Category Archives: Worship

Letter 40: Adventures in Combined Worship

Like many churches, our church has gone to a summer schedule of only one service.  This has brought some challenges, as we seek to combine elements of both a “traditional” and a “contemporary” service.  To my mind, the combined format has not worked very well.   While both services have their own flow and logic, as combined, the resulting service has a Frankenstein feel to it, with bits and pieces stuck together without much regard to how they function.

So, we start with two hymns, each sung singly, with a pause to move from one to the other, followed by a prayer, and then the worship set. The flow goes start-stop, start-stop, start, stop, then start, and continue on for the next fifteen to twenty minutes.  The rubric of the traditional service involves a series of discreet parts intentionally chosen (when done well), that are designed to focus and direct one’s mind.  The contemporary model seems to require broad bands of time, giving the Spirit room to work, chiefly on our spirit and emotions.

As we’ve worked with trying to combine the two styles, it has become clear to me that it is not the music necessarily, that separates the two.  Music is music, and one can perform it in virtually any manner imaginable, and I’ve seen hymns performed as worship songs, and worship songs sung as hymns.  Instead, the two styles have different flows and different foci that make it difficult to combine them, unless you wish to create something entirely different.

The traditional service has many individual components, which works to fulfill a checklist of sorts.  We come into God’s presence, express praise, worship, and awe.  We confess our sins, and offer up our prayers and petitions.  We then let God speak through His Word.  We may also partake of Him directly through His Supper.  We close in a statement of praise and purpose thence depart.  Each part is distinct, not unlike the singing, and few last long, except the sermon.

The contemporary service has far fewer parts, and most of them are of far longer duration.  It is unhurried, seeking, I think, to free the mind, and welcome the Spirit’s embrace.  It is intentionally unintentional from the standpoint of human thought and activity.  The discrete and rapid shifts of nearly every aspect of the traditional service jars with the contemporary worship experience.  Thus we are dropping the traditional hymn singing from the combined service, and we may not get to prayer.

The strength of the contemporary format is an openness to the workings of the Spirit (thought one is left in the lurch if the Spirit decides not to act).  The strength of the traditional format is a completeness in the range of worshipful activities offered, and the more conscious effort to ties the congregation together.  But the traditional approach can also be rote and stale.  How would a service that combines that openness to the Spirit with the fuller dialogue with God flow?

First, we are called to worship.  We hear God’s invitation to us, to turn out eyes and minds toward Him.  This is a communal act, and need not take much time.  Having drawn near, we engaged in praise and worship, and luxuriate in His presence.  Here, we can sing, dance, or remain in silence.  The challenge here is to draw everyone together.  The best way I can think of to accomplish this is to begin and end the set with strong congregational singing.

Following this, I know the hope is that people will spontaneously burst into prayer.  However, in my experience that tends to yield the same voices, often uttering the same prayers.  I think the prayer should be led and guided, making a point to address concerns of the congregation, hopefully submitted in advance, and other affairs of the moment, but also leaving space for people to pray as the Spirit leads.  Prayer is a time to speak to God in hope and faith, but also presenting our questions, fears, and doubts.  It comes from the time that we have spent in His presence.  Ideally, close with a few moments of silence, inviting God to speak to us individually.  This should then prepare us to hear God speak to us collectively through His Word preached.  Alternatively, one could place the corporate prayer after the message, placing it as a final response to God.

Close with one quick hymn or song, invite people up for further prayer if desired, and formally dismiss the congregation.  I did leave out a specific time for confession, something that has been a part of some traditional liturgies.  This can be incorporated into the time of prayer or the call to worship.

The time breakdown should probably run thirty minutes for worship, ten for prayer, thirty again for the message, and ten to close.  If one assumes a ninety minute block for the service, this breakdown leaves ten minutes as a cushion.  Obviously, if you have something like Communion or a baptism, everything needs to be shortened.

Part of the key to making this work and flow is to think about what each part is doing and how it relates to the whole of the service.  The Sunday worship should be a time for the people to come together before God, engage Him, and depart from thence into the world, renewed and reconnected.  Each part does its bit in that process, by drawing us in, uniting us, speaking to God, listening to God, finally going forth to do His will in the world. There should be movements and pauses as we make this journey.

That isn’t what my church doing, alas, but then I’m not sure they know what the various parts of a worship service are for, or that its significance is as a collective experience.  Something for you to add to your prayers for us.

Nov_ 29 combined

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Contemporary or Traditional Music: Which is Right?

Our church has gone to only one service during the summer, and we are trying to combine elements of both services. This article does a good job of explaining the challenge we face in trying to combine musical styles.

A Question of Style Let us limit our discussion to congregational singing. Some concepts can be applied to choral singing as well. However, for the sake of brevity, we will ignore entirely the issues of solo and instrumental music.

Source: Contemporary or Traditional Music: Which is Right?

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Letter 35: A Prayer for Penteost

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Come Holy Ghost,

Alight on us as a dove

And bring us peace.

For we are tempest-tossed

And would thy comfort seek.

 

Come Holy Ghost,

Singe us with your fire.

For we are cold and dark

And would thy better tongue

To speak.

 

Come Holy Ghost,

Free as the wind,

Fill us, propel us,

Drive us where you will.

Be ever-breathing still.

 

Come Holy Ghost,

Shaker of worlds,

Hold forth God’s power

That all the world, and we,

Would see, and believe.

 

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Letter 33: Watching and Waiting, an Easter Mediation

Easter is Sunday. In thinking about the Easter story, I was struck by two things. First how unnoticed the first Easter was, and second, how much waiting surrounds Easter. I suppose I should elaborate.

Easter is central to the Christian faith. Without Easter, there is no Christian faith. Given how much notice the seminal events in Jesus life received, Easter is surprisingly low key. Indeed, if one accepts the earliest copies of Mark’s gospel, we have only some frightened women and an empty tomb. Angels will appear, but again, only to some women. The guards are struck as dead men when Jesus rises from the tomb, so they see nothing, and can only report that the tomb is empty.

John reports that the first disciples to inquire again find only an empty tomb. John believes, but Peter has only questions. The risen Christ is finally spotted by the same group of women who have attended Him throughout His ministry, and they at first think He’s the gardener.

At Jewish law, women cannot give testimony, and so God deliberately chooses to reveal himself to people whose testimony cannot count and cannot be trusted. It seems a strange thing to do, as if He is making deliberately difficult to get to the bottom of what He is up to. He confounds the wisdom of the wise, and turns this world upside-down, but we have to work to find it. Why?

Thus the waiting. There is a lot of waiting in the Easter story. Jesus gets shuttled back and forth between the various authorities in Jerusalem waiting for the resolution He knows will come. He is several hours dying on the Cross. Nothing happens quickly. And then comes Holy Saturday, where Christ lies buried deep in the bowels of the earth, unseen. Holy Saturday is the day nothing happens, the day we wait.

There is much to ponder here. Which is why we wait. In the hidden places, God is at work.

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Letter 23: When Keely Smith Sings the Beatles

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Last night, I was listening to a most peculiar album, “Keely Smith Sings the Music of Lennon and McCartney.”   In and of itself, there is nothing remarkable about it. Ms. Smith was a second tier singer of standards during the 1950s, and like so many singers of her ilk, the coming of the Beatles brought a significant career challenge. Hitherto, while rock and roll laid a strong claim on popular attention, they often drew from the same sources for material, and there was much overlap, and the two existed side by side. Now, however, the old standards were pressed to the background, and only the first tier talent was still drawing attention.

What to do? The curse here, was relevance. Top stars of the older generation, like Frank Sinatra and Ella Fitzgerald, could pick and choose what current songs they performed, including some Beatles songs. But in the main, there was little change. People still came to their concerts and bought their albums, though it was now mostly an older audience, those on the edges did not feel so out of date.

The second tier performers found it much harder to attract an audience. One could choose to set up shop in Vegas, or hit the country fair circuit, or try to re-invent one’s self. Thus Keely Smith turned to covering the Beatles. It made for a strange marriage.

Smith was a good singer, who had refined her pop sensibilities through years of live and recorded performances with her then husband Louis Prima. But it was the pop of a different era. For some of the songs it works. For others, it leads to something utterly unrecognizable, a once poppy tune turned syrupy and saccharine. Yuck.

As an aside, the real irony is that these days aging pop stars have found refuge in the old standards that were once Ms. Smith’s stock in trade. Ms. Smith herself has followed that path. I am not sure if the old songs are simply easier to sing, or just better fit superannuated singers.

There may be a lesson in this sad tale for us. The “Worship Wars” that so many of us had hoped were now past now seem to be returning with a new twist. Young people are decrying contemporary worship as superficial, empty, and worst of all, “inauthentic.” When they experience modern worship, they are apparently picturing Keely Smith singing Beatles’ songs.

So what makes worship “Authentic?” Does it require use of archaic language? Must it possess an ancient pedigree? It seems we keep circling back to the question of what is worship, and what we should be trying to accomplish in worship and through worship.

Outside of the sacrificial system, which we believe to have been fulfilled and abolished by Christ, the one place were Scripture regularly demonstrates worship is in the Psalms. The Psalmist engages in a conversation with God. He describes both his experience of God and the state of his soul. He declares the truths about God, and offers and account of walking with God, both its ups and its downs.

Using this model, our worship should be both descriptive and normative. What I suspect strikes people as “inauthentic” is our tendency to be descriptive when we should be normative and normative when we should be descriptive. Authenticity comes from trying to balance the two aspects of worship. We should be honest about the state of our souls at the same as we declare the great truths about God, because they are not always the same.

Church probably shouldn’t look or feel like anything else, either.  We are, after all, trying to connect people to a reality that transcends our world.  It will always be imperfect and messy, but a church service should never be mistaken for a talk show, or a concert, or a TED lecture.  That, too gets smeared when Keely Smith sings Lennon and McCartney.

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Letter 13: The Building Blocks of Worship

ImageHandlerWhat should we be seeking in worship? Outside of the proscribed sacrifices and festivals in the Old Testament, the Bible does not offer a comprehensive and normative statement of what should be in a worship service. Strangely, beyond the command to keep the Sabbath, there is no apparent obligation in the Old Testament to attend a weekly worship service. Formal worship was strictly centered on the Temple. Given the Sabbath travel restrictions, it is highly unlikely the people worshipped on a weekly basis as we do. We do have example of private prayers (Hannah, David, Daniel), and private altars, (Jacob, Gideon). From the accounts of the temple, we also know that there was music and choirs.

Turning to the New Testament, its authors seem to consciously steer away for any specific instructions on how we are to worship. Temple worship is abolished, so all of the sacrificial rules and regulations are no more. We do know that congregations sang and prayed. Words were spoken, as either teaching or prophecy (see I Cor. 14: 26ff). Given Christ’s teaching (Matt. 5:23), confession was expected, and these meetings were regular. Revelation envisions worship in heaven as including prayer, singing, and offering of praise to God.

This leaves the question of Communion. Christ clearly commanded it, but how often are we to receive it? Weekly? Monthly? Quarterly? Since Christ’s death, resurrection, and ascension are the core of the Christian message, I believe it should be a part of the weekly service. Communion forms a visible and tangible representation of the message, and serves as bond of unity within the body, as we all partake, at the same time. Paul offers some specific guidance on how we are to partake of it (I Cor 1:17ff)), which again highlights its importance and centrality to Christian worship. Here again, Paul makes mention of the need for self-examination and confession, as a prerequisite for partaking.

So we have some sense of the basic ingredients of worship: Prayer, Praise, Song, Teaching, Confession, and Communion. How might these flow? Some of this is dependent on what we take to be the apex of worship. We know that the basic models suggest: Communion, Sermon, or Experience. I am not sure any of these are entirely adequate. The worship model depends too much on the state of mind or soul of the congregant. If I do not reach the desired state of worship, I do not really participate in the service, and thus the service fails. In the traditional Protestant model, if the minister mishandles Scripture, again, the service fails, or worse, commits blasphemy. The catholic model offers the advantage of offering every worshipper something that is not limited by any of the participants. But is that satisfactory for the focus of the entire service? I will consider that question next.

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Letter 12: The Architecture of Worship

appealing-church-interior-design-ideas-is-modern-church-interior-design-with-bright-white-themed-1306x979Getting back to worship, much ink has been spilled over the past twenty years or so about worship, particularly worship style. While the debate has been fierce, I believe that nearly everyone involved was missing the point. What should worship be about really should be the first question. Sadly, that question is usually resolved in an unstated assumption, which prevents us from having any meaningful opportunity to determine the validity of each defense.

Church architecture offers three different model of what the church has done over the years. There may be others, but these are the three I’m most familiar with. Whether we are aware of it, how our church is laid out says much about what we believe worship to be about, often more than any formal written statement.

What I’ll call the catholic model, places the altar at the center, where the Host is sacrificed at each Mass. The altar is usually flanked by a lectern and a pulpit, various candle stands, and, if applicable, statues or illustrations of saints. The Eucharist is the focal point of the service. It links directly with the Temple worship of the Old Testament, as the focus is on the sacrifice. By partaking, we receive God and have our sins atoned for. I use the name “catholic” as it is used in the Creed, as this approach typifies both Orthodox and Catholic churches, as well as some Lutheran and Anglican churches.

The Reformed model is typical of most Protestant churches. The pulpit is front and center, with the Lord’s Table behind, and, in Baptist churches, the baptismal tank, either before or behind. While the overall focus is on receiving God in His several forms, Word and Sacrament, the Word is foremost. Communion may not be held every week, but the Word must be preached at all times and places. Indeed, in its most severe forms, think colonial Congregational churches, the physical setting is devoid of any ornament or embellishment other than the pulpit. Nothing will detract or distract from the Word.

“Worship” models are a much more recent development. The dominating feature is usually the projection screen where the song lyrics, Bible verses, message outlines, and videos are shown. Everything else is built around this. The focus is on worship as an experience. There will usually be open space at the front where people may dance or be prayed for. The pulpit is usually off to the side, and quite minimal. The worship team will also be very prominent, due to the amount of real estate they occupy. There may or may not be a small table at the back.

Each model has its own internal structure, designed to bring the worshipper to its intended point. The structure of the first two is very similar. There is a call to worship, followed by some congregational singing, followed by some readings and a congregational prayer that can serve to highlight news of the congregation. Here they diverge. In the catholic model, the priest offers a brief message, which leads to the celebration of the Eucharist, which follows its own pattern of confession, institution, distribution, consumption, and conclusion. In the Protestant model, there may be a prayer of confession placed at some point the service. There follows the sermon, which will consume the better part of the service. Both will conclude with a hymn and a benediction.

The worship model starts with an extended time of worship, and can last from fifteen to forty-five minutes. There is no break between the songs, as worshippers are expected to enter into the experience as it builds. This is followed by a time of testimony, and maybe a prayer. The preacher then gives a message, where Scripture may be read, and is followed by more worship and ministry time, where congregants come to the front for prayer. There is generally no confession.

Each of these models seeks to worship God, God of course, but they want you to come away with very different things. Under the catholic model, the central act of worship is tangibly receiving God through the Host of the Eucharist. The focus is entirely sensory and tactile. The Protestant model wants you to hear and receive the Word of God, with the expectation that you will respond to it. Worship is to engage the ears and the mind. The worship model seeks to leave worshippers with an experience that resides largely in the emotions.

These, then, are the way in which we seek to worship God. In the entries to come, I want to begin to develop and outline of worship, to supplement, and correct these models.

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