The Differences Between Worship and Ritual

The Differences Between Worship and Ritual

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For years, my father has told me about his childhood experiences with church in the same way: with food. I can’t count the number of times I have heard him say, “We went to church three times a yearChristmas, Easter, and Homecomingthe three times you could get food.” He would talk about oranges at Advent, Easter eggs for the resurrection season, and dinner on the grounds in July. It was part of yearly cycle of events that my father and many others experienced as part of their formative years as well as their introduction to church life.

From an anthropological perspective, this would be considered ritual. According to anthropologist Conrad Kottak, ritual is “behavior that is formal, stylized, repetitive, and stereotyped, performed earnestly as a social act; rituals are held at set times and places and have liturgical orders.” [1] By his definition, my father would have been going to a formal (instituted with intent), stylized (with particularity), repetitive (every year occurrence), and stereotyped (easily categorized), and trust me, southerners eating at a family dinner is definitely performed in earnest. They happened during the same three seasons of the year every year at the same Baptist and Assemblies of Gods churches and with a set of ordered activities that usually included my great-uncle J.W. praying long enough for all the children to go through the line, eat, and be outside playing before he was finished.

Ritual has an important social function for the community and for many, if not most of us, it has the potential to provide certainty and comfort in important areas of life. Ritual, however, is not worship. Worship, on the other hand, may and usually includes elements of ritual but has other aspects that define the experience of worship as distinct from ritual. In-depth research would certainly reveal many others, but for this piece I have identified three that I find academically interesting. I see worship as having intent, focus, and specific experience.

Worship must have intent

As a worship leader, I have been privileged to looked out across the great of people in congregations in Georgia, Kentucky, Colorado, and Wyoming and quite honestly, see a lot of bored people. Whether leading Wesley and Watts hymns or the latest offerings by Jesus Culture and Gungor, I have seen the faces devoid of interest. Now, having said that, I know I haven’t the slightest idea what is in their hearts or whether that is their worship style or what have you. I can, however say, that statistically speaking, not all of them are simply, “quiet, introspective worshipers” or “subdued saints.” Based on personal testimonies I can for certain say that I have known several people whose reason for going to church is obligation. As one man back in my home state of Georgia told me, “The family goes here and grandma would be upset if we weren’t here with her.” Rodney Stark puts it this way, “A man can easily keep his religious beliefs a secret, but his failure to fulfill his religious obligations is quickly revealed. It is quite possible, of course, that ritual obligations will be fulfilled perfunctorily, by merely going through the motions.”[2]

Whether obligation or some other reason, if it is to be called worship, there must be intent. I ran across an interesting exercise in a psychology of religion textbook[3] that goes something like this: a man goes in to ask a minster about baptism. He wants to know what the ceremony would look like if someone was being baptized. The minister goes through the motions of the liturgy, dips his hand in the font, and makes the sign of the cross on the head of the questioner. The ritual was performed but neither the minister nor the questioner participated in a baptism because neither had intent. It was simply an exemplary exercise for demonstration. If a person simply shows up, goes through the motions with everyone else but is thinking about the pot roast on the stove or checking their social media accounts, that person is not worshiping. I would venture to say that even if they are listening and paying attention but are ‘detached’ internally, they are not worshiping. Which brings me to the second point.

Worship is focused on the divine, not the human

There are many words which are worship-related throughout biblical literature: proskuneo, barak, shachah, halal, and many others. The one common thread between these words is that when used regarding worship, each will point specifically in the direction of the divine. Worship must have not only intent but direction. Worship is only worship, in the purest sense, when directed toward the divine, biblically speaking – God.

Consider two stories from the bible: the first is one of David doing what everyone else thought was lunacy in the temple. Second Samuel chapter six says:

“David danced before the Lord with all his might; David was girded with a linen ephod…But Michal the daughter of Saul came out to meet David, and said, “How the king of Israel honored himself today, uncovering himself today before the eyes of his servants’ maids, as any vulgar fellow might shamelessly uncover himself!” David said to Michal, “It was before the Lord, who chose me in place of your father and all his household, to appoint me as prince over Israel, the people of the Lord, that I have danced before the Lord. I will make myself yet more contemptible than this, and I will be abased in my own eyes;”[4]

Obviously, Mrs. David was less than enthused by the king’s display. He was ‘vulgar’ (a commoner) and ‘shameless’ (without regard for personal appearance before others) in his display of worship and affection for Adonai. Yet he was not dancing for the people or his wife or even for himself. David “danced before the Lord with all his might” (Don’t worry this won’t devolve into Ren’s speech from Footloose). The point here is that the worship offered is directed toward God and throughout the Bible where there is intent to worship properly, it is focused on God. Noah, Abraham, Jacob, Moses, all the stories that serve as example for what it means to be a God-follower are stories where those involved turn their worship attentions to God.

Worship is experiential as an encounter with the divine not necessarily the community

Notice again our story from 2 Samuel 6. David does not worship alone.

“…all the house of Israel brought up the ark of the Lord with shouting, and with the sound of the trumpet.”[5]

David is not concerned with community, though community is present. The community is celebrating as well and they are a part of the proceedings that David is part of and yet I believe that David would have been (and in other places was) perfectly comfortable worshiping God alone. As David shows intent and focuses on the divine, his worship could be part of a greater worship outpouring, or an individual, private affair and in either case it is still worship.

To return to our example of those who are ‘going through the motions,’ there are also those that may be experience the divine in the presence of those who are oblivious to the divine. Rudolph Otto, in his discussion of the numinous or the encounter with the holy, speaks of guiding others into the experience until the numinous stirs within their consciousness.[6] Those oblivious to the numinous do not impede the worship of those who are drawn into or led into the encounter and respond with focused intent on the divine. It cannot be expected that anyone else will worship with us when we do, yet if it is worship there is an encounter with divinity that cannot be anything less than worship.

Magis Sermo

This is by no means an exhaustive discussion but more of a conversation starter. If you would like to continue the discussion feel free to comment below or write to


Crapps, Robert W. An Introduction to Psychology of Religion. Macon, GA: Mercer University Press, 1986.

Kottak, Conrad Phillip. Cultural Anthropology. New York, NY: McGraw-Hill Publishing, 2004.

Otto, Rudolph. The Idea of the Holy. Oxford, UK: Oxford University Press, 1950.

Stark, Rodney, and Charles Y. Glock. American Piety: The Nature of Religious Commitment. Berkley and Los Angeles, CA: University of California Press, 1968.

[1] (Kottak 2004), p. 350

[2] (Stark and Glock 1968), p.82

[3] (Crapps 1986), p.265

[4] 2 Samuel 6:14, 20-22

[5] 2 Samuel 6:15

[6] (Otto 1950), p.7


2 Responses

  1. Great post.
    I hear what you are saying that worship is an encounter with the divine and not necessarily with the community. If we can worship in solitude, what then is the purpose of corporate worship?

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