During Covidtide, my professional project has been improving my organ playing. So I found me a good teacher and a couple of churches to let me practice on their organs. It’s fun, but it’s hard. I’m no spring chicken. My bad keyboard habits have been reinforced by years of lousy Billy Graham Crusade-style piano playing. The neuroplasticity is at an all-time low. But still, it’s important for any serious liturgically-minded church music director. So I sit and practice.
Then back to the first.
Today I was working on a new-to-me piece. It’s one of my favorite voluntaries, and I’d give anything to be able to play it well.
I had already been at it for quite some time, building it from the ground up. Pedal, left hand, then left hand and pedal together. Penciling in fingerings and pedalings, then erasing those and writing in new ones. Metronome app open on my phone, tick-tocking away.
Then the custodian enters, sweeping, mopping, tidying, tending to God’s house with diligence and care. All while I keep hacking away on the little 30-year-old digital number. At some point I began to ponder what she was probably thinking. I was playing the same bit over and over, de- and reconstructing. It didn’t sound much like music. It wasn’t beautiful. Its wasn’t the thrilling end result I want to achieve.
She didn’t say anything, of course, but I was thinking that if it were me, I would have lost patience within the first five minutes of listening to me playing. “Are you ever going to finish,” is probably what I would say out of annoyance.
I’m not finished, of course. I’m a long way from being where I need to be. But this is my work, and though there is often joy to be found, today it feels especially like work. It isn’t fun right now. I’m doing it purely out of discipline and hope.
And so it is with worship.
Friends, if you find yourself in a church that is all fun, one that seeks to be relevant to you and your wishes, one that never feels like work, you’re in the wrong place. Worship is a discipline to which we subject ourselves out of reverence and obligation. And if you’re in a church that does liturgy well, that prays with intention and sobriety, that proclaims the Gospel diligently in Word and Sacrament, you will likely find yourself stirred and lifted at times. In fact, you probably should sometimes.
But it’s hard work. We aren’t finished yet, thanks be to God. Not only are our lives not “performance ready,” we can barely make any music on our own. We need the practice of liturgy, to submit our will and affections before the Gospel of Christ. He’s the only one who can make us perfect. He will make us performance ready, sinful and undeserving though we be.
The seeker movements of the past half century have been disastrous for evangelicalism. Worship that is human-centric, a carefully-crafted theatrical performance designed for a target audience, cannot bear fruit. It cannot build a healthy church. Jesus, not people, must be at the center
Lukewarm Protestant worship, bearing some semblance of historic worship but that reads like a seminar on how to behave ethically according to some vague Judeo-Christian standard cannot cut it either. Such churches should change their name to the United Way and be done with it. Jesus is more than a model of nice behavior.
Neither one of these models can fully enculturate people into the kingdom of God. It’s like practicing the wrong notes, or playing through a piece once and putting it away.
In worship, we must be fully submitted to the gospel, to praying it, singing it, listening to it, and allowing it to soak into our hearts and minds. And the liturgy we practice must be true, it must be rigorous, it must be bathed in Holy Scripture. It must be a ritual worth doing.
We may never play the piece very well. But we must practice it the best we can.