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Experiential Worship
Recovering the Heart and Soul of Lutheran Worship
Published in Sundays & Seasons 2006, (Augsburg Fortress Press)

Missing Ingredients
I have to admit it, I’m a batter snob. The very thought of packaged pancake mix sends a shiver up my spine—only fresh buttermilk batter made from scratch will ever touch my griddle! But I’ve learned the hard way that one missing ingredient can ruin everything. It doesn’t matter how fresh the buttermilk is or how light you whip the eggs, if you forget the baking power, you are in for serious trouble.
There is nothing worse than watching children use your hotcakes as Frisbees or hockey pucks! It’s amazing the effect a single missing ingredient can have on the family gathering. Today many come to the table of weekly worship, eagerly anticipating light, fluffy pancakes, only to find a hockey puck landing on their plate. It is not that we cooks aren’t trying; it’s just that our family recipe got lost somewhere along the way.
Ask any initiated Lutheran the recipe for good worship and they will reply with enthusiasm, “Word and Sacrament!” I am so glad to be part of a tradition that helps me understand the truth of God’s Word intellectually and offers me tangible reassurance of God’s grace through Sacraments I can taste and touch and see. But I find myself wondering if this is the whole recipe for biblical worship. Is it enough to engage my mind with the Word and my body with the Sacraments, or are missing ingredients compromising the life-changing power of a genuine encounter with God?

Jesus’ Vision for Worship
Jesus was painfully aware of missing ingredients that compromised the spiritual lives of people in his time. Once when asked what is most important in life he offered this vision: “You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your mind, and with all your strength (Mark 12:30). Jesus’ Great Commandment is so profound it sums up the very purpose of our existence in one short sentence and offers us a way to live the fullest possible lives. At the same time, this familiar teaching offers us an insight into worship as it is meant to be in every time and place.
At its core worship is about loving God. God extends his love to us and we respond by loving him in return. Our whole life is meant to be an expression of love for God, but worship is the one thing we do for the sole purpose of expressing our love directly to God. Jesus is calling us to worship God more completely, in fact with all that we are. Contrary to the popular imagery of our time, in the Bible “heart” refers not primarily to our emotions but to our will, that God-given power to choose. “Soul” points not so much to an immortal substance within us as to the seat of our deepest emotions. “Mind” describes not just our ability to store and recall facts, but our intellect that can perceive the significance of information for our lives. “Strength” in this context means the physical body, where all these aspects of our experience intersect.
Jesus tells us that the whole recipe for worship is an encounter with God that engages us intellectually (mind), emotionally (soul), volitionally (heart), and physically (strength). When people encounter God in this way, they are empowered to give themselves back to him more completely, to love him with heart, soul, mind, and strength. This kind of encounter, in which God engages us on all levels and we respond by giving all that we are back to him, is what I have come to call “Experiential Worship.”
Remember when Moses encountered God at the burning bush? First of all, it was a physical experience: he saw the burning bush with his eyes and was given tangible signs. Second, it was an intellectual experience: God explained his purpose and gave instructions on how Moses was to lead the people out of Egypt. Third, it was an emotional experience: Moses hid his face in fear and doubted his ability to lead. Finally, it was a volitional experience: God called Moses to respond with specific choices like: “Remove the sandals from your feet” and “go and assemble the elders of Israel” (Exodus 3:5,14,16,18).
Before this encounter Moses was a fugitive shepherd hiding from his destiny. After this encounter he was still plagued with doubts and weaknesses, but he did exactly what God called him to do: he led God’s people out of bondage. How? By the power of an encounter with God that moved him to respond with his heart, soul, mind, and body. Our worship engages the mind through the Word and the body through the Sacraments, but what about the rest of who we are? Perhaps the reason we so rarely see people changed in worship as Moses was, is that we have forgotten the heart and soul of our worship!

Recovering Our Heart and Soul
In my life I have lived in the country, in suburbs, and large cities. I have lived on both coasts of the United States, in Europe, the Middle East, and the Far East. Along the way I have sampled the amazing variety of Christian worship traditions, reflecting various cultures and traditions. No matter what the setting, whether an Ethiopian Orthodox mass or a Pentecostal revival meeting, I have discovered every Christian worship gathering ultimately has the same purpose: to invite people into an encounter with God that moves them to give all they are back to him. What differs in every setting is how each tradition seeks to fulfill that purpose.
Through my different experiences I have noticed that each historical worship tradition tends to focus on one of the four aspects of human experience. For instance, a Lutheran service featuring a strong sermon conveying biblical theology is a good example of intellectual worship, loving God with the mind. But a Baptist service that culminates in a powerful altar call captures what it means to worship God volitionally, loving God with the heart. A Pentecostal service filled with shouts of joy and speaking in tongues is a vivid expression of emotional worship, loving God with the soul. And a Catholic service with Holy Communion, incense, and icons can be a profoundly physical kind of worship, loving God with the body.

The diverse mosaic of worship traditions is beautiful in its variety, and yet the life-changing power of each can become diluted in these derivative expressions. Too often each tradition has looked with suspicion at the emphases of the others, jealously guarding its own birthright to the exclusion of the whole. Lutherans have been quick to judge those deemed too emotional or those putting too much importance on intentional decisions, all the while blind to our own neglect of the heart and soul in worship.
Sadly, worship in Spirit and truth, that mighty river of Living Water that Jesus promised the Samaritan woman at the well (John 4:1-26), has been siphoned off into so many tributaries that they have become tiny rivulets, unable to move people at the deepest levels. We have been trapped in our own intellectual and sacramental backwater, afraid to engage the emotions and wills of our people. Richard Foster offers us a different vision in his prophetic book Streams of Living Water:

“Today a mighty river of the Spirit is bursting forth from the hearts of women and men, boys and girls. It is a deep river of divine intimacy, a powerful river of holy living, a dancing river of jubilation in the Spirit, and a broad river of unconditional love for all peoples. . . . The astonishing new reality in this mighty flow of the Spirit is how sovereignly God is bringing together streams of life that have been isolated from one another for a very long time.”

Foster’s vision is a call to learn from others to regain the full historical content of our biblical faith so that the Spirit might move dynamically through the various expressions of Christianity once again. This does not mean giving up our historical emphasis on Word and Sacrament, mind and body. It means building on this foundation by addressing the rest of human experience as well. As we learn how to engage the heart and soul once again, stirring emotions and challenging the will, the life-changing power of Experiential Worship will be unleashed in the lives of those who are willing to give their whole selves back to God!

Experiencing God in Your Worship
Leaders today in every denomination are discovering the missing ingredients in their worship. Out of a combination of Spirit-led innovation and missional desperation we see varied traditions learning from each other and offering a more complete biblical worship experience. Evangelical churches are rediscovering the Sacraments and inviting people into the mystery of God through the creative use of ancient liturgical practices. Liturgical churches are learning to embrace culturally relevant music, cutting-edge technology, and more effective modes of communication to reach new generations. Bible teaching churches are making more room for the power and work of the Holy Spirit. Charismatic churches are discovering the strength of a doctrinal foundation. Grace-based churches are beginning to teach intentional discipleship. Discipling churches are discovering grace as the basis of true obedience.
More and more people are reaching across traditional lines of division to reclaim Jesus’ holistic vision for worship in this emerging postmodern world. Some are realizing that in the name of contemporary cultural relevance they have thrown the baby out with the bathwater and are now reclaiming the power and beauty of ancient Christian tradition. Others are coming to understand that worship in this emerging culture must be multi-sensory, communicating not just with words, but with sights and sounds and smells and touch. Still others are recognizing that the Reformation’s call to root out idolatrous practices has reduced many churches to visual and artistic wastelands; antiseptic monuments of a rational modern world quickly being swallowed up in the visceral tapestry of postmodern experience. These worship innovators are drawing on the whole palette of creative arts to enliven worship—from drama to painting to dance to film to poetry and beyond.
If we are going to build on our intellectual and physical foundation of Word and Sacrament by also engaging people’s hearts and souls, we will need to explore new strategies for planning and leading worship. If we hope to engage people emotionally we will find fresh and creative ways to incorporate the arts more fully in our worship. Luther rightly identified music as the preeminent art form in worship, but what about the myriads of other creative expressions with which God has gifted his people? When we hear a haunting poem, watch a powerful film clip, listen to a vivid story, ponder an insightful photograph, or see a moving drama, it accesses emotions that otherwise would lie untouched. It is critical that we communicate the love of God with clearly understandable words, but if people never feel loved by God, our words will remain distant ideas that lack the power to engage the soul. Some will argue there is no place for emotion in Lutheran worship. I say if we ignore emotion in our worship there is no place in our souls for the transforming grace of God we claim to offer!
If we hope to engage the wills of those we lead in worship, we will need to offer concrete opportunities to respond to the Gospel of grace with specific commitments that translate into daily life. One of the best ways to do this is by incorporating symbolic acts into our worship gatherings that allow people to put the message they have heard into practice in a way that will overflow beyond the service. If, for instance, following a sermon on spiritual gifts, worshipers are invited to write some of their gifts on a card and place that card on the altar as an offering to God while coming forward to receive communion, they will be more likely to actually begin using those gifts in ministry. If people hear a message on serving the poor and outcast of society and then have the opportunity to create a mural by tracing their hands on butcher paper with colored markers, writing a prayer inside it, asking God to make theirs the hands of Jesus, they will be more likely to actually reach out and serve a fellow human being. Some will argue that calling people to specific acts of the will in worship promotes works righteousness and nullifies the grace of God. I say that failing to challenge people to put their faith into action by following Jesus is to offer cheap grace instead of a call to discipleship, which in the end is no grace at all!

Answering the Call
So what about you? Are you content serving hockey pucks to the hungry hearts and souls seated at the table of your worship gatherings? Are you afraid to venture out of the parochial tributaries that have become comfortably familiar? Or are you ready to offer people a more complete experience of God so they might respond more fully to the God they worship? No matter what the tradition of your church or characteristics of your unique setting, God is calling you to love him with all your heart, soul, mind, and strength and to help others do the same. As you plan and lead the worship gatherings of your church, will you begin to consider how you can engage people not just intellectually and physically, but emotionally and volitionally as well? Without slipping into emotionalism or manipulation will you begin to seek ways to help people feel God’s love and not just think about it? Without compromising grace alone as the basis of our salvation, will you begin to invite people to respond to that priceless gift by making definite choices rather than just participating in the rituals?
If this feels like a challenge beyond your strength or capability you are right—only the gracious power of God’s Spirit within you can accomplish these things. But if you are willing to open yourself and seek the resources you need to answer Jesus’ call, he will provide all you need. Don’t settle for hockey pucks. Don’t stay caught in a backwater of the Spirit. There is a mighty river called “Experiential Worship” that is drawing you deeper into the heart of your Father. Paddle out into the stronger current! Help your people worship God with all their heart and soul, as well as their mind and strength. As we learn Jesus’ recipe for worship, with Paul we will be able to say, “Our gospel came to you not simply with words, but also with power, with the Holy Spirit, and with deep conviction” (I Thessalonians 1:5).

-Bob Rognlien

Bob Rognlien is Senior Pastor of Lutheran Church of the Good Shepherd in Torrance, California, and author of Experiential Worship: Encountering God with Heart, Soul, Mind, and Strength (NavPress, 2005).



Copyright © 2004 Robert P. Rognlien
All rights reserved. Any reproduction or transmission in any form or by any means, electronic or mechanical, including photocopying, or by any information storage and retrieval system without the expressed written consent of Robert P. Rognlien is strictly prohibited.