Worship! With all the senses!

Don’t overlook the value of taste and touch in connecting with God

Our senses are something we often take for granted. We don’t often pause to contemplate the way in which the senses inform us about the world around us.

For many of us, the enjoyment of morning coffee begins even before the first taste, with the first wafts of the fragrant aroma that reach us from our kitchen coffee machines or our favourite cafes.

In our fast-paced, digital world … we forget literally and figuratively to “smell the flowers.”

In the winter chill, we enjoy the soft feel of warm blankets and fleece-lined socks or the comfort of a purring furball on our lap.

I love watching babies as they enjoy their first solid food revelling in the experience of eating, not only for the flavours but for the tactile experience of the food as it is smeared, thrown and smooshed across every possible surface.

The senses, though vital for our comprehension of the world around us, are often overlooked and under-appreciated in our fast-paced, digital world. Often, we forget literally and figuratively to “smell the flowers.”

The senses and sensory experience can very easily get overlooked in the church as well. Sensory experience is considered to be part of temporal, bodily experience of the here and now that can distract us from focusing on more important spiritual things. This was certainly the case in the medieval period where the senses were perceived as dangerous because they could lead us into temptation.

And yet the interesting thing is that the Bible is full of sensory language. The Psalms, in particular, use sensory language in a range of different ways. The psalmist often calls on God’s people to use their sensory experiences of the world as a prompt to worship God.

Psalm 148 lists a range of elements from God’s creation – the heavens, the sun and moon, the mountains, the oceans, the birds and animals. In response to seeing God’s incredible magnitude on display in his creation, the psalmist calls on God’s people to praise the Lord who is superior to his creation.

Other Psalms, responses to God are described in a sensory way, encouraging others to do likewise. In Psalm 34:8, the psalmist declares “taste and see that the Lord is good.” While the language is clearly metaphorical, the reality of what is being said is that, in our lives, we experience the goodness of God in a tangible and concrete way, just as we use our senses to experience other real and tangible things. For this reason, the psalmist meditates on how the words of God’s law are “sweet to my taste, sweeter than honey to my mouth.”

There is a lot of scientific evidence to show an important link between sensory experience and memory.

For me personally, I have been particularly fascinated with the sensory language used in the Gospel of John. The writer, John, describes the Christian faith in sensory and embodied ways. His presentation of Jesus is all about the way God stepped into human history in a tactile and sensory way, taking on the form of human beings. Jesus lived a human life, experiencing the full spectrum of human emotion and experience – he ate, he slept, he grew, he celebrated, he mourned, he rejoiced.

The Gospel of John vividly describes Jesus in terms of sensory experience. Jesus’ relationship with the Father is described in sensory language. Jesus sees and hears the Father and copies what he sees his Father doing (John 5:19; 12:49). And John’s language also draws the reader or hearer into the sensory world of the first century that the gospels arise from.

John shows Martha’s worry about Jesus opening the grave of her dead brother Lazarus, because of the stench of his body (John 11:39). The miracle of turning water into wine is only confirmed through the experience of the wine being tasted by the chief steward (John. 2:9). And while the anointing of Jesus at Bethany is described in all four gospels, it is only John who describes the powerful fragrance of the anointing oil (John. 12:3).

In his first letter, found later in the New Testament, John calls upon his own sensory experience of Jesus as the proof and basis of his faith. His message of Jesus can be trusted, he says, because of his own sensory experience:

“That which was from the beginning, which we have heard, which we have seen with our eyes, which we have looked at and our hands have touched – this we proclaim concerning the word of life. The life appeared; we have seen it and testify to it, and we proclaim to you the eternal life, which was with the Father and has appeared to us. We proclaim to you what we have seen and heard, so that you also may have fellowship with us.” (1 John. 1:1-3).

Despite the Bible’s richness in sensory language, we often don’t give consideration to the way sensory experience might enhance our experience of worship in our personal or church settings. If anything, we can be sceptical about sensory experience, considering it inferior to more traditional intellectual ways of doing worship. And yet, we might ask why God chooses to reveal himself to us in his word through such evocative sensory language, if the senses are not important or mere distractions to ‘real’ worship.

In what ways can our senses in public or private worship help us to meditate on God’s word in new ways?

We often use tactile and sensory activities in our kids’ church programmes to help engage the senses because there is a lot of scientific evidence to show an important link between sensory experience and memory. Think, for example, of how the senses are closely linked to some of your most vivid memories – the smell of your mother’s perfume, the sounds of a favourite childhood song. And yet we overlook how valuable this link between memory, comprehension and the senses can be for us as adults.

In what ways can our senses in public or private worship help us to meditate on God’s word in new ways? How can we use our senses to aid our memory of God’s word? When I encourage kids’ church leaders to think about tactile and sensory activities in church for children, I suggest they bring children into the sensory world of the Scriptures by considering questions such as: What did the hot sand feel like under Jesus’ feet as he wandered in the desert? What did the fish and loaves smell like at the feeding of the 5000?

Perhaps these tactile experiences might also be helpful for adults. If there are particular items mentioned in a passage of Scripture, can we incorporate those into the congregational experience – pass around a jar of mustard seeds, share in freshly baked bread, make something out of clay? There are some more great tactile ideas here.

Many churches use features such as a prayer station experience where church members can move from one station to another to pray in particular ways at each station – a prayer of confession at one station; a prayer of praise at another – incorporating this with drawing or sticking confessions onto a cross. Some further suggestions for prayer stations can be found here.

At my own church (MBM Rooty Hill, Sydney), kids’ talks are part of our Sunday services. These are always visual and often interactive, with kids as well as adults participating by offering verbal responses to particular parts of a story. The repetition and participation, while undoubtedly helpful for our children, are just as valuable for everyone else in our services.

All of our kids’ leaders who present upfront are learning some basic Auslan signs (Australian Sign Language) to use when they present their kids’ talks. This visual language serves to reinforce particular elements of the story and aids with memory, but also helps show our whole church community that this is an important language that is used by some of our church members.

In what ways can we use tactile and sensory worship to further our memory and understanding of God’s word and make the most of the sensory abilities God has endowed us with? In what ways can we use our sensory experience to bring others into an understanding and experience of God for themselves also?

Paul challenges us in 2 Corinthians 2:14: “But thanks be to God, who in Christ always leads us in triumphal procession, and through us spreads the fragrance of the knowledge of him everywhere.”

Louise Gosbell is a lecturer at Mary Andrews College in Sydney. Her PhD thesis (with Mohr Siebeck), titled “The Poor, the Crippled, the Blind and the Lame: Physical and Sensory Disability in the Gospels of the New Testament”, was published in August 2018.