Why Do We Worship God Together?

Why Do We Worship God Together?

Why do we worship God together? This question, with which I begin every introductory worship class that I teach, presses my students and me not only to consider the God who is worthy of prayer and praise but also the compelling and challenging presence of other Christians who worship with us. Once we begin to take seriously not only the God who is with us in worship but the embodied differences of those with whom we worship, other questions follow. For if we need our siblings in order to worship God, in what ways must our worship persistently account for the needs, desires, and access of others to common worship?

My reflections on the social dimensions of Christian liturgy expanded alongside a community of people with and without disabilities with whom I worshipped and researched for several years. While myriad human differences are part of every worshipping assembly, in this congregation varied responses to the order of service were more apparent than in some other communities with whom I have prayed. Some of us remained seated for the reading of the gospel, while others of us stood. Some of us worked on artwork or filled notebooks with mathematical equations and musings,
while others manifested their attention through eye contact with the preacher. Some of us whispered with neighbors throughout the service, while others of us preferred silence to any form of reading or singing together. Some of us walked in and out during the service, apparently finding it difficult to sit still for the whole service, while others moved only when they were invited to do so by the priest.

In The Disabled Church: Human Difference and the Art of Communal Worship, a book in which I write in depth about this congregation with whom I worshipped, I muse over the complicated and commonplace experience of worshipping with others by drawing on liturgical theologian Cláudio Carvalhaes’s concept of the “borderless border” of worship [1]:

As I listen to the sermon and witness to the baptism of a child of God, on one side of me sits Mr. Davis. [2] He tells me he is sick and proceeds to fall asleep. On the other side, Debbie shares a prayer book with me and follows with me as best she can. But when the sermon feels long, she seems to register the restlessness in the congregation, stands up, and begins to sing a solo during the sermon as
she might during noonday prayer. Someone from the back rushes up to quiet her. Debbie is not the only restless one; in front of us four small children, guests of the church, crowd into three seats. One of them covers all the words in the bulletin with a purple crayon making it impossible to read the order of service. Two others begin to measure each other’s faces with their hands. They whisper to one another; they arrange their toys over the seats and on the floor. Eventually, because they cannot see the front of the sanctuary, they spill out into the aisle to get a better look at the baby; they are then invited to the front so that they can witness the baptism up close. I look at those who surround me, Mr. Davis, Debbie, and the children, and acknowledge that we have no direct access to the sermon, the baptism, and the Holy Eucharist except with and through the border of those who help to constitute the liturgy with us. Such interrelations can be difficult, distracting, or distancing, but they can also become beautiful in a consent to each other’s right to occupy a shared space and time and to do so in a manner befitting each. [3]

Consenting to worship with and through those most proximate to me, I became aware of the ways my encounters with God and others were profoundly affected by those with whom I shared a pew or a section of the church. If I prayed with those in the back left corner who sat silently for most of the service, my worship was different than when I shared a hymnbook with those in the front right whose eagerness to participate was difficult for them to contain. When I worshiped with an artist who sat on a far edge of the assembly near the window, my practice involved responding not only to the liturgical leaders in front of us but also to the artist next to me, observing the various drawings she wanted to share with me as worship.

Rather than describing worship as unified choreography of people all doing and saying the same things or as a collection of individuals, I attended to the pairs or small groups of people whose interactions helped to create this community’s worship. In doing so, I attempted to keep time with those next to me in worship, adjusting my responses to the practices of those whose bodies were closest to me. In doing so, I experienced our varied responses not as exceptions to the rule nor as a motley collection of diverse individuals, but as a group of people who worshipped together while also trying to make time and space for the embodied differences of those who gathered.

With and through these embodied differences, God reveals God-self to us, not simply through a set of words that we say together about God, but rather in and through our consent to the relationships that the One who creates such diversity makes possible. Such consent invariably means that some of us must adjust our preferences so that others have access to the God who calls us to common worship. And the God who is not constrained by our liturgical borders chooses to be with us as we expand our own understanding of those whose presences and absences shape our common worship, all those whose access to God and to the church is vital for our common prayer.

 

This article was originally published in the Fall 2019 edition of Vantage magazine.

Dr. Rebecca F. Spurrier is the Associate Dean for Worship Life and Assistant Professor of Worship. She published a book, The Disabled Church: Human Difference and the Art of Communal Worship, which affirms the truth of the Incarnation by insisting that the Christian community can and must practice the disciplines of hospitality and inclusion for all persons, including persons with disabilities.

The Calvin Institute of Christian Worship (CICW) recently awarded Dr. Spurrier a grant for Teacher-Scholars as part of its Vital Worship Grants Program. Her project will be, “To create a liturgical resource that responds to ableist images, narratives, and symbols that are common in Christian worship, drawing from insights in liturgical studies and disability studies.”

Footnotes

[1] Cláudio Carvalhaes, Eucharist and Globalization: Redrawing the Borders of Eucharistic Hospitality (Eugene, Oregon: Pickwick Publications, 2013 ) 29-34.
[2] Names of persons have been changed to protect confidentiality.
[3] Rebecca F. Spurrier, The Disabled Church: Human Difference and the Art of Communal Worship (New York: Fordham University Press, 2019) 210.

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