What is good worship? This is a question entertained by leaders and congregants. Leaders want to provide ‘good’ worship for their churches and congregants want to be in a place where they can appreciate and participate in the worship. Yet the problem is what is good for some can be complete nonsense for someone else. For example, I really don’t appreciate choral music. I want to sing not be sung to and I tend to really dislike the music that is commonly associated with white protestant choirs. But I know lots of folks who feel elevated to the 7th heaven by such worship. Just because I can’t appreciate choral music does not make it bad – it just means that choirs are likely not going to create an atmosphere in which I personally can worship. So the task of evaluating worship needs to be clearly defined at levels of the Church, the congregation and the individual.
Thank God that I don’t have to endure forms of worship I dislike, at least not on a regular basis. But there are elements of worship that belong to the Church and that should be acknowledged corporately. These matters of worship are not about form, but about content. Who we worship, as in the Trinity alone. Why we worship, because God is simply worthy of all worship and praise. What we worship, the person of God and not the creation of God. Where and when we worship, well this is defined at the next level. But as you can see the points that I propose are common, fairly plain and allow for a wide diversity of worship expressions.
It is at the congregational level that we determine the characteristics of our worship of God. It is there that we craft language and liturgy. Before I lose some of you more traditional readers, there is liturgy and language that flows from the Church level to the parishes. But my claim is that this is not what makes those elements good or bad. Truly you can have all the right pieces liturgically and completely miss God and conversely you can have a complete liturgical stumbling and find yourself in the presence of God. I believe it is what happens congregationally that makes common corporate practices (denominational) good or bad. And so this is why we evaluate efficacy of forms at this level and not at the Church level.
Language is really important to a community. I am not referring to the debates about liturgy in the vernacular, but there are some conclusions relevant to that debate to be found here. I am referring to the language that the community develops around their liturgy, the language that they incorporate in their worship of God. The ease with which we adopt the language of worship in a community the better our personal experience of worship will be. So it is important to evaluate what language is being developed and how it is enhancing or hindering the worship experience of the congregation.
Language is tricky because the way we say things reveals what we think about those things. So when we have a worship language that is highly directional, we have the unspoken message that God and the church are highly directional. Yet more invitational language speaks of the invitation of Christ into Kingdom life. Directional isn’t completely bad, however, but we must always look at what is going forward by how we chose to frame our liturgical practices. Great worship language should (and will) depict a range of relational qualities reflective of the gospel itself.
I isolated language from liturgy because I feel it is one aspect of liturgy that is simply assumed and not addressed. But it is as much a part of the liturgy as the actions, readings, prayers, reflections and songs. Liturgy is a rich composition of many divergent elements orchestrated in a way that allows the congregation to worship God. Liturgy includes physical elements as well such as bells and chalices. Liturgy is complex but evaluating liturgy is much easier than evaluating language. Each element or moment in the liturgy should meet a single requirement to be considered good liturgy – does it enable the congregation to worship God? If an element provides a stumbling block to worship then it is a bad liturgical element.
I know that individuals use this type of evaluation to discredit alternate or divergent forms of liturgy/liturgical elements. Yet, the question is only really relevant in the context in which it is asked. So I may have a powerful aspect of liturgical dance in my corporate service and folks might tell me that seeing the movements of the dancers ushers them into the presence of God, but that same service of liturgical dance might be a stumbling block if used in the church next door that is still married to their pipe organ and fired their last pastor for allowing the youth band to bring a drum kit into ‘their’ sanctuary. You can incorporate the same elements in different setting and have completely different evaluations. Another example is the fad of being ‘seeker sensitive.’ Being seeker sensitive or insensitive does not make good liturgy. Good liturgy is that which allows the people who have gathered (ecclesia) to worship.
There is a dynamic of participation; I have touched on it before. It is this dynamic that allows visitors to appreciate liturgy. I know that in places where the liturgy is foreign (and even in a language I do not speak) I am drawn to worship by the collective call of people worshipping. And the converse is true. Hang out at the back of a typical evangelical church and the disinterested youth will infect you with their disinterest. Go to the front where the keeners congregate and you will be encouraged to worship no matter how unfamiliar the elements.
Now let me be careful, participation does not require demonstration. In other words to participate in the worship one does not have to be mirroring the actions of her neighbours. But there is something tangible that goes on with the worshipper when he actually participates in corporate worship. Some of the best worship times I’ve experienced had a diversity of responses to the elements of the liturgy. Which is why to carry on an evaluation of the congregational worship one must become aware of how the congregation (a collection of gathered individuals) is responding to the liturgy.
This is the evaluation that I wish to concern myself at an individual level. How do I respond to the liturgy? Does it make worshipping accessible? Does it help pull back the veil revealing God’s presence? Does it help me turn my heart back towards God? Does it encourage me to deepen my relationship with God? Does it build me up or tear me down? Does it foster a sense of community? These are very important elements to consider as a worshipper. Now as a congregational leader I need to hear these evaluations so that I can improve the liturgy, and thereby the worship experience of my congregation, but also so that I can shepherd. When we ask these questions as worshippers, we are asking if the worship of this community is personally appropriate. But when we are shepherding we are trying to keep the gathered moving in the same direction. These evaluations sometimes reveal worshippers that might be best served by other communities. This is our realization that the body of Christ is made up of a multitude of folks all stumbling towards God in a lot of different, but amazing, ways.
Next I will look at evaluating specific elements of the liturgy.