Friday, August 27, 2010

Everybody throw your hands up…

Three weeks back, I said I’d write about worship for a month, exploring my conviction that it teaches us, by experience, to trust our entire life with God’s holy empowering presence. Then I wrote about the power of simple songs, simple melodies in the Taize (chant-like) style, followed by a celebration of silence, mantra and contemplative practices. You’ll be excused, therefore, if you’ve begun believing that I think worship should be…


So you know, I don’t, and consider those worship styles quite engaging. But let’s be honest: A LOT of people find worship boring. Very boring. Holy Jesus, don’t-make-me-do-it, my brain-is-exploding-I’m-so-uninterested boring. I can’t say with certainty, but I’d imagine that in the top five reasons why adults (especially my age) don’t attend church is, “My God, church is BORING!” Top 3?

And let’s be honest again- It is. For a large portion of the population. For many reasons, folk prefer using free time for stuff other than singing hymns, listening to speeches/sermons, prayer, searching ancient texts for guidance. And maybe they’d be open to that, one theory goes, if church were just less…YAWN…

So some churches have tested that theory by making their worship services a great spectacle, filled with the most hip and exciting sounds and sights. Which makes other churches- especially predominantly white churches used to pianos/organs/’classical’ instruments- nauseous, convinced as they are that such fashion-driven worship is shallow, artificially-spiritual or too loud. I’ve heard such comments from some of you. But here’s food for thought- worshippers have embraced ‘novelty’ and ‘spectacle’ for millennia. Consider Handel’s Messiah, Notre Dame Cathedral. Martin Luther wrote numerous hymns, some still sung, many of whose melodies and styles he borrowed from local taverns. That’s right, some sacred music began as drinking tunes. In any event, popular music, pizzazz and spectacle are very much part of the mainstream Christian worship tradition. Because it’s stuff worshippers enjoy.

Think about African-American spirituals. Many of these songs began as work tunes for slaves. In other words, beloved songs like “Were You There?” and “Wade in the Water” not only taught the faith while protesting slavery. They passed the time. They made hard life easier. They were fun to sing, and since the words evoked God’s grace and presence, perhaps that enjoyment had deeper roots. Or consider this well-known experience of hospital chaplains: They’ll meet a dying patient, who doesn’t remember her family or name, has difficulty forming sentences, but when she hears, “Amazing Grace,” or “Be Thou My Vision,” suddenly the patient’s eyes perk up, and she sings along. That’s not just because she knows the words. It’s because she loves God and the music.

So no, worship isn’t, or needn’t be, boring. But as we all know, what you consider boring, I might consider wonderful, and vice versa. And since our church values openness, always striving to include all God’s people at Christ’s Table, we’ll always have a worship problem. Always. Why? Well, how would you feel if tomorrow Jeremae and I decided to use only German-language polka music during service? Alienated from church? Uninvited? Now imagine yourself my age, new to church, and the only music you hear is from 2/3/6 centuries ago. Do you feel included? Or like you’re supposed change what you love in order to be accepted at the Table? In other words, how we worship says as much about what we believe as what we teach. And what we teach is that Jesus invites everyone to the Table.

It’s our job to set that Table, i.e. to create worship that’s as open as our hearts and minds, by making room for others. Which isn’t just about music. It’s prayers, hospitality practices, sanctuary design, the joy and energy we bring. This doesn’t mean we should build a rock band and burn the organ. Rather, it means accepting that our ‘worship problem’ is never solved, and so always searching to learn more about how others enjoy worship, while adapting as best we can.

So what do you think? How should today’s churches adapt worship (music, prayers, architecture, sermon style/length/content) to ensure there’s as much room at the Table as Jesus wants?

Grace and Peace,


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