I don’t know how to go to a church service anymore.
I spent a lot of time during the 1990’s writing and occasionally producing skits for church services, as well as a few full-length plays. These bits of spiritual theater were once known as “chancel dramas”. With the advent of the seeker service, they became a way for service producers to highlight conflict, questions and spiritual awakening in story form. My writing eventually led to producing church services for a mid-sized non-denominational congregation, then daily chapel services at a college and seminary.
I learned during those years that services needed to both excellent and authentic, but it was a delicate balance between the two. When authenticity was the driver, awkwardness often ensued in the form of off-key worship leaders, overhead slides that never transitioned on time, and clumsy transitions from one part of the service to the next. When excellence dominated, a cool, controlled performance, timed down to the minute, resulted in the congregation becoming a passive audience at a religious show.
During those years, I was a part of teams who attempted to plan services with excellence, down to the minute. Certainly there was plenty of prayer and good intention behind these acts. Those with whom I worked had a desire to move the gathered people toward God, toward some kind of meaningful connection with one another, and toward release into mission as they headed out into the world. All that planning, strategizing and debriefing with a heavy focus on excellence while seeking authenticity in our expression – has nearly drained me of the ability to simply participate in a corporate worship service. I can’t turn off my internal church service analyzer.
Sermons bring another kind of challenge. I find at this point in my life, I can no longer simply listen and absorb a message. Every theological book, article and blog post I’ve read, on top of more than four decades of listening to sermons great, flat-out heretical, and filling the vast expanse of in-between, forms the filter through which I listen to a message. I can’t simply “receive” as I did when I was a young believer. Am I growing wiser or simply warier? I suspect it’s a measure of both, skewed by my experience toward the wary.
My most transcendent moments of worship during the years I was involved in some form of service planning never, ever came during the church services I helped to develop, but during the time I spent dreaming, praying, and preparing with a planning team or practicing with a worship team prior to the service. Nowadays, no matter how I try to discipline myself to enter into a worship service as a member of the congregation, I can’t turn off my inner analyst/critic.
I believe with all my heart we’re called to be the church, rather than seeing ourselves as people who go to church. However, being the church doesn’t negate the formational importance of corporate worship. It is the way we practice our identity as part of a body far greater and more beautiful than the sum of its parts:
“After this I looked, and there before me was a great multitude that no one could count, from every nation, tribe, people and language, standing before the throne and before the Lamb. “ (Rev. 7:9)
And yet, today I find myself standing on the sidelines, grappling to find my place in the multitude. I’ve found that I can enter into corporate worship more freely when I am a visitor in a different church, especially if is from a different stream or tradition than my own. Formal liturgy has been a help for me, but is not a cure for my analysis-itis. I recognize that novelty carries temptations of its own, and is at best a temporary treatment of my problem.
Am I alone in this struggle? Do you find as you accumulate experience in corporate worship, the voice of your inner critic grows louder? Why or why not? I’d love to hear from those who’ve spent years in the pews, as well as from those who were once pastors, worship leaders, or involved in some way in platform ministry.