When Worship Feels Like Work

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Throughout Christian history, people have been enchanted with the idea of intense emotional times of prayer and worship. Christians often long to experience something like the Elijah’s chariot of fire, the mystical visions of medieval saints, or the outpouring of the Holy Spirit during the Azusa Street Revival. Most of us will never experience one of these extraordinary moments though. We will go through life living a rather ordinary Christian life, filled with simple, unextraordinary moments of grace.

The Problem of Sentiment

Unfortunately, many Christians mistake these beautifully average moments as bad Christianity. We attribute a lack of emotional intensity in worship or prayer to a disappearance of spiritual connection. We feel ashamed if we aren’t “feeling it” in corporate worship or gleaning deep truths from our Bible reading. And in times of spiritual dryness when God seems to be silent, our prayers seem to hit the ceiling only to shatter down shards of condemnation and cut our fragile souls. Not only does God feel distant, but we are ashamed that He feels distant.

Within the Wesleyan movement, we tend to pay a lot of attention to our inward feelings. We are the people of “strangely warmed hearts”. But in our efforts to embrace a faith that transforms heart, head, and hands, we can also become a people far too concerned with sentiment. Many of us know the guilty feeling of showing up to worship without wanting to and then conjuring up an emotional experience that we hope will redeem that unworthy feeling. But this is neither truthful to God nor ourselves. And there must be a much better way to relate to God than this.

The Work of the Christian Life

In his book Christian Proficiency, the 20th century Anglican priest Martin Thornton says, “It is curious that the man who sticks to his job in illness, the sportsman who carries on in pain, the soldier who remains at his post in spite of his wounds, are all subjects of admiration…Yet if we continue with our prayer when it is dull and arid, we are ‘insincere’.”[1] In many aspects of life, we think that it is good to carry on in the midst of emotional distress and pain. Even in the Christian tradition, we value the stories of saints persevering through persecution, sufferings, and trials of all kinds. But when it comes to the daily life of the ordinary Christian, perseverance loses its luster and becomes a subtle enemy. We become worried about salvation through “works” and earning righteousness. But the idea of work, specifically occupation, might be the very thing that we need.

Thornton encourages the believer to view worship and prayer as a job. It is the daily work of the Christian life. Like any occupation, worship is something that is seems shiny and new when we first find it. We love the way it stimulates our being and draws us into to new experiences with God. But then it becomes dull. We become tired in our work and often become weary in our prayer. But here is where vital formation occurs. We are given the choice of giving up or putting in the daily occupation of worship and prayer. And if we truly choose the second option and embrace a daily rhythm of worship in all circumstances, our life becomes a liturgy in and of itself.

Speaking about the ordinariness of the Christian life, Tish Harrison Warren writes, “I often want to skip the boring, daily stuff to get to the thrill of an edgy faith. But it’s the dailiness of the Christian faith- the making the bed, the doing of the dishes, the praying for our enemies, the reading of the Bible, the quiet, the small- that God’s transformation takes root and grows.”[2] Our daily rhythms may be dull, boring, and small, but they are forming us in unmistakable ways. If we can accept and embrace this occupation of the Christian life, even in the midst of emotions that seem to betray us, our faith will mature into a steady and stable foundation that cannot be moved.

It is no accident that the root word of “liturgy” means the “work of the people”. We are a people who work through worship. One of my favorite sounds to hear is the creak of wooden pews when a congregation stands, sits, or kneels in a church. It is the sound of God’s people doing something together. We are working together. Whether you feel joy, sorrow, or nothing at all, you can trust that the God you encounter in the work of the people is forming you for the good of the Kingdom.

[1] Martin Thornton, Christian Proficiency (Eugene, OR: Wipf and Stock, 1988), 3.

[2] Tish Harrison Warren, Liturgy of the Ordinary (Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press, 2016), 35-36.

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Morgan Clark is a Master of Divinity student at Asbury Theological Seminary in Wilmore, KY. The son of a dairy farmer and an art teacher, he grew up in Cattaraugus, New York and graduated from the College of Wooster in Ohio with a Bachelors of Arts in history. Drawn to sacramental worship, he is currently pursuing ordination to the priesthood in the Anglican Church in North America. When he is not reading or writing for class, you can find Morgan drinking coffee, searching for new music, and having deep conversations with friends over a plate of fried chicken.

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