by Ron Anderson
Contemporary discussions of the function of worship in the life of the church tend to focus on the ways in which worship serves as a means to reach out to the unchurched, as a tool for evangelism, as the central practice for church growth, and as a set of products shaped by consumer desires. (The recent Call to Action report in the United Methodist Church provides only one recent example of these tendencies.) But what if we began to think about worship from a different perspective? What if we began to think of worship as a kind of mirror and model for the Christian community?
Worship as Mirror
We know what mirrors do; they reflect back to us an image. Some mirrors are shaped in ways to help focus images (even images at great distances, like telescope mirrors), some to expand our field of vision (like side mirrors on semis), and some distort images (like the “Bean” at Chicago’s Millennium Park). Some of these reflected images are helpful, some are simply fun, and some are harmful.
Worship can do all of these things. It can distort our vision and be harmful when we expect worship to look exactly like us, when we expect worship to express our particular feelings, sensibilities, and tastes. In this sense, worship becomes a kind of “looking glass”—the kind of mirror we use for personal grooming and self-adoration. You might say that such a mirror prompts a kind of narcissism, a loving gaze at our selves.
But the mirror that is faithful worship sharpens and expands our vision. This mirror reflects back to us the brokenness of our lives and brings us to self-examination. It helps us look more closely at our lives, our blemishes and our wrinkles, helping us see that we are not quite as kind, as just, as attentive to the poor, or as welcoming of those who are different from us as we think we are. Yet, as it reflects this reality to us, it also reveals that we are more than we can see. This mirror shows us, even in our brokenness, an image of redemption, healing, and love. It shows us that we bear the image of God.
Worship as Model
A model is something used to represent something else—whether that representation is of something concrete, like the plan for a church building, or something conceptual, like our understanding of the universe. Models can represent the actual “state of affairs” in our world or they can represent an idealized state, such as John’s vision of the heavenly city in Revelation 21-22. Models provide frameworks that help us understand things, ideas, and relationships.
When worship primarily models the actual conditions of our world, it is affirming and forming us in the values, prejudices, and behaviors of the dominant cultures in which we live. That the “worship hour” remains the most racially and economically segregated hour in our public lives is but one example. Another is the way in which many growth-oriented models for church life look increasingly like models for shopping malls, with specialized shops (worship services and musical styles) catering to every taste and level of income. A third example, especially in North American protestantism, is the way in which some of our worship practices reflect confusion between our allegiance to God and our allegiance to nation.
In contrast, the model of faithful worship enables us to encounter God’s vision and plan for the world. Worship, more than anything else, should model for us (even provide the place in which we practice) the ways in which we, in all our difference and brokenness, can become a community beloved in that difference, encounter a prophetic and caring word, and be drawn to a common banquet table. Faithful worship models for us the ways in which we bring lament and praise to God, intercede for those close to us as well those to whom we are strangers, and learn to blend our diverse voices into a harmony worthy of a generous and merciful God.
What is the mirror and model of worship showing you? How is it shaping your life as a Christian community?
E. Byron (Ron) Anderson is the Styberg Professor of Worship and director of the Nellie B. Ebersole program in Music Ministry.