Affectionate Worship

John P. Burgess

A pastor of a young, dynamic African-American congregation told me that his elders once came to him and asked: “Why is it that some Sundays everything comes together–the music, the preaching, the call and the response–and we feel the Spirit moving, and other Sundays nothing seems to click, as though we are trying too hard?” Another pastor tells that before he entered the clergy, he and his wife raised their family in a large suburban congregation where the worship was “just terrible. The music was sappy, the preaching was mostly vapid, and the minister had little sense of liturgy. But there was a great sense of fellowship that nurtured our kids in the Christian faith, and each as an adult has remained connected to a church.”

Many of us have experienced similar perplexities. Some worship services move us to tears; others seem downright silly or theologically bankrupt. Perhaps we have learned over the years to be more reflective about our own foibles as well: how distracting cares sometimes make it impossible for us to hear anything good in even the best sermon; how bitterness or resentment prevent us from finding nourishment in the eucharist, even when the liturgy and the worship leaders dramatically set forth its promises; how we are tempted to focus more on the preacher and her personality than on her commission to proclaim the good news; how easily we get lost in the trappings of attractive, consoling rituals, whether ancient or newly invented, and reduce the gospel to what Karl Barth called mere “religion.”

Kendra Hotz and Matthew Mathews, Presbyterian theologians now teaching at Memphis Theological Seminary, explore the power of worship to shape our affections–those deep, abiding dispositions and motivations of the heart that guide how we live and act. Shaping the Christian Life Drawing from a wide range of classical and contemporary theologians (including Augustine, pseudo-Dionysius, Edwards, Schleiermacher, H. Richard Niebuhr, and James Gustafson), they explicate the ancient Latin formula: lex orandi, lex credendi. The law of prayer is the law of belief. The rule of worship is the rule of faith. Hotz and Mathews further note that the law of prayer and the law of belief are related to lex bene operandi, the law of good works. Within the complex traffic between these three anchors of faith, Hotz and Mathews explore one trajectory in particular: how worship implants and deepens in us senses of awe, humility, gratitude, mutuality and interdependence, rightness, well-being, delight, obligation, self-sacrificing love, contrition, hope, and direction.

This attention to religious affections is a welcome corrective to views of worship and the Christian life that overemphasize emotion, on the one hand, or reason and the intellect, on the other. Too often worship leaders are tempted to look for popular songs, images, and stories that will move us to lament the tragic brokenness of life, to cry at acts of heroic endurance, or even to laugh uproariously at the ridiculous. The church tries to duplicate the successes of the entertainment industry, using worship to create an emotional effect. But worship should be something more. It should so anchor religious emotions in our hearts that they become the very way in which we feel the world, interpret it, and respond to it.

Likewise, worship should do more than simply teach us doctrines. A soundbite world teaches us to reduce the complexities of faith to simplistic ideological or moralistic slogans. But worship should connect us to what is true and therefore what is good. It should enlighten our minds in order to purify our desires and acts. Lex orandi, lex credendi, and lex bene operandi must not be separated, and as Hotz and Mathews emphasize, Christians will frame these three principles in terms of what God has done for us and the world in the Jesus to whom the Scriptures witness.

Nevertheless, Hotz and Mathews’ enterprise calls for further reflection. Their case for worship demands an equally compelling case for theological reflection and for social-ethical analysis of the world. Consideration of who we are and how worship shapes us remains incomplete without a clearer picture of who God is and what this God asks of us. Hotz and Mathews’ descriptions of awe, humility, gratitude, and other religious affections will inevitably swim above the complexities of real human lives until we speak about the specific character of the God who calls forth these affections, and until we clarify the specific acts of love and righteousness to which that God calls us.

Is the God to whom we owe awe and gratitude only a God of love or also a God of judgment, and how do love and judgment go together? When does Jesus accept people just as they are, and when does he ask them to change their lives? Hotz and Mathews rightly argue that God’s all-inclusive love shapes us to care for all God’s children, and therefore (to take one example) we will not treat migrant farm workers as invisible and anonymous cheap labor. But where do Christian affections of mutuality and interdependence translate into U.S. citizenship, and where does a Christian sense of rightness translate into a justice that inevitably admits some and excludes others?

An overemphasis on either emotion or reason in Christian worship and life is problematic, but Hotz and Mathews could also note the dangers, historically evident in strains of Protestantism, when the affections are overemphasized. Then the Christian life seems first of all a question of one’s interior spirit: “It must be O.K. because it is the loving thing to do.” But the affections are not always good guides to thought and action. We also need to know how God has ordered the world and what God is asking us to do. Thomistic Catholicism’s concern for natural law and Barth’s emphasis on the command of God offer important counterpoints to a focus on the affections.

Lex orandi, lex credendi is never just a one-way street. How we worship does profoundly shape how we believe, but how we believe also shapes how we worship. Similarly, how we worship shapes the Christian life, but how we live also shapes how we worship and think about the faith. It is these complexities that account for why worship sometimes clicks and sometimes doesn’t, and why a person can sit for years beneath attenuated preaching of the Word and celebration of the sacraments and still manage to grow in the Christian faith. That is not an excuse for bad worship. It just reminds us not to make our claims for worship too extravagant. Worship requires preparation, and we need to learn more about how theology and the Christian life can help.

John P. Burgess is associate professor of systematic theology at Pittsburgh Theological Seminary in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania.