November 23, 2016

Temple Transitions

Not long ago I was speaking at an evangelical Christian college in the Midwest. After my presentation, a young woman, a leader of the praise band in her church, invited me to think with her about a frustration she had: "What do you do when you only get 15 minutes for worship?" she said. "I need more time than that to get the congregation from here," she said, raising her arms above her head, and waggling her hands, "to here," she said, lowering her arms and folding her hands gently together in front of her, just above her waist.

I call this the "Temple Worship Transition." It's a well-known challenge, especially for those who, when they say the word worship, typically mean something like "dedicated time for sung praise and adoration in anticipation of the sermon." This woman phrased her difficulty  in terms of needing more time to effect a particular transition. But the transition itself is its own challenge, both psychologically and theologically. It's not uncommon for worship leaders to struggle with the expectation that they might compel a congregation from a state of exuberant, even agitated praise, to a state of calm receptivity and intimacy with God. The only tools they have to do so, after all, are a handful of instruments, a few dozen musical notes, and their own voices — no matter how much time they have to use these tools.

Into the Holy

This understanding of worship found expression in the early 1990s, in at least one influential songbook, Songs for Praise and Worship (Word, 1992). A section labeled "The Progression of Worship" has the authors/editors describing worship as a metaphorical journey into the presence of God:

"[A] worship service has a specific goal—to draw near and minister to the Lord. Therefore, the worship service becomes a journey into His presence…. It is the responsibility of the worship leader to facilitate a sense of flow and continuity toward the goal of being in God's presence."

The service begins with "Thanksgiving" — which is "simply expressing gratitude to God for what He has done…. Songs of thanksgiving are usually fast, lively, loud, and joyful." The next move is to songs of "Praise." This is characterized by "exaltation and majestic splendor." Finally, the worship leader brings the people into the presence of God for "Worship" — a time of "quietness, reverence, tenderness, and serenity."

Some describe this same movement with more geographic and biblical precision: from the outer courts of the Temple into the inner courts and finally to the holy of holies. For a sympathetic description of this theology of worship, see Robert Webber's article from 1991 in RW #20.

A question

I felt the burden of this young woman's frustration, born of an appropriate humility: "How can I possibly do this?" she was asking. But within her query I also sensed a number of related concerns, including how to handle the temptation to use music to manipulate a congregation. That issue is important, but I didn't address it directly. Instead, my response to her was to ask a question: If you need to get the congregation "here," I asked, holding my hands as she had in the position of quietude and submission, why do you need to spend 15 or 20 or 35 minutes to get them there? Why construct a whole set of musical songs, carefully crafted to move from theme to theme, key to key, tempo to tempo? Why not just start right off at the destination? One song may be all you need. If you are, indeed, not manipulating a congregation, but merely inviting them, musically, into a particular act of worship, why does that invitation need to be so lengthy?

I admit that I was trying to subvert some of her assumptions. She wanted more time; I responded by wondering why she needed hardly any time at all. I hoped by this to prompt some reflection about what we use music for when we use it in a worship service. That is to say, I wanted her to recognize the variety of liturgical purposes we use music to express. One is her final destination: to bring the congregation's hearts to a place of receptivity in anticipation of hearing the sermon. Another would be the "starting place" for this song-set: to give God exuberant, celebrative praise. There might be many other purposes: dedication, confession, thanksgiving, even intercession or lament. Recognizing this, a 15-minute (or 20 or 35 minute) song-set might be more thoughtfully planned to consciously, intentionally, transparently, hospitably invite a congregation through those various modes of engagement with God, rather than just getting from point A to point B. And in fact, the conversation prompted by my question was a healthy and encouraging one where she demonstrated a recognition of this more complex dynamic.

Moving but not moving.

Yet through all of this, I remain troubled by the "here-to-there" character of the Temple model of worship planning. Whether explicitly or implicitly, it seems to me that this model leans in a distressingly idolatrous direction. Let me explain. It's a metaphor problem.

A modern North American protestant congregation, worshiping in a "contemporary" expressive style, is actually quite static. It does not move — literally, corporeally — from some outer courts into another space, the holy of holies, a place closer to God's presence. (Something like that move, from the narthex to sanctuary, has already happened before the service begins). No, during the worship service itself, the worshipers stay put. They might sway or dance or move their hands, but they are standing or sitting in a single room throughout the service. The movement is metaphorical, not actual.

To sum up: in the "Temple" model — in the imagined reality of the metaphor — worshipers move from a place where God's presence is more distant into a place where God is more present. In reality, however, there is no corresponding movement. Nothing changes about the congregation's location. What does change then? What is it that transports the congregation from one metaphorical "place" to another? Only one thing: the song-set — i.e., the music being played by the band and sung by the congregation.

Might we not learn from this, intentionally or not, that God is not present at the beginning of the song-set; but God is present at the end? And might we not then surmise that this theophany, this encounter with the Wholly Other is effected, perhaps even controlled by the music? Or, to be more specific: by the worship leader and her priestly band of singers and musicians?

Yikes. That is a heavy burden. They play and God shows up. It’s a picture of human/divine interaction looks distressingly familiar. Think of the prophets of Baal atop Mt. Carmel in 1 Kings 19 trying, by their machinations, to whump up God’s presence or activity.


I’m not sure if there is an easy solution here. Lots of worship leaders in lots of churches feel the same responsibility this young woman felt: the responsibility to bring God’s people into the presence of God. Yet she felt inadequate to the task, and wondered if more time would help her “get them there.”

My own sense is that the metaphor needs to be turned upside-down and then owned by all invested parties. The responsibility of the worship leader is NOT to prompt or provoke or compel the presence of God (as if!) by song or by any other tool. Rather, by means musical and rhetorical and visual and kinesthetic and just about anything else, it is to bring the congregation’s full selves into the presence of the God who is already and always at work in our lives, and meeting us in worship.

Ron Rienstra is associate professor of preaching and worship arts at Western Theological Seminary and co-author of Worship Words: Discipling Language for Faithful Ministry (Baker Academic, 2009).