Some Musings about Worship as Gift and Task
Before presenting my musings, let me issue a caveat that I always assume, but many people who visit here seem not to understand. These blog posts are my musings. I don’t regard them as carved in stone, deep theological conclusions such as I might publish in a book or even an article for, say, Christianity Today or Christian Century. Some people who come seem to expect me to provide proof for everything I say here. They come with wrong assumptions. What I write and post here are my own thoughts today, this week, perhaps this month and this year. But they’re not the kinds of thoughts that require footnotes or even full explication and defense. Occasionally a reader questions my veracity, if not my integrity, because I publish opinions here that I partially, at least, base on my own experiences teaching Christian theology for thirty years. If someone doesn’t believe what I say I have experienced, fine. I have no problem with that. But I wonder why they keep coming back if they think I’m lying? (I’m gradually developing a new policy where I will decline to post messages and comments that simply question my veracity or integrity and do not seem at all interested in genuine dialogue.) So, what I say here about worship is based on theological reflection (using theology’s primary sources and norms), my own experiences, and, to some extent, anyway, inevitably my own tastes and preferences. If someone disagrees, well, I’m not putting these opinions forth as “truth for everyone” in the sense of dogmas to be adopted or rejected. They are my own opinions, musings, thoughts, for whatever they’re worth. I’m sure to many people they’re worth nothing. Hopefully to some, they serve to stimulate thought and possibly action in terms of designing and leading worship or just participating in worship more profoundly.
With that out of the way, here are some of my musings about worship.
First, like everything else of real spiritual value, everything truly, positively transformative and good, worship is both gift and task (Phil. 2:12-13). Unfortunately, I fear, some contemporary Christians (and probably Christians of the past as well) tend to assume that worship is our doing. We create it and practice it and hope that God will show up. Rather, God’s presence precedes our performance of worship and, to the extent that God is not already “there,” real worship is not likely to happen. It cannot be manufactured or manipulated. This is why most Christians begin worship, especially communal worship, with a prayer of invocation. It’s not to try to get God to come; it’s to acknowledge God’s gracious presence and ask God to create true worship in and among us. If true worship occurs, it is God’s gracious presence “gifting” it to us. But (!), that does not mean we just sit and wait for worship to happen. God’s gift and our practice (“working out” as in Phil. 2) go together. The more we strive to worship in Spirit and in truth, the more we receive God’s gift. The more God gives and “works in us,” the more we worship truly. Worship, in other words, like the Christian life itself, is a synergistic event and process, but the priority is God’s gift. Our “contribution” is to receive it and act on it, use it, develop it with God’s help.
Why does saying that matter? Because too often we (especially Americans, I suspect) think of worship as something we are responsible for. It is our product and gift to God (if not to ourselves which I worry is too often the real case). But Scripture everywhere emphasizes the prevenience of grace and our inability to manufacture or manipulate it. When we think of worship as our product(ion) and worshiping as our autonomous activity, we miss the focus on God (even, often, where we say the focus is on God). We gather to worship, but worship does not happen unless God is there giving us the ability truly to worship him. Any other way of looking at it tends to bend the burden of creating worship down to us. And then we miss the joy of true worship and/or we take credit if we think “true worship” has happened.
I think we have a tendency to over-plan and over-prepare worship. We want it to be a perfect performance, no messiness, completely predictable, so that people feel “inspired.” But often what really happens is people feel entertained. They go away saying “Wasn’t that a beautiful worship service?” when what it really was was a polished performance. Now, don’t get me wrong (I know someone will); I think God can work in and through a well rehearsed choir anthem, a well prepared sermon, a hymn sung to beautiful pipe organ music, a chorus led by a practiced “worship team.” However, I also think all these things can become merely performances if no place is left in and around them for the Holy Spirit to do the unexpected. If worship is really a gift, we must strictly avoid treating it like a polished performance, finely tuned and rehearsed and absolutely predictable.
Surely there can be (and I think should be) a balance between preparation and rehearsal, on the one hand, and space left for spontaneity and the unanticipated, on the other hand.
I don’t mean to boast or hold myself up as the model for everyone to follow, but a few times, when I have been asked to lead worship, I have intentionally left room for people in the congregation to respond as they feel led by the Spirit. Yes, it was risky. But why do we assume that worship should not be risky? Because we’re afraid of what God might do if we actually give him space in our program?
Again, don’t get me wrong, when I was asked to lead worship I planned it prayerfully, together with those who would play instruments, sing, pray, etc. I didn’t just get up and “let the Spirit move” as I experienced in some churches when I was Pentecostal. (Don’t get mad; I said “some!”) However, believing that worship is a gift, and that asking the Spirit to be present and active means something more than “bless what we already have planned and will do,” I said this to the congregation: “Now is a time for you to participate in worship, as you feel led by the Holy Spirit, by speaking a brief word of exhortation, comfort or testimony, singing a song, uttering a prayer request or prayer, reading a passage of Scripture or whatever else that can be done decently and in order. I will sit down and we will wait in reverent silence for you to contribute to our worship this morning.” Then I sat down and waited. One time, an elderly gentleman stood and sang a verse of a hymn, and the chorus, and then sat down. After the worship service a little old lady came up to me in the foyer and said “That’s why we don’t do that!” In other words, she didn’t like his song! I chuckled to myself and thought “But that’s why I did do that!” I suspected that others were blessed by the old saint’s song even though it was anything but polished. On no occasion did anyone do anything wild or disorderly or heretical or attention-getting. I was prepared to step up and silence anyone who did. Each time I left room for the Spirit to “move” that way, it was a positive experience except for those who thought worship should be a performance.
I’m not suggesting that this is the only way to practice awareness of the gift nature of worship. But I do think we need to reflect very seriously on our too common assumption that worship ought to be humanly planned and performed without any opportunity for God to show up and do something unexpected.
One evidence that we tend to think of worship as performance is congregations’ tendency to applaud with clapping. I admit this drives me almost crazy. When it happens I want to stand up and shout “Folks! This is not a performance!” Inevitably, clapping for a choir song or “special number” or sermon or whatever gives the impression that what just happened is entertainment. We (at least in America) are unconsciously accommodating so much about church life to non-spiritual norms and expectations. I’ve written here before about how we wrongly talk about “hiring” a pastor. Not only business language but business habits are invading the churches. So are entertainment habits. When we clap (unless we somehow know we are clapping for God which is sometimes said), we are congratulating the singer(s) or the preacher on a wonderful performance. Gradually, the mindset is taking hold in too many churches, that everything should be highly polished so that only those people whose “performance” will possibly draw applause are asked to sing or speak.
Some years ago I knew of a “worship leader” who tried to require everyone who would sing or read Scripture or pray or do anything else “up front,” so to speak, to attend a series of talks he delivered about how to, I can’t think of any other word than, perform.
If worship is truly a gift, we ought to relax somewhat and allow space for the Holy Spirit to show up and do the unexpected and we should strictly avoid saying or doing anything that would put the spotlight of attention and applause on a human being (other than Jesus, of course). If worship is truly our task as well, we ought prayerfully to plan the worship service and see that everything is done decently and in order and avoid chaos and distractions.
This morning I woke up with the following worship song on my mind: “Set my spirit free, that I might worship Thee; set my spirit free, that I might praise Thy name. Let all bondage go and let deliverance flow; set my spirit free to worship Thee.” (I would gladly give the lyricist credit, but my sources tell me it is “Anonymous.”) If I were planning a worship service today, I would plan on starting with that. It may be simple, but it profoundly expresses the truth that worship is a gift.