The Wellspring of Worship
Clayton J. Schmit
Worship has always been filled with artistic expression. From ancient Jewish worship to today's most "postmodern" church, and every kind of worshiping community in between, we know that worship works best for us when it is built around artistic expression: songs, poetry, narratives, paintings, dance, moving images, and so forth. But why is that the case? The answer is a theological one.
God's people assemble for worship to enter into a communion and a communication that runs along vertical and horizontal axes. Vertically, there is the encounter between God and God's people. God's voice comes to us in Scripture, sermon, song, and silence. And the communication runs in the opposite direction when God's people pray. Heavenward flow our pleas and petitions, our praise and thanksgivings, our confessions and confusions, the emptying of our deepest reservoirs of human concern.
This encounter with God taps into our deepest core. Worship is not concerned merely with our minds and moods. It is not about education or entertainment. We do not go to worship to learn math or science or how to spell Ecclesiastes. And we do not worship in order to be made to laugh or cry or be moved by music. God's people worship because we seek a deep sense of meaning and belonging and to enter into a dialogue with the One who knows us better than we know ourselves. The communion of worship is no shallow stream, but a deep river into which our souls dive to find comfort and contentment. This cannot be measured, but it can be known and felt.
The horizontal aspect of worship is also deeply enriching. We assemble not only for communion with God, but also to be with God's people. Again, this is no trifling encounter. In worship we pray for one another, sing in solidarity with one another, share the kiss of peace, and open ourselves to one another through the transforming power of Word, Water, and Wine. To calculate the success of such an experience is beyond measure, but the soul knows when it has been reached.
Worship, when it is effective as vertical and horizontal communion, is about matters that are soul-deep. The psalmist knew this: "As a deer longs for flowing streams, so my soul longs for you, O God. My soul thirsts for God, for the living God . . . Deep calls to deep at the thunder of your waterfalls . . ." (Psalm 42:1, 2, and 7) Worship is a wellspring from which we draw and dispense living water.
The reason we use art so intensely in worship is that art gives expression to those things in life that are too deep for ordinary expression--as Paul puts it in Romans 8:26, things that are "too deep for words." Because the arts are peculiarly able to speak of those deeply held, intensely felt, complex issues in life, we turn to the arts in worship, trusting them to help us express what we otherwise cannot.
Knowing this, then, places an artistic responsibility on those who lead and plan worship. We don't attend to artistic matters, such as excellence, in order to please God, but to reach deeply into the souls of those gathered. Preachers and worship leaders serve artistically in order to be responsive and responsible to God's people. Therefore, let sermons and prayers be poetic. Let music be beautiful and singable. Let banners and artwork be lovely and inviting. Let worship be filled with art so that our hearts may be filled with God.
Clayton Schmit is the Arthur DeKruyter/Christ Church Oak Brook Professor of Preaching and Academic Director of the Brehm Center for Worship, Theology, and the Arts at Fuller.