Christian worship can be a vague and nebulous experience. Worship planners and leaders undertake the Herculean task of facilitating worship that works for people who need concrete experience to be engaged, people who need mystery to feel connected, people who need emotion to feel included, people who need things to make sense and words to be carefully chosen to participate.
Worship wars over style, content, music, leadership erupt all over the place. If you spend any amount of time close to the worship planning systems of a congregation, you will know that it is one of the most volatile, sensitive, political, emotional parts of being a church. Everyone has a opinion and preference when it comes to worship. Christians fight over music, style, liturgy, non-liturgy, sacraments, preaching, musicians, leadership, prayers, planning or anything else imaginable when it comes to worship.
And in my experience most people making their way to church on Sunday mornings, and especially those involved in planning and leading, miss the point of what makes good worship. We get so taken up by personal preference and opinion that we forget why we are worshipping in the first place.
And if anyone says, “Worship is to glorify God” that is code language for “My preferences and opinions are next to divine”. God is not so narcissistic that our worship needs to be constant praise and adoration of the divine. Worship is so much deeper than that. Worship is a much more tangled mess of interaction between human beings and God.
So what makes for good worship?
Indulge me for a moment:
Imagine yourself caught up in a big crowd, jostling, movie along, being pulled to an unknown and unseen destitution. It is a hot summer day, yet people are relaxed and easy going. Simmering underneath is a sense of excitement among this big, big crowd. Finally, you stop moving and there are people as far as you can see in all directions.
The event you have been waiting for all afternoon finally begins. And you hear a voice projected over loud-speakers across the wide-open outdoor space. And unexpectedly the voice is not really that exciting to listen to “I am happy to join with you today…”. The voice continues, but all you can feel is the glare of the sun, bodies breathing, sweating, moving, twitching, coughing all around you. It is hot and bright and uncomfortable. You are not engaged with what you have come to be engaged with.
And then you hear this, “I have a dream that one day on the red hills of Georgia…” and suddenly you no longer standing in the hot, sweaty crowd a the Lincoln Memorial, but you are on the red hills of Georgia. And then you are in the sweltering humid heat of Mississippi. And then you are in Alabama, surrounded by little children, of all skin tones and races, playing together.
Most people don’t know this, but the first 3 and half pages of the I have a Dream speech were… well… not as memorable as the last 2 pages. It wasn’t until Martin Luther King Jr. left his script and preached a sermon he knew well that the crowd actually was taken up by his words.
The speech was a defining moment for the civil rights movement. But the transition in the speech from delivering an address to preaching a sermon is an example of two aspects of Christian worship.
Two sides of the same coin that pastors, worship planners and leaders struggle to achieve, and find hard to grasp. The first part of the speech shows worship just “not really working” and the second part is worship at its best.
Think back to my description of the ‘I have a dream’ speech. Or imagine reading your favourite book, or seeing a great movie, or going for a great run/walk, or listening to fantastic music. All of these things make you forget you are doing them, while are you doing them. You get lost in the content, lost in the world that they create. You forget you are watching actors on a screen, forget you are reading an author’s words on a page, forget you are out putting one foot in front of the other for exercise, forget that musicians are making sounds with instruments. You start watching stories and characters and worlds come to life, sound and movement transport you to a place different than the one you are in.
Worship at its best makes us forget we are watching a pastor leading liturgy, or hearing an organist hits keys on an organ, or hear a member read words from a book. We are transported into the ever flowing worship of the saints. We are taken into the story of God’s people and we become characters who have a role, not audiences watching actors.
And how do you know you are there? Only when you are rudely jolted back to reality. It is that loud cougher that reminds you that you are in the theatre. It is eye strain that reminds you that you are reading a book. It is fatigue that reminds you that you are out for exercise. It is a wrong note or cramped leg that reminds you that you are watching an orchestra in a concert hall.
It is so hard to know what about worship will pull us out of our grounded self awareness and into that new world. But it is easy to identify the things that pull us back to reality. The running commentary by the pastor between prayers and hymns. Interrupted flow by the worship leader getting lost. The organist missing a cue or starting some liturgical music part way through a prayer. The band leader deciding to give a short mini-sermon after the sermon to fix what the pastor said. A children’s message gone horribly wrong. A reader who misreads ‘sexual immorality’ for ‘sexual immortality’.
Now this is the part where I tell you that I don’t have any answers. I don’t know how to plan or lead worship that will feel like we are all watching our favourite movie for the first time, or like we are getting lost in a great book, or like we are going for that run where our body just moves effortlessly.
I have some suspicions of how to get there. It means getting out of the way as planners and leaders. It means dropping the commentary about worship while you are in worship. It means being deeply concerned with and aware of movement and flow, and knowing that worship is not a to do list, but a story that has a beginning, middle, climax and end. It is knowing that ‘Worship is to glorify God’ in the sense that when the Body of Christ gathers, we are taken into the story of God and God’s people, and the biblical narrative shapes us and becomes our story. It means being relaxed about the music styles that we use, being okay with many people participating even if they aren’t perfect, being joyful that the Body of Christ has another chance to gather this week and getting it right means simply being together.
All I can say is, enjoy the moments when you are lost in the worship of the saints, and pay attention to what jolts you away and snaps you back to that almost crushing awareness of yourself and the world immediately around you. And remember the best movies, best books, best music, best art are the best not because they are a certain style or only 60 minutes long. Nor the best because of who created it or because of the instruments that were used. They are the best because they draw us into their new worlds, even if for a moment. Just as God draws us into God’s world each week when we gather for worship.
So… what really does make for good worship? Share your thoughts in the comments below.