the place of narrative in worship

Earlier I mentioned that I wrote a paper for my preaching and worship class taking a look at the need for narrative within the worship of the Church.  I gave a few snippets before.  Here is a more complete dealing with the topic, obviously the topic is very large and it could be taken much further.  But I do think if the idea is new to you this suggests why it may be so important to look at.

Growing up going to Midwestern evangelical churches I thought that worship consisted mainly in singing a number of randomly selected songs, giving some money, listening to a pastor talk about marriage, or talk about God with such obscure language that no would could be offended or actually know what was being said, and take a cracker and juice once every couple of months.  In all, the experience appeared to me as a hodge podge of disconnected parts with no deeper meaning connecting them.  What would I do differently if I was helping lead one of those churches today?  Did they go wrong, and if so, where?  These churches missed to a key component of how humans interact with this world: namely that humans are narrative beings, we use stories to understand the events in our lives, grant meaning to them, and to guide us in our living.[1] This paper will argue that because people interpret their lives via narrative, God has revealed Himself in narrative, and early Christian worship was based upon narrative, it is imperative that narrative is incorporated in the structure and content of weekly worship if worship services are to deeply influence how people view and live their lives.

Stories give meaning to our lives.  To say that stories give meaning to our lives does not mean some are true and others are false, it does not relativize all stories, but it does acknowledge what psychologists, educators, and theologians tell us, what our own hearts point out to us, and what a survey of cultures of the past reveals to us, namely that stories are central to how humans make meaning of their lives past, present, and future.[2] We are storied beings.  As we reflect upon ourselves and form self identity, we connect our past memories, our present experiences, and our future imaginings by a plot line.  Our plots give us a sense of who we are and where we ought to go.  These guiding narratives function in several ways.  They offer a sense of place, a cosmology, they orient those in the story to a greater reality.  They offer a direction, a plot line, or in other words, they grant a sense of where things have been and where they are going.  The narrative functions morally, praising certain virtues and discouraging certain vices.  Finally, the narrative plays a psychological role.  It offers roles and boundaries to one’s social world and defines the good life.[3] We should not be surprised when the Bible comes to us as story.  It is still full of facts and propositions, it is not merely story, but it is still a story and hence connects deeply with how humans understand their worlds.

Narrative structure once defined and guided Christian worship, but pedagogical and revivalistic models tend to guide North American Evangelical worship today.  The Reformation brought a renewed emphasis on the Word in worship.  The Enlightenment’s emphasis on reason reinforced this Reformation movement, encouraging the Word preached as concepts, and on an intellectual model of worship.  The Romantic reaction to the Enlightenment’s emphasis on reason had a parallel reaction within the church, revivalism.  Revivalism, lead by Wesley, Whitfield, and Finney, emphasized the emotional and intuitive over the intellectual. These two camps can still be seen to be battling it out in the traditional versus contemporary worship wars.[4] So often the communication of concepts, and the experience of emotions become the guides for creating worship services today.

While neither communicating concepts nor experiencing emotions are bad, in fact both are important parts of the Christian life, by using these as the primary templates of creating worship services both how the Christian faith came to us and how the first Christians worshipped are ignored.  The first Christians understood that they were part of a story, the great story of God saving people and creation in history.  The story of salvation history is communicated primarily through narrative form in the scriptures, and even the non-narrative sections are inherently embedded within a larger narrative.  Both the structure and content of the earliest Christian worship declared and reenacted God’s great story of salvation history.[5] Creation, Fall, the election of Israel, exile, Incarnation, Crucifixion, Resurrection, Pentecost, the age of the Church, and the hope for Christ’s Return were the guiding narrative of Christian worship.

Christians worship a God who has primarily revealed Himself and acted in history.  Christians did not find a philosophical treatise elucidating the properties of God but rather met a God who acted and acts in history, a history with a past, a present, and a future.  This does not denigrate propositional statements about God, Jesus clearly wants believers to worship a God they know (John 4:22).  God does not merely fill a role in a story, he reveals facts about Himself.  But even these revealed facts or statements about who God is, take place within a larger narrative.  God is not primarily revealed in scripture through categories of immutability, omnipresence, omnipotence, etc. but rather through categories of creation, fall, election, exile, incarnation, etc.  So the Psalmist worships the God who revealed Himself in salvation history (Psalm 136) and the first Christians declare what Christ did (Acts 2:22-36) within the larger narrative God interacting with Israel, not his ontological makeup.  Even when straight forward propositions about Christ are given (John 1:1-18), it is clearly set within story, fleshing out the nature of the one who came into history (John 1:14).

These three realities, God’s revelation of Himself in history, action in history, and communication through Biblical narrative,  the early Christians reenactment of salvation history in worship, and humans’ reliance upon narrative to understand and guide their lives, form a convincing argument to more deeply incorporate narrative content and structure into Evangelical Christian worship.  As one researcher into this area says, “the character of our moral agency as Christians has its most fundamental formative ground in our Christian public worship; this is so because it is in our public worship—our liturgy of word and sacrament—that is enacted for us, ever constant yet ever new, that narrative of our existence under God which must be shaping for the narratives of our lives as individuals and as a community called by God.”[6] It may or may not be an overstatement to say that public worship is the fundamental formative ground for Christian moral life, but regardless it is to be admitted that public worship does play a significant role in shaping the lives of Christians.  For too long worship services have been attempting to merely communicate information and to elicit emotional responses.  People not only need knowledge, and experience, but they need a story to indwell.  In fact, shaping the narrative worshippers indwell and anchoring knowledge and experience within that narrative will do far more to shape their lives in the long run.

As Christians leaders design worship services narrative must become a central guide in this process.  The grand story of God’s salvation history ought to run throughout Christian worship.  This can be instituted both in the overall structure of the service, reenacting salvation history, to the content of the service, focusing on songs and preaching which acknowledge this important narrative dimension.  Reinstituting the Eucharist as a focal point of worship will go far to continually relive God’s story.  Embracing and teaching the Christian calendar places Christians within God’s story throughout the year.  Using art and symbol within the church also can place people in the narrative.  One only has to remember the role stain glass windows traditionally played in medieval churches to help people understand the story of salvation history.  Finally, we can begin to think in story in terms of Christian formation.  Does knowing the creeds show that someone is being formed theologically?  “What if we asked people for their stories instead of their creeds… Many people cannot tell you the theory they operate by but they can tell you a story.  If you want to know what someone believes, do not ask for a creed. Ask for a story.”[7] By embracing how God reveals Himself in story and how people are formed by story, Christians can see their worship shape congregations into the image of Jesus in ever greater ways.

[1] Daniel Siegel and Mary Hartzell, Parenting from the Inside Out (New York: Tarcher, 2004), 39.

[2] For a survey of Psychologists, Educators, and Theologians holding this view see Henry Corcoran, “A Synthesis of Narratives: Religious Undergraduate Students making meaning in the context of a Secular University,” in Concordia Journal 33 (2007): 359.

[3] Ibid, 367.

[4] Robert Webber, Ancient-Future Faith (Grand Rapids: Baker, 1999), 99.

[5] Ibid, 104.

[6] Philip Rossi, “Narrative, Worship, and Ethics: Empowering Images for the shape of Christian Moral Life” in Journal of Religious Ethics 7 (1979): 242.

[7] Margaret Ann Crain, “Reconsidering the Power of Story in Religious Education” in Religious Education 102 (2007): 241-248.


4 Responses to “the place of narrative in worship”

  1. 1 Tyler May 5, 2009 at 1:21 am

    Love this topic as someone who thinks about the importance of narrative in our lives and also has a job focused around worship. Well developed thoughts. Keep expanding on this.

  2. 2 gknipp May 5, 2009 at 4:30 pm

    Nice post. I wonder if our lack of narrative understanding also leads us to the compartmentalization of our lives (how is your spiritual life, by the way?). We’ve been taught to think of ourselves through concepts and propositions (which certainly aren’t bad processes, but incomplete). If I sat down and really saw myself as part of God’s overarching narrative, would I see my actions, thoughts, and emotions all fit within the story, are all spiritual? That I am spiritual? Perhaps…perhaps I’m wandering off here, reading too much into the situation.

    But I do appreciate the role of God, as Dorothy Sayers projects, as autobiographer in the Bible. Yes, the metaphor breaks down. But if I ask you what someone is like, we tend to draw a rough picture with adjectives (strong, generous, stingy, whatever) but a sharper picture with narrative (let me tell you a story). It is a shame that God chose to reveal himself to us primarily through story, and we’ve discarded some of that today. Because, in the end, we’re failing to understand God and ourselves as fully as possible.

    Just some thoughts. I haven’t slept much lately, so take them for what you will.

  3. 3 tayloru10 May 5, 2009 at 5:11 pm

    i might add that what often happens is that the modern enlightenment secularist narrative (or post-modern if you will) becomes the narrative of many of our lives which we then fit Christian concepts and experiences into. how different this is from Christians living a thousand years ago. they were born, lived, married and died all within a grand Christian narrative filling all the world and all their lives with meaning. I’m not calling for a return to Christendom nor a return to the medieval synthesis, but i think its vital we push forward to a new synthesis, a vision for all of life under the crucified God. And that we would learn to practice our faith in a way that saturates our lives in God’s great narrative of redemption.

  1. 1 A Little More on Story… « the.philadelphia.project Trackback on June 11, 2009 at 4:47 am

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