Chapter 3: The Worship Service and Mental Health

The Mental Health Ministry of the Local Church
by Howard J. Clinebell, Jr.

Chapter 3: The Worship Service and Mental Health

Worship is "return" from a far country where one lives estranged. Worship is encounter with the personal which awakens powers and transcendence within us. It is reverently "entering into" a life other than one's own. It is transaction -- an actual interchange of energy which involves openness on the part of the pray-er( "Prayer and Worship Re-examined," Pastoral Psychology, XI (March, 1960), 48).

-- Ross Snyder

The Church's Central Group Experience

Each Sunday millions of Americans participate in services of worship. Each year hundreds of millions of person-hours are invested in this experience. The Sunday worship service brings a larger percentage of a church's members together with some degree of regularity than any other activity. Corporate worship is a unique function of the church in our society. It is the local church's central group experience and a major means of communicating the Christian message.

As the focal point of a congregation's life the worship service should make major contributions to the growth and wholeness of persons. Unfortunately, for many Protestants corporate worship has relatively little meaning. It does not excite them or feed their heart-hungers. Instead of being an uplifting experience, it registers with them as a mechanical routine. They have been immunized by years of dull worship services and the power of authentic worship to "reach" and energize them has been lost. The purpose of this chapter is to describe how this power can be recovered through the release of the potentialities for healing and growth which are present in any experience of corporate worship. What are the mental health values which can come from genuine worship within a church service?

Corporate Worship as a Centering Experience

A living worship service is a centering experience for a particular religious community, simultaneously expressing and strengthening its unity. To the extent that worshipers enter into the experience with their "being," their psychological fields overlap and they become a genuine group. The religious nature of this activity gives the group a strong vertical dimension -- a sense of transcendence. The blending of horizontal (person-to-person) and vertical (person-to-God) interaction gives worship its unique ability to enhance mental health. In effect, the living organism of a worshipping congregation symbolizes and incarnates the church's reason for being -- love of God and neighbor.

Sharing in a meaningful worship service gives one an experience of what Cyril Richardson calls "the mystical unity which underlies all human life." He observes that recent research in the field of extrasensory perception reinforces a truth of which the church has had a perennial awareness (in its emphasis on intercessory prayer, for example) -- that we arc not isolated units of consciousness. On deeper levels of the psyche there is a kind of mystical participation in one another. Carl Jung's idea of the "collective unconscious" is one way of conceptualizing this.

The practical effect of the centering-sharing experience of worship can be that of helping individuals overcome feelings of insularity and isolation. Through the sharing of mutually meaningful symbols, hymns, prayers, and liturgies, a congregation experiences a drawn-togetherness which helps to overcome the shadow of loneliness which haunts sensitive people in our society. Feeling "cut off" from others is one of the major elements in the inner world of the mentally ill. The group of hospital chaplains quoted in Chap. 2 had this to say of worship:

Effective services of worship, whatever more they may be, are good instruments of group therapy. In the group which is thinking and feeling together about the same common ideas, the emotional response is heightened . . . music, pageantry, sermon, prayer and response are used to focus the attention of the group upon what is believed to be the Highest Good and the Most Real, manifested in the person of Christ. Twenty centuries witness to the effectiveness of such worship in changing men's lives for the better, in bringing release from guilt and freedom from fear, in giving direction and purpose to their striving, and in lifting them out of neurotic self-concern into healthful and creative relationships to their fellows.( "American Protestantism and Mental Health," p. 4.)

Ross Snyder has articulated a world view which provides a conceptual foundation for understanding worship. He starts with a "field theory" of the universe -- that is, one in which everything is interpenetrating: "Man exists only in a field of the personal. He who is aware of and remains open to this field quality will live most vividly and in greater dimension." ("Prayer and Worship Re-examined," p. 47.)

Worship is seen as an effort to return to the state of openness to the personal field in which the individual has a small but creatively significant part. God is conceived, not as another localized, individual consciousness, but as the personal ground out of which we emerge and by means of which we grow and find renewal. God is best known through concrete personal life and through transactions of the spirit with the people around oneself, including those present symbolically and in memory. Entering into life other than one's own awakens powers within us through an actual interchange of energy. Worship is relating. It is finding God in personal encounter. It is a return from the far country of estrangement both from other people and from the "ground of personal spirit that is hidden deep within us (and the universe) ."

The energizing effects of corporate worship become understandable within this world view. Ross Snyder writes:

I am present with people whose lives interpenetrate mine, and it is this living network that is at worship. Also as a worshiper I reverently enter into the lives of people who have lived with greatest passion and integrity.... There is this sense of the numinous actually being present as the ground of our life together and of my own personal life. Therefore corporate worship . . . has distinctive quality and power. (lbid., p. 48.)

Snyder's approach is complemented by Reuel L. Howe's conception of prayer as the practice of relationship. Howe points out that the five types of prayer describe five kinds of relationships:

Adoration is giving ourselves to another in love and honest admiration. Confession is the acceptance and acknowledgment of our words and acts of alienation. Petition is an acknowledgment of our dependence on one another. Intercession is the expression of our responsibility to live for and to help one another. And thanksgiving is the expression of our gratitude for fellowship and all other blessings.( Man's Need and God's Action (New York: Seabury Press, 1953), p. 152.)

Prayer, the heart of worship, is an act of love which results from choosing to respond to God's love. It means letting go of one's egocentric isolation and becoming able to live in the mystery of relatedness.

There must be a genuine warmth (with dignity) in a worship service if personal isolation is to be overcome. The minister sets the tone for this climate, but the congregation determines whether it will be actualized. Harvey H. Potthoff tells a story about a woman in a certain church who was asked, after the service, whether she was a stranger there. She responded, "Why, yes, I've been a stranger here for forty years."( "The Church as a Saving Fellowship," lliff Review, vol. XVII, No. I (Winter,1960) , 39

There are, however, many people who need the church who are threatened by close relationships. Some of these attend the worship service because they expect it to involve only a limited degree of social interaction. They can gain genuine help from the service, if their need for social distance is respected. An overemphasis on "fellowship" can overwhelm such persons. Those churches which ask strangers to stand during the service or which exert heavy pressure on fringe-participants to interact following the service tend to drive such persons away.

Increasing general congregational participation in the worship service strengthens its centering function without threatening the fringe-type person. Familiar, singable (and theologically valid) hymns are important. Studies in the psychology of music show that group singing is an effective way of creating group solidarity. The imaginative minister will find a variety of ways to increase meaningful congregational participation. (The Episcopal practice of the congregation saying "Amen" frequently during prayers and rituals is an example of a participation-enhancing worship form.)

There is a growing awareness in the field of pastoral counseling that many who turn to the church cannot utilize insight-oriented approaches to help. Because of weakness or rigidity in their personalities, they can be helped most by a sustaining relationship of dependence within which they can handle their life situations more constructively. The church fellowship offers a major resource for helping millions of such persons in our society to live closer to their own unique potentialities.

Because of his symbolic role as a religious authority figure, the minister naturally attracts a circle of dependent persons who gain strength by identifying with him and with the group which he leads. These people feel safer and stronger {and better able to function) because they are related to a leader and a fellowship which have strengths they lack as individuals. The need for dependency relationships obviously is not limited to those who are emotional cripples. All of us, to some degree, need supportive relationships with groups and their leaders. We function better when we have such relationships and falter when uprooted from them. In this light, consider the following statement about the value of corporate worship:

The weekly experience of corporate worship is supportive to many persons, including those who cannot identify with other group experiences demanding more intimate participation. The fact that life-transforming insights do not flash on the psychic landscape of a very large percentage of a congregation on a given Sunday does not mean that the service is of little value. Everyone -- weak and strong egos alike -- needs meaningful, supportive experiences. The fact that such a supportive group experience is available week in. week out, year after year, is of tremendous importance to people, quite apart from the new insights they achieve.( H. J. Clinebell, Jr., "Ego Psychology and Pastoral Counseling. Pastoral Psychology XIV (February, 1963), 36.)

The worshiper, aware of his minister, his fellow-worshipers, and his part in the "endless line of splendor" which is the church through the centuries, is released to some degree from his loneliness and empowered by the awareness of belonging.

Worship as an Experience of Personal Integration

I recall a game from my childhood played with an old-fashioned spring driven phonograph. We would wind it until the record table whirled as fast as possible. Then we would drop small objects on the spinning surface and respond with delight as they flew off in all directions. That childhood game is a reasonable facsimile of modern life as many experience it. Many of us go around so fast we are constantly threatened by centrifugal forces. These have deleterious effects on both our inner serenity and the health of our relationships.

For many people the worship hour is the only time during the week when they sit quietly and "collect" themselves. Worship involves what Hocking calls "the principle of alternation," of gaining inner strength by alternating from one kind of activity to another. During his most active period, Albert Schweitzer's daily schedule was a classic illustration of the use of this principle. On a given day he might move from conducting a worship service, to making medical rounds in his hospital, to doing construction work on a new leprosy-treatment center, to practicing the organ, to working on a manuscript. In our hyperactivist culture, worship is a radical and essential form of alternation for most of us. In an effective worship service, the participants have an existential awareness of the meaning of the words of the Lord to Isaiah: "In quietness and trust shall be your strength" (Isa. 30:15).

There is healing power in quietness and rest. After an exhausting week, many worshipers respond with gratitude when their minister repeats the ancient invitation, "Come to me, all who labor and are heavy-laden, and I will give you rest" (Matt. 11:28).

Worship is integrating because it encourages persons to center down while looking up. Edward Bok had inscribed on the mantle over the fireplace in his mountain cabin, "I Come Here to Find Myself. It's So Easy to Get Lost in the World." Centering down, finding oneself, taking a long look at one's life -- these are healing experiences, particularly in the context of a unifying faith and an accepting fellowship. Samuel H. Miller writes: "Worship, as Hocking points out, is the pursuit of the 'whole.' . . . It presses beyond every detail, and affirms in faith God who holds all things in his hands.... All the brokenness of life comes together in a great Te Deum.''(Samuel H. Miller, "Worship and Work in the Industrial Age," Pastoral Psychology, Xl (March, 1960), 26.)

As a time-exposure to what is regarded by the person and the group to be the most important aspects of reality, worship gives the individual an opportunity to separate the wheat from the chaff in his values and activities. Harry Emerson Fosdick writes "In worship we are reminded of the values that the world makes us forget." (Quoted by Charles F. Kemp in Life Situation Preaching (St. Louis: Bethany Press, 1956, p. 208)

In planning a worship service, the minister should provide generous opportunities for quietness. He should be aware of the pace of the service, seeking to establish a quiet rhythm and a mood of serenity. There should be a balance between quietness and challenge in the total service. It is within the milieu of a reviving worship experience that the challenge of the sermon can best be received. In addition to these considerations, it is well to remember that the inner condition of the minister will be felt by his congregation. When the woman touched Jesus she sensed the serenity and vitality of one who was open to himself, to others, and to the universe. This inner openness is extremely difficult to maintain in our frantic kind of world, but it is the prerequisite for effective leadership in worship.

Worship as an Experience of Transcendence

Another value of worship is that of providing a rich experience of the numinous and the transcendent. This is of particular importance to mental health in our period of history. Technological cleverness has dulled our awareness of the wisdom of wonder. In a searching analysis of our society's need for spiritual renewal,( "Spiritual Renewal in Our Time," Union Seminary Quarterly Review, XVII (November, 1961), 33-56.) Douglas V. Steere has pointed to Carl Jung's diagnosis of our inward poverty:

Whether from an intellectual, moral or aesthetic point of view, the undercurrents of the psychic life of the West are an uninviting picture. We have built a monumental world around us.... But it is so imposing because we have spent upon the outside all that is imposing in our natures -- and what we find when we look within must necessarily be as it is, shabby and insufficient.( Modern Man in Search of a Soul (New York Harcourt, Brace, and World, 1933), p. 214)

Steere then draws on the insights of Arnold Toynbee to identify the historical roots of our present impoverishment. Toynbee has shown how the genius and creativity of the West has been poured into technical pursuits since the beginning of the seventeenth century, largely to the neglect of man's inner life. He holds that our civilization will perish unless we invest a larger proportion of our "liquid spiritual capital" in the cultivation of educational resources and deep religious insights.( An Historians Approach to Religion (New York: Oxford University Press. 1956).

Experiencing awe and wonder can revive and stretch the spirit of a man. But this requires the interruption of the infatuation with our own cleverness. The experience of wonder flourishes when one becomes aware of the mysteries and revelations of God in four areas -- the inner life of man, interpersonal relationships, science, and nature. Reviving wonder requires relinquishing what Toynbee calls "the idolization of the invincible technician." It requires interrupting our worship of the golden calf whose face is an electronic computer. Somehow we must give up our obsession with manipulating nature and our fellows. Only thus can we recapture the wonder and mystery of the world revealed by our experience. What is needed is something of that openness to experience suggested by Jesus' words: "Whoever does not receive the kingdom of God like a child shall not enter it" (Mark 10:15). In his description of the psychologically healthy ("self-actualizing") person, psychologist Abraham Maslow includes the "oceanic feeling" among the characteristics of such a person.( "Self-Actualizing People," by A. H. Maslow in The Self, edited by Clark E. Moustakas (New York: Harper & Row, 1956), p. 178). This is very close to the mystical sense of organic relatedness to others and the universe. Albert Einstein once declared:

The fairest thing we can experience is the mysterious. It is the fundamental emotion which stands at the cradle of true art and true science. He who knows it not, and can no longer wonder, no longer feel amazement, is as good as dead, a snuffed-out candle. It was the experience of mystery . . . that engendered religion. A knowledge of the existence of something we cannot penetrate, our perceptions of the profoundest reason and the most radiant beauty, which our minds seem to reach only in their most elementary forms; -- it is this knowledge and this emotion that constitute the truly religious attitude.( Albert Einstein quoted in Living Prayerfully by Kirby Page (New York: Farrar and Rinehart, 1941), p. 132.)

Much of what is healing and growth-stimulating in worship is on a nonverbal level. There are deep feeling-level responses in genuine worship which help keep us in touch with neglected areas of our inner lives. Feelings from our early experiences which continue as important, though hidden influences in our lives as adults are activated and dealt with in worship. When one's heart is "strangely warmed" in worship, experiential values are actualized which touch the whole personality. This is much more than just an experience of certain feelings. William James observed that mystical states, although similar to states of feeling, are also states of knowledge to those who experience them. "They are states of insight into depths of truth unplumbed by the discursive intellect." (Varieties of Religious Experience, p. 371)

In other words, worship at its best takes seriously all levels of the psyche. Because the deeper, nonverbal levels tend to be impoverished in our culture, worship should concentrate special attention on these levels through the use of symbolic and artistic expressions. It should attempt to involve the whole person in a total experience. Because it can touch the depths as well as the heights of human experience, it has tremendous health and growth potentialities,

As a strange blend of "animal and angel," to use Nietzsche's phrase, a man grows weary of being chained to the world of nature, subject to its drives and its tragedy. Worship is a way of renewing one's awareness of the eternal in the crowded dailyness of time. In her cross-cultural studies, anthropologist Ruth Benedict noted the ubiquitous presence of a belief in what she called "wonderful power." This sense of the vertical dimension in man's life -- of the God "in whom we live and move and have our being" -- is the ever-flowing wellspring of worship.

How can increasing numbers of worshipers come alive to the reality of the vertical dimension? Many factors play a part. The scriptures, the sermon, prayers, sacraments, music, lighting, heating (or air conditioning), church architecture, and visual symbols which communicate an awareness of the mystery and majesty of God are all instruments to this end. The crucial factor, however, is the attitude of those who lead the service. They set the tone. Their sense of awe and reverence will be communicated to the congregation. The minister's sense of reverence will be transmitted to his people by the way he handles each facet of the worship service. A congregation will sense to whom the pastoral prayer is addressed. They will be aware of whether or not the minister experiences the Bible as containing the living Word when he reads from its pages. They will know if he has a mystical sense of encountering the personhood of the author of a particular passage, and if, through that encounter, he meets the living God. The minister has a responsibility to teach the choir, ushers, custodian, and congregation to grasp the uniqueness of worship, as contrasted with other gatherings of people.

Worship as a Spiritual Feeding Experience

One of the major mental health values of worship is as a feeding experience. Every person needs periodic replenishing of his inner resources. Regular intake experiences are required to balance the outgo. Intake experiences are those in which one feels loved, cared for, esteemed, and fed through the stimulation of ideas, music, inspiration, relationships, and the pleasures of the senses. Worship is a major means of overcoming inner emptiness through the rich experience of psychological-spiritual feeding.

The amount of spiritual hunger in our society is immense, but it would be even larger were it not for the churches. "Mother Church" is a source of nurture for millions. Some people feel too angry and/or guilty about their intense, unconscious dependency needs to be able to come to the great spiritual breast of the church. But many others can accept feeding from the minister and the church. They come to the worship service and are fed (hopefully) the "bread of life." They "hunger and thirst after righteousness" but also after acceptance, love, and serenity. If they are fortunate, their spirits are nourished by the familiar flow of the service, by the hymns and anthems, by the uplift of the church's architecture, by the well-known liturgies and rituals, by the inspiration of great passages from the Bible, by the challenge to their minds of a thoughtful sermon, and by the supportive presence of many friends.

The sacrament of Holy Communion is the symbol, par excellence, of the giving, feeding function of the church. It is an action-symbol of the nurturing love of God. It is a celebration of the givingness of life. (The theme of gratitude is expressed in the word "Eucharist" by which the sacrament is known in the Eastern Orthodox churches.) Participation in this sacrament is a deeply moving and renewing experience for those who have discovered its vital symbolism. It is a way of renewing one's "good parent" within and thus enabling one to experience an inner source of giving and love.

The profound effect of Holy Communion on the lives of many worshipers is an example of the healing power of symbols. The sacrament is meaningful on many levels. For example, one of the deeper levels has to do with the desire to consume and become like one who is both feared and admired. The sacramental meal practiced by the primitive tribes of Australia illustrates this level of meaning. They periodically kill and eat a representative of the sacred totem animal of the tribe. The attributes of the totem animal (for instance, the speed and strength of the kangaroo), are thought to be acquired by the person consuming this animal in the sacramental feast. The symbolism of sharing common food and drink and thus becoming united on a deep level appears in many cultures. This theme is also embodied in the communion service.

There is little doubt that, on a profound level, communion is a reenactment of certain impulses and conflicts which occurred during the "oral" stage of infancy, when food was love and the lack of it, death. This is the level of intra-psychic conflicts which, if unresolved, produce mental illness. The significance for mental health of the orality of the worship service in general and the communion sacrament in particular can be understood in this context. Unacceptable impulses are transformed through symbolic, ritual practices into socially constructive feelings and motivation. Thus, the continuing inner conflicts from the first years of life are rechanneled and their intensity drained off through group religious practices.

In planning and leading worship, the minister should concentrate on enhancing its feeding function by enriching the service in every way possible. In his selection of materials, he should use a variety of resources from the spiritual riches of the ages and from contemporary sources. He can help to feed the minds of his people by presenting great ideas, their senses through visual symbols and the beauty of fine music, their hearts through sacraments and prayers which touch them with emotional power. Most important of all is the giving of himself in and through the service. A minister who is self-aware knows when he has poured his God-given inner resources into a worship experience. His people know it too and respond with gratitude.

Worship as a Trust-Enhancing Experience

Erik Erikson, a leading psychoanalytic thinker, holds that a baby develops a sense of "basic trust" or "basic distrust" during the first year of life. If, due to the quality of his relationship with the mothering-one, he comes to feel that life can be trusted to satisfy his basic needs, he develops a core feeling of trust. This is "basic" in that it becomes the basis for all subsequent relationships of trust. An adult's foundational attitudes about himself, others, and the world in general are colored by these powerful feelings from his earliest experiences.

But what about those whose ability to feel inner trust is limited as a result of early experiences of emotional malnutrition? (This, of course, means everyone, to some degree.) In an article entitled "On the Sense of Inner Identity," Erikson speaks to this crucial question: "There can be no question that it is organized religion which systematizes and socializes the first conflict of life.... It is religion which by way of ritual methods offers man a periodic collective restitution of basic trust which in adults ripens to a continuation of faith and realism."( Psychoanalytic Psychiatry and Psychology, edited by Robert Knight and Cyrus R. Friedman (New York: International Universities Press, 1954), I, 353 (italics supplied).

Dynamic worship is a wellspring for the renewal of trust. Across the centuries men and women have found a renaissance of trustful feelings -- in themselves, in others, in God, and in the future -- through corporate worship. This fresh baptism of trust allows many people to handle psychological loads of crushing dimensions. A beautiful symbol of the presence of basic trust is the Quaker idea of the "inner light." Ross Snyder used the editorial "I" in commenting on the effect of this idea: "I have a depth of spirit and mystery. To some degree I am of the image of God.... I too am freedom -- a transcendence over what I already am, and from the impersonal order of the universe." ("Prayer and Worship Re-examined," p. 48.)The effect of such an experience is to reinforce and undergird self-esteem.

The renewal of basic trust gives a person the ability to face the abyss of ultimate or existential anxiety (see Chap. 2) . When a person can feel with the psalmist,

Lord, thou hast been our dwelling

place in all generations....

from everlasting to everlasting

thou art God (Ps. 90:1-2),

he is strengthened in facing the fragility and brevity of his life on this planet. He can incorporate into his self-identity the awareness of the transitoriness and tragedies of his existence. Studies of the reactions of concentration camp prisoners have shown that the acute stresses did not produce the expected degree of physical and psychological deterioration in persons who had one or both of these attributes -- dedication to the good of their buddies or a strong sense of the glory of God. Worship, as an experience of relating and rediscovering trust is like a cool, clear spring in a parched land beside which an exhausted traveler can renew his strength.

Diminishing One's Load of Narcissism

Authentic worship helps a person get himself out of the center, relinquishing the burden of self-worship. The effect of worship should be something like absorbing the significance of the findings of modern astronomy. For instance, the light which will allow one to see the great nebula in the constellation Andromeda tonight started coming through the frigid reaches of space before the first man walked on the earth. It has been traveling at 186,000 miles per second for a million and a half years. And yet the Andromeda nebula is one of the nearest star cities to our star city, the Milky Way. Wrestling to comprehend an incomprehensible fact such as this can help one get out of the center. Worship should have a similar effect. It should help us chuckle at the absurdity of our many forms of strutting self-idolatry. The man who, with a smile, commented to his friend, "I just resigned as general manager of the universe," had good reason to feel better. He had relinquished the feeling of having to be responsible for many things completely beyond his control.

The phenomenon of "surrender," as the pivotal point in recovery from alcoholism has been explored by psychiatrist Harry Tiebout. Anyone who has dealt perceptively with recovering alcoholics has observed surrender. The alcoholic's narcissism is an ineffective defense which feeds both his grandiosity and his isolation from help. This must be surrendered if he is to recover. The person who has shed his narcissism is like one who has a gigantic weight removed from his back. Narcissism is the alcoholic's curse. It prevents him from accepting outside help and from growing genuine self-esteem based on humility. The effects of narcissism are less obvious but equally real in nonalcoholics. As indicated in Chap. 2, narcissism is a self-damaging effort to cope with gigantic feelings and fantasies from one's early life. It reactivates the feelings of overwhelming anxiety which caused it originally and stands like a high wall between the person and the help which he desperately needs.

In planning and leading worship, the minister should keep the problem of narcissism -- his own and his congregation's -- clearly in focus. Narcissism blocks a person from those experiences which rejuvenate trust. The Christian emphasis on the sinfulness of all men is actually a recognition of narcissism's prevalence. Worship can help to facilitate surrender by using confrontation within the context of grace and trust. Effective confrontation in which the worshiper becomes aware of his narcissism and his essential dependence on God and others is a difficult art because it so easily becomes moralizing. If a minister can experience the Lord, "high and lifted up." he can then lead his people in worship before the same God. This experience is a narcissism-reducer. Unfortunately, the severely narcissistic person usually turns the worship into self-worship, making it a narcissistic orgy. In many cases a major crisis in the life of such a person is required to shatter his self-damaging defense and open him to other people and God.

Worship as a of Resolving Guilt

Guilt often stands like a hard cold lump between persons and between man and God. Out of his personal struggles with psychosis and many years' experience as a hospital chaplain, Anton Boisen concluded that the most damaging feelings in mental illness are the sense of awful isolation and the feeling of unpardonable guilt. Guilt also plays a crucial role in less intense forms of human unhappiness. Keeping guilt within constructive bounds is one of the major contributions of dynamic worship to mental health. A valid test of the effectiveness of worship is its ability to help persons find that experience of reconciliation which is the essence of forgiveness.

The way in which unconfessed guilt corrodes the spirit and erodes the physical health of a man was described vividly by the psalmist:

When I declared not my sin, my body wasted away

through my groaning all day long.

For day and night thy hand was heavy upon me;

my strength dried up as by the heat of summer (Ps. 32:3 4).

Blessed is he whose transgression is forgiven, . . .

Blessed is the man to whom the Lord imputes no iniquity,

and in whose spirit there is no deceit (Ps. 32:1-2).

Guilt-reduction often occurs in a sequence of stages during the worship service. The first stage is the sharpening of the awareness of one's guilt. Hidden guilt feelings are brought into consciousness by being in the setting which represents the highest ideals of one's group. This leads spontaneously to the second stage, confession of guilt. The young Isaiah's experience (often taken as a prototype of the sequence of worship) was described in this way: ". . . I saw the Lord sitting upon a throne, high and lifted up . . . And I said, 'Woe is me! For I am lost; for I am a man of unclean lips, and I dwell in the midst of a people of unclean lips; for my eyes have seen the King, the Lord of hosts!" (Isa. 6:1, 5) .

Opportunities should be provided in a worship service for a quiet period of guided self-examination in which the minister suggests areas of introspection. Firm, loving confrontation by the minister should be a part of this. Following such self-searching, a great prayer such as the "General Confession" of the Anglican service, can be a deeply moving experience: "We have erred, and strayed from thy ways like lost sheep.... We have left undone those things which we ought to have done; And we have done those things which we ought not to have done."

Such a process ran lead to emotional catharsis (as in counseling) -- the pouring out of infected feelings, whereby the poison is drained from the wounds of one's spirit. As Tillich has indicated, the ability to confess deeply requires a relationship and an atmosphere in which forgiveness is already present. The forgiving, healing, reconciling love of God should be the foundation of any worship service that takes guilt seriously. This is the good news of the gospel. It should saturate every dimension of the worship service. An accepting, nonjudgmental spirit on the minister's part sets the tone for a worship service in which grace becomes a living experience.

The third and fourth stages of the guilt-to-reconciliation path are the powerful awareness of cleansing and forgiveness leading to the spontaneous response of seeking to meet the needs of others. In Isaiah's vision, a seraphim touched his lips with a burning coal from the altar and said, "Behold . . . your guilt is taken away, and your sin forgiven" (Isa. 6:6-7). When the burden of guilt was lifted, Isaiah's response was expressed in action. Hearing the voice of the Lord asking, "Whom shall I send?" he responded, "Here I am! Send me" (Isa. 6:8) .

The action phase of forgiveness should certainly include making restitution for one's mistakes and sins. Jesus' emphasis on being reconciled to one's brother before offering one's gift at the altar (Matt. 5:23-24) points in this direction. It is not that God withholds his acceptance, but that the orderly laws of the psychological life makes it impossible to experience forgiveness fully until we have done everything possible to repair the damage caused by our sins.

If guilt feelings do not respond to the normal process of confession-reconciliation it may be because they are neurotic (or irrational) feelings (see Chap. 2). If so, counseling or psychotherapy is needed to resolve the inner conflict at the root of the feelings.

In their reaction to the guilt-creating, manipulative techniques of the rigid fundamentalist approach, many non-fundamentalist Protestants have overlooked the seriousness and prevalence of the problems of guilt. Millions of persons suffer from severe guilt feelings which are below the conscious level. Some of these feelings, given the necessary setting and stimuli, are capable of being brought into awareness. Since awareness of guilt feelings is the first step toward their transformation, this is the place where efforts in worship should be concentrated initially. Focusing on the fact that sin is the condition of being alienated from God helps to avoid the pitfall of moralizing.

Worship as a Challenge to Face Reality

Worship should bring the mystical and the ethical elements in religion into union. Albert Schweitzer's "deed mysticism" (in contrast to a mysticism which regards contemplation as an end in itself) is an illustration of the needed balance. Persons should be challenged to invest the new understanding and power they derive from worship experiences in helping others and improving society. Through the scriptures and the sermon, the minister can help the worshiper discover what will be required to "give up childish ways" in various areas of his life. Growth toward more mature meanings and relationships in one's life should result from such exploration. Carroll A. Wise says, in relation to worship that:

Participation in the religious group, involving a strong sense of fellowship, should stimulate the individual to a discovery of the realities of his own personal experience. It should be a source of strength and stimulation to his ego, especially at times when forces, working against the discovery of reality are strong within the personality. When the symbols of the group are living and vital, they serve also as a powerful means for the development of cultural patterns on the basis of personal values(Religion in Illness and Health, pp. 178-79)

The theology of the prayers, hymns, and sermon should call individuals away from immature, reality-manipulating styles of life. Ross Snyder gives this pointed example of the form immature religion would take were it expressed in prayer: " 'O God, protect and save me from the consequences of my living. Do thou, O Lord, take away the consequences of my constant violation of the truth; allow me to go on hating my neighbor; allow me to live irresponsibly -- But thou O Lord canst prevent the results of all this living.' " ("Prayer and Worship Re-examined." p. 45.) mental health enhancing worship should "speak the truth in love," confronting the worshiper with the ethical demands of the Christian way, and helping him develop those energizing relationships with persons and God which will enable him to respond creatively to these demands.

Worship as an Experience of Self-Investment

Worship, at its best, is much more than a feeding experience. As in any relationship, it is the blend of receiving and giving that strengthens mental health. Participation in both the give and take of relationships contributes to personality growth. (The therapeutic value of helping other alcoholics, a cardinal principle of A.A., is a case in point.) Worship brings the awareness that it is in self-giving that one receives the finest satisfactions of life. The giving aspects of a worship service include the outpouring of adoration to God, intercessory prayers (symbolizing outreaching concern for others), the offering (which is a symbolic giving of a portion of one's working life), and the acts of personal dedication, usually at the close of the service.

The most significant forms of giving should, of course, occur in one's daily life between worship experiences. The "lay renaissance," (see Chap. 12) with its emphasis on the layman's ministry to the world, gives both worship and Christian education a fresh, practical relevancy. The worship experience should be a power station which motivates Christian action. Education (including the educational dimension of worship) should be a lighthouse to guide this action into channels that are of real significance in the Christian view of existence under God.

There is a danger that the giving which results from worship will be the product of one's guilt. Such giving is recognized by its strained and grudging quality. The great mystic, Von Ogden Vogt once described worship as "celebration of life." When it is this, the selfgiving which results is characterized by spontaneity. It resembles the way a person in love gives to his beloved -- naturally and gladly. As both Paul and Luther recognized, the experience of being cleansed, forgiven, and restored to relationship is so profoundly moving that the good life follows as a natural flowing of gratitude.

Worship as a Way of Handling the Crises of Life

Anton Boisen has declared that "the function of Christian worship is to help men to face their actual problems and difficulties in the light of the Christian faith and to find insight and courage to deal with them constructively." ("The Consultation Clinic," Pastoral Psychology, XI [March, 1960],50-51.) The week-in, week-out experiences of many people support this view. They take their inner struggles, fears, and burdens with them to the worship service. Many find a new perspective for viewing their life situations (which may transform their self-defeating responses to those situations) and fresh energy for problem-handling and load carrying.

The festivals of the church year and the sacraments have special usefulness in assisting people in structuring the rapidly passing years and in handling the inevitable crises of living. One of the significant ecumenical developments in Protestant worship during the last fifteen years has been a growing appreciation for the liturgical year. The successive seasons and festivals encourage the reliving of the moving historical drama of the Christian story (For a discussion of the traditional meanings of the liturgical seasons. see U. F. Dunkle, Jr., Values in the Church Year (Nashville: Abingdon Press, 1959). with its many parallels in the life of the individual and the family. The Advent season symbolizes psychologically the expectancy of continuing renewal and renaissance in one's life. Christmas touches deep, universal feelings about the miracle of birth and family life. Epiphany-tide centers on spontaneous adoration and outreach in response to the miracle of new life. Lent, a period of alternation with particular importance in our activist culture, is a time of reflection on one's inner condition. Holy Week encourages the enhancing of one's awareness of the tragic dimension of life, and Easter (followed by Eastertide) depicts the Christian response to this tragic dimension. Pentecost celebrates the birth of the Christian fellowship which plays so important a part in a dedicated churchman's life. Trinity-tide offers an opportunity for worshipers to grow in their relationship with God as he is known in the three major forms of his self-revelation -- through his creation (Father), through human relationship (Son), and directly in the experience of prayer (Holy Spirit). Kingdomtide emphasizes the Christian's concern for social problems and the redemption of society. As this traditional cycle of the church year becomes increasingly familiar to Protestant worshipers, its value will be enhanced. To the extent that the seasons and festivals of the church year are living symbols to the individual, they help him feel related to his historical roots. This sense of rootage helps to undergird one's sense of personal identity. Following the traditional pattern of the church year helps to rescue the worship service from being mainly the product of the subjective interests and tastes of a particular clergyman.

The sacraments (holy communion and baptism for most Protestants), as well as sacred rites such as marriage, confirmation, healing practices, and funeral services are symbolic ways of dealing with the major stress-points and crises of living. The services of marriage and infant baptism (or dedication) are family-centered rites, ways of dealing with the anxieties and mystery surrounding sex and love, birth and growth. They symbolize the vertical dimension in these experiences and express the undergirdingness of the Christian fellowship. Current awareness of the importance to the health of a family's relationships with the extended family (including the church) accents the significance of these ancient practices of the religious community.

Confirmation is the contemporary equivalent of ancient tribal puberty rites. Unfortunately many confirmation experiences lack significance for the participants. There is a pressing need for revitalizing this "rite of passage," as a way of helping the adolescent make the transition from childhood to adulthood. Pastoral services and religious practices related to sickness have a special importance for mental health. Serious illness usually produces a substantial emotional crisis. Practices such as prayers for the sick and the laying on of hands remind the patient of the healing forces of God that are available to him. They also help to remove the blocks (guilt, anxiety, hopelessness, and so forth) which may hinder the flow of the healing forces within the person. During my experience as a hospital chaplain I was impressed by the powerful influence which a person's attitudes and feelings exert on his recovery from illness and surgery. Strengthening the will to live, weaning oneself from self-pity, finding release from irrational fears and discovering the surrounding concern of God -- these factors can have a decisive effect on the return of health.

The mystery of death is a part of the larger mystery of life itself The threat of nonbeing which accompanies the thought of one's own death or that of loved ones is a threat that can be handled constructively only by religious means. Funeral rituals within a context of a continuing ministry to the bereaved play a role in facilitating "grief work" (the normal process by which the person copes with loss) and thus aiding the recovery process. The significance of the corporate worship aspect of the funeral should be emphasized since it is within the context of a supporting fellowship that one can best confront ultimate anxiety.

Sacred rites and sacraments can be misused as forms of magic. The reaction against a magical, mechanical form of penance was a key factor in precipitating the Reformation. Unfortunately, in the vigorous rejection of anything that smacked of magical sacramentalism many Protestants have lost the awareness of the valid role of sacraments and sacred ceremonies as living symbols (that is, communicators of meanings) . Symbols can be doors through which worshipers can enter into the hidden meanings of experience. Education for creative worship should help people discover the power of the symbols from both their own tradition and the traditions of others.


It has been shown that corporate worship contributes to positive mental health to the degree that it helps the individual experience a sense of belonging, personal integration, diminishing of his guilt and narcissism, re-establishment of a sense of trust, worthy self-investment, and strength for handling his problems constructively. Let me recommend that those who are responsible for planning worship services, test their services against these potential contributions to personality growth and health. If this is done, it is safe to predict that certain changes in form, content, and emphasis will follow. Of course, finding ways to make worship come alive in a very personal way for increasing numbers of persons is not an easy goal. In planning worship, it is important to take into account the variety of backgrounds, needs, and spiritual hungers of any given congregation. A great deal depends on one's particular tradition. In general, a certain variety in the contents of worship within a familiar structure would seem to be a desirable approach. The training of a congregation in the meaning and purpose of each aspect of the worship service is an important function of the minister and the worship committee. Encouraging feedback from sensitive laymen is highly useful (assuming that the minister's self-esteem is sturdy enough to take it). If such laymen feel free enough to speak with candor, their evaluation and suggestions can be of major help in strengthening the mental health impact of the service of worship.

In discussing worship, philosopher William Ernest Hocking, after speaking of the high values in life including beauty, recreation, friendship, and love, declared: "Worship is the whole which includes them all."( Quoted in Charles Kemp's discussion of the relations of worship and the sermon in Life Situation Preaching, p. 207). When worship even approximates this exalted inclusiveness of values it helps mental health to flourish.



Baker; Oren H. "Pastoral Psychology and Worship," Pastoral Psychology, March, 1960.

Carrington, W. L. Psychology, Religion and Human Need. Des Moines, Iowa: Meredith Press, 1957, Chap. 5.

Grimes, Howard, The Church Redemptive. Nashville: Abingdon Press, 1958.

Howe, Reuel L. Man's Need and God's Action. New York: Seabury Press, 1953.