“The most beautiful and most profound emotion we can experience is the mystical. It is the sower of all true science. He to whom this emotion is a stranger, who can no longer stand rapt in awe, is as good as dead. That deeply emotional conviction of the presence of a superior reasoning power, which is revealed in the incomprehensible universe , is my idea of God”
Laity in Worship
One of my first recollections of worship was in a Friends Church in Marion, Indiana. The church had an ordained pastor. The year was 1943. We were in the middle of World War II. I can’t remember all the details nor the exact order worship. I do remember there was a choir, an offering, a sermon and a time of prayer. The prayer time always began with a prayer given by the pastor. After his prayer there was a time of “silent prayer”. There were moments of silence, but during this silence various members of the congregation would stand and say a prayer and then sit back down. When I asked my mother about the prayers given by the laity she told me “they had been moved by the spirit”.
I was fascinated by the fact that week after week, and month after month, the same persons were “moved by the spirit” and usually for about the same amount of time. I became annoyed by the fact that no one was ever moved to pray for the soldiers who were serving in the military. After weeks of trying to ratchet up my courage, I finally was “moved by the spirit” to pray for the American soldiers. It was a frightening experience for a twelve year old, but at the same time it was an exhilarating one. Looking back on that event I have come to realize that anyone who only observes worship becomes its “judge”. For worship to have any transformational power it demands participation.
The most creative addition to the service of worship during my active ministry was created by a lay woman. I was serving a United Methodist church in Columbus, Ohio and after the first few weeks I learned that the choir director/organist was leaving town. I had sung with the Ohio State University Men’s Glee Club during my four undergraduate year and I knew that the director of that Glee Club had just retired. I asked him if he would consider accepting the job of Music Director for that congregation. He accepted and did a marvelous job with a small choir. Eighteen months later he died of cancer.
His widow came to my office about a year after her husband’s death and shared with me that she had finally decided what role she needed to play in the church. She asked if she could recruit a team of laity. She would train them in the skills needed to dramatize the scripture reading each week. She said she would work with this group in the same way that her husband had worked with the choir. She would lead the readers in the dramatic presentation of the scripture until it was ready and powerful. Her contribution to the meaning and power of worship in our congregation was palpable. It also freed up others to begin asking themselves how they could contribute to our worship experience. It broke down the concept that “worship is the minister’s job”.
The Flow of Worship
My understanding of the flow of worship is that it is a four act drama beginning with a “gathering” and ending with a “send-out”. The four acts of worship between the gathering and send-out are: 1) CONFESSION; 2) PRAISE; 3) DEDICATION; and 4) COMMITMENT.
We gather as the family of God to rehearse our humility, gratitude, compassion and resolve.
Act One: Confession
We reflect upon the past and in bold humility, admitting who we are and accepting God’s wondrous love.
Our task in confession is to honestly and objectively portray the comprehensive picture of ourselves before God. As human beings we are those who don’t always do what we know we should. Our resolve is not always as strong as we know it could be. Every one of us, if we are honest with ourselves, know we have failed at times. However, this is not the whole truth about who we are. The other part of us is our greatness. If we are honest with ourselves, there have been times when we have surprised ourselves with how well we have done things.
It is easier for most of us to confess our sin than it is to confess our greatness. I remember how offended we were when Muhammad Ali cried out “I am the greatest”. Many pointed to him as an example of insufferable arrogance. For me, that accusation would only be true if Muhammad Ali also believed he had never made a mistake, even terribly hurtful mistakes. The true picture of all of us includes both our greatness and our hurtful mistakes.
Having rehearsed who we are before God with honesty and objectivity, we then enter the second phase of confession. This is usually stated by the minister in that part of the service called, “Words of Assurance” or “Words of Absolution”. God’s objective word to us is, I love you, the way you are!” There Is no “IF” in that Word. Love, connected with an “IF” is manipulation. Love with an “IF” really means I only love you when you do what I want you to do. If that is the case, there could be no “Amazing Grace”.
Is this description of grace what Bonhoeffer called “cheap grace”? No it is not. The costliness of grace hits us when we realize that if God loves me “just as I am without one plea”, then God loves everyone the way they are. The responsibility (the cost) which that lays upon us is to love and care for all those around us as God’s family. If we choose to not accept that responsibility, then we have chosen not to accept God’s unconditional love. There are two alternatives which are both illusions. One is to believe that God loves me because I am not all bad; i.e. “ I am better than a lot of people I know”. The second alternative is, “I don’t need God in my life and I will make it just fine on my own.
The story of the prodigal son spells out in unmistakable detail the nature of God’s love. The father of the prodigal son makes that clear to the son who never left home. The prodigal son’s brother refused to join the celebration. The cost is not in doing penance for what we have done in the past. The cost is becoming a physical reminder of God’s love for those we would like to call unworthy. This cost is rehearsed In the third and fourth acts of this worship drama.
Act two: Praise
We reflect upon the present and embrace the gift of life in gratitude
Once we confessed and remembered God’s love, we have reason to praise God. Praise and thanksgiving is a normal response to amazing grace. My experience of “contemporary worship” has reminded me that there are many ways to worship God. For me, personally, I am not ready to “jump for joy” with praise music until after I have rehearsed my strengths, my weaknesses and God’s commitment to love me unconditionally. But, “one size does not fit all”.
Another component of the praise segment of corporate worship may be a special time with the children. Nothing can be more celebratory than a thoughtful conversation on a child’s level with the children. There is nothing more manipulative than children’s moments for the amusement of the adults. Nevertheless, children have a delightful ability to bring laughter to worship. A prayer of thanksgiving and an anthem sung by the choir are important parts of the act of praise.
Act three: Dedication
We combine our reflections on the past and present to inform our reflections on the future and commit ourselves to all of its possibilities
The two most obvious happenings during this third act of worship are the offering and the sermon. The sermon is a very important part of worship for the simple reason that a significant portion of the congregation decides on the effectiveness of worship based on the “grade” they give to the sermon. The power of the Jesus stories is made manifest when the preacher enables the persons in the pew to grasp the meaning of Jesus’ call to do what he did: heal the sick, forgive the sinner, comfort the devastated, invite others to join in the task of healing, and pour out our lives for all who are in need.
The offering is a tangible reminder that there is a cost for the kind of care we have been called to address. This means that the budget of the church must make it clear that a significant part of the offering is used for the needs of others.
Act four: Decisional Action
We reflect upon the future and commit ourselves to all of its awesome possiblilties
The fourth act of worship is being “sent out” into God’s world. Some call this the Benediction. Worship is not a time to find God. We run into God every day of our lives. Worship is a time to reflect on the life-giving story of God’s love. Then we will be better prepared to share that good news, when the opportunity arises, in the routines of daily life. If people know we care, opportunities will come for us to share what has strengthened us, given us hope and freed us to forgive. There are a million ways to share the Good News of Jesus the Christ, but the job calls for a regular refresher course. Corporate worship is one of those refresher courses.
We have gathered to rehearse the Gospel. We leave to serve the world.