward demand on the worshiper increases his inner demand. When someone else does the praying, it is very easy to sit and do no praying at all, but simply let one’s mind wander.

A second major requirement, therefore, is that the worshiper must center his mind upon God, and with alertness but receptivity, enter personally into all the acts of worship in the service. The singing, whether congregational or by the choir, must become his praise, the pulpit prayer his prayer, the sermon a word from God to him.

It is, of course, much easier to do this in some services of worship than others! When the choir, instead of making "a joyful noise unto the Lord," seems simply to make a noise, when the prayer is verbose and effusive or lifeless and pedantic, when the sermon has little in it to nourish mind or spirit, to worship vitally in church requires great inner resources.

Nevertheless, if one goes to church to worship and carries with him such resources, worship is possible under the most untoward outward conditions. To revert to what was said a moment ago, as criticism banishes the mood of worship so appreciative participation fosters it. There are many poorly conducted church services -- more’s the pity -- but none with any reverence in it is so badly conducted that one cannot get something from it. Some spiritual point of contact can be found, at least in the scripture reading, the hymns, and the Lord’s Prayer -- and if what is said and done seems too "impossible," one can think one’s own thoughts of God and worship inwardly. It is far better to sit praying for the minister than criticizing him. Humility is an important Christian virtue, and one point at which even Christian ministers need to exercise it is in passing judgment on services conducted by their brothers in the Lord.

Beauty and Symbolism

It is not by accident that the interior of a church looks different from that of an auditorium. In the plainest of churches a pulpit and an altar or altar rail are to be found, the pattern of architecture following the central tradition of the church as to whether the pulpit is in the center or at the side. On the pulpit or lectern in Protestant churches is a Bible, which, if the symbolism is rightly maintained, ought to be an open Bible. In front of the altar is a communion table, and upon it except in rigidly nonliturgical churches there is a cross. Often the sanctuary has stained-glass windows and elaborately carved or pictured symbols from the Christian tradition.

If to these more or less permanent features in the setting are added vestments and other objects of beauty or meaningful symbolism, a powerful sensuous appeal is made to the eye. These can combine with the organ and the anthems rendered by the choir to give a great aesthetic lift to the spirit.

Is this an aid to worship? Or a substitute? It is clearly designed to be an aid. Large amounts of money are spent on church architecture and church music to make the setting not only beautiful but conducive to worship. If the product is not finer worship and a fitting tribute to Christ, one may not be wholly blamed for asking the question Judas asked when Mary brought the alabaster cruse, "To what purpose is this waste? For this ointment might have been sold for much, and given to the poor."

Whether such beauty and symbolism are an aid to worship, a substitute for it, or a distraction from it, depends partly on the setting. But it depends more on the worshiper. Though the Bible says relatively little about beauty and less about art, it was inevitable that the impulse to worship God should have found expression in medieval art and become part of a priceless heritage. Sense-bound as we are, we need symbols for communicating meanings. If worship is part of a total commitment of life to God in faith, not all of it can be expressed through words, and beauty may be an oblation to God as well as a medium of inspiration from him. But whether even the most fitting channels lead to this end depends on whether the worshipers permit them to.

This means, more concretely, that one ought not to go to church simply to enjoy the music and the atmosphere. To do this is not to worship God but to seek one’s own enjoyment. Some values may come out of it, but aesthetic are not the same as religious values. No enjoyment of beauty is a worship experience unless it lifts the soul closer to God and gives incentive for doing better the works of God. In cultured urban churches where a great deal is made of the beauty of the service, there is a constant danger lest beauty be made a substitute for both worship and righteousness.

This does not mean, on the other hand, that one worships better in ugliness. If aesthetic enjoyment with spiritual lethargy is the peril of the wealthy city church, plainness with lack of spiritual passion is the pitfall of the poor rural church. This is not to condemn simplicity. Simplicity, with the charm of what nature provides in a rural setting, affords genuine beauty. But sheer ugliness, wherever found, must be one of the things that the divine Artist who made earth fair must mourn.

It is possible to worship in the most uncongenial setting. One who has earnestness and inner spiritual resources can let his soul be lifted by such beauty as is present, get along without what is absent, and avoid confusing aesthetic pleasure with the beauty of holiness. To do this is an exacting art, but one of great reward.

Vocal Self-expression

We noted that a fourth distinctive characteristic of corporate worship is the opportunity it gives for vocal self-expression. Although in most instances the leader is the only person who says anything on his own initiative, members of the congregation usually have a chance to sing, to read the Bible responsively, to repeat in unison at least the Lord’s Prayer, and sometimes other prayers and the creed. Such expression does not have to be limited to the church service. If one prays at home or out in nature alone by himself there is nothing to hinder his singing, reading, or affirming aloud. Generally, however, one does not. In the church it is the natural and fitting thing to do.

Several things may be observed about this phase of worship. The first is to emphasize the need of entering responsively and co-operatively into whatever part of the service is designated for congregational participation. It is a psychological impossibility to worship simply as an onlooker, and an important reason why many people fail to get anything from the church service lies exactly at this point. This is not to say one must of necessity use his lips. It is possible to worship silently while others sing or speak in unison -- but the odds are against it. To attempt it is often to lose the mood of worship in aimless mind-wandering or in preoccupation with one’s own problems. To sing from the heart, even if not with vocal finesse, is better than to let one’s mind remain snarled up in a welter of extraneous thoughts.

But shall one sing hymns or affirm a creed when one does not believe the words? This is no slight problem in view of the fact that there is bad theology in many of the hymns, and the Apostle’s Creed, along with great eternally true affirmations, declares belief in such matters as the resurrection of the body, which few people who say it now accept. (This is not to call in question the Christian doctrine of immortality affirmed in "the life everlasting," or the resurrection of Jesus, or the victory over death symbolically couched in this phraseology. However, whatever more it meant, the resurrection of the body meant to the early church the literal rising of the bodies of believers from the dead.)

It may be said in partial answer that the person conducting the worship should try to select hymns true in words as well as spirit, and the creed need not be repeated every Sunday. However, this is not a complete answer. When such time-honored materials of worship are entirely left out of the service in the interests of theological accuracy, the result is apt to be, not theological gain, but emotional loss. Hymns and credal affirmations used through the centuries are the bearers not only of spiritual power but, rightly understood, of Christian truth.

How, then, shall we use them? As materials of worship, not as unchallengeable articles of belief. They have their place in the transmitting of a great tradition of Christian experience. They ought not to fetter the mind of anybody, but neither ought they to be lightly cast aside. They are channels for the lifting of the soul toward God and a medium for aligning oneself with a great Christian heritage. It is possible in the mood of worship to enter into the "feel" of the words, and without compromise of mental integrity find in them not only a reservoir of truth from the past but a challenge to discover more acceptable modes of thought.

Worship By Radio

A form of corporate worship unknown to previous generations is worship by radio. This stands midway between private and public worship, and presents problems of its own. A further word, therefore, needs to be said about it.

For those who worship by radio a few simple counsels may be given. The most important is to remember that worship centers in God, not in a human voice. This means that a reverent mood is called for. It is impossible to worship while chattering with somebody. Competing sounds should be excluded if possible, and if this is not possible, then disregarded as much as they can be. The same is true of competing activities. To "listen with one ear" while giving most of one’s mind to something else is neither to honor God nor get for oneself the fruits of worship.

One ought carefully to choose his radio service and then stay by it. To keep twiddling the dial impatiently looking for something else is to disrupt whatever values there might be in it. If the listener intends to worship, and not merely to hear what a good preacher has to say, worship by radio requires the same receptive, reverent turning of the soul toward God that any other worship requires.

Is "going to church by radio" an adequate substitute for congregational worship? It must be answered that, valuable as it is for invalids and others who cannot get to church, it is not to be recommended as a substitute for those who can. There may be better preaching, better music, better voicing of prayers over the radio than one hears at his own church. However, the situation by its very nature fails to make the same demands on the worshiper; hence something is lost in its fruits.

What are these demands? First, to get up, get dressed, and get to church in reasonably clean and respectable attire is more than a mere formality! It is an expression of the will to worship, which is not necessarily present in a Sunday-morning snooze and slouch with the only external requirement the turning of a dial.

In the second place, radio worship lacks the element of corporate vocal self-expression of which we have just been speaking. The most one is ever asked to do is to get out his Bible and read with the leader some passage of Scripture, but one may doubt how often even this is actually done. The resulting passivity in the listener may lead to real worship if the quality of the service is rich enough, but the chances are against it.

And even with the best of music and preaching mediated through the ear, much is lost that a church service provides -- the sense of corporate fellowship, the lift of the atmosphere and architecture, the appeals presented to the eye, most of all, elements in the leader’s mood and personality which his voice alone cannot convey. These may be human, physical matters. Yet they are matters which reach into the heart of living worship.

Perhaps the most important aspect of the question remains to be mentioned. It is often urged that to listen to good music and good preaching by radio is better than to expose oneself to the halting, feeble efforts of the churches. "Let the churches improve," it is said, "and I will go. Until then, the radio gives me something better." What this means is that by such failure to connect with the ongoing life of the churches, not only the worshiper but the church suffers loss. Without support from the congregational end, the churches inevitably are weakened. A church is not the minister only or the congregation only but the entire Christian fellowship, and it can be strong only as its members accept the obligation to give it support by their gifts, their service, their prayers, and their presence.

What has been said above is not intended in any sense as an indictment of the religious uses of the radio. It is a great new vehicle of expression and communication which can be, and ought to be, used in God’s service. Radio preaching in conjunction with the habit and practice of churchgoing among the listeners can be a vital means of spiritual refreshment and instruction. It would be hard to overestimate the amount of good done through the years by the radio pulpits of Dr. Fosdick, Dr. Sockman, and others, and experimentation in other types of religious services may greatly expand its usefulness in the future. Nevertheless, if one contents himself with worship by radio and never makes the effort to worship in church, the time comes before long when he does not make the effort to turn the dial.

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