Today I heard a local Christian leader speak of the plan to offer a “worship experience” at a certain date and time. Since I’m in the midst of teaching my upper-level undergraduate course “Christian Theology: History and Worship,” the phrase got my attention. In our readings, and in my own traditions, “worship service” is a more common phrase. What is at stake in calling something a “worship experience” rather than a “worship service?”
Worship service is so common a phrase that we often pass it by without a second notice. But when I pause to consider it, I remember the passage his Introduction to Christian Worship where James F. White comments that the common German word for the event Gottesdienst is ambiguously reflexive. It can mean “our service to God” or “God’s service to us.” Either phrase emphasizes that “worship is a verb” as Robert Webber put it the memorable title to his classic book.
The phrase “worship service” also brings to mind the Orthodox custom of saying that a priest “serves” the liturgy, not “celebrates,” “says,” “leads,” or “offers.” I always find this to be an arresting phrase. To say worship is offered is fundamental to western liturgical theology. The only question becomes, is it offered to God or to the people? It seems stronger to say that it is “served.” A waiter offers everything on the menu; he serves what is ordered with the confident expectation that it will be eaten and enjoyed.
At its best, a “worship service” is something that offered to God in the confidence that it will be accepted because it is what God wants.
What then is a worship experience?
I’ve spent a many years thinking about the various efforts of Protestants to think about Christian weekly gatherings as something more than an opportunity for “preaching” or “proclamation.” Those involved in the twentieth century’s liturgical renewal movement have usually emphasized the word “liturgy.” They have understood it as the “work of the people” and by this have sought to emphasize the activity of the congregation in worshiping God, praying to God, and participating in God’s sacraments. In this they have sought to move the understanding of the weekly assembly beyond that of individuals simply listening to God’s word.
In contrast to this emphasis on “liturgy” as the work of the people, others have gravitated to the word “worship.” This includes those involved in the “worship revival” of the 1920s and 30s and those in “contemporary worship” movement of the 1980s and beyond. The first group used Gothic-revival churches, processions, and stately hymns of praise. The second uses worship teams leading well-crafted worship sets that “flow.” Both seek to guide worshipers into a personal encounter with God who is beyond all form. It is a method that I think of as “guided mysticism.”
So then, the phrase “offer a worship experience,” seems to put a priority on the individuals attending the event and on their own spiritual experience. The phrase to “hold a worship service” seems to express a confidence that worship is something that is offered to God by an assembled community. It treats the emotions and sentiments of the participants in a more matter-of-fact manner. Participants’ dispositions are something that can either be assumed to be present or that are not of central concern.
Ultimately the question is, is a gathering for worship a “worship service” offered to God that people are expected to cooperate with and conform to, or is it a “worship experience” that is crafted to entice worshippers into experiencing God’s presence and perhaps offer their own individual worship to God?
Does this seem right to you? I welcome your comments.