Despite the predominant notion that we are self-forming autonomous people who can easily choose what we want to and who we want to be, the stark reality is that we are shaped by our habits and the things we consistently submit ourselves to. Habits are notoriously hard to break, and although we’d like to think that we are above “being controlled by anything”, the reality is the exact opposite. James K.A. Smith (Desiring the Kingdom) refers to habits that form us as “thick habits”. These are unlike the “thin habits” such as brushing teeth or making coffee in the morning. These “thick habits’ can either reinforce God’s calling on our lives to put on our new selves, or reinforce our old nature and false self. Examples that reinforce our false selves are based off of a cultural liturgy that carries a different message than that of the Kingdom of God. Things like the shows and movies we habitually watch, the people we consistently listen to and read, and the websites we visit often. All of these things have a formative impact on us. Some habits are more formative than others, but corporate worship is an example of a habit that has formative implications for us as we seek to be formed into Christ’s image.
When we gather for corporate worship, it’s to take part in a counter-cultural liturgy that shapes us into the image of Christ. Nothing screams “counter-culture” like sacrificial love, unity despite racial/socio-economic/generational differences, and the worship of Jesus over the gods of the culture. The worship war that actually matters is “not against flesh and blood, but against the rulers, against the authorities, against the cosmic powers of this darkness, against evil, spiritual forces in the heavens” (Eph 6:12 CSB). The church’s corporate worship is a protest against the prevailing gods of the world.
So what kinds of things ought we be practicing during our services to form habits in us that are counter-cultural and Christ-like? When we consider the rigors of the Old Testament worship, we see that they were in stark contrast to the worship of the pagan nations around them. One important aspect was covenant renewal. It wasn’t that God had to re-make his covenant promises to Israel, but that Israel had to be reminded of who they were and who they were serving. In the same way, New Covenant Christians are called to see that “Christian worship is like a covenant-renewal service in which the gathered reaffirm the vows made with God in Christ…in a worship service, we renew the promises we made (and often failed to keep) to God, and we hear again the promises God has made (and kept!) in Christ” (John Witvvliet, Worship Seeking Understanding, 30).
Through this participatory act, we un-learn the ways of the world. Practices like hiding sin, hoarding blessings, and trusting in the provisions of the idols of sex, money, leisure, and power are all our “first nature”. As we participate in this relational event called “the worship service”, we flex the muscles of our “second nature” and become active listeners, singers, speakers, and both promise-receivers and givers. By receiving the truth of the gospel among our brothers and sisters we can learn how to sacrificially love, dispense blessings, confess sin, and worship Jesus over the idols of the world. By recognizing that our services are a formative communal gathering where we participate and receive, we will be better equipped to follow the counter-cultural path of our Savior.