Have an Uncomfortable New Year: chapters 1-2 of Joan Chittister’s “The Liturgical Year”

By Stacey Gleddiesmith

As you know, I celebrated New Year’s Day on November 27th this year, having decided to practice the liturgical cycle in a conscious and considered fashion (at least once in my life). Unfortunately for me, I’m not sure I fully considered the consequences.

Thus begins a new blog series, which will include posts from two thoughtful friends of mine: Ian Walden, and Andrea Tisher. Ian and Andrea have consented to read with me through Joan Chittister’s “The Liturgical Year,” at a pace of two chapters every week (although we may skip a week here or there). Each week, one of us will write a blog entry and then we will proceed to have a comment conversation in which you are welcome to participate. These post are not intended to read like book reviews (although taken as a whole, I’m pretty sure the book will be thoroughly reviewed by the end). Instead, we will use Chittister’s work as a jumping off point for wider ranging discussions about the Liturgical Cycle and its effect on our lives, and the life of the church. Please do consider picking up a copy of the book and joining the discussion.

Now back to the first two chapters.

Near the beginning of her first chapter, Chittister states: “The way we define our years determines what we think our lives are meant to be about and how we will live because of it.” She speaks about the different ways we have of defining our years: fiscal years, school years, planting and harvest, cycles of the moon, etc. As I thought about this, I realized that my life has been shaped by the educational year. September 1 feels far more full of promise and newness than January 1 ever did (and certainly more than November 27th!). I tend to make resolutions every Fall (“I will stick to a new schedule,” “I will write for an hour every morning,” “I will get every paper in before its due date,” “I will keep my life more balanced, and eat and exercise to fuel my study”), and I also follow the New Year tradition of breaking each resolution, almost ritualistically, one month in.

What Chittister’s first two chapters made me consider, however, was how this view of my year has caused me to evaluate my life. She says, on page 6, “Like the rings on a tree, the cycles of Christian feasts are meant to mark the levels of our spiritual growth from one stage to another in the process of human growth.” Huh. Can we derive from that statement that whatever “year” we choose to make the driving force of our life also has something to say about the way we measure our progress though life, and the way we value ourselves and others?

It’s completely natural for kids to look up to kids in higher grades (and I had three older brothers to catch up to!), but with me it went beyond this. I remember watching one of my brothers colour a map as part of his homework. I wanted so much to know enough (and to have the colouring skills) to be able to do the same thing. In fact, I even planned out how I would colour the map. In detail. A plan I brought to fruition five years later when I was given a similar assignment. In university, I shuddered every time I failed to reach above the class average on an assignment or an exam. When I reached grad school, each course I completed was one more notch on my educational belt, and my heart sank every time I received a B. My ritual of counting my years by the academic calendar has resulted in a life measured according to knowledge and skill.

So what would it look like to count my years as Chittister suggests: as levels of our spiritual growth? This is where things become uncomfortable.

In chapter 2, Chittister describes the liturgical year as “a lesson in life” (pg. 10). She states: “Simply by being itself over and over again, simply by putting before our eyes and filtering into our hearts the living presence of Jesus who walked from Galilee to Jerusalem doing good, it teaches us to do the same” (pg. 10). *Insert swear word of your choice.*

So living the Christian year over and over again will make me more like Christ. *Repeat swear word.*

How many times have I said/sung that I/we want to be more like Christ? How many times have I really meant it?

Quite honestly, if I measure my life by the standard of spiritual growth, I’m afraid I’m more than a bit stunted. I’m selfish. I’m greedy. I’m fearful. The list is longer than a chimpanzee’s arm in that direction, and shorter than my own pinky in the other. The fact is, if I’m really committed to Christ, if I really live his life each year through the liturgical cycle, I would have to give up an awful lot of things and activities. And I would have to do an awful number of things I’d rather not. I’d rather not go out of my way to speak to people on the margins. It’s much more comfortable and enjoyable to confine my conversation to people I already like. I’d rather not take Jesus’ attitude toward the poor seriously. It’s much more comfortable to save up my wealth to buy things I “need.” I’d rather not govern my time more effectively so as to use it in service of others. It’s much more comfortable to take a morning off here, and an afternoon there, to indulge myself.

So it seems, from what Chittister has said, that I’m about to have a very uncomfortable new year. Terrific.

Ian and Andrea – over to you.

(note to readers: I strongly suggest that you subscribe to the comments for these posts about Chittister’s book, as that is where we will be engaging in further discussion.)

Advent, Not Christmas

Besides Christmas, Good Friday, and Easter, Advent is probably the most widely celebrated Christian season – or is it? As the weather gets colder, and the snow finally sticks to the ground, our thoughts turn to… Advent?

Each year on November 1st (Canadian storekeepers seem to feel that they can leap over Rememberance Day straight to Christmas – orange and black come down and red and green go up), the glitz, glitter, and glorias break out in every store. Every piped-in song contains the tuneless rhythm of “jingle bells,” and every available retail space is crammed with tinsle, trees, lights, and the latest Christmas trend (this year it seems to be “shoe ornaments”). The commercial world wants us to skip right past any sense of waiting and run full steam ahead for the holiday of holidays: Christmas.

I’m not about to compare churches to retail frenzies (although in some cases there are, perhaps, comparisons to be made). What I am about to do is to bemoan the fact that the church, too, hops directly over Advent and into Christmas.

For most churches, especially those that don’t follow the habits and traditions of the liturgical year, when we decorate the church three to four weeks before Christmas we are beginning a long-drawn-out celebration of Christmas, rather than beginning the season of Advent. We put up our trees and lights. We start singing Christmas carols. We begin (sometimes) hearing sermons about Christmas. It’s not that there’s anything wrong with any of these activities. It’s just that there’s something missing.

Christmas is a season of triumph and joy. We rejoice in the coming of our King; we rejoice in the knowledge that God lowered himself, and took the position of a human baby so that we might know him better. Advent, by contrast, is a time of sober reflection and preparation. Advent is the experience of waiting with Israel for the Christ – and waiting together as the church for the second coming of Jesus. It’s the fast that makes the feast taste extra good.

What are we missing when we skip over Advent?

The fast before the feast, yes – but also something else. Advent gives us the opportunity to tell God that things are still not right down here. We weep over the state of the world; we bring to God those things in our own lives that aren’t right. Advent establishes in the people of God a renewed sense of longing for Christ’s second coming – for the day when all things shall be renewed under the lordship of Christ. As we wait with Israel, we feel some of Israel’s pain and desperation – and we join our own pain and desperation to it. We see oppression, war, and hunger in the world and we acknowledge that this is not the way things should be, that this is not God’s intention for the world. We stand in the face of injustice, sorrow, and sickness and say: “Come, Lord Jesus, come.”

Christmas contains none of this longing, and rightly so. Christmas is pure celebration of the fact that Christ has come – but our celebration will ring false if we don’t first acknowledge, through Advent, that we desperately need him to come again.

Liturgical New Year

This year I’m celebrating New Years on November 27th. I’m not going to stay up till midnight on the 26th. I’m not going to eat oliebollen (sorry, Dutch food reference). And I’m not going to sing “Auld Lang Syne.”

What I am going to do, is take some time to pray in preparation. As another liturgical year begins, this time around I hope to live it mindfully. And in the company of my readers.

I was raised in the Christian Reformed Church – a denomination that falls somewhere between high and low church. Let’s call it middle church. This means that we had things like congregational readings, and we celebrated some aspects of church/liturgical calendar, but we didn’t go whole hog. I have since attended and been in leadership in Alliance churches, Baptist churches, and Pentecostal churches, but it wasn’t until I attended Regent College that I came into contact with full celebration of the Christian year. Ash Wednesday, Holy Saturday, Ordinary Time, Epiphany… I had a basic knowledge of what they comprised, but I’ve never actually lived them in a cyclical way. I’ve observed one feast one year, and maybe tried a different one in a following year, but I have never observed them sequentially. And I want to.

In preparation for my year of liturgy, I’ve begun reading Joan Chittister’s The Liturgical Year: The Spiraling Adventure of the Spiritual Life. What I love thus far about this book is Chittister’s contemplative approach (she’s a Benedictine nun, which may have something to do with it). The liturgical year is, she says:

“…the attempt to live the Jesus life over and over again all the years of our lives… It is about the spirituality of joy and suffering, of waiting and faith, of asceticism and celebration, of loss and hope that marks all our lives and that needs to be strengthened, deepened, revisited, and rediscovered in the life of Jesus and the life of the church every year of our lives” (xvi).

She speaks of the Christian year as a means of slowly – drip by drip, she says – becoming Christlike. One year, one feast at a time:

 “The liturgical year… proposes, year after year, to immerse us over and over again into the sense and substance of the Christian life until, eventually, we become what we say we are – followers of Jesus all the way to the heart of God” (6).

That’s what I want to be (on my better days). So I want to explore this life – to orient my year around the life of Christ, rather than tie it to the earth’s rotation around the sun, or the cycle of education, or the yearly accumulation of finances, or the payment of taxes.

I hope to write at least once a week (perhaps even more often, if I can manage a few regular posts here and there between the Christian year). Some posts will contain church liturgies (I also hope to use this year to explore what it means for a “non-liturgical” church to experience the Christian year). Some posts will contain explanations of different fasts and feasts. Some posts will track my personal experience throughout the year. Some posts will be biblical reflections from within a particular liturgical season.

If there is a type of post you would find particularly helpful – or a question you would like me to research during the year, please feel free to post a comment and let me know.

If you are interested in participating in this journey with me – let me know that too. Consider picking up Chittister’s book as a starting point, and prepare with me to ring in the New Year on November 27.

What’s Wrong with the Temple?

A couple of weeks ago, I preached John 1:14, looking back at God’s gift of the tabernacle and Solomon’s construction of the temple in order to answer the question: How does God dwell with his people? The tabernacle and the temple are key aspects of any Theology of Worship study (or should be), and as Solomon’s building of the temple is an especially fascinating passage, especially when combined with John 1, I decided it merited a blog post (how arrogant does that sound?!), especially considering the implications these passages have for the church.

Retelling the Story

When Israel was wandering in the desert, God graciously handed Moses the design of a tent in which he promised to dwell with his people – in the center of the camp. It was a visible way in which God made it abundantly and graciously clear that he was with his people.

Time goes on, and Israel finally manages to occupy the land God has given them. In 2 Samuel 7 we see David sitting cosily in his palace, after a life of fighting. As he reclines on his throne, he has a qualm of conscience and says to God’s prophet, Nathan: “Here I am, living in a palace of cedar, while the ark of God remains in a tent.” Nathan says (basically) “Good point!” But then God comes to Nathan at night with this message for David:

Are you the one to build me a house to dwell in? I have not dwelt in a house from the day I brought the Israelites up out of Egypt to this day. I have been moving from place to place with a tent as my dwelling. Wherever I have moved with all the Israelites, did I ever say to any of their rulers whom I commanded to shepherd my people Israel, “Why have you not built me a house of cedar?” (2 Samuel 7:5­-7)

God denies David’s request to build him a house – instead, he offers to build David’s house:

The LORD declares to you that the LORD himself will establish a house for you: When your days are over and you rest with your ancestors, I will raise up your offspring to succeed you, your own flesh and blood, and I will establish his kingdom. He is the one who will build a house for my Name, and I will establish the throne of his kingdom forever. I will be his father, and he will be my son. When he does wrong, I will punish him with a rod wielded by men, with floggings inflicted by human hands. But my love will never be taken away from him, as I took it away from Saul, whom I removed from before you. Your house and your kingdom will endure forever before me; your throne will be established forever. (2 Samuel 7:11-16)

So we arrive in 1 Kings 5-9 in which Solomon, David’s “own flesh and blood” proceeds with the building of the temple. Here the subtle language of the text begins to cue us in to the fact that something is wrong.

The First Hmmm

In 1 Kings 2 David, on his deathbed, reminds Solomon of God’s promise, but the unconditional fatherly promise given in 2 Samuel reads more like a conditional warning here:

If your descendants watch how they live, and if they walk faithfully before me with all their heart and soul, you will never fail to have a man on the throne of Israel. (1 Kings 2:3-4, emphasis mine)

Suddenly a big “IF” is inserted into God’s seemingly unconditional promise in 2 Samuel. This is a tension that will be played out throughout the rest of 1 and 2 Kings, and certainly as we continue to work through Solomon’s building of the temple.

The Second Hmmm

Solomon starts out well enough. He asks for wisdom that he might reign well over Israel. God is pleased and grants him not only wisdom, but also wealth and power. And, at first, we see that Solomon’s wisdom, wealth, and power result in a people that “ate, drank, and were happy” (1 Kings 4:20). We get stories of his wise rulings, and his scientific discoveries (1 Kings 3 and 5). He is portrayed as a wise and good king.

But, as Solomon begins his preparations for the temple, you begin to get the impression he thinks he’s pretty important. This impression is confirmed when, between the building of the temple and its furnishing and dedication, you read an interesting little insertion about Solomon building his palace. (Right in the middle in Hebrew text often indicates something to which we should be paying close attention.) This insertion is absolutely brilliantly worded – and the transition is money.

…the temple was finished in all its details according to is specifications. [Solomon] had spent seven years building it. It took Solomon thirteen years, however, to complete the construction of his palace.” (1 Kings 6:38-7:1)

The emphasis in the text is mine – but the structure of the Hebrew certainly suggests it. This is where we really start to wonder if Solomon has his priorities in line.

The Third Hmmm

God’s response to the dedication of the temple highlights the shaky ground on which Solomon and the kingdom of Israel are standing – the blinking “IF” that David inserted into God’s promise. God appears to Solomon in 1 Kings 9: 3-9. If you read this text, you’ll discover that it doesn’t sound like much of a “thank you.” It doesn’t sound like much of a blessing. Instead, it is a harsh and dire warning. God is essentially saying: “Well Solomon, if you have to have a temple, fine. I’ll be there. But this is not going to go very well.”

The Result of Hmmm-ing

And, of course, we know that despite all the warnings Solomon fails miserably. Very shortly after the temple’s dedication we read that Solomon used forced labour for all his building, including the temple. We read of his shady business deal with Hiram, king of Tyre; of his excesses in wealth (now portrayed as luxuries, rather than food – and as benefitting the court rather than the people); and, finally, we read of his 700 wives and 300 concubines (all from other nations) and of the temples he built for their gods. And we read of Solomon going to worship in those temples. That “IF” is blinking pretty hard by this time.

The Final and Perhaps Most Interesting Hmmm

Before we move on to the implications of this, however, I want to draw your attention to one final shift in language. In 2 Samuel 7, God says to David “Are you the one to build me a house to dwell in…. I have been moving about from place to place with a tent as my dwelling.” But when God talks about David’s offspring building a temple, it very clear that the temple will house only God’s name. There is never any mention made of God dwelling in the temple as he did in the tabernacle. This language is repeated in David’s warning to Solomon, in Solomon’s long-winded dedication, and especially in God’s response to the dedication of the temple: “I have consecrated this temple, which you have built, by putting my Name there forever. My eyes and my heart will always be there” (1 Kings 9:3).

It is very clear that, while God promises to bless the temple and pay attention to it, he does not promise that he will dwell there as he did in the tabernacle.

I’ve spent considerable time wondering what this shift in language means, and this is what I’ve come up with: the main difference between the tabernacle and the temple is that one moves, and one doesn’t. That’s the conclusion to which my brilliant logic has brought me.

When God responds to David’s desire to build a temple in 2 Samuel 7:6-7 he states:

I have been moving from place to place with a tent as my dwelling. Wherever I have moved with all the Israelites, did I ever say to any of their rulers whom I commanded to shepherd my people Israel, ‘Why have you not built me a house of cedar? (emphasis mine)

Why specify all the Israelites. Wouldn’t it be safe to assume that “the Israelites” already refers to all of them? I think the author is using intentional redundancy here for emphasis. In the tabernacle, God dwelt with all his people, moving with them from place to place. Now, as Israel spreads out to occupy the land, and as a permanent temple structure is built in Jerusalem, it is no longer possible for God to be seen to dwell with all his people in one location. Is it possible that the text is subtly stating that God’s place is with the whole of his people, rather than in one specific location – rather than in the seat of power?

The HMMMs of 1 and 2 Kings leave us, I think, with two essential questions: will there ever be a king in the line of David who can fulfill God’s requirement of righteousness; and will God dwell again with his people?

Cue John 1:14

The Word became flesh and made his dwelling among us. We have seen his glory, the glory of the one and only Son, who came from the Father, full of grace and truth.

The ancient Greek translation of the Hebrew text, the Septuagint, uses two words to translate the Hebrew Mishkahn. When it is in noun form, it’s translated as skaynay (tent/tabernacle), while the verb form is translated kahtoikayoh (to dwell). In the Greek of John 1:14, then, where a verbal form is warranted, we would expect the Greek word kahtoikayoh (to dwell). Indeed, that is generally how it is translated in English. Instead, the author of John uses the Greek noun form: skaynay. So “the Word became flesh and made his dwelling among us” could be translated as “The Word became flesh and tabernacled among us.” He pitched his tent among us.

I think there is an intentional contrast to the temple happening in this passage. It’s not the only thing that’s happening in the text, but I think it’s there. The contrast is emphasized by the fact that Jesus is continually on the move, throughout the book of John. Almost every chapter has Jesus moving to another place: from Bethany to Cana to Jerusalem to Judea to Samaria to Galilee… (and that’s just chapters 1-4). There’s a reason that John uses the noun “tent” rather than the simple static verb “to dwell.”

What was the main difference between a tabernacle (a tent) and a temple again?

God will not be nailed down to one place or to one specific segment of his people. He does not sit still and wait for his people to come to him. When Jesus claims, in John 2, that he is the temple (and note how closely this follows “The Word became flesh and tabernacled among us”) he’s announcing his death and resurrection – but that’s not all he’s doing. He’s saying that he is the place where God dwells – but that’s not all he’s saying. He’s also proclaiming that his people, his whole people, all his people, have access to him again. Because he’s not waiting for us to come to him – he’s coming out to meet us. He’s travelling with us. He’s putting his tent down right next to ours.

So what does this mean for how we worship him? What are the implications of this amazing truth for your church?

It means that we cannot claim God simply for ourselves. The “God’s with us, but not with those other guys who call themselves Christians” mentality simply will not work. We don’t have a corner on the God-market – no matter how right we might think we are, and no matter how wrong we think the other guys are. This does not mean that all truth is relative. It does not mean we never use judgement, and that we accept every idea and method blindly. It does mean that we must err on the side of inclusion rather than exclusion.

The bigger implication, however, is that the church cannot stand still. There were two questions from Kings to answer: would there be a king fit to rule eternally, and would God once again dwell with his people? In Jesus, both questions are answered. He is able not only to inaugurate the eternal kingdom, but also to build a temple in which God can again dwell with his people.

1 Corinthians 3 tells us that we are the temple of the Holy Spirit. We, the body of Christ, are now the place in which God dwells with his people – all his people – everywhere. It is not enough for us to sit within the doors of the permanent structures we have set up and assume that people will come to us if they want to seek God. This is not the way Jesus functions, and nor is it the way we should function. Sometimes we get so tied up in our buildings that, like Solomon, we forget the point – and our building becomes our idol. God is not against buildings. But he is against sitting still. Worship of God is not limited to church buildings – true lives of worship should extend outside of our buildings into every aspect of life. If people are to meet God in this time, and in whatever place your congregation inhabits – the temple of God must be on the move – it must be a tabernacle, not a temple.

Why Bono and the Band Are Some of the Best Worship Leaders of Our Time

Bono and The Edge on June 1, 2011, in Edmonton

When I attended my first U2 concert a little over a year ago, I was startled to discover midway through the concert that I was praying aloud. Three weeks ago, as I again experienced U2 360, this time in Edmonton, I had the same experience of vacillating between a rock concert and a worship service. I’ve been to a lot of concerts, some Christian musicians, most not, but no matter how much I enjoyed them, I don’t think I ever felt like praying out loud – I definitely didn’t do so.

(Big aside: I realize that, in calling U2 worship leaders, I’m raising all kinds of “worship of what” flags for you. I know that not all fans of U2 are Christians [a brief survey of the crowd in my immediate vicinity on June 1st would have told me that, if I didn’t already know], and Bono obviously did not lead 65,000 people to Christ at Commonwealth Stadium on a warm Wednesday night in Edmonton. Now let’s move on.)

I’ve spent much of my time between June 1st and June 21st wondering why U2 concerts sometimes, if not always, become worship experiences (and getting way too fascinated by set lists, thus delaying this post almost inexcusably). Here’s what I have come up with: 5 reasons Bono and U2 are some of the greatest worship leaders of our time:

  1. FAITH: The band clings to Christian faith, as can be seen in their lyrics, in their music, and in the way they use their music and their fame. I have heard all the arguments about lifestyle, mistakes made, hoarding wealth, and buying into superstardom – to some extent I sympathise with these arguments. I don’t feel any need defend the band’s behaviour, but I think it’s fair to say that they have clung to Christ through the maelstrom of fame. It may be a beleaguered faith, a limping faith, a faulted and pock-marked faith – but it is faith nonetheless. And which of us, honestly, can say that our own faith is smooth and pristine?
  1. PREPARATION: U2’s set-lists are carefully crafted. The band never hesitates, never misses a beat – the audience is pulled from song to song through one beautiful transition after another. And these transitions are not just musically smooth, their content adds deeper layers of meaning to surrounding material, and provides fresh perspective on old songs. I don’t have space to dig into the details of set-lists, but after my research I am more convinced than ever that an incredible amount of time and effort goes into the planning of a single U2 concert. The audience is guided carefully from start to finish, and by the end of the concert they are no longer in exactly the same relationship – to each other, to the band, or to the world – as they were when the concert started. To phrase it with a more liberal spreading of cheese: Bono and the band take the crowd on a journey.

    Bono breaks the stage/audience barrier

  1. CONNECTION: I have never seen anyone connect with an audience the way Bono does, and I’m speaking specifically of Bono now (it’s hard to imagine Adam, for example, fully engaging with the crowd). Bono throws himself, heart and soul, into each concert he plays and, for that span of time, he belongs to that crowd. There’s no other way to describe it. I was privileged, for my first two U2 concerts, to be right in the pit, 3-4 people back from the stage, front and center. It was a great location from which to observe the extent of Bono’s relationship with the crowd. He is so connected that he will shift in mid-stride to keep up with the audience. Because of this, he lingers when the crowd needs to linger; he moves on when the crowd is done. He connects personally with individuals in the pit: pointing and waving at people, looking people in the eye, singing to people rather than at them. He connects with the wider audience by playing to the cameras. He is constantly finding unique ways to break the barrier between stage and audience: swinging out over the crowd, throwing things into the pit, using bridges and 360 stages, and pulling people up on stage… (it embarrasses me to say this, but his connection to the crowd is such that I am personally convinced that he winked at me during the concert on June 1st). By connecting intimately with his audience, Bono ensures that they not only watch the concert, but feel that they are participants.
  1. ATTENTIVENESS: Bono is not only connected to the crowd, he seems extraordinarily attentive to the Spirit during his concerts. I know there is no way I can establish this as fact, beyond a shadow of a doubt, but here are my observations. At times, during a concert, Bono will simply stand with his eyes closed, sometimes with his arms in the air, sometimes with his lips moving. Almost inevitably, this signals a change. The band will continue playing the same chord progression and, after a brief while, Bono begins to sing something different, repeating a phrase of an earlier song, or one he just finished, or the upcoming song, or something else entirely. He sings in a slightly irregular rhythm, or changes the melody just slightly. The crowd quiets, and becomes more attentive. And then something shifts. I have no other words for it, and cannot describe it more concretely than that. Sorry. I can merely say that I am convinced that, in those moments, Bono is seeking and receiving the guidance of the Holy Spirit.
  1. RESPONSE: Whether or not you like U2’s blatant promotion of social justice (some would say bullying toward), you have to admit that the band puts together a pretty strong call to action. Every audience at a U2 show expects and receives a great experience. Every audience leaves feeling pumped up. And absolutely every audience knows what they are expected to go out and do after the concert. Make the world a better place. Give the future a big kiss. Get involved.

So… why do these five elements make U2 one of the best worship bands of our time?

  • FAITH every worship leader/band should have. That’s a given.
  • Good PREPARATION, is essential (read my rant on the topic). U2’s careful attention to transitions helps to guide the congregation from one song to another, from one part of the service to another.
  • Bono’s CONNECTION with the congregation ensures that congregation members are involved as participants rather than merely as audience.
  •  By being ATTENTIVE to the Spirit as he leads, Bono is able not only to shift with the congregation, but to move them according to the Spirit.

But what I’m most impressed with, and what I feel is most lacking in our worship leading – what U2 does successfully over, and over, and over again – is to lead their audience in a RESPONSE. They consistently answer, strongly and clearly, the question: now what?

All too often in our worship services we are content to sing one more song of praise and then “dismiss” the congregation – as if school is over for the day. Even school children get homework.

What is the point of a weekly worship service? To encourage one another, yes. To hear the word of God, certainly. To teach and be taught, no doubt. But what we so often miss is that a worship service should send people out. Should call people to do something.

Not every person at a U2 concert comes away with a deeper love for Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. Some people there will inevitably be worshiping other gods (perhaps Bono or the band; perhaps the god of social action or left-wing politics). But every single person will leave knowing the answer to the question: “what now?” How many people will leave your service this week knowing what difference the word of God, the people of God, the Spirit of God, the three-personed God should make in their daily lives? How many people will leave your service this week having been called to love God and neighbour with the choices they make? How many people will leave asking “now what?” and how many will have the answer, and therefore be equipped to fulfill God’s mission in the world?

June 1, 2011, Edmonton

Rant 1: “Just Throw a Few Songs Together”

A couple of months into my first job as music director of a church, I called a guest preacher to ask about his text and the substance of his message for the upcoming Sunday. “Oh I don’t know,” he answered. “Just throw a few songs together, it’ll be fine.”

Thus begins the first post in a series I will simply call my “rants.” My former housemates used to (more than) occasionally roll their eyes and say “here comes the rant,” when they recognized one of my triggers. I will refrain, in these posts, from digressing into my standard rants about things like Hertz Rent-a-Car, land use policies (or lack thereof), and dog owners who think their dog is God’s gift to everyone. Since this blog is intended to be focused on worship theology, I will limit myself to worship-associated rants. I will also do my best to write as I see it, rather than censoring myself to avoid ruffling feathers. Feel free to air ruffled feathers in your comments.

(Never use Hertz Rent-a-Car.)

Having just said I would be happy to ruffle a few feathers, I’m now going to offer a caveat or three before I launch into this first rant:

  1. I believe strongly in the work of the Holy Spirit. Certainly the Holy Spirit can move powerfully through a few songs “thrown together.” Certainly the Holy Spirit can move powerfully as I plan with little or no information about what the rest of a service will look like.
  2. I realize that preachers are perhaps not used to the types of questions that I ask before planning a worship service. The response of “just throw a few songs together” is sometimes given because a preacher feels I’m asking for information he or she can’t provide at the moment, rather than because the preacher feels that worship should be planned in this way.
  3. Although I have heard the above words far too frequently there are, of course, a myriad of preachers (and others) who place a high value on congregational worship, and who have an astute sense of the time and effort that goes into planning a worship service.

Alright. Caveats over – gloves off.

My biggest concern about “just throwing a few songs together” is the underlying assumption that this is all worship is. It is a dangerous and potentially damaging assumption. As stated in my post on Subliminal Liturgy, gathered worship forms our congregations (thinking of the service as a whole now, with music acting as one part of that whole): it forms our behaviour inside the church and outside; forms the way we think about God; forms the way we think about the world; forms the way we think about ourselves. If we treat any part of our gathered worship lightly, we are in danger of shaping our congregation passively (at best) and negatively (at worst). There is nothing in scripture that leads me to believe we are to treat the worship of God lightly or casually.

So “throwing a few songs together” implies a dangerous attitude toward worship, but – if I’m honest – it’s the implied lack of respect for worship leaders and the work they do that gets under my skin and rankles. It takes hours and hours to research/write/deliver a sermon. I know this to be true because I’ve done it myself. Most members of a congregation will affirm the amount of time it takes to preach a good sermon. What drives me absolutely batty is that those same understanding individuals, and often the pastor as well, while agreeing that the sermon is a time consuming and important task, think it’s a matter of minutes to put together the rest of the service. Choose a few of your favourite songs; throw them up in the air; see how they land; and then just get up there and play. (Note to readers: Please congratulate me on my forbearance in not using strong language here.)

It generally takes me 10-20 hours to research (yes, research)/plan/practice/lead a service. Other worship leaders will take more or less time, depending on their process and (sorry if this sounds overly frank/harsh) on the value they themselves place on the act of gathered worship, and on the task they have been given. Since I realize the above estimation of time may be surprising to some, and therefore will demand some justification, I thought I’d share my planning process with you.

How to plan a worship service in 10-20 hours:

  • Speak to the preacher, generally asking four questions: what text are you preaching from; where do you plan to start; where do you plan to finish; and is there any specific response you feel this passage requires from the congregation.
  • Read the passage and its context several times, preferably aloud.
  • Work through a mini-exegetical process focusing on the following questions: how is the original audience led up to this point; what is the text communicating; what does the text say about God; about the church; about us as individuals; what kind of response does this text demand from God’s people?
  • Spend time in prayer, asking God to reveal his word both in the text itself, and through the Spirit (speaking a particular word to a particular congregation at a particular time).
  • Begin to pull songs – anything that rests briefly on, leads to, or provides response for the thoughts and ideas that are now circulating.
  • Spread songs out and begin to group them, tracing themes and working through how a congregation might be led up to the particular word of God that will be preached. Keep in mind the standard elements of the service which must be included (congregational prayer, announcements, kids message, offering, etc.), and note which songs might provide an opportunity for the congregation to respond fittingly.
  • Begin to play through some of these groupings, determining how songs fit together musically and thematically. Note where additional transition might be needed and how songs can be fit together in such a way that they add meaning to each other.
  • Consider additional elements: write a spoken liturgy or prayer; determine what participation children will have in the service; determine if there is an additional biblical text that compliments the sermon text, or adds an additional layer of meaning; examine transition points to determine how best to lead the congregation through them (scripture, prayer, liturgical reading, musical shift, etc.)
  • Write out an order of service, complete with who will be leading the various elements, and how they will fit together.
  • Practice the service as a whole to ensure timeliness, to affirm that the service will assist people to move from one place to another (rather than simply circling a theme), to map out any difficult musical transitions, and to match musicality to meaning.
  • Ensure that details are in place: correct words available to congregation; necessary participants on board; ensure participants are informed of their part in the service and how it fits into the rest; ensure that all needed objects (music, decorative elements, readings, additional instruments etc.) are printed out/gathered.
  • Practice with others (if there are additional musicians), paying special attention to transitions and tone.
  • Lead congregation through the service.

Maybe I’m a bit of an anomaly. Maybe I take things a bit too seriously. But I don’t think so. I think we are intended to treat the worship of God with careful consideration, with respect, with joy, giving it the weight of our time and effort. Giving it the weight that it is given in scripture.

God’s set-up of Israel’s worship of him is not a brief and un-detailed “throwing together of songs.” It spans chapter after chapter of text. I don’t think it’s an exaggeration to say that 1/3 of the Torah (first five books of the OT, Israel’s founding text and therefore ours) is concerned, in one way or another, with how God’s people do, do not, or should worship him. God’s set-up of Israel’s worship involves complex structures, rituals, and planning; involves careful attention to detail and joyful contribution of time, resources, and effort; involves careful reading of surrounding culture and avoidance of cultural worship practices that would lead God’s people astray.

Surely, then, our own worship, our own planning, should be more than “throwing a few songs together.” Not only can we do better than that – if we are to follow God’s ways with his people as portrayed throughout scripture – we must.

Discuss.

Subliminal Liturgy

A week or so ago Andrew (my husband) and I attended a “church planting boot camp” put on by the Evangelical Free Church of Canada (EFCC). The workshop was a helpful step back from our day-to-day work with a church plant just north of Edmonton – a good way to re-evaluate the church’s mission and goals, and re-assess our progress toward them. Upon returning to our place here, we found ourselves excited about deepening our engagement with the community in which our church is planted and – for the first time – I found myself excited about evangelism. These would be positive outcomes enough – but add to them that our congregation already seems to have latched on to the increased energy with which we returned. We had a congregational meeting this Sunday in which our congregation committed to a firm movement (with clearly defined first steps) toward community service and engagement. So first of all, a very sincere thank you to our three presenters, to our fellow classmates, and to the EFCC.

There was one thing, however, which I found lacking in the workshop. While there was a genuine sense of wanting to address the topic of congregational worship, and there were some good steps taken toward that, most conversation about worship centered on issues of style, of getting people in the doors, and of making it an experience to which people would want to return. These are important considerations, but they don’t address and consider the formative aspect of worship, an important concept to grasp for any congregation, but perhaps especially for a new church plant.

A few years ago I completed a paper on the ethics of Christian worship. Every ethics book I picked up, every anthropological paper I read said the same thing: a community is formed by its shared ritual actions. Some of these papers and books were speaking directly of the church, but many were speaking generally of societal groupings. The consensus seemed to be that actions consistently repeated as a group are formational not only for the group itself (forming the basis for identity and behaviour of the group), but also for individuals (forming the basis for individual identity and behaviour when outside the group).

Now I could take this information and write it off as a bunch of anthropological/psychological mumbo-jumbo (to use the professional term), but I find it difficult to do this when scripture so clearly tells us, again and again, that we are designed to be in community. Not only that, but we consistently see God setting up shared ritual actions for his people: from the time that Adam walked with God in the garden, to the instructions given for the tabernacle, to the ritual of the Lord’s supper established by Christ. Why is this? Might it be that God himself is concerned with forming us through shared ritual activity? And if this is the case, as I would argue it is, why oh why don’t we pay attention to the rituals and patterns we establish in our gathered worship?

Every church, every single one, whether it calls itself liturgical or not, has a liturgy: a set of actions its people engage in every time they meet. In non-liturgical churches, however, this liturgy is hidden, and therefore subliminal (below the threshold of our noticing). But this “subliminal liturgy” – whether or not we want to admit it’s there – is shaping our congregations and the individuals within them as surely as a river gradually carves and shapes a canyon.

We can talk about mission, vision, and goals. We can set them, and work toward their accomplishment. But unless our worship is consistent with them, they will stay out of reach.

As we moved through the church planting workshop, Andrew and I spoke together of the danger of our congregation developing an inward focus. Having taught workshops on the topic of subliminal liturgy previously (see https://thinkingworship.com/workshops for details), I realize that it’s time to really put the rubber to the road and see if this works. So this is what we will do. We will ensure that our “congregational prayer” is never limited to inside concerns; we will pray consistently and passionately for our little town each Sunday. We will choose at least one or two songs a week with a definite outward focus. We will consider carefully what outward response is required by each text we preach, so that we can guide the congregation into it. And we will try to end every service with a “sending benediction.”

Will it work? I think it will. I think it’s already beginning to.