Sunday, June 24, 2012

How to Change Your Church's Worship Service

For several years I've been writing reflections from the spiritual disciplines devotionals that I use during Ordinary Time (the time of the year that doesn't fall between Advent and Pentecost).  Some years I use the book Disciplines for the Inner Life by Bob Benson, Sr. and Michael W. Benson.  This year I'm using A Year With God: Living Out the Spiritual Disciplines by Richard Foster.  I am no speed-reader, especially when my intention is to not just hear but do the words I'm reading. This means my written reflections pop up rather sporadically here, but my hope is to share something from the series with you at least once a month.

The Sacred Practice of Corporate Worship 

“It is madness to wear ladies and velvet hats to church, we should be wearing crash helmets. Ushers should issue life preservers and signal flares; they should lash us to our pews. For the sleeping god may awake someday and take offense, or the waking god may draw us out to where we can never return.”                                             -- Annie Dillard, Teaching a Stone to Talk

Since Pentecost I've been spending time reading through the sacred practices of worship.  This practice falls into two broad categories:  everyday worship and corporate worship.  I wrote the reflection for everyday worship here ("You Don't Have to be a Worship Leader to Worship God in the Mall Parking Lot").

Today, I'm sharing with you what I'm learning about the sacred practices that feed the habit of corporate worship.  Some little bit of New Yorker cheekiness prompted me to title this post: How to Change Your Church's Worship Service. You're pretty savvy readers, and I'm guessing you know that changing your church's worship service really begins with changing your own worship practices.

a worship service at our former church, Union Center Christian Church
Endicott, NY (photo by Hope Spicer)

1.  Practice All Week

"After all, [Jesus] had graciously spoken to me in dozens of little ways throughout the week; he will certainly speak to me here as well."-- Richard Foster's comment on the interconnection between daily private worship and communal worship, A Year With God: Living Out the Spiritual Disciplines
We spend all week worshipping this God with our everyday, walking-around lives.  The Word-made-flesh makes all places sacred.  The Spirit of Christ, our worship leader, conducts spirit-and-truth worship in every room we step foot, every building, every parking lot, every ball field, every traffic jam.  We practice worship paying attention to the kingdom presence of Christ in all the noisy chaos of everyday living.

We practice worship offering gratitude for everything we consume, offering petition for each need we discover, intercession for those inside and outside our sphere of influence, awe for each mystery.  We practice worship when we open our hands, hearts and homes to give and receive blessing.

We practice worship seeking quiet places to listen, learn the character of God in Scripture and spiritual writings, sit in quiet, read the Word, rehearse the goodness of our Father, lay our questions on Him, pay attention to the inner impressions we suspect come from Him.  We practice worship in a rhythm of alone and together, hushed and raucous, satisfied and needy, sitting, standing, lying down and walking around.

We can not change our church's worship service without a hearty work-out of week-long worship.

2.  Expect to Meet God

"A striking feature of worship in the Bible is that people gathered in what we could only call a 'holy expectancy.' They believed they would actually hear the Kol Yahweh, the voice of God...They were coming into the awful, glorious, gracious presence of the living God. They gathered with anticipation, knowing that Christ was present among them and would teach them and touch them with his living power....When more than one or two come into public worship with a holy expectancy, it can change the atmosphere of a room. People who enter harried and distracted are drawn quickly into a sense of the silent Presence. Hearts and minds are lifted upward. The air becomes charged with expectancy."  -- Richard J. Foster, Celebration of Discipline

One of the most important worship truths I've ever learned is that I am not responsible to initiate worship.  Instead, It is my job to respond to the invitation of God, through His Spirit and led by His Son.  Can you imagine the pressure this relieves?  Prior to this new understanding, I spent my whole life trying to be clean enough, sing loudly enough, feel tingly enough, clap on rhythm often enough to bring about God's presence.  

It is not true that we initiate worship.  The mantra that we worship for an audience of One is misplaced.  The truer statement:  We follow a worship leader of One.  Jesus has been given the authority to lead His Church to God.  If worshipping God depends on my ability to conjure up His Spirit then I'm sunk, you're sunk, we're all sunk.

Since God is the one responsible through His Son and Spirit to gather us each week to meet Him, I can expect that He'll also show up.  I can, of course, ignore him, dismiss him, blow right past him with my lofty expectations of how "worship" should look, sound and feel.  This often happens when I spend too much time worshipping my ideal modernized image of worship and church rather than simmering in the ancient truths of worship and church.  Sometimes, it happens when I forget that the Spirit of Christ is making all things new in and through His people, and might surprise us in new songs and methods of worship.

I miss meeting God in corporate worship when I am preoccupied, tending to my long list of wish-dreams for worship.  If I am not practicing a humble self-awareness of my long list of besetting sin and wounds, I do not have eyes trained to see the Presence of Jesus in the middle of His worshipping people.  Another word for a wish-dream that controls my expectations is idolatry.  

I'm learning a few practices that help me meet God in my church's worship service:
  • Show up on Saturday night: We can learn from the Jewish tradition that Sabbath begins at sundown.  Treat Saturday evening and Sunday morning as important hours of preparation for my church's worship service.
  • Be an introvert:  Arrive ten minutes early, sit in the sanctuary and quietly prepare ourselves.  Pray for the worship leaders and ministers to sense God's hand upon them, to speak and to lead boldly.  Pray for the others working to facilitate God meeting His people in worship.  Rather than finding people to talk with before the service, pray for one or two people instead.  Pray that they might experience God's presence in worship.
  • Pray with your eyes open:  Notice the sanctuary space, the colors, symbols and ornaments.  Pay attention to the faces and sounds filling the room.  Listen to the noise in your head. The sort of "gut feelings" you experience during this time will alert you to your list of worship wish-dreams, the places God wants to forgive you, heal you and bless you as you worship Him this morning.  
We can not change our church's worship service without expecting to meet God as the worship leader, responding in worship to His promised presence.

3.  Act Like A True Worshipper

"If Christians worshipped only when they felt like it, there would be precious little worship...Worship is an act that develops feelings for God, not a feeling for God that is expressed in an act of worship. When we obey the command to praise God in worship, our deep, essential need to be in relationship with God is nurtured."      -- Eugene Peterson, A Long Obedience in the Same Direction
For as long as the Church has gathered for worship services, we've struggled to remember our worship responsibilities to God, to each other and to ourselves. The accounts we've been given of the worship habits for the Church in the dark ages provide an example of this sort of forgetfulness. The common folk were expected to listen to a priest read what they could not understand, and watch him partake what they were not invited to eat.  In a similar way, I'm thinking of the current predicament the Church has constructed, confusing the people in the pew as the audience and the people on the platform the performers.

Instead of riding the pendulum of worship service innovation, embracing and then jettisoning each idea published to get those people in the room engaged, what if we all just went back to God's ideas for worship given in the Law, given as a new command through His Son's life, death, resurrection and ascension, enabled by His Spirit at Pentecost?  Worship is an action, a habit we get to build each week of our lives, if we're lucky.  Worship is not a feeling, a program, or a set of songs.  We do the work of worship together, each with very important roles.  When you don't act like a worshipper, the whole Church misses out. 

One of my favorite habits in the Anglican church we attend is the practice of Communion during each service.  Near the top of the list of reasons I love this weekly ritual is that I get to watch the children walk to the front with their families and wait their turn to either receive the bread and wine or the prayer of blessing.  Every week I watch the family rehearse which little one should stand with hands open and which should stand with arms bent across their chest.  In our church, this habit is a reminder of each one's baptism.  Has it happened already?  Hands open, bread given. Not yet?  Arms crossed, blessing given.

This morning I watched a sweet little blonde stand with arms extended above the puff of her pink tu-tu, waiting for her bread.  When the priest placed the bite of brown bread into her hands, she did not know what to do.  She stood there looking at her bread until her father leaned down, placed his hand under her forearm and gently lifted her bread-filled hand to her mouth.  And I cried because I watched the Gospel enacted in front of me, in the ordinary sharing of bread, drink and blessing.  Sometimes I do not cry, but giggle, when I notice a harried mama deliver a stern glance or gentle nudge, making sure her little offspring does not haul off a chunk of bread for later.  All of it an unspoken catechism.  All of it enacting worship.

This, of course, is only one part of the worship service.  The Scriptures give us actions for worship all throughout the Old Testament and the New.  For a quick primer I recommend two passages I meditated during this study:  Deuteronomy 12:1-7 and the account of the beautiful worshipper Anna in Luke 2:36-38.  The list of practices God has given us for corporate worship serve as pathways to the act of worshiping in spirit and truth.  When we are formed in these practices we grow as true worshipers of the one true God rather than worshipers of our own worship wish-dreams and ill-formed ideas of who God is and who we are.

I'm learning a few practices that help me act like a true worshipper in my church's worship service:
  • Sing like a worship leader:  Listen to the instruments playing, notice the rhythm and pitch, learn the tunes and mind the lyrics.  Focus on singing the songs directly to God, but also on the harmonies and melodies of those singing around me.  
  • Believe God's Word:  Listen for God's direct voice in the Scripture readings and the Word preached.  For my learning style, I need to read those words as they are being spoken,  so carrying a Bible is very important for me to read and agree with God's word.  
  • Practice acting:  Don't misunderstand "acting" in this practice to be "pretending" or "faking".  Practice the definition of acting as "performing".  When an actor performs, he places his whole self: body, memory, emotions into the hands of the script and the director.  This is the sort of acting I mean, with one difference.  Acting worship actually forms us into worshippers.  We become what we practice.  We practice to become.

We can not change our church's worship service without  acting -- body, mind, and emotions -- like a true worshiper of the one true God.

4.  Share Stories and Food

"A quickening Presence pervades us, breaking down some part of the special privacy and isolation of our individual lives and blending our spirits within a superindividual Life and Power. An objective, dynamic Presence enfolds us all, nourishes our souls, speaks glad, unutterable comfort with us, and quickens us in depths that had before been slumbering."                                                           -- Thomas R. Kelly, The Eternal Promise
Whether your church practices the habit of communion each Sunday, a bagels and coffee hospitality table after service or a coffee counter in the foyer, there are many ways to share stories and food after the worship service.  The old school term for this is fellowship (or, feller-ship, as some might say).  

I'm delighted to worship a God who makes the ordinary act of eating and talking an act of worship.  Because either my husband or I have been working for a church for almost ten years, we haven't been able to figure out how to share Sunday lunch with different people in our church community each week but we're committed to keep trying to find a workable solution.  

For now, I've begun entering the conversations at our coffee and bagel table with a purposed heart.  I want to hear the ways my church family experienced our service, the thoughts and questions and concerns and fears and healing and directions they received from the Spirit of Christ during our time together.  Out of all the practices I've mentioned, this one is, by far, the hardest for me.  I am an introvert and would prefer to take my experience from the service, duck out the back door and savor it all by myself over a bite to eat.  Sometimes, that is exactly what I do.  

Acts 13:1-3 gives a beautiful account of the importance of sharing  our worship experience with each other.  In the particular account, the men gathered were seeking God's direction for Paul and Barnabas.  They began by worshiping together.  When they sensed the direction the Lord was  giving them, they shared with each other and began worshiping together again, testing the Spirit.  Only then, after a full assurance they'd heard from the Spirit of God did they "lay hands on them and send them off."

Today, I applied Acts 13 in a small way by asking the people I talked with what they'd heard from the Spirit during the service.  Not every conversation was deep and profound, some might have been had we not been surrounded by a jabbering, caffeine-seeking crowd.  But a few were.  I heard from one friend who'd received an assurance for accepting a new job offer (after we'd been praying together on the question for a few weeks, from another who heard the Spirit telling her to consider leaving her job.  I met a new family who were visiting for the very first time, and I received a lavish gift of blessing from another friend.  

Clearly, I miss out a vital element of worshiping with my church community when I skip this part of our service each week.

I'm learning a few practices that help me share stories and food in my church's worship service:
  • Be an extrovert: Oh, this is so hard for me!  My daughter told me, when she heard my plan to engage with people after the service, "Mom, don't you mean act like an extrovert because you know you can't be one."  Well, yes.  I may be an introvert but I love hearing and telling stories.  Entering the "after-service zone" with a story-telling purpose makes all the difference!
  • Find something to do:  One of my friends who shares the same after-service dread  finds a way to help someone do something after the service.  Whether your church is portable like ours or not, I'm positive someone somewhere needs help with something.  Roll up your sleeves and get busy.  While you're at it, share a story or two.
  • Pray with your eyes open:  Ask Jesus to show you someone who needs something you can give.  Maybe someone standing alone, someone still sitting in the pew, a young mom trying to have a conversation while simultaneously chasing her toddler, an older person navigating a crowded room.  Ask Jesus to show you one person you can pray over, help or comfort. 

We can not change our church's worship service without sharing stories and food together.

5.  Practice All Week

Worship alone.  Worship together. Repeat until Jesus returns.

Psalm 100
Laura James

"After this I looked, and behold, a great multitude that no one could number, from every nation, from all tribes and peoples and languages, standing before the throne and before the Lamb, clothed in white robes, with palm branches in their hands, and crying out with a loud voice, 'Salvation belongs to our God who sits on the throne, and to the Lamb!' 
 And all the angels were standing around the throne and around the elders and the four living creatures, and they fell on their faces before the throne and worshiped God, saying, 'Amen! Blessing and glory and wisdom and thanksgiving and honor and power and might be to our God forever and ever! Amen.'                                                                                -- Revelation 7: 9-12, ESV

Share your story.  What practices do you have in your corporate worship?  What practices do you need to take on to change your church's worship service?

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