A problem or two with worship...

So, what is worship? What is it about gathering together in prayer and song and sermon that ignites the spirit and soothes the soul? Worship is the ritual of liturgy and history and tradition and experience all rolled into the present moment looking towards a future time. However, worship sometimes becomes nothing more than flattering or sucking up to God, and it is then my brothers and sisters that trouble begins.

Last Sunday I found a place where worship did not feel anything like worship to me; but before we get to some thoughts about that particular service, let me comment on a couple things.

Proportionally there was a greater number of people my age or younger at this service than in any other one I have experienced. Something must be working for them. Second, the pastor seemed very pastoral. She knew the names and children and stories of the members of her congregation. My guess is that she is a wonderful minister who serves joyfully and faithfully.

I am proud and happy to know that the congregation is cared for by the minister. I am ashamed of the education and discernment of the congregation concerning liturgy and worship.

First things first, I am a traditionalist when it comes to liturgy. I believe there is an order to worship and that each part and movement should be designed to allow people the freedom to find God in the moment. I believe that hymns should be sung, prayers prayed, scripture read, sermons preached, and sacraments performed. I believe worship, as Calvin would say, should be decent and in order.

I also believe that all worship is contemporary. The lines drawn today are arbitrary and obnoxious. Just because you have a guitar and a drum set down front doesn’t mean that your worship is more contemporary than one that sings hymns from a hymnal and plays an organ. If the worship doesn’t feel real, then it isn’t worship; it is a trip down memory lane or some glorified form of God flattery. Music is not worship, but a component of worship that enables people to feel the presence of God through other means than scripture and prayer. Worship is the experience not the pieces assembled to provide the experience.

I like alternative instruments in worship; I like liturgical dance, responsive prayers, and mixing things up. However, ritual and liturgy should be familiar to a congregation. The order of worship should be comfortable, but not restrictive. In the PC(USA) this is established in five parts (with scripture playing a central role in each part): gathering, proclaiming, responding, enacting, and bearing. If you want to know more about this mention something in the comments and I will write a little more.

Let’s return to our service last Sunday. First, the worship leader wrote a welcoming/statement of faith for the congregation to read. The Presbyterian Church is a creedal church and it is proud of its rich history in stating what it believes through creeds and confessions. I guess the Apostles’ or Nicene Creed wasn’t good enough, nor the more recent Brief Statement of Faith. If I wanted to hear someone’s personal testimony about God, I would gather around a campfire, sing kumbayah, and wait for the Spirit to move. This is corporate worship and the worship leader forgot the most important thing, namely that it is not about him.

Second, when it came time to sing hymns, these were noted in the bulletin as “opening worship, worship, and closing worship.” Music, in and of itself, is not worship when it is merely a part of the service. What about scripture readings, the baptism, the sermon, and the prayers, are they not worship as well? What is it about people of my generation and the theologically abhorrent music they pass off as “praise hymns?” I can get a better dose of music, lyrics and theology from Linkin Park, John Lennon, Wilco, Dave Matthews Band, and Ben Folds Five. At least they are honest about their experience of life and the struggles that ensue rather than the sugar-coated rotten theology of today’s contemporary worship music.

There are good modern hymn writers who are theologically sound and musically creative. Take the time to find them rather than buying the TIME-LIFE Worship songs of the millennium collection, learning a couple of chords and then trotting them out as real hymns. Additionally, music should complement the scripture of the day, and not detract or become an entirely separate thing from the rest of worship. We are talking about building an experience, not doing the latest and greatest thing.

Third, I bear no ill will against praise bands, but leave the lead singers at home. The pair that led the music basically drowned out any sound the congregation made, and these times of “worship” became the Biff and Buffy show. The intention of hymns in worship is a creative way of encountering God through musical prayer. This is not about singing well or being the loudest or being in front of the crowd. That is what Karaoke is for on Saturday night.

My worship professor put it this way, the entertainment of the congregation is not the purpose of worship, in fact the congregation isn’t even the audience in worship; the congregation is the performer and the audience is God. The pastor is just there to help facilitate the experience through the liturgy of the day. If you want to be entertained go to a movie. If you want to entertain then be a comedian. If you want to help facilitate the growth of the body of Christ through liturgy and preaching so that they might find themselves drawing nearer to the Divine through communal worship then be a minister.

Fourth, longer does not mean better. Just because you plan worship for an hour and fifteen minutes doesn’t mean you have to use it all. The sermon preached that Sunday could have been tightened up to about five minutes from the rambling forty that it lasted. Sometimes, simpler is better and there is no need to carry on just filling time.

My sense is that this has more to do with the expectations of the congregation rather than the needs of the preacher (though sometimes that is assumption is wrong). I hear all the time that preaching is supposed to be engaging, funny, hopeful, inspiring and generally agreeable. Scripture is rarely any of those things. At times, it is tedious, sorrowful, challenging, uncomfortable, with glimmers of hope thrown in just to keep us reading. The sole responsibility of the preacher is to encounter, engage, and wrestle with the text. My personal way of handling the time is to preach until I am done. Sometimes this lasts fifteen minutes, sometimes it lasts twenty-five. When the text is done with me, then I can say no more.

Fifth, I understand the need for spontaneity in prayer. However, if you are planning on leading one for the people, do me a favor and practice. I am tired of the “Jesus weejus” and “Lord Ijus” type prayers. You know what I am talking about. Whenever people find themselves at a loss for words or just want to start a new part of the prayer they say “Jesus weejus thank you for everything” or “Lord, Ijus wanna thank you Father God for the beautiful day…” These statements are the equivalent of “ummm… and uhhh” in secular speeches. They serve little purpose other than to fill gaps where thoughts have escaped. If this happens to you, say nothing. Silence is often more poignant than anything we can usually come up with anyway.

Finally, take down the projector screen and put the cross back on the wall. Don’t be afraid of the organ or guitar or drums or flute or trumpet, they are all beautiful instruments. Mostly, remember that worship is not about you, it is not about me (whether I am leading or part of the congregation). Worship is about an encounter with the Holy that transcends the individual parts of the liturgy. It is about drawing nearer to the presence of God in a community bound together by prayer and laughter and love and hope and struggles. No one person is greater than any other when we enter a sanctuary. Some facilitate, some follow but all of us have the responsibility to perform for God and then take what we learn into the world around us…

grace and peace


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