I was invited to speak to a class of Charismatic/Pentecostal Protestants last night on Orthodox Spirituality. The talk went extremely well, for the most part, but we got stuck toward the end on the definition of worship. The word itself became a problem in our conversation because what I meant by the word and what they meant were not the same.
What they meant by worship was much along the lines of what the Orthodox Tradition might call attention. That is, what they described as worship was an awareness of the nearness of God and the ability to seemingly talk to God directly and hear from God in their hearts. This experience for them happens most often while singing “worship” songs or dancing to these songs in Church. I responded that while attending to the presence of God in one’s heart is very important, from an Orthodox Christian perspective, that is not worship.
In Orthodox Christianity, worship refers to the offering to God ourselves, each other and our whole lives through specific prayers and rites that have been handed down to us as the worship of the Church. We don’t choose worship, we are given the worship that we return to God. This is like the Old Testament worship. Not anybody and not in any way could one worship God under the Old Covenant–in fact, several people experienced some pretty harsh consequences for not respecting the Tradition of worship that had been handed down to them. Sure, David danced before the Ark of God and sang songs that he created to God in the mountains with the sheep. But that was not worship. That was dancing and singing before God–which in some contexts can be a very good thing. But this should not be confused with worship.
Worship is a liturgical act of the people of God. It does not belong to anyone, for it is of the whole Church. It is what God has given us to manifest the giving of our lives to Him and at the same time to receive His Life in return. It is a manifestation in time and space of the eternal heavenly worship of God. How I feel about it or whether or not it makes me feel near to God on any given day is irrelevant. It is what God has given us to make spiritual realities manifest in as much as it is possible in time and space.
Although how I feel about the Liturgy of the Church does not influence the Liturgy of the Church, how I feel about it does influence me. One has to learn to attend to the presence of God in one’s heart during the divine services, especially the Divine Liturgy. The Liturgy helps us learn to attend to the nearness of God. And having learned to attend to the nearness of God in the worship God has given us, we can more easily attend to God’s nearness in all of our life. In this sense, our whole life can become worship.
So why then shouldn’t we call the singing of and dancing to songs about Jesus worship? From an Orthodox Christian perspective, one of the biggest problems with this is the feelings or passions aroused by emotional songs. Even if God is indeed speaking to someone in their heart while he or she sings and dances, the singing and dancing itself appeals to the emotions. Consequently, what one is experiencing as the presence of God is most probably a mixture of all sorts of thoughts, images, emotions, feelings, urges, dreams and imaginings. I can grant that God may indeed be present, but discerning what is God from what are my own good feelings and imaginings is very difficult. The discernment becomes even more difficult when I attempt it in the midst of emotionally stirring songs. This is one of the reasons why the Orthodox Tradition has shied away from music and art that stirs the emotions.
This matter of discerning our thoughts, what many Church Fathers have called spiritual warfare, is a struggle for all Christians–Orthodox or heterodox. What I was trying to get across to my audience last night (with little success I’m afraid) was that the singing of and dancing to emotionally stirring songs about Jesus makes this work of discernment almost impossible. This is especially true when the songs change regularly and the theology of the songs is less important than how the songs make people feel when they sing them. In Orthodox Christian worship, we know where the words of our Liturgy come from, even if a lifetime is not enough time to fully understand them. We do not create our worship; we receive it and it forms us. We don’t change the worship to be relevant to us. The worship changes us to become more like Christ.
It’s a huge jump from emotionally stirring “worship” songs to the Divine Liturgy, the worship of the Church for two thousand years. I encouraged my audience last night to experience Orthodox worship–not just once, but six or seven services in a row. It has to wash over you. It has to soak into you before you start to get it. True, some people get it right away; but many seem to require a soaking. Six or seven Liturgies seem about right. Then when they return to whatever they were doing before, they recognize the difference immediately.
Worship is work. It takes time and practice to learn to attend to the Presence of God, to discern God from all of the other noise inside us. However, by learning to attend to the Presence of God in the Liturgy, one becomes more and more able to attend to the Presence of God in all of life.