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Confessions of a High Church Millennial

I have a confession to make. It will probably be surprising for many to hear from a millennial:

I am a high-church liturgy nerd.

For many of my 31 years in the church, I have been told that my generation is a group of moths attracted to the glitz and glamour of projections screens showing videos in church, electric guitars and drum kits playing the music we can hear on Christian radio and cool, hip preachers who speak “authentically.” And sure, I have been to my fair share of churches, campfires, and youth services that cater to the “youth.” I have even enjoyed them greatly!

Somewhere along the way, this has led to the assumption by everyone (and no one) that my generation’s desire is only for the new. And this desire is often held up along side our narcissistic tendencies to take selfies, post our dinner plans on twitter, and live in our parent’s basements.

It just so happens that these same lazy narcissistic millennials are currently the concern of so many church members. Churches spend a lot of energy worrying about what interests us and wondering why we don’t come to church (anymore).

I know millennials are not the first generation to be the object of the church’s and society’s attention. When I was a little, churches were trying to be contemporary then too… trying to attract boomers and their young families with 70s folk music. As a child of the 80s, my church had more than a few 30-40 something guys standing behind lecterns with guitars, singing special music that sounded like an Eagle’s song with Christian lyrics.

And then Generation X got its 15 minutes of attention…During my tween and teen years, the Gen-Xers were doing Friday night youth services once a month with songs from artists like Brian Doerksen, Petra, Amy Grant, and Third Day. The Gen-Xers, we were told, would come for this. As a teen watching this unfold, I hadn’t quite processed what it meant for the church to be so concerned with making sure 20 somethings stayed in church. I didn’t understand why Friday night youth services, token 20 somethings on church council and money for expensive sound systems and projectors was going to keep the young adults, just a little older than me, in church.

Yet, despite all the catering to what the young people supposedly want, what I do remember from church of my childhood is liturgy.

image source - http://ultraspike.blogspot.ca
image source – http://ultraspike.blogspot.ca

When we were all together as a community, when we gave up as much as we could trying to cater to what will attract the youth, or appease the seniors, or keep the young families interested, or make the boomers happy, we did simple Lutheran liturgy. 

Now don’t get me wrong, it was low-churchly Lutheran liturgy.  Which is to say our worship felt a bit like eating vegetables; it was good for us, but no one really liked it. Or at least we acted like we didn’t like it.

Our worship was billed as being everything from “Bach to Rock,” but the liturgy was more of a timeless aspect of our worship. As a kid and then teen, I could feel the prayers, the liturgical songs, the actions of standing, sitting, praying, responding, receiving were starting to ingrain themselves in my very body. I remember myself starting to set the hymnbook down more and more. I would simply pray or sing or respond. The phrases like “And also with you” or “Thanks be to God” or “Amen” started to come naturally and unbidden.

Interestingly, our low church Lutheran liturgy, that felt like eating vegetables, connected our whole congregation much more deeply than any of the things that we did to attract different generations. Weirdly, we all liked it. We all shared in it. In fact, we came to the same worship service because of it. Liturgy doesn’t distinguish between generations. It’s kind of like how I don’t play Xbox with my grandma, and she doesn’t knit with me. But we both know how to sit down and share a family meal.

Liturgy ties us together, rather than emphasizing our personal or generational experiences. Liturgy is timeless and when we can get past whether we like the tunes or instruments playing them or not, we can realize that these things we do, and repeat together, are biblical, rooted in the ancient Church and are about God. In fact, liturgy at its best makes us forget it is liturgy and instead helps us see God in out midst.

In a recent blog post, Rachel Held Evans, who is an Evangelical trying out Episcopalian worship, writes:

I am folding laundry, its starched, orderly scent a sort of incense, as the hymn rises to my lips. 

“Glory to God in the highest, and peace to his people on earth. Lord God, heavenly King, almighty God and Father, we worship you, we give you thanks, we praise you for your glory…”

I can’t remember the rest of the words exactly, and the tune meanders a bit, so I improvise, prompting Dan to shout from the other room, “Hon?  You okay? You crying about something?” which happens just about every time I burst into spontaneous song because, apparently, my version of a joyful noise remains indistinguishable from a sob.

Still, I sing on.

“….For you alone are the Holy One, you alone are the Lord, you alone are da da da da la la la la.” 

It is a season of new songs.

(Read the rest here…)

Like me, she is a millennial and a Christian (if you haven’t discovered her blog, you are probably living under a rock). If the two of us were to sit down for coffee, I would tell her that this will only get worse (or better). Way worse.

When you become a liturgy person, all those familiar texts like the Gloria (which is what Rachel was singing) start to come to your mind like the baseball stats that so many dads seem to know – they come automatically. Worship starts to take on a rhythm and pattern that you can’t escape. You will eventually find that worship is something where you always know what is going to happen next, or that your body knows what to do next. The things that change start to rise to the surface and catch your attention. After the familiar Kyrie and Gloria, which are the same week after week, the collect and scripture readings, which change each week, stand out. Liturgy helps you to identify the new and changing things of worship, by keeping you grounded with the constants.

And still, it gets worse. When you are a liturgy person, you can show up for Anglican, Episcopalian, Roman Catholic or Lutheran worship and generally know what is going on. You might even find yourself singing songs you have never sung before because you already know the words.

In my development as a liturgy person, my low-church, eating-our-vegetables, experience of liturgy as a child and teen morphed and grew into something more as I went to university and then to seminary. As I learned more and more about the meaning and history of the symbols, I fell in love with the richness of it all. I became high-church. I became a liturgy nerd.

And I am going to make a bold claim because of this.

Liturgy can engage the young people.

I am not saying that non-liturgical worship is wrong, or won’t “attract” millennials. In fact, I know many of my generational cohort who have abandoned liturgy for praise bands. But like Rachel Held Evans shows, some are coming the other way. Contemporary worship is not something I am looking to critique, but rather I am suggesting that all those criticisms of liturgical worship is simply unfounded.

I am a millennial and I am drawn to tradition, to wrote prayers, to words passed on to me from generations before. The symbols and ritual actions point to God in ways that nothing else has in my experience, not sunsets or Christian radio, not preachers with graphic T-shirts and 45 minute sermons. I don’t think I am alone. I am not saying that every millennial wants what I want. Liturgy is what it is, it doesn’t really sell itself. And I think many of my generation are not interested in being sold faith.

So to my liturgically minded brothers and sisters in faith: Let’s stop worrying about being something we are not. Let’s not try to be contemporary like the Baptists down the street while still somehow still being us. And for heaven’s sake, lets not do liturgy like it is eating vegetables. Let’s see liturgy as the beautiful meal of diversity and rich flavours that it can be.

We will never be the mega-church contemporary worship that we think all the millennials have left for. And the narrative that we need to be that to “attract” the young people only shows them that we have an identity crisis, and that what we are, is not worthy of our youth. I am sure many millennials find that off-putting… I do, and I am a pastor in a denomination with an identity crisis.

Instead, let’s be what we are. Let’s use the tools that we know how to use. Let’s preach the Gospel and point to God at work in our world with the liturgy we have been given.

And remember, as surprising as it may be to hear that one millennial is a high church liturgy nerd… it might be even more surprising that there are a lot more out there.


Are you a liturgy nerd? Do you think liturgy can engage millennials? Share in the comments, on the Facebook Page: The Millennial Pastor or on Twitter: @ParkerErik

As usual, thanks to my wife, Courtenay for her edits and insight. Follow her at @ReedmanParker on Twitter.

PS

If you like what you read on The Millennial Pastor, you can vote for this blog on Christian Piatt’s list of top 25 Christian Blogs of 2014. You might have to scroll down the list a bit, but as of this post, I am in the top 50.

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How we screw up prayer and how social media teaches us to do it right.

We have a problem with prayer. So many Christians seem to think prayer can only happen in one way. One dimensional prayer I call it.  Let me elaborate…

As a pastor, one would think that I spend most of my time in my own congregation. However, one might be surprised just how often I worship in other churches, and it is always interesting to watch how my fellow colleagues have planned and then preside at (lead) worship. I try to bring a sense of curiosity when I worship at a church other than my own. Often there are little things to learn and borrow.

prayer11However, over the years, maybe even for decades I have noticed many churches operate with an understanding of prayer that I just cannot get behind.

In Lutheran liturgy, our worship contains many different kinds of prayer. There are prayers said in silence like confession, prayers said by the presider (worship leader) like the collect/prayer of the day and eucharistic prayer, prayers said by an assistant minister like the prayers of intercession and offering prayer, and there are prayers said by the whole assembly, like the Lord’s Prayer.

Prayer is used in a variety of ways, with the understanding that there are a variety of ways to pray. This has been the way the church has done liturgy and understood prayer for hundreds, almost thousands of years.

Yet, even as a child I remember prayer being taught and spoken of largely with one understanding, and so often this one understanding is how many christians understand prayer today.

Prayer is talking to God. Specifically, it is us talking to God. More specifically, it is us saying words with our mouths to God. And there are all kinds of teaching and theories and styles to saying these words with our mouths to God.

As teen and young adult in church, I remember being sent on occasion to different workshops on prayer, and I remember all the courses that were offered that I didn’t go to. I recall thinking it was strange that learning how to pray was all about becoming more open and vulnerable in my prayers, learning how to “open my heart” to God. As if prayer was some kind of divine therapy session, and I had to learn how to say the words just right.

As a pastor, one of the chief concerns of our church, and of many of my friends and colleagues is that we aren’t spiritual enough as leaders. Specifically, that our prayer life isn’t up to snuff. When I ask more about this, it seems that many pastors worry that they don’t pray enough (translation: not enough time saying things to God). We worry that we are not spending enough time in silent meditative prayer (saying things to God in our head), or enough in morning devotions (telling God our daily plans), or enough in small group prayer (taking turns saying words to God in front of others).

So many Christians and Christian leaders seem to have the notion that prayer is saying words to God, and the better we get at saying these words, the better our faith will get, the better our “relationship with God” will be. Prayer becomes exceedingly one-dimensional in this view.  Whether praying is done alone, in a group, or in church, we seem to believe that only the one speaking is the one praying.

What this translates into is a lot of pressure to be pray in this one way. Pressure to pray at home, and pressure to pray at church. For Lutherans this has translated into a poor understanding of the worship and liturgy. We treat liturgy like vegetables. You have to eat them, but nobody likes them.

imagesPrayers that were once prayed on behalf of the assembly by one voice are now prayed by all. And pastors have this awful, awful habit of saying little phrases that betray our one-dimensional understanding of prayer:

“Let us pray the offering/collect/post-communion prayer together”

“Pray with me this prayer…”

“Let us all pray out loud.”

These phrases reinforce the idea that praying only happens when we say words with our mouths.

Liturgy is not to be understood this way. Prayer is not only prayer when we say words with our mouths.

(As a tangent: I think it interesting that we are increasingly leaving our music making to a group of experts like a band, while we are all praying out loud which has been normally done by one voice).

Before I say what I think is a healthier understanding of prayer, I think there is an example we all use regularly that would help us into a deeper and broader understanding of what prayer looks like.

0_23_ibreviary_churchSocial Media.

Yes, Facebook, Twitter, Instagram, Youtube, Pintrest etc…

Okay, so I know that Social media at its worst is a lot of people cyber “yelling” at each other.

But social media at it is best is conversational. It involves speaking AND listening.

In fact, most of social media is not speaking at all, it is mostly hearing. Social media wouldn’t work if most of us weren’t listening, reading, hearing, receiving.

But social media takes it a step further. With social media you can like, favourite, share, retweet and more. You can read or hear what others have said and add your approval or endorsement without adding your own words.

Likes, favourites, shares, retweets are nothing new. We have been doing them in church for 1000s of years. They are the equivalent of “Amen.”

Social media teaches us that it isn’t always about saying words with our mouths. Sometimes it is important not to say anything at all but to let the words of others speak as if they were our own. You can probably see where I am going.

As a pastor, my voice is often the one that speaks for the assembly in worship. It is my voice that voices the prayers of the whole group. And so when I worship in other churches where I get to be in the pew and the presider or worship leader says, “let’s all pray together this prayer…” I say nothing. I sometimes wonder if the people around me think I am not participating.

When we see prayer only as saying words with my mouth, we all have to mumble the unfamiliar texts of liturgical prayers in an unpracticed and monotone way. Have you ever paid attention to how a congregation prayers the Lord’s prayer versus the prayer of the day? The Lord’s Prayer is the same every week, and we learn how to pray it together. But the Prayer of the Day/Collect changes every week and so we stumble through if we try to say it out loud together.

C1010109prayerYet, when we understand that when the presider or worship leader says a prayer with one voice, and still we are all praying together (one by speaking, the rest by listening) with one voice as a group, prayer becomes deeper and broader.

When we understand that the deep breaths and moments of silence before a prayer is spoken are the moments when we can, in fact, all truly pray together (instead of all reading monotonously at the same time), prayer becomes deeper and broader.

When we understand that in the “Amens”, the “and also with yous”, the “Lord’s Prayer” that we not just praying individually at the same time with our voices, but with the voice of the whole church, with every Christian who has ever said “Amen”, with every Christian who will ever say, “Our Father in heaven”, prayer becomes deeper and broader.

When we understand that prayer is more than one dimensional, more than saying words with my mouth, prayer becomes deeper and broader. Prayer becomes something we really do together, not something that we do individually at the same time which is really what we are doing when we say those phrases like, “Pray out loud with me.”

I think a deeper and broader understanding of prayer would help us realize that sometimes saying nothing, or just “Amen” at the end is prayer just as much as saying words with our mouth. Just like we know that a like, favourite, share or retweet is using social media the same as updating a status.

So let’s start praying with our ears, likes, retweets, with our Amens, in the silences and, when it is appropriate, together with many voices.

For more on social media and liturgy read this: Social Network Liturgy: Putting down the iPhone


So, how do you see prayer? Can we learn about prayer from social media? Share in comments, on the Facebook Page: The Millennial Pastor or on Twitter: @ParkerErik 

PS I recently read that one fewer hour of sleep a night for a week gives you the equivalent mental capacity of someone with the blood alcohol level of 0.10. With a new baby in the house, that would make my mental capacity the equivalent of 0.40, I think. This has been the reason for few posts lately, but I hope to pick up the pace again soon.

PPS Twitter has been flagging my blog as spam lately. If you would like to help get it unflagged (because according to wordpress and google it is fine), file a ticket with a link to my blog here

 

 

 

I wish Mumford & Sons Would Play at My Church

So last week I wrote a post about how Praise Bands are the New Medieval Priests. Over the past few days, that particular post has been generating discussion in the comments section, on my Facebook page and on Twitter. Worship is such an emotionally loaded topic, especially when it comes to music. Music is a powerful art form and so important in Christian worship. I think somewhere along the way, readers got the sense that I was advocating one style over another – that I was saying ‘Contemporary’ worship is not as good as, or as holy as, or as faithful as ‘Traditional’ worship.

Let me be clear, I was not advocating one style over another.

Image source - blog.ncbaptist.org
Image source – blog.ncbaptist.org

This is not about Contemporary vs. Traditional.

In fact, I didn’t use the word ‘contemporary’ or the word ‘traditional’ in that post. I am no classical music / organ snob, or someone who listens only to music newer than 5 years old. If you look at my iTunes library or the presets on my satellite radio in the car, you will see that my preference is eclectic. There is bluegrass, rock, folk, pop, classical, jazz, organ, soundtrack etc… But my heart music is some kind of bluegrass, folk, pop, rock mix or in other words Mumford & Sons. If Mumford & Sons decided to become a Praise Band, I would have resumes delivered daily to the church they play at. If Mumford & Sons decided to write a liturgy… I would be running down the streets looking for Jesus, because I would be convinced of the end of the world.

So let me say it again, this is not about Contemporary vs. Traditional.

I think I failed to connect the dots in my Praise Band Medieval Priests post. I think I failed to make clear I was talking about the medium of worship. I was talking about the ‘how’ of worship, not the ‘what’.

Yes, I have a strong bias to liturgy, but not because I am a traditionalist. I am biased towards liturgy because it is the agreed-to practice of the community of the Church. It is the vehicle that, for hundreds of years, Christians have agreed says what we believe about God, and liturgy allows us to worship God in an agreed-upon way. Liturgy is strongly rooted in the bible, in the early church, and in good theology.

Now I admit, I do think lots of contemporary music has bad theology in it, and I have done my fair share of ranting about Jesus-is-my-boyfriend songs. But I am also the first to admit that a lot of traditional hymns have equally bad theology. There are Jesus-is-my-boyfriend hymns out there too, they just escape our notice because they sound a little more Pride and Prejudice than Sixteen Candles. Contemporary music doesn’t have inherently bad theology, but like hymns, the theology covers a wide spectrum.

That being said, for my evangelical readers, I think I need to explain liturgy as medium.

Liturgy is not synonymous with organ music. The word Liturgy means “work of the people.” ‘The Liturgy’ is the order of worship, the texts that are used for the songs,  the assigned bible readings for each Sunday, the prayers and responses said by the pastor and congregation, the sacraments of baptism and holy communion. Liturgy is the skeleton of worship that Christians have agreed upon for hundreds of years.

But Liturgy can be done with organs, or guitars, or string instruments, or brass instruments, or piano, or drums or a cappella. In fact, I have done liturgy with all those kinds of instruments and their styles.

The style of music in liturgy can be any style, played by all manner of instruments and ensembles. There is some great liturgical music written and played in the contemporary style out there (eg. Steve Bell’s Holy Lord).

So, when I say Praise Bands are the New Medieval Priests, I am talking about Praise Bands. And no, of course not all Praise Bands. But the medium of ‘Praise Band’.

It is not way they play, but how they play it.

221313230_640Like with Medieval Priests , the Praise Band medium has become the message.

When Medieval Priests led worship, the language, the secret prayers, the division between the laity and priesthood, the transformation of bread and wine into Christ’s body and blood became the message. Those things were supposed to be the medium, the means of sharing God’s grace with the people. Instead, the Priests became the message, that only special people were required for worship, that only holy people had access to God. The liturgy of the medieval church had strayed far from the worship habits of the early church. The early church which gathered for prayer and song, to hear the Word of God, to share in the holy meal, to be sent into mission (that’s liturgy by the way).

Now this is completely anecdotal and very well my opinion, but for me the medium of the Praise Band can make the worshipper unnecessary. Just like the medieval priest who said mass by himself, often a Praise Band playing a song would sound just the same whether the congregation was present or not.

I think my objection comes from my experience over the past few years with Praise Bands. It seems like if I stopped singing, if the whole congregation stopped singing, almost nothing would change in the experience of music in worship. Praise Bands are a medium that has everything going against them when it comes to worship. They exist in an entertainment, consumer culture. They are a born of a genre of music that is performative. They even sound the best when played in concert style rather than worship style. They sound really good when the band interprets a song using the band’s own particular style, gifts and blend.

Here is where the rubber hits the road for me; despite all my best efforts to sing along, to songs that I know and that I played when I was in a Praise Band, I feel I like the music is more conducive to me listening than singing along. I am starting to enjoy listening over singing along, and I think I am not alone. I think this has become ‘worship’ for a good many people. Listening to the Praise Band, just like watching the Medieval Priest.

Does this mean I think we should give up on contemporary music in worship? Not at all. But I think, that like the liturgy of the Medieval Priests, Praise Bands will need a Reformation of sorts. I don’t know what that looks like, but some of the comments on my last post are the beginning of the discussion. Read them, see what people who have devoted their lives to music and worship are thinking. It is good stuff, it is smart, intentional and thoughtful.

Meanwhile, I am still thinking about how (maybe even if) Praise Bands are the New Medieval Priests. And wondering if Mumford & Sons will come play at my church.

So are Praise Bands a doomed medium? What needs to be done to reform them? Share in the comments, on The Millennial Pastor Facebook Page or on Twitter: @ParkerErik

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PS. Just in case I wasn’t clear that I am aware of my own hypocrisy about this stuff, here is a video of a Praise Band playing a song that I co-wrote for the National Youth Gathering of my denomination…

Praise Bands are the New Medieval Priests

You don’t have to spend much time in a mainline congregation to overhear someone bemoaning our traditional worship and pointing to those huge evangelical churches that get all the kids to come because of their hip and cool worship. When we see Praise Bands, a lot of us get a little church envy. Over the past few months, I have had the opportunity to be around Praise Bands and Evangelical style worship, which leads me to a secret about Mainliners: we all get a little envious of mega church praise and worship.

Image source - http://lauraturner.religionnews.com
Image source – http://lauraturner.religionnews.com

That being said, my experience with Praise Bands has become increasingly one of alienation. I just can’t access Praise music anymore, I don’t hear Praise songs as the music of worship. I find myself wondering why I am just standing there, in the midst of a group of people who are also not singing. As the Praise band performs song after song, I am consistently lost as to how the music goes, what verses will come next, how to follow the melody, when to start and stop singing, or when a random guitar solo will be thrown in right when I thought I had figured out when the next verse starts. Even some Praise Bands folks recognize themselves just how alienating their shtick can be:

My alienation with Praise music isn’t because I am not musical or don’t know what is going on in worship. I am a pastor after all, I have been in worship LOTS. I play a number of instruments. I had played in music ensembles, secular and church, I have even played in Praise Bands. I can sing well enough to chant, most melodies are easy enough to pick up and I prefer singing parts from sheet music.

So if I am standing there feeling alienated by Praise music because I can’t follow along, what about most other people? What about those who didn’t spend a significant portion of their childhood being musically educated and playing music in church?

Lots of Praise Bands are full of talented musicians. They often perform very well, better than some professional artists who mostly lip sync. Some of the Praise Bands I have heard could easily be found in local bars or pubs playing for young adult hipsters and no one would bat an eyelash.

Most recently, as I stood listening to a Praise band overwhelm my senses with their loud music (crap… I sound old), the lead singer’s beautiful interpretations of song melodies, and the random guitar solos, I looked around at the people in the pews with me. Most were just standing there too, not singing, not really being a part of the music at all. We are all just bystanders to the moment, we were being played at, rather than played with.

As a Lutheran, I am rooted in a tradition that advocates for the role of folks in the pews. In Medieval worship, the people had become unnecessary for worship. The priests spoke Latin, and the people didn’t. The priests had stuff to say and pray, the people just stood there. The priests often faced away from the people to the altar, ignoring the people. The priests even whispered secret prayers to themselves, and only served themselves the wine at communion, because the people might spill the blood of Christ. Sometimes priests said mass all by themselves, people weren’t even necessary for worship to happen. The priests had all special knowledge and privilege, they basically performed worship at the people.

Martin Luther, the key dude of the Reformation didn’t like this at all. He translated the bible into the language of the people. AND he also translated worship into the language of the people. Liturgy (which means ‘work of the people’, but also refers to those rote prayers, litanies, responses, music etc…) was changed so that the people could be included. No more secret prayers, no more facing away from the people, priests spoke in the language that most people understood, and worship was about participation and designed to be for the people. Worship was so that the people could hear the Gospel, instead of be bystanders to the hocus-pocus magic. The assembly, all the people gathered for worship, were now considered necessary.

Now 500 years later, despite all lessons of the Reformation that Protestants –  Mainliners and even Evangelicals – have been teaching, we are going back to non-participatory, secret language, performance worship. Just like priests who lead worship in a language that few spoke, Praise Bands are incompatible with a worship that is done by the community. Rock Bands are by design meant to overwhelm the audience with sound. They are a performative medium, not a participatory one.

Worship Bands have become new ‘Medieval Priests’. It is becoming more and more clear to me that we are unnecessary bystanders to most of what Praise Bands do. They play so loud that our singing is unnecessary, so we don’t sing. They sing in such highly interpretative ways, that we can’t follow melodies. They use screens with words intended to be easy to read, but that mean we can’t see what is coming and half the time, the screens are wrong, even in the most mega of mega churches.

What happened? When did we forget the lessons that our forebearers fought to teach us? 

I suspect it has something to do with over-emphasis on the individual in North American Christianity, particularly Evangelicalism. We don’t often worship as communities any more, we worship as a group of individuals. More like the folks in a movie theatre, than the folks playing a team sport. I also think it has something to do with our suspicion of history, of tradition, or anything old or ancient, we are obsessed by what is new.

Praise Bands have lost the worship plot. They are more about performance and than facilitation of worship. Praise Bands at their best completely exclude the Body gathered to worship.

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAFull disclosure: I am fully aware that when I lead worship in my ancient vestments and with ancient liturgies, many can feel alienated. But Liturgy as its best is meant to include and to reconcile. Liturgy is a team sport, where each is given a role, and where no individual can go it alone. Just like any team sport, it takes learning and practice to know what is going on and to play well.

Liturgical worship has stood the test of time, it has been around for 2000 years. You can see our liturgical roots in the writings of the early Christian church. Liturgical worship will remain as long as Christ’s church does. I don’t know if the same can be said for Praise Bands. Praise Bands just may go the way of the Medieval priest saying mass to himself in the dusty corner of a cathedral. Praise Bands are likely to become an obscure historical footnote, remembered only by those wishing to take up the ancient priestly performance.

So, are Praise Bands excluding people from worship? What is our way forward? Share in the comments, on Facebook: The Millennial Pastor Page or on Twitter: @ParkerErik

UPDATE: There has been a lot of thoughtful conversation here in the comments , on Facebook and on Twitter. I written a followup post that hopefully addresses some of the comments which you can find here: I want Mumford & Sons to Play at My Church

So… what really does make for good worship? It is not what you think.

allsaintsorthodoxchurch3Christian 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.