Whenever we begin a new kinship (our name for a house church group) there is a process of adapting the liturgy to the community. The people that initially form that community have a huge impact on how that liturgy is formed. We shape a liturgy from their likes and dislikes, their liturgical history and from a desire to push beyond the box of their previous experiences.
Worship styles and liturgical forms, much as we hate to admit it, are really a matter of taste. If you look at the responses so far on my best liturgical practices post, few though they may be, there is a diversity there. Some people want to be surrounded by artwork, others want no distractions from their focus on God, others prefer chanted and integrated liturgies and still others a staccato experience with clear demarkations between liturgical elements. All of these preferences form the building block for the community worship experience.
By uncovering these preferences we can create an atmosphere of worship in which the majority of participants can engage with the experience and in which we can begin to push them towards other liturgical shapes. But without that initial connection to preferences you will not achieve the essential connection with worship that will draw other worshippers to participate in the experience.
Worship as a corporate experience is quite different than worship in a private setting. As a member of a public praise band, Plugged' In, we used to gather for what we called 'experimental worship' sessions. We had no audience except God and we came with a sense of expectation that our various liturgical backgrounds would spark something unique that would touch the heart of God. And it did, those were amazing times. But that is quite a different experience than one could ever have in a congregation, well unless you have a very special congregation. Those experiences were not conducive for anyone else to follow and only worked because as a band we had a history together and had learned to play off each other. This ability to jam is what we translated into a very private form of worship - very special but not corporate in the sense I want to talk about here. But even though that is a differnt experience, it does still show that we worked from the basis of our preferences. Each of us played in our own style trying to simultaneously compliment each other's playing and to connect with our creator. If we ignore preferences we reduce the ability of our congregants to participate.
Participation in the liturgy, a word that means 'work of the people', is essential to draw others into the experience. Many times we come of the service tired, beaten, introverted and unless others are willing to be caught up in the worship then we will not be either. At this point it doesn't matter how much the leaders of worship have prepared the experience will just not be all it can be when you have everyone engaging in the work of worship. But when the foundation of the liturgical experience is one that a good majority enjoy, they will find themselves caught up in the worship despite their weeks. The result is a snowballing of participation in the liturgy, which is always a great thing.
Liturgical history is also important for a community. Many communities have deep roots in classic liturgical expressions. When these elements are introduced into your liturgy they provide a sense of comfort and familiarity. In our community we have a number of folks with Roman Catholic backgrounds, so it is important that as we develop the Eucharistic side of the worship we draw from those deep wells. Eucharistic prayer three has been our main touchstone, however it is important that we unabashedly adapt that form to our community and theological understanding. With a number in our community who have broken away from their Roman Catholic roots to pray that the elements become the body and blood of Jesus smacks of heresy and provides a stop to their worship. It is only after we have established a more true sense of the mystery of the Eucaristic experience that we have been able to re-introduce these phrases and have them enrich the experience of the liturgy. This is my final point, pushing the box we want to put around worship.
Liturgy is fluid, not static. Just as the people change, their work changes. I want to be careful to not say that it improves, because certainly it does, but the worship an older community enjoys might have been highly inappropriate to a new worshpping community. It isn't about moving towards an ideal but rather towards a worship that is particular to that community. A worship that challenges that community. A worship that is part of the process of making disciples of all women and men; and I mean that in the sense of putting women and men in the face of God rather than being a stale didactic experience.
If our liturgy is just what we like then we are never challenged to grow beyond our understandings of God and humanity. If our liturgy only draws from our common roots then we miss much of the richness of the Church. Yet if we throw too much, too soon into the mix of worship then we can lose the participation that is so essential for a great worship experience. We need to strike a balance of pushing into new relational avenues with God and providing a familiar and engaging framework for this push to happen.
This is not an easy one. Status quo is safe. But status quo will eventually get boring for worshippers. Any of you who has been through the process of introducing drums into the service in the 80s has seen how hard this can be, but how many congregations now feature drums in their worship bands? I see them all over the place and often used to great effect. If liturgy is about work, then it must be about accomplishing something. Guarding the status quo only accomplishes a spiritual stagnation and an entrenchment of elitist ideas about how 'we' do worship.
We try to not introduce a lot of new songs in our settings. Each worship leader comes with a different set of preferred songs so by mixing up the song leaders we do gain a variety of songs, but when we put together the songs for a liturgy we try to choose the majority of our set from songs we have done in the past and that the congregation has really engaged with. Adding new songs is not really a push but more of a way of building a resource of songs to give voice to a wider range of liturgical high-points. More about that in a further edition of this series. Where we push is more in how we execute those songs. Our base liturgical form is a three cresendo service: worship (in song), teaching (usually interactive and laid back), prayer (our comminity praying for each other often in smaller groups). Let us leave aside the form of our Eucharistic service which is monthly and quite different. Our basic form provides a familiar framework that folks know and expect. To push we will do things like introduce responsive readings or creeds into the worship in song. Change the teaching to a preaching or discussion. Have the prayer time take on more of an altar call type experience. Each of these foreign additions can keep the participants on their toes so to speak. Breaking their automatic expectations with a sense of anticipation. Often when you do a small change there is an increase in expectation that God too will do something new within our midst. If you change them all you run the risk of completely alienating the congregant. And these are merely a few of the possible pushes you could use.
A push works best if it is blatent at first and has the potential to be naturalized in after depending on how it impacted the quality of your communities worship. This brings us to Byron's suggestion of evaluating worship experiences within the context of a community. Look for that in Worship III.