June 5, 2015

Reflections on Worship Education (part I)

It was so predictable that it became comical. The third Monday of the term students walked into the “Foundations of Worship” class that Karen deMol and I taught together at Dordt College with their heads hanging, eyeing us suspiciously, holding their worship reflection assignments in their hands. 

Finally one of them blurted out what all of them were thinking: “I love worship, but I hate this course! Every time I worship now I just sit there and analyze everything and notice all the weaknesses, and I’ve lost the ability to just freely let go and worship God with all of my heart.”

Silence. All eyes in the room were fixed on Karen and me.

And then one of us would say something like this: “That makes perfect sense. As a matter of fact, it’s impossible for those who lead worship to avoid this problem. But we think we can promise you this:  the challenges you experienced in Sunday worship yesterday will probably lessen in the weeks and months ahead. And eventually you will find that a new balance will set in, so that the ‘experiencing worship’ part of your being will usually be the dominant partner while the ‘analyzing it’ voice will gently whisper in the background.”

They looked at us skeptically, but by the end of term most agreed that this was indeed the new reality.

Deepening Knowledge

The tension that our students experienced as a trauma is a healthy tension for every worshiper. Sturdy worship is deepened by knowledge about worship. A congregation once asked me to lead a series of four Sunday evening services focused on worship, and each service included a discussion time. At the first session, a fifty year old gentleman asked, “why do we conclude worship with a benediction and why does the pastor raise his hands for this?” I knew that he had been a member of the Christian Reformed denomination his entire life, and my first thought (which I did not vocalize) was, “you have experienced benedictions for fifty years and you really had no idea what you were receiving!” After tucking away that thought, I answered his question.

Around that same time, an RCA pastor called me up and described how worship wars were tearing his congregation apart. He recounted the narrative, described how he and leaders were attempting to address the struggles, and then said, “we’ve concluded that at this point it would be wisest if an outside, “neutral” voice would come in and talk about worship with our congregation.” He proposed hosting a worship education session during a potluck lunch after a Sunday service.

The lunch session went well. I could almost feel tension draining from the room as a number of key worship principles and distinctions were described with the help of examples. The next day the pastor called to say healing had occurred, and “we’re not done yet, but we’re moving in the right direction.”

The Power of Worship

Worship is so powerful partly because we do it with our entire being. Our first responses to worship tend to be somewhat visceral; our “gut” guides our engagement. When that visceral response is partly shaped by an awareness of the biblical foundations of worship, its historical unfolding, the purposes of the various parts of the liturgy and the complementary ways in which different generations and varying temperaments enter into worship, that response will tend to be less reactive and hold a greater capacity for integrating one’s personal response within a corporate response. 

Imagine if every congregation had a 4-6 week sermon series on worship every five years, a 3-5 week series of worship lessons for the second graders, sixth graders and high school students, and a guide for discussing worship designed for family meal times. 

A 75 year old man once said to me, “I had difficulty worshiping through that new song that we learned this morning. Its unusual rhythms were a bit too much for me. But when I noticed the teenagers around me singing with all their hearts, that was the only blessing I needed. I’m glad we learned that song.”

Imagine what the body of Christ would be like if worship education would lead to more comments like that one!

Looking to deepen your congregation’s worship knowledge? In addition to a subscription to Reformed Worship there are many books and online resources consult. If your denomination has a worship office consider consulting with them as well. and of course Reformed Worship staff are always willing to assist however we are able.