Friday, September 30, 2011

Expendables - The Worship Experience

Having established the groundwork for rethinking church activity/methodology, I wanted to jump into an element of church which has both bothered me and enriched my life throughout the years. This element is what we have commonly come to know as the Worship Experience. The tradition really goes back to the book of Acts, I believe, where it is said that the early followers of "the Way" sang songs of praise together. It goes back further than that, of course, but in terms of documented history of the Christian tradition, we might as well say it was there at the beginning. People sang together in worship to God.

This could be a touchy subject for many people. I have known of not a few Christians who have left churches over a change in worship style or simply because they disliked the music (I am not arguing here that this is a bad reason to leave a church - that is a different discussion entirely - I am simply pointing out that the worship experience seems to be very important to a lot of people). Lots of people go into the worship experience (ie. congregational music) with certain expectations. Some want to feel a sense of reverence, like they're coming before God himself, in awe and trembling. Others may want to feel reassured and calm. Still others prefer to pour their hearts out in thanksgiving, or petition, or even self deprecation. For the most part, people are looking for a certain kind of experience, a certain kind of feeling, and most seem to want to reach this experience in a certain way.

These desires people have for pouring out their hearts, or for reassurance, or for trembling awe, or whatever else one might look for in worship music, are often laudable desires, and the experiences they have are often positive and healthy (not always, but often). What troubles me about them is, first, that they are for most people static, unchangeable expectations, and second, that they are treated as ideals in themselves in place of the highest ideal of living in love, faith, and hope through Christ. Again, this is touchy. I will concede that drawing closer to a very real God is perhaps the essence of living in love and attaining to these qualities, and furthermore, I see the value in these experiences towards reaching these ends. The problem is once more that we've treated the method, and even sometimes the style, as the essential element, as the weight-bearing, indispensable pillars.

As I have fleshed this out, the essential element of the Worship Experience is drawing closer to God. After all, I think we can admit that the whole point of being a Christian is to have God in our lives. Thus, we want to be able to come before him, to talk with him, to worship him, to pray to him and to experience him. But the Worship Experience, as can easily be seen, is only one mere method of this, not the essential element. There are many ways to draw near to God. There are many ways to experience him. Singing songs of praise is a very good way, but it is not the only way, and it is only good if it is done in light of our true essential element. Too often, people practice the method for the express purpose of getting out of it what they've experienced before: an emotional high or a feeling of excitement. Granted, there is nothing wrong with these things, but without placing them in the proper context of drawing near to a very real and personable God and learning to live in love through a humble encounter with him. If we forget the essential element, we might begin to enter a worship experience with a sense of self-importance or pride in our abilities, even pride in our own humility.

There are many ways to draw near to God, as I have said. Singing songs of praise is one, Prayer is another. Service, camaraderie, and virtually any good thing can bring a person before God's presence. And here is what I think is the most important point throughout this whole conversation I seem to be having with myself: Churches need to act according to their spiritual needs, not according to strict methodology. Perhaps the same thing will be effective for a long time in some contexts, but without the essential elements of our meetings together, how can we even know? If we don't have our eye on the goal, on what it really means to live life together in the way of Jesus, how can we even begin to measure whether our teaching or our worship is effective? People can argue all they want about the merits of one teaching style over another, or of one worship style over another, but unless a church learns to be malleable in its application of activities, it will always and only be a specifically catered, production-oriented, Sunday Morning Show. Our activities should be a reflection of the spiritual needs of our community. If the people in our congregations need to learn to be humble, one approach might be to give a sermon on humility. This is a step in the right direction, but even further is to lay down very careful thought about the most effective way to teach people to be humble. Perhaps taking everyone to a homeless shelter for Sunday morning would help teach humility. A sermon may still have an important place for many contexts, and I admit it is the easier choice to facilitate, but our church communities need to be growing not just watching. What if what your congregation really needs is a time for everyone to come to church and be silent for an hour and a half? What if what they really need is a whole morning devoted to getting to know one another? What if they need to sing songs all morning? A church methodology must be designed to fulfill needs, and nobody's needs are static. A person might need reassurance one day, humility the next. One might need to pour their hearts out one morning and listen to a thoughtful sermon the next.

In closing I will say this: an effective and meaningful church needs to be a goal-oriented church, and it needs to know what the most important goals are and direct their energy and activity toward meeting those goals. Know what the essential elements are of reaching those goals, and you're that much closer to being able to think outside the box, and to establish a community that is growing and learning together.

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