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The Sensate Pathway

This is Part 1 of a series on Sacred Pathways.  To read the introduction to this series, click here on “Finding your Worship Pathway.”


Gérard de Lairesse, “Allegory of the Five Senses”

All of us experience our environment primarily via our five senses.  Smell, touch, taste, sight, sound – these are our windows on the world.  But how does one use these concrete faculties as a way to see the Invisible, to hear the One who speaks in silence, to feel a Spirit who is in all spaces and places?

For some of us, they are very important means of encountering God, as the tangible reinforces the intangible, and the visible makes plain the beauty of the invisible.  The Sensate worshipper is moved by worship experiences that connect their bodily experience of this world to spiritual truth.

Where do we find this in Scripture?  Think of the Tabernacle worship, in which colors and materials served to convey the majesty of heaven, where a perfume of incense forbidden elsewhere evoked primal response to the presence of God. Think of Jeremiah dramatically smashing a pot as a sign of God’s judgment on Israel.  Think of Jesus washing his disciples’ feet, and how this deepened the impact of his words as he commanded them to serve one another.

This is one of my two preferred pathways, and I find that the strength of the Sensate experience falls in one of two categories I mentioned above:

  • The Tangible reinforcing the Intangible:  In this case, spiritual truths are demonstrated by means of metaphors that can be experienced physically.  These might be “object lessons,” as with Jeremiah’s pot, or they may be a physical reinforcement of a spiritual truth, as with Jesus’ washing the disciples’ feet.  Either way, the holistic integration of the two helps to intensify the experience emotionally and to plant it more firmly in the memory.
  • The Visible revealing the Beauty of the Invisible:  This is more of an aesthetic connection to God, often through music, painting, or a beautiful environment.  How many of us have found our souls longing to bellow along with a choir singing the “Hallelujah Chorus,” no matter our musical skills?  The connection between Truth and Beauty is mystical, but of no small import – especially for those with an artistic bent.

For those who prefer this pathway, these means of connecting with God in truth and beauty will be especially strong.  I can still remember an object lesson my mother taught in Sunday School when I was about seven years old.  She had two little packages, one wrapped in brown paper and tied with string, and one beautifully wrapped in blue paper with blue and silver ribbon.  I thought I had never seen such a gorgeous gift, and fervently hoped I might win the prize.  She talked, however, about how sometimes we have to make choices in which sin looks very attractive, while the right thing to do… not so much.  When two children came to open the packages, the brown paper one contained something good, like cookies.  But the beautiful blue present I had so coveted turned out to hold garbage taken from our kitchen bin: potato peelings and old cat food cans.  I can still smell the stink of the rotten cat food, and God has brought this sensory memory back to me at some times of temptation – even as an adult.

Sensate means can deliberately be used to enhance personal worship, to cement teaching, and to create memorable experiences for groups of people.  Several times a year, I design worship stations to help people encounter God’s truth in sensate ways.  (I will write more about how I do this on this blog, and publish ideas that you can use!) But here are some basic ways to think about how the senses can be used in worship:

  • Sound:  Music moves us in ways mere words do not.  Music can also be used on its own to create an atmosphere for worship, but wedded with poignant words it is especially powerful.
  • Smell:  Scent cements memories, as one of our most primal senses.  (Think of how that cat food smell affected me…) I like to incorporate smell into my storytelling where appropriate.  I once told the story of Jesus preparing breakfast for the disciples in John 21 while cooking fish on a little hotplate. The smell of fish became the smell of invitation to fellowship with Jesus.
  • Touch:  Here is something Gary Thomas said in his book Sacred Pathways that really helped me and transformed how I pray:

A frequent complaint I hear from Christians is that they find it hard to stay awake and/or focused during prayer, especially in the early morning. These Christians might find prayer easier if they assembled small objects to hold in their hands as they prayed for various people. A paper clip could help them focus on a marriage that is falling apart; a rubber band could help them pray for a pliable heart.

  • Sight:  I come from a strong Reformed tradition that is nervous about the use of art and especially iconography in worship.  I strongly agree that these aids to worship should not become idols, objects endowed with magical properties.  But the use of symbolic objects to represent spiritual truth (see my own explanation of THÉology) or of art to evoke a heart response is both Biblical and valuable in an integrated life.
  • Taste:  Ancient rabbis used to write the first words of Scripture that a child would learn on a slate, along with a little honey for the child to lick off.  Thus the child would associate the words of the Torah with sweetness, as it says in Psalm 119:102: How sweet are your words to my taste, sweeter than honey to my mouth!  This is just one example of how taste can be used to strengthen a connection with God and his Word…

For some, all this seems frivolous or too touchy-feely.  For others, bad experiences with certain backgrounds may block this pathway to worship, even making it appear non-Biblical.  But we should all remember that in Scripture Christ himself instituted a very sensate means to grace when he said to his disciples, “This is my body… This is my blood… Do this in remembrance of Me.”

Categories: Creative Worship Personal Discovery

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9 replies

  1. Lovely. Shannon does Gary Thomas’ book also include anything on bringing up children this way? I have come across Godly play, but that is just one example and I would love to read more about how I could help our son develop practices, and how we might incorporate these into children’s ministry in our church.

    1. Lauri, you have caught me out – I am really just a big kid! I don’t remember anything on this relating specifically to children in Gary Thomas’ book. (He does address children specifically in the Enthusiast Pathway.) But you are right – Godly Play is a fantastic program that incorporates much that is sensate, since that is how children in the concrete stage think about their world. A friend of mine, Sheila Wittenberg in Germany, is a Godly Play instructor and has a great blog about it called “Explore and Express”. You might want to check it out!

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