Having grown up in a high-church tradition, I had some new liturgical experiences when I headed off to college at a liberal arts university that was connected to a free-church tradition. I can vividly remember my first Sunday worshiping at the campus church. The service was unlike what I was accustomed to; but, having had the week of chapel services to adjust and learn, I’d begun to get the hang of things (or so I thought). Then, at the end of the pastor’s sermon, he prayed and told the congregation we were dismissed. I sat in my pew for a good sixty seconds, watching people file out of the room, wondering what on earth was happening. Was there an emergency somewhere? Where was the rest of the service? How were we just finished?
I got over it pretty quickly (I mean, for an 18-year old, it was the equivalent of a snow day being called. I quickly acclimated to not having to sit through 20 more minutes of service each week). But years later, I can still feel the sense of incompleteness I had that September Sunday, when something in me said, “Wait…there’s more!”
Responding to the Word
Imagine yourself, if you will, sitting in your favorite coffee shop with a friend who’s asked you to come as she has some important news to share. Upon your arrival and the basic exchange of pleasantries, your friend looks you straight in the eye and says, “I’m getting married!” Then, without pausing for so much as a second, gets up, and walks out of the store. Aside from it just being really awkward, what would you feel was missing?
Your chance to respond, of course! A close friend tells you something new and important about herself, but then simply leaves you with no opportunity to reply, inquire further about her fiancé or the proposal, the plans for the wedding, or even about her excitement over this major life development? Not cool.
Constance Cherry, author of The Worship Architect, writes that “Worship is an invitation, not an invention.” In other words, the interaction we have with God on a weekly basis in worship is not something we can simply, creatively or intellectually, drum up on our own. Instead, corporate worship is the conversation to which we are invited, by God, to participate in each week.
Think of Abram in Genesis 12: God initiated contact with Abram, telling him to leave his country and go to the place the Lord had prepared for him. God promised to bless him and make his descendants as numerous as the stars. And Abram responded—taking up his belongings and his wife and going to the very place that God had directed him. It was a dialogue—a conversation which involved both parties to engage (and we see all sorts of examples of this type of God-initiated interaction throughout Scripture). In this same way today, the corporate worship setting is the place God beckons us to come and dwell in his presence -to respond to the things about himself that he chooses to reveal in his way and timing.
So we hear the Word of God preached each week in the form of a sermon, a homily, or a meditation. God uses the preacher to reveal new insights about his nature, character, and desires for us, his children. And the question then needs to be asked: how are we, as worship leaders, helping our people have the chance to respond to the Word—to God, himself, who has initiated this conversation and desires our response?
It’s easy for us to simply plan worship in terms of music and sermon. And, even in High-Church traditions, to simply habitually serve the Eucharist following the Word, but without any real explanation or intentionality in terms of helping our people see how this sacred action allows us to respond to what we have received through God’s revelation.
My encouragement to us as worship leaders is to deeply consider, not only the logos, or the words of the sermon, themselves; but also the ethos and the pathos of the Word and what it will convey to those receiving this revelation of God in our services. After doing this, ask yourself, “What is a natural response here?” Is it emotive, cognitive, physical, or some combination of these things? And how do we ensure our people have the time, space, and tools, within our services to respond together in a fitting way? How do we facilitate a conversation with God rather than just receiving His revelation and then being dismissed or engaging in activities that seem merely ritualistic or disconnected?
At the end of any truly engaging conversation, both parties involved feel heard, understood, and perhaps even compelled to continue the conversation another time—not as though they were cut off or unable to participate. Furthermore, these conversations inspire us to invite others into the dialogue. These conversations remain in our hearts and heads long after the interaction has concluded. May this be true of our congregations as we help facilitate the conversation to which God has invited us.
Image attribution: Fuse / Thinkstock