Understanding the Power of Worship in Community
During 2020's COVID-19 lockdown, I found I was not participating in virtual worship services at home the same way I would when gathered with other people.
Instead of singing or praying out loud, I would merely listen. Rather than standing, lifting my hands, or bowing my head, I would be still in my kitchen chair or living room couch.
Without realizing it, my worship habits became passive rather than active, and I was not wholly engaged with the liturgy. As much as I was thankful for virtual worship, a big part of me felt cut off because of the scarcity of physical presence and participation. My mind was present, but my body felt far away.
Is this something you experienced, too?
I believe this kind of “out-of-body” experience during virtual worship occurs because, at our core, we are not merely thinking creatures. Rationalizing our faith is not enough for us. We are fully embodied image-bearers of our Creator who thrive on and grow through physical experiences and interactions. K.J. Ramsey writes in This Too Shall Last, “We are embodied and relational, walking, talking, hugging, touching, sitting reflections of the God who is three in one and showed his face in Jesus.”
Let's give ourselves to this reality for a moment.
Living As Embodied Image-Bearers
At our very essence, we mirror and reflect Jesus Christ, the Son of God, who took on flesh, a human body, to dwell with us and be with us. In his incarnation, Jesus grew up from a dependent infant to an adult, just like we do. Jesus could hear, see, touch, and taste. He could feel energized or tired. Jesus could get hurt, but his body could also mend, just like ours.
Because we are embodied (and relational) image-bearers, we honor Jesus's incarnation more fully when we learn to value our own. Ramsey continues, “The whole of our redemption is found in the whole of [Jesus’s] life. Joy and love are forever bound in skin and bones.”
Because our redemption is bound up in our bodies, we need habits and practices that train and shape our faith viscerally just as much as we need right thinking.
Rory Noland, the author of Transforming Worship, affirms that gathering together for worship feeds this need and moves us forward on the path of wholeness and integration in our faith.
“Gathered worship fortifies our desire for the Lord because there is a unique physicality to it. Sung worship, for example, is physically demanding; it requires standing, deep breathing, and singing, sometimes even hand clapping. But in the process, music engages our emotions, evokes memories, and gets us in touch with how we truly feel... Regular participation in gathered worship is uniquely formative because it invites us to embrace—with all our heart, soul, and mind—our deepest desire for intimacy with God.”
The songs we sing, the scriptures we read, the prayers we pray, and the sermons we hear have the power to speak to the deepest longings of our hearts. This happens most naturally when we are actively participating in them with our whole selves in a physical space alongside other worshipers. The worship gathering moves us out of a two-dimensional observance of the screen and into a three-dimensional holistic experience that tangibly surrounds us, involving everyone in the room.
Experiencing God's Presence
The embodied experience is especially crucial when we are in seasons of pain and suffering. When we are in the crucible of grief, we long to experience God's comforting presence and press into his faithful promises, but our circumstances make it a struggle to believe.
In times like this, when we can't find the strength to sing our faith for ourselves, we need the church to sing us forward in faith.
In her must-read book, Prayer in the Night, Tish Harrison Warren attests to the healing power of the gathered church to support and strengthen one another in times of sorrow and suffering:
“In times of deep pain in my own life, the belief of the church has carried me. When we confess the creeds in worship, we don't say, ‘I believe in God the Father . . .’ because some weeks I do and some weeks, I can’t climb that high. Instead we confess, ‘We believe . . .’ Belief isn’t a feeling inside of us, but a reality outside of us into which we enter, and when we find our faith faltering, sometimes all we can do is fall on the faith of the saints. We believe together.”
My experience in worship isn't merely about how it benefits me. It’s also about how it sustains all of us when we gather together as one.
When we compassionately practice our faith together with our neighbor in view, embodying God's call in Romans 12:15 to “rejoice with those who rejoice and mourn with those who mourn,” we open ourselves up to each other. We become joined together as the body of Christ in a distinctive way made possible because we took the risk of, as Jay Kim says in Analog Church, “stepping into real community with real people and their real lives in real time and real space.”
As the pandemic has shown, seasons and circumstances may make gathering together unwise or even impossible. Our ability to connect online is particularly beneficial in these circumstances, but it's not the ideal. For, as the pandemic has also shown, we need the embodied presence of our community for wholeness and flourishing.
So, let us mirror the incarnation of Jesus as embodied image-bearers more fully by gathering together—when we are able—to practice our faith together. Let’s not give up meeting together (Hebrews 10:25) so that the message of Jesus Christ dwells among us richly, shaping our desires as we “teach and admonish one another with all wisdom through psalms, hymns, and songs from the Spirit, singing to God with gratitude in your hearts.” (Colossians 3:16)
Read about why the music in a worship service has the power to bring you closer to God and experience his presence in a new way.