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Worship: Norms and Exceptions

A healthy normal provides repetition and predictability—allowing the meaning-making character of ritual to do its work. The exceptional service, … stretching us, reminding us of God’s ability to work in surprising as well as regular ways.

Not long ago, I met with a student who was preparing to lead daily worship at Western Theological Seminary, where I oversee the chapel program. The student had looked through the half-dozen templates we use to guide their planning, but was unsatisfied. “I want to do something really different,” she said, “something creative.”

“Alright!” I said. “Let’s go! What do you have in mind?”

I think earlier in my ministry I might have responded with more initial skepticism at the impulse to do something “different.” That skepticism was born (and it admittedly sometimes nurtured in the present) by my sense that this impulse is too often born of an insufficient exploration of why a community worships in the normal way they do. Other times, the impulse is fueled by the high value this cultural moment places on everyone’s entitled right to personal self-expression. Such self-expression, I am convinced—especially individual artistic self-expression—needs to be disciplined to serve the purpose of worship.

I increasingly value a community’s ability to worship with both a robust and flexible “normal,” and with regular contrasting exceptions.

I have worshiped in communities where the value placed on creativity has meant that there is no normal—no patterns or predictability—where every service is different from the one before, an unsettling liturgical crapshoot. When this is the case, the community comes to worship (when it comes) full of anxiety about what might transpire. But I have also worshiped in communities where the normal patterns were rigidly enforced without the possibility of exception, where creativity was squelched, and contextual considerations were minimized. The “normal” became ossified, stagnant.

Many liturgical traditions value both the ‘normal’ and the ‘exception’ at many levels. Some traditions speak about the “Ordinary” and the “Proper”—the former term referring to the liturgical components and texts that are fixed and invariable (at least in a given season), with the latter term referring to the bits that change year to year or season to season (scriptural texts read, songs sung, etc.) Likewise, the church calendar compels valuing both the normal Lord’s Day service and the occasional service that is quite different: Funerals and Weddings, Lessons & Carols at some point in December, special services on Ash Wednesday and Ascension Day. Some churches have occasional services of healing or prayer. This seems to me so wise. Lament, for example, should be a regular feature of our worship, but perhaps not a normal feature. We need to regularly lament—but it is not the primary and dominant aspect of most worship.

A healthy normal provides repetition and predictability—allowing the meaning-making character of ritual to do its work. The exceptional service, in relief, helps us to appreciate the regularity of the normal while at the same time stretching us, reminding us of God’s ability to work in surprising as well as regular ways.