Reflections on Worship, the Big Aristotle, and Daily Life

© 2000 Brian R. Paulson – All rights reserved.

“Research shows that most of our moral development is completed by age six.”  Pam casually shared this fact with me over lunch.  She is our pre-school director and my resident expert on childhood development.  I had been waxing on about the formative dimensions of worship until her matter of fact statement gave me pause.

As a pastor, I would like to think that my regular efforts to preach the word and share the sacraments have a real impact upon the daily living of my congregants.  Yet the research Pam quoted elicits some challenging questions.

How can one person sit through worship and come away inspired to start a homebuilding project for the poor while another sits through the same worship service and ends up in prison for defrauding clients of their life savings?  Does our most regular Christian gathering shape and direct the actions of the adults who populate our churches, or is that formative work truly complete by the time a child leaves home?

Like so many red blooded American men, I turned to basketball for inspiration.   Shaquille O’Neal was gifted from birth with a gene pool that made him a mammoth among mortals.  Yet during one of the NBA playoffs, he spoke of other gifts.  He called himself the “Big Aristotle.”  Somehow free throw shooting and Greek philosophy found a common home in this modern icon of ours.  From the locker room Shaq held court, telling us that “it was Aristotle who said, ‘Excellence is not a singular act, but a habit.  You are what you repeatedly do.’”[1]

O.K.  Shaq’s free throw shooting percentage went up that year.  Score one for the Big Aristotle.  But does little Aristotle’s theory hold true for those who repeatedly worship in churches across our lands?

A growing number of scholars promote the assertion that worship is ethics.  Even though the stated purpose of worship is to glorify God, many claim that its natural outcome is moral development.  The idea is that our regular gathering, singing, praying and sharing the Lord’s Supper forms our behavior just as surely as the hours Shaq spends at the free throw line in practice. 

Now really, how similar can the Christian life be to shooting free throws?  More to the point, does the practice of regular worship truly shape the daily lives we lead?

Those of us who serve as pastors have the most valuable tools for research on this issue in front of us every week:  the people we know who daily seek to live by faith.  Recently, I employed James Spradley’s method of ethnographic research to study the impact of worship on everyday life.[2]  Put simply, I listened extensively to a variety of my congregants talk about their own assortment of connections and disconnections involving worship and daily life.

What I learned is that there are a myriad of links to daily life that occur in worship.  Most of those links involve dynamics that rarely are a consequence of the training and execution of those who lead worship.

In conversation it became clear that people generally arrive in worship expecting a connection to be made between Sunday morning and the rest of their week.  Yet, as my friend Pam intimated, the extent of that connection largely depends upon the personal history of each worshiper and their frame of mind on any given Sunday.  As I listened to the stories of these people, I discovered a kind of rhythm in each person’s week.

Over twenty years ago Bruce Reed defined what he called the “oscillation theory.”[3]   In his book on the dynamics of religion, he extensively researched this weekly rhythm of worship and daily life.  His theory named a process whereby we return each week from daily life to a kind of symbolic wholeness in worship.  Then as the week commences, a dynamic of transformation and integration occurs until an internal dissonance with daily life drives us back to worship for wholeness once again.

This theory echoes patterns we can see in the Bible.  It is filled with stories of people that wandered off and forgot their God only to be tugged back to wholeness by a memory of the company of God’s people.  Psalm 42 provides a good example.  In verses 3 and 4 it reads, “My tears have been my food day and night, while people say to me continually, ‘Where is your God?’  These things I remember, as I pour out my soul:  how I went with the throng, and led them in procession to the house of God, with glad shouts and songs of thanksgiving, a multitude keeping festival.”  The psalmist describes a pattern that began long ago and is drawn from memory in time of need.

Each of us who worship carries a storehouse of memories with us into worship.  One of my congregants, Cathy, was the first to draw my attention to the fact that people arrive in worship with unique expectations of what they will experience. 

For example, many of those with whom I spoke liked to have music in worship that was stylistically similar to what they heard on the radio during the week.  Their insight led me to assume that people liked continuity between worship and daily life. 

Yet Cathy expected worship to be different.  She reflected on the music she heard in worship and said, “That’s the kind of music that I don’t usually hear during the week.  I can appreciate that.  It really brings God closer.”[4]  Now, Cathy is not a dyed in the wool traditionalist.  She had only recently returned to the church.  Cathy is a modern, creative and competent professional.  Yet, the apparent disjunction between her weekday world and her Sunday morning world did not trouble her.  Indeed, for her, it brought God closer.

The distinctive symbols of the church have an impact.  Cathy said, “I always visualize Jesus sitting at the table and actually sharing the meal with the disciples … the symbol of the wine and the blood and everything  … makes me zoom in on that.”[5]  People such as Cathy arrive expecting to be touched by God in some way.  While in worship, a wide variety of images and events help them “zoom in” on the meaning and purpose of their lives.  Somehow these elements of worship have gained significance in the memories of many who participate.

“The reason that I am involved with church,” Cathy said, “is because of my son.  I was brought up in the church and we went to church every Sunday.  I think that’s important for him.”  Many with whom I spoke described current connections between worship and daily life in light of their childhood experiences.  Gail, another congregant, remembered singing hymns with beside her father.  Mark, yet another interviewed, remembers the warmth of sitting with his father and his mother every time the Lord’s Supper is shared.

If the research Pam noted is correct, then in large measure what takes place in worship is a reinforcement of memories that were lodged in childhood.  As mentioned above, many of these connections with daily life are not made primarily by tools of the trade I learned in preparation for ministry.  In my training, great emphasis was placed on learning to study the Bible and preach.  What I discovered as I listened to my people is that a whole lot of activity beside the sermon is shaping people’s lives in worship.

The language my people used to describe their experience was not liturgical in style or content.  What they did share were experiences that were fundamentally human in nature.  They spoke about the power of belonging to people whom they knew whenever they gathered for worship.  Ritual for them began by dropping cans in a box for the hungry on the patio as they walked into the sanctuary.  When they described the sermon, they spoke of the significance of gesture and authenticity.  Often a small line from a song or a repeated phrase in a sermon is what they found leaping to life during weekly activity.  Sometimes it was not so much the content of the message as much as it was the leaders themselves and their inspiring witness that caused congregants to aspire toward a better life.

The experience that my people named lent the impression that worship might even reinforce virtues that had been nurtured in a childhood bereft of worship.  Of course, if there was any kind of worship experience in these people’s childhood, their weekly worship did hold a greater depth of memory-laden meaning.  Yet the qualities of worship that impact daily life do not appear to require a Christian upbringing.

What I found in my research is that worship does in fact have a formative role in the daily lives of those who participate.  Yet much of what takes place is a reinforcement (and sometimes also a transformation) of experience and values that began long before a congregant walks through the sanctuary door.  There is a distinctive and intrinsic moral aptitude that already exists in the lives of people who gather for worship.  That moral aptitude, begun in childhood, may or may not have included the rhythm of worship.  Yet when the weekly rhythm begins, worship takes our aptitudes and transforms daily life in a variety of conscious and also unintended ways.

Upon reflection, I believe my friend Pam was right.  Much of the formative work in values is completed early on in life.  There will always be some intrinsic deficits that regular worship cannot surmount.  Our congregations will continue to be a company of forgiven sinners.  Yet there is a powerful work of the Holy Spirit at play in the lives of those who gather for worship on a regular basis.  Through a variety of worship experiences, God takes our moral aptitudes and shapes them into daily Christian service. 

Some may still defraud their neighbor.  Others may make stellar contributions to the common good.  Yet over time, worship is a place where the moral life grows and flourishes. 

Maybe little Aristotle was right.

© 2000 Brian R. Paulson - All rights reserved.



[2] James P. Spradley,  The Ethnographic Interview.  Fort Worth:  Harcourt Brace Jovanovich College Publishers, 1979.

[3] Bruce D. Reed,  The Dynamics of Religion:  Process and Movement in Christian Churches.  London:  Darton, Long & Todd, 1978.

[4] Cathy Ressler, interview by author, tape recording, Phoenix, Ariz.,  19 January 1999.

[5] Ressler.