Wednesday, May 23, 2012

Vital Worship

As we settle into worship confidently (see the previous post), we also need to be aware that our worship needs to meet not only our own needs, but those of others. One way we've talked about doing that has been by starting a second service. However, a recent article gives some good advice about that:
Previous church, now Hallstead Hall.

When congregations are considering a second service, my initial advice is to first address the quality of the service currently offered. There is nothing wrong in and of itself with traditional worship. In fact, done well, traditional worship services rehearse the drama of salvation and can appeal to people of all ages and effectively help them connect with God. The problem is often that the traditional service is done in a way that is so tired and worn that it has lost its capacity to engage most people, especially younger people.

I liken a lethargic worship service to a faded photograph. My wife and I have a picture taken on a picnic with friends during seminary days. It is a Polaroid snapshot and so much of the color has washed out of it over these ensuing more than 40 years and there are some creases from too much handling. Nevertheless, when I look at that picture, I am right back there at Shades State Park with Mindy, and Joe and Ellen, eating lunch and playing cards at a picnic table bathed in sunlight filtered through tall beech trees on that beautiful summer day. The vivid memory of that time together and our deep friendship is triggered once again, even by that faded photograph.

Current church.
Those over 60 or so, remember when traditional worship was new to them and done so well. In those days, the preacher preached as though something was at stake, those who led prayers seemed to pray to a living God, those who read scripture had obviously practiced the reading before stepping into the lectern, and the people seemed to sing the hymns with energy and enthusiasm. Today, too much traditional worship features tired preaching, prayers that are read like a grocery list, and stumbling readers who draw attention to themselves rather than to the Word.

Like that faded photograph, just going through the motions of traditional worship is enough to draw many older adults into an effective worship experience because they still remember when their faith was new and the service was done so well. But young people who endure such services cannot find the Holy Spirit in these services with a flashlight! Neither can those older adults who did not grow up with traditional worship and thus have no memory to draw upon. No wonder such folks often opt out of traditional worship.
I think one of the chief challenges we face at St. Edward's, especially with the average age of our congregation, is the temptation to be satisfied with the "faded photograph" type of worship--a kind of worship that relies more on the spirit of nostalgia than on the Holy Spirit. Like an aging, but familiar house, we are tempted to simply let things go--sometimes not even noticing them. I remember when moving our of our last house and preparing it for sale or for rental, there were many things which we had simply grown to live with and that didn't seem important enough to address while we were living there. Once we had to prepare it for others, however, those things needed to be fixed.

As we continue the process of re-planting St. Edward's, we will find that there are some things that we have "lived with" or even enjoyed in the past that will need to be renewed, changed, or even discarded in favor of something more attractive, more vibrant, and more welcoming. May we undertake that process sensitively but proactively in the coming months and years.

Monday, May 7, 2012

Confident Worship

Therefore let us draw near with confidence to the throne of grace, so that we may receive mercy and find grace to help in time of need. - Hebrews 4:16, NASB
The second part of our fourfold mission is to "worship fully." Any number of people have asked what that means. On our web site, we say that it means that "built upon the liturgical traditions of our church, we will use whatever forms of worship best connect us to God in Christ." Among many things, it means that we will constantly experiment with our worship to strike a balance between the comfort of those already here and the attraction and accessibility of our worship to newcomers. However, before experimentation, there is a foundational principal of "full" worship that I hope to articulate with this post.

As I was engaging in worship with everyone here at St. Edward's a couple of Sundays ago, something that has been percolating in my mind finally crystallized. I've been thinking about worship, specifically worship at St. Edward's, and I've been feeling like there needs to be a change in how we worship. Not merely a change in prayers, music, or other outward signs, but a change of attitude. When I first thought of that, I was thinking that worship really should be easy and effortless. However, neither of those two adjectives really worked for me. Worship is not a natural thing for human beings--we're much more prone to focus on ourselves than we are to focus on God. So, it really couldn't, and shouldn't, be easy. Effortless also doesn't work, since worship should require effort, focus, and intentionality. It shouldn't be like sitting in a concert hall or relaxing on the beach. After wrestling with those two adjectives and rejecting them, I finally came up with one that I like:


As children of God, heirs of God's purpose and power, we need to do everything in our power to worship confidently, not hesitantly or timidly. Note that I'm not talking about a rowdy, sporting event type of worship. I'm talking about worship that ushers us into the presence of God in full confidence that we belong there, that God wants us there, and that the prayers and praises that we offer are done so in a way that doesn't look like we've never done this before. I'm talking about worship that is not rushed, but joyfully deliberate. I'm also talking about worship that doesn't so much remind us of the past as it propels us into the future.

What do we need to do this? Purpose, preparation, and practice.

Purpose: We are not just making this up from scratch. We take our worship from the Book of Common Prayer 1979. I cannot tell you how thankful I am that, unlike some nondenominational churches, we don't need to create the worship service from the ground up. Our rich Anglican liturgical heritage supports and enhances our worship experience. It also helps us live out the Benedictine value of stability--our service does not radically change from week to week. In selecting hymns and worship songs, I try to choose songs we have sung before or that are easy to learn. I also choose music that has some relationship to the lessons for that particular Sunday. While worship can occasionally be spontaneous, good worship is rarely off-the-cuff. On the few occasions that I have modified worship services at the last minute, I have nearly always regretted it.

Preparation: One of my seminary professors once recounted a sort of a curse he had heard from one of his professors: "If you just roll out of bed and stumble out to celebrate the Eucharist, I hope you die on the way." Harsh, perhaps, but his point was that leading (and participating in) worship requires both physical and spiritual preparation. Rushing in at the last minute, scrambling for one's notes, prayer book, or other items, and then trying to center oneself and enter into worship purposefully is a very difficult task. For myself, I aim to arrive at least 30 minutes prior to the service so that I can mentally, physically, and spiritually prepare myself. If one is leading worship, one should be here at least 15 to 20 minutes early to make sure everything is set. If one is participating in worship, being here 5 to 10 minutes early is a good thing, just to allow the busyness of the morning to recede. This part of worship has to do with the Benedictine value of obedience--a sense of discipline that says "this is important enough to prepare for." Yes, sometimes the unexpected happens, but minimizing the unexpected in the way we handle the logistics of worship allows the unexpected (or expected!) sense of the Spirit of God more access to our hearts and minds.

Practice: Like anything else, worship requires practice. If we limit ourselves to the same two-dozen hymns we've always done, we won't need to learn anything new but we also won't be doing much that is fresh. This aspect of worship reflects the Benedictine value of conversion of life. We are always to be learning and growing. Worship that is rote and flat is not worship, it is recital. That does not mean that one should show up at worship not having practiced, especially if one is helping to lead. If you are reading scripture, you should have already read it, out loud, several times at home. If you are serving at the altar, one hopes that you have been trained to do so. As we move through worship, we should be surprised at what God is doing in our hearts and minds, not wondering why that person is doing that thing.

My hope and prayer for us is that we can worship more and more fully by remembering that we are worshipping on purpose, preparing ourselves to worship each week, and knowing that practicing both new and tried-and-true things opens our hearts up to God's leading. See you on Sunday!