What Is Worship and Liturgy? How to Understand Christian Worship

What Is Worship and Liturgy? How to Understand Christian Worship

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There is no singular, monolithic definition of worship. In fact, it is quite difficult to articulate a concise statement on worship without being overly simplistic. Worship is the central act of the church and the chief end of the Christian life. It is rooted in the glory of God and, thus, a topic worthy of careful rumination. Moreover, worship is complex and multifaceted, and like a well-cut diamond, every facet adds to its brilliance. Constructing a theo­logical framework for worship, consequently, requires one to identify and define the various concepts and categories that characterize the liturgical experience of the church. Knowledge of these concepts and categories not only helps the church avoid a reductionistic approach to worship, it also sets forth essential principles that guide the liturgical practices of the church. Before these concepts and categories can be addressed, however, a baseline definition of worship is needed.

Simply put, Christian worship is the celebration of God’s mighty acts of salvation in and through Jesus Christ. In worship, the people of God continually meet together in God’s presence to remember his loving acts of mercy and to anticipate his promised restorative activity in the world. Fixed upon God’s character and work, God’s people celebrate with gratitude the one who was, who is, and who is to come. As the story of God is proclaimed and reenacted through the Word and the sacraments, the church beholds God’s beauty and goodness, receives his pardon and grace, and is transformed and empowered by the Holy Spirit to go forth in mission and service to the world.

Christian worship is the celebration of God’s mighty acts of salvation in and through Jesus Christ. In worship, the people of God continually meet together in God’s presence to remember his loving acts of mercy and to anticipate his promised restorative activity in the world.

Worship is first and foremost a communal encounter with the triune God whose loving actions and merciful character evoke gratitude, adoration, and fidelity. Notably, this orientation is antithetical to a pragmatic, result-oriented approach to worship. The intent of worship is not the stimulation of people but the glorification of God. While certainly the people of God play an active role in worship, worship is not about what the church produces for God. Rather, worship is about what God has done, is doing, and will do for the church. Put plainly, worship is a loving response to a loving God. The primary disposition of the church in worship, therefore, is eucharistos (i.e., thanksgiving).

If the emerging Methodism is to maintain a rightful attitude of worship in the new denomination, then a number of factors need careful attention. The following material, albeit far from exhaustive, suggests several principles essential to the construction of a healthy theology of and approach to worship.

Worship As a Response to Divine Revelation

The pattern of revelation and response characterizes all of God’s interaction with humanity, as the Scriptures testify to again and again.1 Since the dawn of creation, God has actively revealed himself to humankind through his created world, through the testimony of his people, by his supernatural acts, and within his written Word. In God’s self-revelation, humanity is given the opportunity not only to see and know God more clearly, but also to respond to God more genuinely. As God’s beauty and goodness is known, worship is the natural result. N. T. Wright asserted: “Put it this way: if your idea of God, if your idea of the salvation offered in Christ, is vague or remote, your idea of worship will be fuzzy and ill-formed. The closer you get to the truth, the clearer becomes the beauty, and the more you will find worship welling up within you.”2

Christian worship, then, is human response to the revealed triune God. Such revelation cannot be forced, however. Instead, it is by the power of the Holy Spirit that God is made accessible by faith so the church might be granted an epiphany of his beauty, goodness, and majesty. It is only through God’s own revelatory initiative that he is made known. As the church begins to know and understand the character of God, the rightful response to his revelation is loving worship. Don Hustad reflected:

Christian worship is our affirmative, transforming response to the self-revelation of God . . . We are not seeking to find or to know an obscure, frightening being who needs to be placated. God makes and continues to make the first move, showing himself in power and in love, inviting our response. In fact, worship is any and every affirmative response to God.3

Worship is always connected to the God who has been self-revealed. By remembering God’s past work and anticipating his promised future in worship, especially through the Word and at the Table, a powerful revelation of God comes to the church in the present. As he makes his grandeur and beauty known, the church cannot help but respond in prayer and praise.

Christian Worship Is Trinitarian

In his self-revelation, God has identified himself as triune—Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. Hence, God is to be worshiped as Trinity. Christian worship both responds to and flows from the actions of the triune God. On the one hand, Trinitarian worship means both acknowledging and praising all three persons of the Trinity for each one’s particular active role in the ongoing work of salvation. On the other hand, Trinitarian worship is also participation in the life of the Trinity, empowered by the Spirit to join with Christ in prayer and praise before the Father (see Hebrews 8:1–2). In this way, worship is also charismatic (i.e., inspired and compelled by the Holy Spirit).

In his book Worship, Community, and the Triune God of Grace, James B. Torrance claimed that Christian worship is “our participation through the Spirit in the Son’s communion with the Father. . . . Therefore, anything we say about worship—the forms of worship, its practice and procedure—must be said in light of him to whom it is a response.”4 Worship is not possible outside of Trinitarian activity. It is by the power of the Holy Spirit that the risen and ascended Jesus Christ meets the church in worship—especially in the ­sacraments—to draw the church to himself so it might share in his communion with the Father. Thus, the forms and practices of worship are to be understood in an inherently Trinitarian manner. As the church glorifies the one God that has been manifest in relationship as Father, Son, and Holy Spirit, the church prays to the Father, through the Son, and in the Spirit. Likewise, the church, through the Holy Spirit, joins in the worship and ministry of Christ to the Father for the sake of the world.

Christian Worship Is Liturgical

Worship is only possible through Jesus Christ in communion with the Holy Spirit. Jesus has the unique role of being the only one who can lead the church into intimate communion with God because he is our high priest and leitourgos, the one who eternally intercedes and mediates so that, through the Spirit, we are drawn into loving fellowship with God (see Hebrews ­10:11–18). Torrance wrote:

. . . all of worship is the gift of participating through the Spirit in the incarnate Son’s communion with the Father, a gift of grace . . . The Father has given us the Son and the Spirit to draw us into a life of shared ­communion—of participating through the Spirit in the Son’s communion with the Father—that we might be drawn in love into the very trinitarian life of God himself.5

Torrance made the profound observation that worship is the gift of “participating” in the life of the Trinity. While it is easy to think of worship primarily in terms of what the church gives to God, Torrance emphasized that there also is a necessary receiving orientation to worship. Specifically, through the grace of God the church is granted participation in the life of God. The goal of liturgy, then, is to foster “full, conscious, and active participation” in the worship of the church so that God, who receives the worship of the church, might transform the church with divine grace.6

The word liturgy means the work or service of the people. Basically, liturgy refers to the public and corporate acts of the church. Whether highly structured and formalized or more informal and spontaneous, every service of Christian worship has a liturgy. The words that are said, the songs that are sung, and the actions that are done all comprise the liturgy of worship. However, worship does not become liturgical simply because a group of individuals join together for a common purpose. Rather, as Constance Cherry said, “corporate worship is what happens when the body of Christ assembles to hear with one heart and speak with one voice the words, praises, prayers, petitions, and thanks fitting to Christian worship.”7 In other words, liturgical worship occurs when the gathered community works together as the body of Christ to glorify God (see Romans 12:1–21; Colossians 1:18–20). Through biblically and historically grounded practices, the presence of God is mediated to his people and the true fellowship of Christ’s body is realized. Moreover, while the liturgy of worship is experienced in a local context, it is also cosmic in scope. Through the Holy Spirit, the church mystically joins with the heavenly hosts and communion of saints in glorifying God.

Christian Worship Is Doxological

One of the primary ways liturgy cultivates participation in worship is through doxology. Simply put, the term doxology means the knowledge of God’s glory. Liturgical acts of worship serve a doxological purpose by rooting worship in God’s glory and praise and by giving testimony to God’s activity in the world. Every aspect of worship, therefore, whether spoken or enacted, should serve to proclaim and bear witness to the glory of God.

Over the centuries certain practices and rituals have been preserved in the church as a way of maintaining a doxological orientation in the church. For example, the church calendar, the creeds, and the sacraments are regular patterns of corporate worship that proclaim the gospel message. Each of these practices celebrates God’s nature and character. They remember and recite God’s mighty acts of salvation. They anticipate and declare his promises for the future. Furthermore, they unite the church across space and time in affirming the immutable and invariable glory of God.

In addition to the longstanding historic practices of the church, doxological worship also encourages local, cultural expression. Because worship is rooted in the proclamation and reenactment of the story of God, worship must be contextualized to ensure clear communication of the gospel and participatory expression of prayer and praise to God. Contextualization should not be confused with appeal, but rather is a way of inviting local voices around the globe into cosmic doxology. While the theological content of worship never changes, factors such as musical style, language, art, etc. are adaptable in order to foster congregational participation.

Christian Worship Is Sacramental

Central to the worshiping life of the church is its sacramental practice. The sacraments are an expression of God’s self-giving based on the sacrificial love displayed in Jesus’ death and resurrection (see Romans 6:3–6; 1 Corinthians 11:23–26). In the sacraments, Jesus Christ is made present to the worshiping community. By means of the Holy Spirit, God bestows an inward grace to his church through the outward signs of water, bread, and wine. These symbols of water, bread, and wine are not only a means of receiving grace and meeting with Christ, but also are testimonies of God’s work on behalf of humankind. As Robert Webber wrote about the Eucharist:

Bread and wine, which are symbols of Christ’s death are powerful presentations of one of the most basic concerns of Scripture: God seeks us out; he comes after us so to speak; he does everything necessary for our salvation. Bread and wine are chiefly God’s signs, God’s gift of love. They embrace us, gather us into Jesus’ act of self-sacrificing love, claim us as members of the body of Christ, heal our hurts, reconcile us to each other and signify all that the Gospel proclaims.8

Webber’s emphasis on the sacraments as God’s signs and gifts is significant because the sacraments provide tangible and visible ways in which the salvific actions of God in Christ are made manifest in the church. As John Wesley claimed, these are means of grace whereby God works invisibly in his disciples, hastening, strengthening, and confirming faith.9 God chooses to nourish the church by his grace through these physical items. Thus, in sacramental practice, the church comes to his Table, not to take, but to receive God’s grace in a humble posture of thanksgiving.

The sacraments, as physical elements, also affirm the goodness of God’s created order. Guarding the church against any dualistic tendencies, the sacraments uphold that God both reveals and manifests himself through natural creation. Indeed, the incarnation of Jesus Christ is the greatest example of God being known through physical forms. Similarly, the sacraments affirm that physical creation has a place, and moreover, a role in worship. In ­particular, the sacraments give credence to the use of both the body and the arts in worship. Through the proper use of forms such as music, art, ­choreography, and technology, the church has the opportunity to point creation toward the praise of God.

Christian Worship Is Eschatological

The words and actions of sacramental practice audibly and visibly proclaim, enact, and dramatize in worship the story of God culminating in redemption through Jesus Christ. Because the sacraments are a gift of grace that enable the church to reappropriate the reality of God’s great past redemptive events, they also help the church anticipate, in a very palpable way, the redemptive events that are still to come. Moreover, through the sacraments, the church is consumed into the life of God and empowered by the Holy Spirit to become the sacrament of Christ’s presence and ministry in the world. Thus, the sacraments give direction and energy for the mission of the church. N. T. Wright pointed out:

. . . all Christian work in the world is a spiritual battle. It’s not just a matter of fighting for people’s souls and then moving on to implement pragmatic policies to sort out their bodies later. No, the powers that rule the world are still powerful and need to be reminded of their defeat by Christ on the cross. And it is only as we are energized as baptized people and equipped as Eucharistic people that we are able to go calmly and confidently into the arena of the struggle, whatever it may be, from campaigning for justice to creation care. It’s because we are, as it were, new exodus people through the sacramental life of the church . . .10

Christian worship is mindful of the larger reality of creation, Christology (the person, nature, and work of Christ), and eschatology (the theology of the end times). The eschatological reality of worship resides in both the anticipation of the kingdom that Christ will bring as well as the work of the kingdom the church is called to live out now on earth. In the United Methodist Church’s liturgy of the Eucharist, for instance, the church proclaims, “By your Spirit make us one with Christ, one with each other, and one in ministry to all the world, until Christ comes in final victory and we feast at his heavenly banquet.”11 There is acknowledgment in the liturgy of Christ’s work in both the here and now and in the final victory yet to come. Thus, worship stands “in a horizon of eschatological hope, that is, of future fulfillment as well as present experience.”12 Framing worship in the fullness of God’s narrative means keeping in mind the view of the new creation being ushered in through Jesus Christ. Worship is, therefore, eschatological because it celebrates Christ’s continual work and anticipates his final victory (see Revelation 21). In worship, the church is continually reminded of its role in God’s inaugurated kingdom and is nourished for the work that needs to be done in the world. It is only through this hope-filled view that the church discovers the lifestyle of worship it is called to live out in the world.

Christian Worship Is Delight in God

Worship is the celebration of God’s mighty acts of salvation; however, worship is also much, much more. Worship is the recognition of the triune God who has revealed himself through his continual work of bringing salvation to the world. Worship is the declaration of the truth of who God is, what he has done, and what he promises to do. Worship is participation with Christ and with one another in doxological praise to God the Father. Worship is a grace-filled encounter with Jesus Christ through the Sprit’s work in the sacraments. Worship is the formation of the church as the people of God who are his witnesses in the world. Worship is all this and more.
Saint Augustine of Hippo believed the greatest good that can be achieved in the Christian life is worship because worship is the telos—or chief end—of all creation. John Wesley reiterated this same idea in his commentary on the Roman Catholic catechism:

In divine worship, (as in all other actions,) the first thing to be considered is the end, and the next thing is the means conducing to that end. The end is the honour of God, and the edification of the Church; and then God is honoured, when the Church is edified. The means conducing to that end, are to have the service so administered as may inform the mind, engage the affections, and increase devotion.13

God has designed the world so that a deep longing and desire for happiness and joy are built into its very being. Augustine wrote in his Confessions: “You stir us so that praising you may bring us joy, because you have made us and drawn us to yourself, and our heart is unquiet until it rests in you.”14 Every creature seeks to satisfy the longing of the soul, which cannot be fulfilled outside of delight in God. As Augustine wrote in his book De Trinitate: “For the fullness of our happiness, beyond which there is none else, is this: to enjoy God the three in whose image we were made.”15 Thus, only in worship of the triune God is true delight, satisfaction, and happiness found. Worship is participation in true delight, then, because in worship the church experiences the glorious presence of God’s wonderful, mighty, and holy love. May such delight characterize worship in the new Methodism as it remains mindful of God’s gracious devotion, responding with gratitude in ceaseless wonder, love, and praise.

This is an excerpt from The Next Methodism: Theological, Social, and Missional Foundations for Global Methodism (Seedbed 2022). This book invites readers on a journey to discover the vitality, richness, and sheer goodness of the broader Wesleyan tradition. Get your copy from our store here.

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1. For example, see Genesis 7:1–5; 15:1–20; Exodus 3:1–15; Isaiah 6:1–13; Luke 1:26–38; John 4:7–26; and Revelation 4:1–11.
2. N. T. Wright, For All God’s Worth: True Worship and the Calling of the Church (Grand Rapids, MI: William B. Eerdmans Publishing Company, 1997), 10.
3. Don Hustad, Jubilate II: Church Music in Worship and Renewal (Carol Stream: Hope Publishing Company, 1993), 100.
4. James B. Torrance, Worship, Community, and the Triune God of Grace (Downers Grove: IVP Academic, 1996), 15.
5. Ibid., 36.
6. Pope Paul VI, “Constitution on the Sacred Liturgy (Sacrosanctum Concilium),” presented by His Holiness Pope Paul VI on December 4, 1963.
7. Constance Cherry, The Worship Architect: A Blueprint for Designing Biblically Faithful and Culturally Relevant Services (Grand Rapids: Baker Academic, 2010), 13, italics original.
8. Robert E. Webber, Worship Is a Verb: Celebrating God’s Mighty Deeds of Salvation (Peabody, MA: Hendrickson Publishers, 2004), 96.
9. John Wesley, Sermon 16, “The Means of Grace,” in Bicentennial Edition of the Works of John Wesley, vol. 1, Sermons I, ed. Albert C. Outler (Nashville, TN: Abingdon, 1984), 381.
10. N. T. Wright, “N. T. Wright on Word and Sacrament: We Need Both,” Reformed Worship, September 2008, 22.
11. “Service of Word and Table I,” in The United Methodist Book of Worship (Nashville: The United Methodist Publishing House, 1992), 38.
12. John Reumann, The Supper of the Lord (Philadelphia: Fortress Press, 1985), 25.
13. John Wesley, from his commentary on the Roman Catholic catechism.
14. Saint Augustine, Confessions (Hyde Park: New City Press, 1997), 14.
15. Saint Augustine, De Trinitate (Hyde Park: New City Press, 1991), 77.


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