Have you ever heard of the word “automaticity”? It’s a fancy term for the ability of the body to act without the brain thinking, often when processes become “over-learned.” A common—but scary!—instance of automaticity is referred to as “highway hypnosis.” Have you ever pulled into the driveway after the commute home from work and realized you can’t remember a single part of the trip? You don’t recall stopping at any lights, making any turns, adjusting the radio, even. And yet, here you are home: safe and sound at home. It doesn’t always play out that way, though. Highway hypnosis has been the cause of many fatal accidents, and even a deadly trail derailment several years ago in New York.
I believe Christians are easily susceptible to go through weekly worship in a state not unlike highway hypnosis. Almost mechanically our hand is on the hymnal as the “amen” is said in the opening prayer. The check goes into the offering plate and we don’t even remember writing it, or given much thought as to why we have written it. Before we know it, we are in the fellowship hall milling with friends, and can hardly recall the theme of the sermon. Worship can become a going-through-the-motions exercise—our bodies acting without our brains thinking—and if left unchecked, the results can be as spiritually disastrous as falling asleep at the wheel.
What’s the solution? How do we take the rote out of the routine of our weekly gathering, how can we replace yawns for awe in our worship? Some would say it’s by clever innovation. A splash of light on the stage, or maybe more interesting (read: newer and/or louder) music will do the trick. Perhaps downplaying more passive moments in the service (who could argue against shorter prayers and sermons?) and increasing times of singing will engage people more effectively. But this is to put the liturgical cart before the liturgical horse, so to speak. We can never properly answer the how of worship until we understand the what and why of worship.
The solution to our malaise in worship isn’t innovation, but rather discovering—or for some us, re-discovering—what is actually happening when we worship. Worship doesn’t need to be made interesting to keep our interests—it is supremely interesting by nature of the fact that when we worship we meet with God! What other moment in our week could match this in terms of thrill and wonder—this sacred time when we are actually invited into God’s own presence to have a conversation with Him!
This is the Bible’s fundamental understanding of worship. In our corporate gatherings, the author of Hebrews tell us, “you have come to Mount Zion and to the city of the living God … and to God … and to Jesus” (Hebrews 12:22–24). The Bible tells us something else: when we meet with God, we are changed. Just as Moses came down from Mt. Sinai a transformed man having spoken with God, we come out of church changed people, having encountered the powerful means of God’s transformative grace (2 Cor. 3:18).
If that is the what worship, we are now in a better position to answer the how. If God is the one calling us into His presence, and if it’s His power that transforms us, we should look to Him and His Word to direct us in that encounter. We can’t make worship meaningful, but God has, so we submit to Him. And He has freighted each moment of the divine service with gospel truth and sanctifying power—from Call to Worship to Benediction. The elements of a Reformed service are not meaningless acts of mere traditionalism, but significant moments used by the Holy Spirit to conform us to the image of God’s Son. If something as supernaturally wonderful as this is taking place each week when we gather, what reason could we have for not being entirely engaged—mind, body, and soul—throughout the whole service? This is the biblical command, after all (1 Cor. 14:15).
I look forward to exploring this subject further with you all at the upcoming Theology Night on Friday, January 27th. My prayer is that as we discuss these matters, we can recover worship from the doldrums. Let me rephrase that: we can recover the perception of worship as being the doldrums. Worship is never dull; we are sometimes. Churchgoing is monotonous and mundane only because our eyes are blinded to the supernatural wonder that is taking place all around us. We simply need to understand what’s going on in the first place.