Imaginative Relational Worship

ow that I've dissed the human practices of baptism and prayer to emphasize relationship and action as faithful expressions of vocation, I need to deconstruct the lurking dichotomy before it leads to a misunderstood autolaborological or morphological fundamentalism. If my thinking is on a solid trajectory, which will have to prove out, then the connection between the actions of vocation and the practices of worship meet in the relationships of baptism and prayer that expand imagination for discernment. Said (hopefully) more clearly, our worship practices shape our imaginations for seeing and hearing how God is calling us to help our neighbor.

**Special Note: In case you couldn't tell from "autolaborological" and "morphological," this will probably be my most obtuse post to date. Please challenge me for clarifications or rewordings in the comments section below. Autolaborological is how I refer to a theology of works righteousness when that phrase doesn't quite fit. So autolaborological fundamentalism would be a faith based on the belief that I, by my own works and efforts (autolaboris), can win heaven. I encountered morphological fundamentalism in Webber's The Congregation in Mission. The phrase refers to a faith based on the belief that our current forms and structures for doing church are salvific. The phrase "but we've always done it that way" is a common instance of morphological fundamentalism.**

Worshipping the Other with Others

One aspect of public Christian worship that most Christians forget is the public aspect. The development of the buffered self (cf. Taylor, A Secular Age) has convinced most people that the individual is the singular, autonomous, meaning-maker for everything. As those raised in non-Western cultures or several of the disciplines that have arisen through Modernity in Western cultures show (sociology, family systems theory, economic theory, etc.), this notion is wrong.

Looking at public Christian worship, the meaning thereof is shown to infants and children through the actions of those around them, even before they can speak. We learn the value and meaning of public Christian worship to those in the culture around us before we have the words to express it, and more often than not, this becomes our foundation for what we consider our own value and meaning of public Christian worship. Therefore, our experiences with others during public Christian worship points to the reality of others helping us make sense and meaning of worship. Here we have both the relationship we have with others and the relationship God has established with us by the will of the Father in the gift of the Son by the power of the Spirit (both as we experience it and as the community expresses the experience of it, which mutually form and inform each other).

Turning to Atkins' work again, art of what we learn in worship is how much significance our brains should place on public Christian worship. This effects everything because significance determines the neurobiological connections the brain makes. If we're in a culture that diminishes the role of public Christian worship, then our brains will make less of an effort to connect worship with anything else. If we're in a culture that emphasizes the role of public Christian worship, our brains will connect worship with other aspects of life. We learn in public Christian worship how to relate to God and each other because of the gospel--for good or for ill--therefore the practices of public Christian worship, of which baptism and prayer are examples, each us how to attend to the relationships we have with God, the Other, and others.

Imaginative Growth

If this is really the case, then public Christian worship is where we learn to listen for God calling us through the gospel so that we might be co-creators in God's activity of bringing about a trustworthy world. Prayer is a great example of this, and will also help move our thoughts away from just what happens in the Sunday assembly so that public Christian worship can be seen as larger than that particular set of practices.

Prayer shapes our imagination of how God works in the world. The language we hear, see, and use in prayer wires our brain according to that language. In the best of circumstances, "Prayer is the door through which God, Creator and Lord, enters creatively into home, community, and labor" (Wingren, Luther on Vocation, p. 194). But even in less than ideal circumstances, the way we present the relationship we have with God in public Christian worship shapes our imagination around that relationship. Do we petition God that we might see the resources we have to be able to help our neighbors, or do we leave the agency nebulous and expect God to "fix it" without any intervention on our part?

Reality, of course, places the answer to that question on a scale rather than creating a dichotomy. It depends on the context and culture of those gathered. It is good to pray for peace. It is also ood to pray for the honesty to admit my own sin in denying peace to my neighbor over--take your pick--the color of the shed in my neighbor's back yard. Both are appropriate at different times. The question is when do we pray which one and why. Paying attention to the relationships we have with God and our neighbor during public Christian worship can increase our capacity to imagine how God works in the world. This expanded imagination will then allow for us to see that God is at work in the world and calling us to be part of that work through our neighbor.


ll leadership in the church--pastors, associates in ministry, Sunday school teachers, church council members, parents--have been given the awesome responsibility of forming Christian community through public Christian worship. Planning and leading public Christian worship is itself a vocation--and I don't mean just the Sunday assembly. The prayers you pray with your children at home are instances of public Christian worship. The devotions at council or staff meetings are instances of public Christian worship. The prayer you lift up for a sick co-worker in your office is an instance of public Christian worship. All of these and more form our imaginations and are reflections of how we imagine God at work in the world.

od constantly calls us to attend to the relationships we have been given. Within public Christian worship, God particularly calls us to attend to others because of freedom we have been given through the gospel. This is a helpful reminder for the Sunday assembly in particular, as it holds up both the relationship we have with God of which we must often be reminded, and also the relationships we have with others of which we must often be reminded, all with the goal of worshipping God in such a way that we more easily see the activity of God outside of worship, which humorously enough then draws us into worship. I think this would count as imaginative relational worship.

And this isn't the Third Use of the Law. But more on that in the next post.