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Healing Worship

There’s an old image for the pastoral vocation; it can be claimed by worship leaders too. It is to be a doctor of souls . . . It means in music and spoken word and Eucharistic invitation we offer healing.

When I was a student at Fuller Seminary, there was a well-known and controversial class called “Signs, Wonders, and Church Growth.” Led by John Wimber, founder of the Vineyard movement, and missiologist Peter Wagner, it proposed that the church has always grown and loved people by extraordinary “signs.” These signs were mostly in the form of the kind of healing we read about in the New Testament—the curing of Peter’s mother-in-law, the paralytic dropped through a ceiling by four focused and determined friends, and of blind Bartimaeus shouting from the side of the road.  

As part of the class, each student was handed a thick three-ring binder (laptops weren’t yet affordable for grad students) overflowing with readings from the Bible and church history about the healing work of God. I found it fascinating. I’d never seen biblical stories of healing systematically arranged like other church doctrines of missiology, soteriology, eschatology. But what really interested me, and a big reason I registered for the class, was to see people healed.

I’ll never forget the day I was sitting in a back-row aisle when one of Wimber’s pastoral associates whispered into the ear of my friend and fellow student. He had been sitting on the chair next to me. But suddenly he fell to the ground, shaking. And he kept shaking for some minutes. All the while I sat nearby stunned, frozen in place. This had never happened in a worship service I’d attended. The instigating whisperer sat nearby, calmly holding my friend’s hand. When the shaking stopped, I saw tears streaming down my friend’s face. And, in a great surprise to me, a tender smile. His reaction to shaking was a smile.

Later in his apartment, as we further debriefed his experience, he said the pastor had whispered to him that God knew about a very specific sin in his life, and had forgiven him. No one knew what he had done. He had carried this secret for years. A shame. A huge weight. And then it was named and healed; in a moment of grace it was gone.

A Healing Experience

I thought about this again while attending a Christian Community Development Association (CCDA) conference in Detroit last Fall. To say the gathering was inspiring is to say a winter in Minnesota is cold. Young attendees were there determined to give their lives to a particular (often challenging) neighborhood. Middle-aged folks were there bearing the weight of having given their lives to a particular (often challenging) neighborhood. And of course, the founder, John Perkins, was there too, having dedicated his life to helping people of all backgrounds give their life to serving a particular (often challenging) neighborhood.

The worship leaders embodied a wonderful mix of Detroit Motown soul and Christian standards all in a high energy, culturally eclectic vibe. But what was striking to so many of us was the way their spirited mix of music and words brought healing to attendees. They intended this of course. They knew the room overflowed with ministry leaders who limped into the conference. They knew attendees were beaten and bruised, weighed down by their calling, by their broken neighborhoods and hearts, and by the unexpected disappointments and the weight of long haul ministry. Self-consciously, deliberately, they sought to heal the wounded. Their songs brought healing. Their instruments, their voices, and their words brought healing. And these gifted ministers of music and healing got me wondering, aren’t all worship services supposed to be a kind of healing?

Healing Liturgies

Isn’t the call to confession and words of assurance a kind of healing? We stop and reflect on the specific ways we have contributed to the mess in our world and neighborhood. And we receive grace, daring to imagine again that God forgives us and calls us to be an agent of shalom, participants in our neighborhood’s healing.

The simple act of “passing the peace” can be a healing. Imagine a husband and wife fighting on the way to a worship service, debating if they even should attend, or remain married. They sit through the call to worship and the opening songs in the particular brand of simmering silence married couples master, sullen and brooding, waiting for the slightest excuse to boil over. But instead, a worship leader directs them to say to each other the ancient words, “the peace of Christ be with you” —and they begin to heal.

A sermon might be prophetic, or it might be pastoral, like what’s needed after a shooting rampage in a high school. Or it might be prophetic and pastoral and healing like so many spoken by Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. Isn’t it healing to imagine and step toward creating a country with harmony instead of racism?

And a benediction can be healing. We live so much of our life hoping and aching and striving for a blessing. We work. We lose weight. We buy clothes. We create a captivating social media image. All to get a blessing. And at the end of the worship service, there it is. We can cease our striving and longing and simply receive it, as a kind of healing.

I have a good friend who lost her spouse a couple years ago. It’s all she can do to show up to any public place even now. Friends expect she’s moved on, that she’s getting on with her life. But she feels like she still has a gaping hole in her heart. And one of the few places she doesn’t feel raw and vulnerable and broken is a worship service.

Worship at the Anaheim Vineyard was known to be a place of healing. But can that be true of all Christian worship? No matter what the setting, formal or informal, or economic class or neighborhood, can’t worship leaders self-consciously see their work as healing?

There’s an old image for the pastoral vocation; it can be claimed by worship leaders too. It is to be a doctor of souls. Sometimes we do surgery, removing cancerous attitudes and harmful sins. Sometimes we speak encouragement, triaging the sorrowful, offering the broken a Savior’s healing touch. Always, every week, it means in music and spoken word and Eucharistic invitation we offer healing.