How does worship work?

How exactly does liturgical formation shape us?

What are the dynamics of such transformation?

Earlier this year, I read James K. A. Smith’s new book, Imagining the Kingdom: How Worship Works, the follow-up to his well-received and highly discussed Desiring the Kingdom. Smith claims that worship “works” by leveraging our bodies to transform our imagination, and it does this through stories we understand on a register that is closer to body than mind.

Jamie is joining me today to discuss this emphasis on the imagination and its implications for how we think about Christian formation.

Trevin Wax: Imagining the Kingdom begins with the story of Andrew and his daughter Elizabeth, both in a worship service, but having rather different experiences. As a kid, Elizabeth can hardly wait for it to end. But as an adult, Andrew sees the end of worship is a sending.

If we are to understand “how worship works” (as your subtitle says), why is it important to keep the “end” of worship always in mind?

James K. A. Smith: I think it’s crucial that we see and remember the link between worship and mission.

The sanctuary is not a silo that offers escape from “the real world.” Historically, Christian worship doesn’t just end with a dismissal (“That’s all folks! See you next week!”); rather, worship culminates in a benediction that is both a blessing and a charge, sending us out into God’s world as His image bearers.

The end of Christian worship is a weekly echo of Genesis 1. So the “end” of worship is a sending. We are gathered before God’s Word and Table in order to be nourished to carry out the mission of being human.

In the Cultural Liturgies project, I’m arguing that the church needs to be intentional about the shape of our worship if worship is going to shape us to be God’s image bearers in our daily work.

Trevin Wax: You write about the connection between longing and action. Our actions are often determined by our longings, and our desires are formed unconsciously through our actions and habits. How does this connection impact the way we view worship?

James K. A. Smith: It impacts how we should view discipleship, and I think we need to remember that the hub and center of Christian discipleship is worship.

The point is this: a lot of Christians (including pastors and Christian leaders) have implicitly and unwittingly bought into a view of action and behavior that overestimates thinking. This is even true in sectors of evangelicalism that are suspicious of education and intellectual life.

We overestimate thinking when we assume that our action and behavior are the outcomes of discrete decisions we make on the basis of what we know. When we assume that, then we construe discipleship as primarily information dissemination – as if holiness were a matter of just acquiring the knowledge I need to follow Christ as I ought.

But on a gut level, we all know this doesn’t work. My failures to follow Christ in holiness do not stem from a lack of information or knowledge. I know very well what He calls me to. I don’t do it because of bad habits that I’ve acquired. And the fact is, you can’t think yourself out of bad habits. You undo bad habits through “rehabituation” -through practices that inscribe new habits in our gut, as it were.

I think most contemporary evangelical understandings of discipleship have no place to appreciate the power of habit (except perhaps negatively). But that is a very odd scenario since Christians across the ages have long understood habit formation to be at the center of spiritual formation and discipleship. In Imagining the Kingdom, I try to explain how and why this is the case.

Trevin Wax: You believe that our identities, our desires, our loves, our longings operate more on the imagination than the intellect. Why is it important for church leaders to take note of the importance of imagination as we seek to teach/disciple others?

James K. A. Smith: The “imagination” is the term I use to try to name this preconscious, gut-level, tacit orientation we carry to the world, an “understanding” of the world that is carried in our unconscious habits. It’s not that knowledge and ideas and beliefs aren’t important, it’s just that there are also more fundamental ways that we “make sense” of our world that can’t be articulated in propositions.

The imagination is a kind of “know-how” that you carry in your bones. And if we don’t attend to that as Christians, if we don’t recognize the power of the imagination in orienting our lives, then our imaginations are going to be unwittingly captured by secular liturgies while our churches and discipleship strategies focus on “the head.”

Trevin Wax: You speak of the power of a liturgy in terms of what is caught, not just explicitly taught. How does this truth influence the way we conceive of worship services?

James K. A. Smith: A core claim and outcome of Imagining the Kingdom is to help evangelicals see that we have bought into a reductionistic view of worship. When we say “worship,” many of us just think “music” or “singing,” which is already a reduction of historic understandings of worship that comprise the entire service.

But more generally, we have also largely reduced worship to “expression.” We have focused only on the “upward” movement of worship as our sacrifice of praise, which is probably why the grammar of so many contemporary worship choruses actually sing about us (“Here I am to worship…”).

Now clearly our expression of praise to God is part of worship, but it is not the whole of worship. In fact, the primary actor or agent in Christian worship is not us but God.

So historically, worship has been seen as not only expressive, but also formative. When the people of God are gathered by God around his Word and seated at his Table, that sanctuary is the space where God is molding and (re)making us. In that sense, worship is training, is formation.

As I argue in the final chapter of the book, if worship is going to be formative, that means we need to think carefully and intentionally about the form of worship. Not the “style” (this isn’t about pipe organs vs. mandolins), but the narrative form of the Story that is enacted in our communal worship.

Trevin Wax: How would you respond to the person who says the forms of worship are interchangeable, but the message must always remain constant? While admitting there is flexibility in forms from culture to culture, I think you’d want to push against the idea that the forms don’t matter.

James K. A. Smith: Absolutely. I think we buy into a form/content distinction precisely because we’ve reduced the Gospel to a “message.” So then we think we can just distill that “message” (the content) and then drop it into any “form” we want.

But as I argue in the book, forms are not neutral. Indeed, that was one of the core arguments of the first volume, Desiring the Kingdom: cultural practices that we might think are “neutral” – just something that we do – are actually doing something to us. They are formative. But what they form is our heart-habits, our loves and longings that, as we’ve already mentioned, actually drive our action and behavior.

So you can’t just go pick some “popular” cultural form and insert the Gospel “message” and think you have thereby come up with “relevant” worship. Because it’s more likely that you’ve just imported a secular liturgy into Christian worship. Sure, you might have changed the content, but the very form of the practice is training us to love some other vision of the good life. This is why I think a lot of innovation in worship, while well-intentioned, actually ends up welcoming Trojan horses into the sanctuary.

The response is not to come up with “the next best thing” in worship. It is to find new appreciation for historic Christian wisdom about the form of worship for the sake of discipleship. That’s the core argument of Imagining the Kingdom.

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17 thoughts on “Why the Form of Worship Matters: A Conversation with James K. A. Smith”

  1. I just started this book yesterday. His 1st rocked me like a hurricane and I’m liking the 2nd so far.

    This is a great little interview, Thanks Trevin!

  2. Dave Moore says:

    Hi Trevin,

    I spent a fair bit of time reading, pondering, and taking notes on Desiring the Kingdom and plan to read this one as well. DTK is well-written, insightful, and it made me think harder about some important matters.

    One fundamental issue kept nagging me throughout the book, namely the claim that worship precedes thinking/doctrine/beliefs. There is no doubt we love things many times before we can properly explain them, but I do not find the clean progression of moving from worship to thinking about our beliefs the right alternative. It seems there is a more dynamic interplay rather than the clean progression Smith argues for.

    I am curious as to your own take…


    1. Trevin Wax says:


      I think the dynamic interplay you’re going for is exactly what Jamie is advocating. Especially in this newer volume, he goes to great lengths to show that he is NOT saying worship precedes knowledge in a clear linear fashion. The dynamism is what he thinks has been missing in evangelical circles that have emphasized the line from thought to action.

      I think this second volume is more careful than the first in making that point.

  3. Dave Moore says:

    Thanks Trevin. I am glad to hear of this and will look forward to reading Imagining the Kingdom with that in mind. Smith’s project is critical, but I did find the rather sweeping and therefore simplistic comments in Desiring the Kingdom an impediment to his overall thesis.

  4. Trevin,
    Thank you for calling attention to Imagining the Kingdom. I read the previous book and look forward to getting my hands on this one. Robert Webber drew distinctions of substance, form, and style in worship. All three having importance, style being the least. Utilitarian attitudes among leaders in a culture of consumerism have prompted the very adaptations indicated by Smith. I sure look forward to getting the book and perhaps finding ways to more clearly appeal for the high value of historic forms of worship.

  5. John Ferguson says:


    Thanks for the interview.

    Contra one statement in the interview, I don’t think in response to the call to worship that it is wrong to say, “Here I am to Worship,” as if we are tooting our own horn. Especially when the song speaks of celebrating the worth of God and the wonder of the Cross.

    The psalms are full of this first-person movement towards God, “I will sing…I will give thanks…I will render thanks.” Nevertheless, the author’s point is well taken: worship should end with God’s blessing to send us out on his mission.

    I look forward to reading the book.

    Good interview. Keep ‘em coming.

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Trevin Wax

​Trevin Wax is Bible and Reference Publisher at LifeWay Christian Resources and managing editor of The Gospel Project. You can follow him on Twitter or receive blog posts via email. Click here for Trevin’s full bio.

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