Worship & Authenticity

Worship & Authenticity

Matt Johnson & John Haralson   •   May 25, 2017

Worship And Authenticity When You Just Don’t “Feel It”

When I go out to eat, I don’t want a hyper “authentic” waiter. If I get one, I may very well get crummy service. The reason is, the  waiter may not want to “act” like a waiter depending on whether they're having a bad day or not (Shout out to Greg Ten Hoff’s great book I Told Me So for this illustration).  

In our culture, authenticity has basically been elevated to a place of virtue. But there is so much overemphasis on being our “authentic selves” these days it runs the risk of creeping into our worship. And when it does, it can keep us spiritually stunted.

Of course we want to meet God as we are as our authentic selves. We don’t want to just go through the motions and fake it. At the same time, rhythms of worship can be a sort of trellis to keep us growing (however slowly) in the right direction. We often strive for balance within the dynamics of being true to our feelings and ourselves. But maybe authentic worship is something different. Maybe a truer authenticity is more about holding our lives in tension.

Congregational worship that is full, honest and participatory inevitably requires that a congregation embrace tensions in worship. On the one hand, we all will find ourselves on a given Sunday doing things we don’t “feel” like doing. We will confess sins when we don’t feel repentant, or praise God when we feel depressed.

On the other hand, full expression and engagement with God calls us to learn these rhythms by practicing them in Sunday worship. There is no escaping this tension. Consider for example how the Psalmist addresses this tension. The Psalmist often says things such as, “Why are you cast down, O my soul, and why are you in turmoil within me? Hope in God; for I shall again praise him, my salvation and my God.” (Psalm 43:5).

We don’t have to “fake” it in worship. But we can also know that our emotions on a given day aren’t the end all and be all. God is active in the world and in our individual lives despite our daily ups and downs.   

One of the central, yet, difficult tasks of worship, is to help form people who can learn to speak to their own souls. Sometimes this means getting out of our own individual experiences to speak a language of the community.  We all need to be taught, and to practice, how to rejoice, and at times how to lament.

One of the implications of these tensions is that at times worship will feel strange or even inauthentic. But this is as it should be. The worshiper who has a problem rejoicing is not being taught to be phony when they are being led to rejoice in worship. Instead, they are being spiritually formed into the Christian practice of rejoicing before the Lord.

Consider the experience of a new piano student. At first, playing piano feels strange and foreign. But through practice they become formed into someone who actually knows how to play the piano. In a similar manner, through the spiritual formation that comes from worship, we are changed into the people God is shaping us to be. Authenticity is a good trait, and our culture has benefited from it in many ways. But a downside of a hyper authenticity ethic often will only bless others when it “feels like it”. According to Galatians 3 though, Christians are to “put on Christ”. Jesus alone holds our ultimate purpose and is our true, authentic identity and we strive toward this end in worship, through the liturgy. As a community, we strive together to do “the work of the people” (i.e, the literal definition of the word, "liturgy"). 

As we do share this work of the people experience together, we will experience a breadth and depth of emotion toward God. And this is a step deeper toward a fuller, more authentic worship.