Transformation through worship

Posted in Culture

In July this year, Adelaide will host the national Uniting Church worship conference. Held at Burnside City Uniting Church from 27-30 July, the Transforming Worship conference will gather preachers, worship leaders, musicians, artists and others to explore the formative and transformative nature of Christian worship.

The conference will feature addresses from several keynote speakers, including Rev Dr Ruth Duck, Professor of Worship at Garrett-Evangelical Theological Seminary in the USA, and Rev Dr Stephen Burns, Distinguished Lecturer in Liturgical and Practical Theology at Trinity College Theological School in Melbourne. New Times spoke to Ruth and Stephen about transformative experiences, different worship practices and encountering God.


In your own ongoing Christian experience, how is public worship transformative for you?

Stephen Burns: Worship that I experience as transformative is something I glimpse. Now and again, something breathtaking happens and I live from it for as long as I can – maybe a song gives me words that say just what I want to say to God; maybe I recognise that the preacher lives the good news she is talking about; maybe I’m moved because that person’s voice cracks when he speaks of peace; someone trembles as they come for communion; tears come as we pray. And I’m glad I’m there, I’m open to change, and I’m seeking my own transformation. 

Then sometimes, as a pastor, I get to hear people’s sense of how worship has touched and changed them, and that feeds me deeply.

In another way, transformative worship is for me a matter of trust. Oftentimes I experience worship as humdrum. Then in the habits, discipline, and sometimes sheer hard perseverance to stick with it, I trust that being there is somehow helping me to make praise central in my life. That it is helping me to trust the way of Jesus, to grow in gratitude, to name what is wrong and move towards mercy, to pray and care for others, to receive God’s gifts, and to constantly connect in to all the resources we are given in the Gospel.

Ruth Duck: In the church where I have been a member for around 25 years, I am particularly helped by our pastor. She is able to correlate the scriptures of the day (generally related to the lectionary) with what is happening in the world. The honest naming is helpful as we live in the world, and she is able to speak in a way that is not partisan though very expressive of biblical values.


As leaders of Christian worship, what key elements of preparation and delivery do you believe make worship potentially transformative for others?

Stephen: I think the desire for a vital spiritual life, for intimacy with God, is the key—and a willingness to be unembarrassed about that. Not that worship is some sort of show in which a leader’s personal spirituality is put into the spotlight, whilst everyone else watches on. But I do think that without that basic yearning for God at the heart of life, the invitations that are entrusted to leaders of worship will never seem compelling.

Ruth: Those who lead worship should be grounded in a life of prayer and spiritual growth. Leaders also need to be in communication with one another so that the service is coherent. This involves giving love and care to the planning, but also being open to the Spirit at work in the moment.


Can Christian worship practices realistically seek to transcend cultural, racial, language, gendered, political and social differences?

Ruth: Some aspects of worship tend to transcend culture, in the sense that most churches baptise, celebrate communion, read scripture and preach the good news, as well as providing rituals for marriage and of death. However, the way we do all these things varies from church to church.

It is possible to develop particular worshipping communities that bring together people who differ in culture, race, language, and many other ways. A spirit of love and working together on making worship will help, but only if we are able to address prejudice, judgment, privilege and colonialism in their varied forms.

Stephen: I want to say ‘yes’ to this, but with a clear caveat. I want to say that God breathes the scriptures alive to us, and sacraments are God’s gift, God’s own self-giving to us. Other things – whether they are pianos, PowerPoint, pipe organs, pews, whatever – may or may not be helpful, but they don’t come with the promise of presence that comes with scripture and sacraments. Scripture and sacraments should be central to Christian worship. These gifts, I believe, are for all – and they level us. We are all equal recipients. But more than that: in these things, the promises of God are made personal for each of us: “Stephen, I baptise you…”

The caveat is that while we say that scripture, baptism and communion are from God and are somehow transcultural, nothing about style of worship directly follows from this statement. What kind of song is sung, what clothes are worn, what cultural norms are in play, whether we need PowerPoint or pipe organs – all of that is up for grabs. The style of worship needs to be worked out missionally in the local setting so that participants can recognise their own culture in it. And not just the participants who are already there – if others are going to participate, they will need to see their culture. In an outward-facing and reconciling community, difference needs to be built in. This is no easy thing to discern or sustain, but it is crucial for us as the church in contemporary Australia.


Is there such a thing as an artistic sensibility so far as worship preparation and delivery is concerned? If so, what is its relation to God?

Ruth: Every aspect of worship has an artistic dimension – how we move (or don’t move), the shape and symbols of our worship places, the use of words in preaching and liturgy, the rhythm and flow of a service, congregational song, and many other dimensions. Some sense a calling to the ministry of the pulpit, some to the ministry of music. Laity have gifts and callings within the church – their gifts and skills are part of effective worship.

Stephen: Yes! I want here to think about both gift and practice.

Worship should be an event to which people can bring their gifts, artistic and otherwise – music and song, graphic and decorative design, hospitality, a sense for movement and ritual, care, all sorts of things! – so that what happens is authentically the people’s. Worship of this kind makes something good out of the diverse gifts of the community.

In terms of art, worship is not a ‘colour by numbers’ exercise, locked into Uniting in Worship, Hillsong, or anything else, but needs to find a way to makes the best of the gifts of the worshippers.

At the same time, things can be practiced: learning by heart, muscle memory in leadership, and strenuous disciplines – like kindness to all or welcome to newcomers – make a world of difference between mediocre and marvellous communities of worship.

Courage is absolutely crucial, too. We need the courage to be unembarrassed about worship and about whole-heartedly praising, seeking and celebrating God’s presence.

That maybe bring us to the key idea: encounter. If we believe that worship is truly about encountering the living, loving God, it will show, the gifts will be shared freely, and the practice done willingly.


To register for the Transforming Worship conference or to find out more, please visit or contact Neryl McCallum on 0409 096 809 or

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