Photos by Milan Loiacono
Leaping into the air with eyes closed, a woman dances alone in the dark.
In the chapel, a professor kneels at a pew, words whispered under her breath.
A student leans over a phone, scrolling through a beloved celebrity’s latest posts.
Inspired by injustice, an advocate sparks conversation with his peers about LGBTQ+ rights.
While these actions differ widely from one another, each could be categorized as worship – a term people use often without a clear definition.
However, in a community comprised of countless religions and denominations, a “one size fits all” interpretation of worship is no easy task. A Currents poll of 141 students found that while 58 percent worship primarily through music, students also listed prayer, Scripture, community, nature, dancing, art and social justice.
Religion Professor David Lemley studies and teaches Christian worship. In his teaching, he defines worship as “participation in God’s self-communication,” an academic interpretation that is also meaningful to him in a personal way.
“It kind of recognizes that worship is something that is our response to God’s initiative and that worship is also something that is relational,” Lemley said. “God becomes available and present and invites people into relationship with Him and the response that people have to that is worship.”
Lemley said this definition is difficult to expand to encompass all faiths because in some religions, there is less of an emphasis on individual relationships with a deity.
Religion Professor Dyron Daughrity, who studies and teaches world religions, expanded his definition to apply to all faiths.
“Worship is an expression of awe or gratitude or commitment to the realm of the divine and it is inherently connected to sacrifice,” Daughrity said.
The ways humans worship are countless because human expression has manifold forms, Daughrity said. He cited how Eastern Orthodox Christians worship through icons, Hindus typically worship through puja and Daoists burn incense.
Philosophy Professor Tomás Bogardus broadened the definition beyond religious worship.
“Worship is the intense devotion and admiration of someone or something manifested in some sort of sacrifice of time, talent or wealth in a way that the object of your devotion would appreciate,” Bogardus said.
Adapting this definition to a Christian perspective, Bogardus said the target would be God. One could worship an individual, an object or even oneself, giving the amount of time and attention a Christian gives to God.
This means worship can also be associated with the secular world.
Sophomore Cristina Kostin said she defines herself as spiritual but secular. She defines worship as putting aside time to communicate appreciation of something or someone. She sees everyone as part of God, each person made of the same stardust and connected to the universe.
Kostin worships through nature walks, meditation and yoga. Another part of her worship is seeing others’ happiness.
“I think what binds us is our humanity,” Kostin said. “In this world, we’re so obsessed with perfection, but what we forget is that everyone struggles. Life isn’t wonderful all the time but if we learn to be grateful for what we do have, then what we don’t have doesn’t matter anymore.”
While Kostin isn’t Christian, she incorporates Christian aspects into her worship that’s directed toward the universe as a whole. She sometimes calls on angels or talks to Jesus, whom she views as a teacher.
“I believe God lives within us, not above us, that we are all part of God and God is love,” Kostin said. “I believe we are all one conscious universe, one system and life is one moment in time.”
For sophomore Christian Abad, a Roman Catholic, worship was a religious ritual that he was expected to take part in. As he grew older, it is now something he turns to for stress relief and support.
“As time progressed, I started to feel that worshipping was a way of life, a way for you to feel accountable, a way for you to feel relaxed, a way for you to just feel better about yourself and knowing that if there’s no one else that has your back, it’s God,” Abad said.
For University Chaplain Sara Barton, worship is participating in a greater celebration of God.
“Worship means acknowledging worth or ascribing worth, giving worth to,” Barton said. “So in that way, I think it’s just simple – giving worth and glory to God. But for Christians in particular, I think that we, at least as you read in Scripture, we claim to join in with the worship of all creation, that all of creation is worshipping God.”
Barton mentioned Christian theologian N. T. Wright, who discusses how one becomes what one worships. In worshipping God, Barton said she feels more human.
“If you worship money, then you become like a human bank,” Barton said. “If you worship power, then you wield power ruthlessly because you want it for yourself. But when we worship God, we become more human because we become more of who we were created to be.”
Worship, an act of one or many
From church services to private prayer, acts of worship can involve one person or thousands of people.
“I think that worship can be individual and even as an individual, I worship, at times, alone,” Barton said. “I think it’s clear that Christianity is something that’s done in community, that in the ideal, one who is a Christian is doing something that people do together. So our worship is personal. It’s also bigger than that. It’s bigger than the individual and the person.”
This Christian focus on community dates back to the early Christians whose roots were in the familial Jewish faith, Lemley said. Before Christianity, the routine of rituals and prayers was ever-present in their lives. With the birth of Christianity, these early Christians integrated this emphasis on community into the burgeoning faith.
“Worship became centrally about believing that when they gathered as Christians around a table like Jesus and his disciples, that Jesus was present in that,” Lemley said. “It became a place where they defined their central idea about community and their identities in the world were changed by that event.”
Daughrity emphasized the importance of true corporate worship in world religions, where group members know each other deeply through the community. In a more authentic definition of corporate worship, Daughrity said members of a faith share goals, worldviews and even family connections.
Without this element of community, it is not truly group worship.
“It’s private worship; they just happen to be in a room full of people,” Daughrity said.
A balance between personal and community worship is important in one’s spiritual life, Philosophy Professor Garrett Pendergraft said. An overemphasis on either corporate or individual worship means one is missing out on the important parts of the other.
Alison Barragan, a senior and nondenominational Christian, said she feels most connected to God when she worships alone, although she does participate in corporate worship.
“Every time I’m in a place of worship, I’m reminded of the truth of who I am and who God is,” Barragan said. “I think that centers everything for me. There’s no way to not receive the truth when you are in worship.”
Mediums of Worship
Whether one worships alone or with others, there are several ways one can express emotion. Judging from the variety of worship opportunities on campus, such as the sermon-based Wednesday Morning Chapel and Campus Recreation’s God in the Wilderness program, students have several outlets to choose from.
“I think the numbers of ways we can worship is up to our imagination,” Barton said. “I think we sometimes limit ourselves by thinking that worship is much smaller than the things we can [do]. I think that we’ve made it too small. I love it when – especially working with young people – when they come up with new things.”
Oftentimes, people use the word worship to describe Christian music, leading to a strong correlation between the two. While music is important, worship should include carrying the messages of these songs through daily life, Barton said.
“[Worship] just can’t be strictly defined by – or it shouldn’t be strictly defined by – singing or making music,” Barton said. “There is so much more to worship than that. I think the one thing I remember is that if worship is only singing, then that song has to go outside the walls of the church too.”
Barragan said she sees worship as a broader term that individuals narrow down for themselves. She enjoys worshipping through silent prayer in solitude.
“For me, [worship is] any way that people can feel a greater sense of adoration through whichever way that looks like,” Barragan said. “People find worship through nature and through silence, through reading the word. There’s so many different ways people can worship, so I think it’s the most open-ended thing.”
Others, like Lemley, have a more fixed perspective.
“As a Christian theologian who teaches about worship, I’ve got to ground my definition in how God has been revealed, especially in Scripture and most especially in Jesus,” Lemley said. “I can’t just say because somebody said it was worship, it is. I’ve really got to measure it by what I consider so foundational, which is, ‘Is this bringing me into a deeper dialogue and relationship with God revealed in Christ?’”
While the term worship is typically associated with the religious sphere, the act of devotion is still a part of the nonreligious individual’s life, Bogardus said.
“In that more generic sense of worship where it’s just intense devotion and admiration of someone or something manifested through the sacrifice of time, talents or wealth in a way that the person or thing would appreciate – probably everybody does that, if only with themselves,” Bogardus said.
Sophomore Loreley Estrada identifies as a nondenominational Christian, defining worship as being thankful for God’s presence and demonstrating this gratitude. While she said she chooses to worship God through song, meditation and breath prayer, Estrada said others can worship in a nonreligious context.
“A lot of us, we worship success,” Estrada said. “We worship and admire political figures. We worship social media because it has such a high place in our life because we give it a lot of time.”
Lemley remarked on how the concept of worship plays an active part in an individual’s life, religious or nonreligious.
“You could use worship to describe any sort of, you know, act of sort of putting yourself in submission or surrender or bringing your full attention to anything that you love,” Lemley said. “What we worship is what we love and in relationship to that, what we love is what we worship, and how we worship is what we become.”
Worship for college students
The Currents poll found that students used worship to draw closer to God but also to find peace, joy, renewal, gratitude, purpose, fulfillment, stillness, clarity or a sense of belonging.
Barton said she noticed students explore more worship forms as they go through college.
“Students grow and mature and change and they seem to want to connect with God with even more ways than perhaps they knew about when they first came in,” Barton said.
Barragan mentioned her own exposure to different worship settings at Pepperdine.
“Coming into Pepperdine, experiencing that in a more corporate setting, was kind of more of an interesting transition for me because I was like, ‘Whoa, this is something so intimate for me and now I’m doing it with like a bunch of people,’” Barragan said.
The broadening of worship outlets in college brings difficulties, such as balancing co-curriculars and finding transportation to services, Pendergraft said.
“Worship looks the same because the fundamental, the essence of worship, is the same sort of activity directed toward God,” Pendergraft said. “But there are different obstacles to it for college students. Every stage of life involves a different experience of what it’s like to worship and so that changes how worship is experienced. Fundamentally, it’s the same activity, it’s just in a different context.”
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