It is a holy and wondrous thing to consider how powerfully an ordinary worship service on an ordinary Sunday can form a child’s imagination. Over the years, I have marveled at how my college and seminary students recall memories from ordinary worship services when they were six or eight or ten years old:
One student recalls the Sunday she heard the pastor pray for her grandpa by name just after he entered hospice care, remembering the comforting kindness in the pastor’s voice.
Another remembers an ordination service and especially the vivid scene of other office bearers laying hands on a new pastor.
Another remembers an older college student who would come home on Christmas break and play her saxophone during the offertory, inspiring this then-young musician to keep practicing and to think of church as a prime place to share her musical gifts.
Another recalls waking up in the middle of the night in the middle of traumatic week, humming a hymn that his church regularly sang at the Lord’s Supper and realizing how much care and love he felt at the Lord’s Table.
Another remembers the guest pastor who thoughtfully read each scripture text, nearly from memory, “as if it came from the most important book ever written”—which, to be sure, it did.
Another recalls a prayer leader who always seemed to name so thoughtfully some group in the church that needed prayer but was rarely mentioned out loud—those caring for loved ones with extended illness, those whose desire to be parents was not being fulfilled, those struggling with mental health challenges, those stuck in boring jobs, those whose adult children had seemingly wandered from the faith, and more.
Another remembers how his church was a “church that was safe for tears”—a place where lament about death, violence, injustice, and tragedy was part of the church’s DNA.
Hearing all these positive, gospel-oriented memories well up in 20-somethings is a testimony to the often-imperceptible work of the Holy Spirit. At the time, few of these then-children might have testified to their perceptible experience of the Holy Spirit, but the Spirit was at work helping them encode and then later interpret these memories, shaping them for lives of faithful Christian witness and service. The Holy Spirit used those ordinary worship services—alongside a host of other mentors and experiences—to do some extraordinary things in their lives.
Affirming this often-imperceptible work of the Holy Spirit is a cornerstone for vital Christian ministry, as well as Christian parenting and teaching. Testimonies like these keep us going even when we experience far less affirmation, gratitude, and perceptible works of the Holy Spirit than we would like.
Yet, east of Eden, there is another more odious side to worship’s formative power:
A student thinks back and cannot recall a single prayer in his home church about racism—or about racially charged trauma in Ferguson, Charleston, or Charlottesville. Another recalls vivid prayers in her own church for the flooding experienced in Houston, but no prayers for the simultaneous devastation experienced in Puerto Rico. Together, they conclude “people in my church like to think that racism isn’t a problem, but our silence suggests otherwise.”
One student thinks back and is puzzled by his pastor’s downplay of the Lord’s Supper as something you could “participate in if you were into that sort of thing.” Another wonders why the Bible readings in her church were never longer than a verse or two projected on the screen “as if we couldn’t handle any more of it.”
Another recalls that the general tone of worship in her home church was more about guilt than grace, more about coercive conformity than joyful conviction.
Another couldn’t help but think that her church’s leaders were narcissistic in the way that they always seemed to crave affirmation and used attention-getting stunts and cheesy remarks to get it.
These memories testify to the deformation of worship—to profound theological, pastoral, and spiritual astigmatisms that distort how the gospel is perceived and lived. As with healthy memories, the ripple effects of unhealthy practices may not become explicit or fully apparent until years later.
The fact that my students recognize these as problems is, to be sure, a good thing. However, that they come by these memories so easily is a solemn, urgent call to mutual accountability, repentance, teachability, humility, and transformation. Our worship practices need to be transformed by the Holy Spirit. And this involves not only the sanctification of the words we say or sing in worship, but also the entire confluence of thoughts, emotions, relationships, gestures, and unspoken assumptions expressed there.
The claim is often made that worship is a formative practice. What we do together in worship shapes us. This big idea, so central to early church theologians such as Ambrose, Athanasius, and Augustine, is being recovered beautifully across the spectrum of Christian denominations.
These memories, I suggest, tell us a little bit about how this formation happens. It happens, quite frequently at least, through experiences that we may not fully be aware of in the moment. The formation my students testify to so often happened without their awareness in real time. They realize this only retrospectively as they learned to see their worship practices in the context of larger trajectories of their lives. What a powerful redemptive force our memories can be.
At the same time, there are other dimensions of worship that we might not ever put into words, and even some that we cannot put into words. The constant linking of certain rhythms or harmonies with acts of praise and adoration sculpts our working understanding of what praise is, and what genuine adoration feels like. What comes to our hearts and minds when we say the word “God” is a powerful chemistry experiment that mixes both the explicit theological claims we hear in a sermon and the underlying tone or ethos of a community’s life. Often, the tone of a community’s life speaks louder than the explicit words we use.
All of this frees us from the pretension that we can control or engineer how worship forms a given person or community. We cannot engineer what the Holy Spirit will do, both in the moment and over time. We do our part—parenting, preaching, singing, listening, praising, lamenting, communing—with hope and expectation, free from the burden of needing to control all the outcomes.
But this in no way means we should shrink back from shaping services with pastoral and theological care. It does not fit the logic of the kingdom for us to throw up our hands and settle for worship practices that are benign or merely “nice.” And our awareness of how much we need the Holy Spirit’s agency to form us is no reason for our indifference (indeed, that is but a variation of the question “shall we go on sinning that grace may abound?”).
Rather, we are invited to shape worship services that “walk in step with the Spirit” in which we follow the Spirit-given directives of God’s Word to “sing Psalms, hymns and spiritual songs,” to “proclaim the Word in season and out of season,” to “weep with those who weep and rejoice with those who rejoice,” and to celebrate the Lord’s Supper “until he comes again.” We do these things with a deep sense of trust and expectation that the Spirit who inspired these commands will work through our obedience in ways that form God’s people as disciples of Jesus. We do these things with a sense of wonder that what God is doing through them is far beyond all that we can hope, imagine, or articulate.
May God’s Spirit free us from all that deforms our worship and encourage us as we “walk in step with the Spirit” through all the ordinary Sundays of our lives.