For the last few weeks public worship has been very much on my mind. As a minister responsible for leading worship every Sunday it is good to take time occasionally to think about the meaning and practice of worship.
If we were to widen the reflective circle and have a public discussion about the experience of worship, what would we be talking about? As I was sharing with some members of the Mission & Discipleship Council during last week’s Conference, a discussion on what we want, we like or dislike in worship is bound to get stuck, unless we are able to go beyond these issues.
Preferences are important, and we should discuss them, but there is a danger in setting any discussion on these terms alone, lest we end up fostering consumerism. A long discussion about what kind of music we like, or what kind of structure we like is likely to run into difficulties. The symptoms of such a narrow perspective is reflected in what people sometimes say about worship: “I didn’t get anything out of worship today”, “I didn’t like that hymn”, or a more positive “The minister did well today.” These reflections are more reflections of consumers than participants.
I’m proposing here a different angle. What if alongside talking about what we are given in worship by the leaders, we also talked about what we as participants bring to worship? What is my contribution as a worshipper to the act of public worship? I’m not talking here about merely singing along with others, thus adding my voice to the many. What attitude and intention do I bring to worship, before it even starts? (I read that Oprah had an inscription on the top of the door to her studio that read: “You are responsible for the energy you bring in this room.”)
Worship is not a one-way process. It is not something that leaders produce, and participants ingest or consume. Worship is a collaborative responsibility and a communal act. Alongside the responsibility of leaders to offer good content in public worship comes the responsibility of all participants to bring a clear intention to give of themselves to God and to others, to encounter God and allow God to bless and change them in the process.
We are talking about what Meister Eckhart – the 13th century Christian mystic – calls “the right state of mind” in all the things that we do. Getting stuck on the “right way to worship” – i.e., the right style of music, the right liturgy etc. – can lead us in all kinds of frustrations, as we struggle to agree. He writes:
“That person who is in the right state of mind, is so regardless of where they are and who they are with, while those who are in the wrong state of mind will find this to be the case wherever they are and whoever they are with. Those who are rightly disposed truly have God with them. And whoever truly possesses God in the right way, possesses him in all places: on the street, in any company, as well as in a church or a remote place or in their cell.” Meister Eckhart, “The Talks of Instruction,” in Selected Writings, Penguin Books, London, 1994, p. 9.
We tend to get very animated and assertive whenever we talk about worship – or at least this has been my experience. We spend a lot of energy trying to find common ground in terms of worship styles and content, and this experience can be very difficult as we struggle to agree on what works for everyone. We may struggle with elements of worship we “don’t like”, and feel that they prevent us from enjoying worship and encountering God. Meister Eckhart leads us to a deeper reality:
“You should maintain the same attitude of mind in whatever you do, the same trust and love for your God and the same seriousness of intent. Truly, if your attitude were always the same, then no one could prevent you from enjoying the presence of God.” Meister Eckhart, “The Talks of Instruction,” p. 10.
This is why Jesus taught us that in our new humanity we should worship “in spirit and in truth”. When we enter the worship experience with the right attitude and the right intent, we worship in spirit. When we bring ourselves as we are, without pretending that we are better than we are, when we intend to allow God’s Word to bless and change us, we worship in truth. And these go before and beyond “what I want and what I like.”
Without the right intent and attitude, the content of worship actually matters less. We could even go as far as to say that the right style of music, the right liturgy and even the right sermon content can actually be unhelpful. They can be unhelpful because they can give worshippers the impression that they are doing what is required – ticking the right boxes – while missing the point altogether. As Meister Eckhart puts it, it all begins with an internal reality:
“But whoever does not truly have God within themselves, but must constantly receive him in one external thing after another, seeking God in diverse ways, whether by particular works, people or places, such a person does not possess God. The least thing can impede them, for they do not have God and do not seek, love and intend him alone. It is not only bad company but also good company that can obstruct them, not only the street but also the church, not only evil words and deeds but also good words and deeds, for the obstruction lies within themselves, since in them God has not become all things.” Meister Eckhart, “The Talks of Instruction,” p. 10.
Could a wrong attitude in worship in the church make worship counter-productive? This is what the apostle Paul meant when he wrote to the church in Corinth: “when you come together it is not for the better but for the worse. For, to begin with, when you come together as a church, I hear that there are divisions among you” (1 Cor. 11:17-18). The wrong attitudes of the worshippers in the Corinthian church made their worship unhelpful.
Of course, this does not mean that worship leaders are off the hook in their responsibility to serve the church by providing good, biblically sound content in a culturally incarnated way. The same is true for worship leaders: their attitude and intent to serve God and his people by creating the space where people can encounter God and each other is essential. But if this is not matched by a similar intent and orientation from participants, then it will fall flat and miss its target.
In conclusion, instead of having endless conversations about what the worship leaders should do, what kind of music should be sung and in what order, let’s encourage one another to look at our common responsibility to bring an open heart and a willingness to participate together in worship. In this way, we may discover that it becomes much easier to sing the song we don’t like, to follow the liturgy we don’t prefer, knowing that it serves others. We may thus discover new ways of demonstrating love to one another in the church, and grow in faith together. For it is in this love for one another that people will know whose disciples we are.