May 11, 2016

An Intergenerational “Worship-MRI”

My wife Evelyn and I worship at a congregation which very intentionally invites children, teens, and young adults to engage in worship together. Meadowlands Fellowship Christian Reformed Church (Ancaster, Ontario) does this quietly, almost organically, so that if you’re not looking for it you may not notice it.  

Because it’s almost invisible, I’ve conducted a “Worship-MRI scan” so that I can understand it better. Here’s what I saw:  

  1. The worship culture is both relaxed and reverent. Worship embodies the deep intersection of the transcendent and social dimensions of the faith, what some call “the vertical and the horizontal” dimensions. It’s hard for us to honor paradoxical balances, and we easily sacrifice one for the other. Growing a culture that is both filled with humble, reverent awe in the presence of the Lord of the universe and warmly hospitable to all who gather is central to our worship calling, and serves to build a home for all generations.

  1. The music draws from many sources, yet feels organically coherent as it is led with grace. The MRI scan revealed this startling observation about worship music: it’s not primarily what you choose but how you lead that matters. Worship wars are usually music-based, seeming to focus on those tired labels of traditional or contemporary. A below the surface MRI look tells us that the “how” matters much more: when worship is led with humble grace, respectful honesty and just a pinch of appropriate humor that does not take itself too seriously, a worship community of all ages will follow willingly. I’ve noticed that many teens at Meadowlands willingly engage all kinds of worship music because they trust Marja, our worship leader, and the teams she builds.

  1. Folks of all ages participate in worship leadership through music, arts, and other means. Many folks help to lead worship at Meadowlands. Younger children have brief “worship leading cameos” from time to time; middle school students are apprenticed into the worship teams; folks from teens to seniors take turns on various worship teams. A continuous cycle of launching, learning and leading is woven through our worship.  

One specific project at Meadowlands illustrates this dynamic: we are just completing a thirty week walk through the Old Testament, and an artwork was commissioned for each week! One Sunday after worship folks were invited to sign up for this project, and the thirty slots were quickly filled by artists ranging from ten year olds to accomplished professional artists. Every week the artwork is placed on an easel next to the pulpit and used as a bulletin cover; a one paragraph artist’s statement is included in the bulletin, and the preacher refers to the artwork in the message. Each week’s artwork is added to a gallery wall behind the pulpit, which now contains 26 pieces! That wall is a powerful testimony to the intergenerational body in action.  

  1. Sermons are prepared with intergenerational engagement in mind. Years ago I heard Dr. Neil Plantinga suggest that the model for intergenerational preaching was C. S. Lewis’ Chronicles of Narnia, profound literature that blesses 5 and 95 year olds alike.  Our Pastor Everett aims for that goal. Biblical depth is shared in a conversational voice supplemented by illustrative examples, concise powerpoint slides that help one to see his outline unfold and provide supplementing visuals. The council has formed a sermon feedback team which includes a parent of young children, a young adult as well as older folks so that all generations are represented.

  1. Suggestions are welcomed and refined for improvement. One member at Meadowlands noted that the culture says, “we will seriously consider every idea that comes our way.”

Four years ago the grade four Sunday School class (the oldest grade level that meets during the worship service) made an unusual suggestion. They were nearing the end of their year, and knew that soon they would participate in the entire worship service. They asked, “during our next monthly communion service, could we ask the congregation to file into the foyer before they file to a communion station at the front of the sanctuary, dip one hand in paint and make a hand-print on a large sheet of paper? We would like every member of the community to make one hand-print, and the following week we will hang the sheet full of hands on our gallery wall behind the pulpit.” What a crazy idea! But a team got together and made it work with minimal fuss, and the following week a sheet that was four feet wide and twenty feet long containing 300 handprints was hanging behind the pulpit. Everyone who was there could find their own hand somewhere in the mix.

More could be said about this “Worship-MRI,” but you get the idea. The combination of a worship culture that is supported by specific practices creates space for folks of all ages to know that they belong, that they are respected as unique persons who are part of ONE body gathered before the throne of grace and truth. The 5 practices described here offer a tiny glimpse of the ways worshipping communities gather with all the generations. And there are hundreds of other practices that contribute to a flourishing, intergenerational worship culture. What would your Worship-MRI reveal?