March 10, 2016


My wife and I had an interesting experience at this year’s Calvin Worship Symposium. It happened Thursday night at the Covenant Fine Arts Center. The auditorium was beautifully prepped for worship with themed hangings and well-designed lighting on and around the stage. The worship team was first rate. And the service began with an inspired playing of a Bach prelude—that very few of us actually heard because virtually no one was paying attention.

Now to be fair, anyone who has worshiped in the CFAC knows that the 40 ranks of Schlicker organ pipes who call that massive space home struggle to move the needle too far on anyone’s DB meter. But even large-scale Bach attempting to challenge the relentless deluge of dubiously important conversations that night was a foretaste of the NFC playoff (Cardinals v. Panthers).

How sad that a room full of worship leaders (many of us organists) could be so oblivious to a remarkable gift of praise offered by one of our own. It made me think of another time, years earlier, when my denomination’s General Assembly met in Charlotte, NC. Opening worship was held in an NBA arena, and thousands of otherwise well-bred (mostly Southern) Presbyterians behaved like, well, basketball fans. As I recall, they even cheered the Prayer for Illumination! It seems that humans, even baptized ones, take our cues from other humans—and from our context. The Symposium crowd wasn’t intentionally shunning a hugely gifted young organist, we were gathering in a concert venue, and that night the majority of us behaved like we would at a concert—catching up on life details with Meg and Jake two rows behind us as the “performers” were warming up, and then settling in to enjoy the “show.”

Forming Faith

I bring this up now, not as a rant, but as a point to ponder in the midst of this behavior-shaping / faith-shaping season we call Lent—a six-week intensive when followers of Jesus are encouraged to take stock of all that influences us and to weigh the reality of our responses against the potential of a gospel-shaped life.

I have a friend who loves Jesus deeply. He and his wife are faithful in daily Bible study and prayer, regular participants in worship and fellowship, and absolutely extravagant in missional generosity. But he struggles with profanity and a constant ground note of anger because of the environment in which he works five days a week. We all know (and are) people who want to follow Jesus faithfully, but we can easily be led in very different directions, partly because of our context, and partly because of the actions (or inaction) of  others. “All we like sheep have gone astray…” Can I get a bleat from the church?

I’m pretty sure blabbing through the Preparation for Worship will not determine where you spend eternity (although the worship leader might have a suggestion for you), and we can’t take on the expansive influence of the world, the flesh, and the Devil in one blog post, but we can consider how the context in which we worship shapes our behavior, and how our behavior not only shapes our faith but also impacts the worship and the faith of the people around us. This is where it gets important.

Context Matters

As part of their work toward a D.Min. in Transforming Congregations, I have my students “exegete” worship spaces: what do they see first and what visual cues are more subtle? What does the congregation appear to value, and what seems superfluous? What type of people seem most likely to be attracted to worship in this place, and how would they worship once they got here? It’s amazing what a room can tell you.

As any coffee shop owner knows, space is anything but neutral in shaping behavior. Walk into the immensity and beauty of a cathedral, and you are immediately drawn beyond yourself. Sit in the time-worn embrace of a small community church, and you can almost hear the hymns and prayers of the “cloud of witnesses” who called that place home over the years. Environment matters. Just ask any church planter about the challenge of shaping and leading worship amid the lingering aroma of middle school lunches.

Image and symbol, color and objects, space and layout all play into our anticipation and emulation of what we experience. Does the room invite us in, or does it make us work to remember why we went there in the first place? Does a worship space encourage active worshiping, like singing, or does it feel more like being in a padded closet? Does the placement and demeanor of the lead worshipers create a community of praise and prayer, or are they positioned to perform sacred rites for our audition, entertainment, and approval? These are important issues to consider in shaping context for worship. But physical space isn’t the whole story.

Behavior Matters

Back to the CFAC at the Worship Symposium. Great care had been taken (as always) to make sure the auditorium was “tuned for praise.” All the cues were there to prepare us for a well-planned evening of Reformed worship—no one expected to see Yo-Yo Ma or Lady Gaga walk out on stage. But the behavior of the people around us was as crucial to the success of our experience of worship as the room itself. Behavior shapes expectations.

Enter a room full of gregarious people, and you’ll likely be swept up into the cacophony even if it’s your first time there. Enter the same space but with people sitting, faces contorted, eyes lowered, well apart from each other, and you’re either at a funeral or you’ll want to find out where they all ate so you can avoid their gastrointestinal agony. Come into a place you’re greeted warmly but you also see people intent on preparing themselves for something important and, whether you’re familiar with the particularities of the ensuing event or not, you’re far more likely to take the whole thing more seriously.

That night at Symposium, we were in a room full of people serious about worship and their role in shaping it. But at that moment, we were also catching up on old friendships and forming new ones, eager to take advantage of the rare opportunity to be with people who care deeply about the same things we do. It was an ironic juxtaposition of competing values that caused us who lead worship regularly to fumble the liturgical kick-off so badly when someone else was attempting to lead us.

Faith Matters

My hunch is that most of us at Symposium are fairly well seasoned in our faith. Skeptics and seekers tend to congregate at places other than worship symposia, even in Grand Rapids. But such is not the case on any given Lord’s Day at First Church of Anywhere. Part of the work of catechesis is the energy we invest in designing and leading worship and the expectations we voice and model for how followers of Jesus share life together. Context shapes behavior, and behavior shapes faith.

As you put the finishing touches on the liturgical life of your congregation through the rest of Lent and beyond, what are you teaching and modeling about the reality and the life-changing potential of worshiping, loving, serving, and enjoying our risen and reigning Lord?

Rev. Dr. Paul Detterman is an author, composer, and conference speaker who is pastor of First Presbyterian Church of River Forest, Illinois, and a blogger at He is a former associate for worship on the national staff of the Presbyterian Church (USA).