Every liturgy is different. For me this is much of the beauty of the Church, it is a living celebration of the diversity of God united through worship. Sometimes this diversity causes tension in the body. Tension can be either good or bad, depending on how we respond to it. I am going to assume, for the purposes of this article, that we can rejoice that God is being praised and put aside our preconceptions about the specific ways that God is being praised. What I would like to accomplish in this article is a survey of some “common” liturgical elements and how we can assess their role in our worshipping communities. I added quotes around common because the commonality of elements is completely relative to tradition and community.
Because many of the traditions I have the experience with wrongly see worship as that time where we sing songs together. I am going to begin with some exploration of worship in song then move to some of the spoken aspects and finally look at liturgical actions. Because of the scope of this undertaking I will try to accomplish this in two or three posts instead of one, hence Worship IV.I.
A number of years ago I found myself in a Hispanic worship setting, although I didn’t know the language I was still moved by the time of singing, more so than the verbal portion which was graciously translated for me by one of the congregants. But there was something about the music that transcended the language barrier. Music is a universal language. But what was more powerful to me was not the fact that they were singing songs, or even common melodies. But there was an invitation made by people who had engaged with the worship of song, an invitation to worship, and as I worshipped I became acutely aware that God was there.
Music is a major part of most liturgical forms within the Church. Some groups disdain the use of instruments (apart from the voice) but still engage with song. Indeed Judaism is also replete with worship in song. But what about music and song is helpful for the worshipping community?
I am a huge advocate for accessibility. For music to work in a community, it has to resonate with that community. Sometimes that involves finding a common ground or at least the common ground in your tradition, ours is folk rock btw, and then moving from there. But to work for the community it has to be music that the community can relate to. I know a great church in town we affectionately call the polka church, the reason is they do 80’s contemporary worship to a polka beat. It is downright quirky, but it works because most of the people are older and relate more to the lilt of polka than they do to the steady drive of rock. But what is interesting is that they have a great affection for contemporary songs, especially with intimate lyrics.
When you are programming music for your community you need to understand what is accessible to them and them worry about how you can challenge them to break the route of familiar worship. This church has done so brilliantly by introducing very modern, sung to God songs, and keeping an orchestration that will not throw off their people. This Anglican church, that’s right Anglican, is also bridging the gap to a younger generation of worshippers who know the lyrics and adapt to the music.1
Also the lyrics are important for a community. I have another friend who is involved in worship at a Roman Catholic parish. His community uses a lot of contemporary (90’s on) worship but shifts the language from singular person to corporate. Instead of ‘I’ it is ‘We’ and ‘my’ becomes ‘our’. For him this makes the lyrics accessible to his fellow congregants, they would find the intimacy of ‘I’ out of place in their liturgy which is to them a very corporate act. Yet he is challenging their music by pushing into newer forms, which are culturally relevant. I am eager to see how this resonates with the younger folks in his community.
When we are assessing music and song we need to ask the questions:
1) Do the music/songs invite participation?
2) Does the music alienate the congregation by being too foreign?
3) Does the music invite real worship, that is the encounter of God?
Notice I didn’t talk about the music/songs teaching the right things. That is deliberate on my part. Songs are not merely vehicles of theology. But the theological implications of lyrics should not be overlooked. In fact I would categorize this as part of the third question because when the lyrics raise theological questions this interrupts the flow of worship. Hymns have been seen as a form of creedal affirmation, and there is a place for this in worship. But if singing is reduced to giving intellectual assent to the tenets of faith then much of the richness of worship is being forfeited at the altar of modernity.
We should note that there is an interaction between lyrics and belief (and visa versa). I’ve dropped songs out of rotation when I find myself wondering if I really believe what they are saying, especially as the community grows in its love and knowledge of God. You can usually tell what a community believes by the songs they sing. Songs reinforce and inform the theology of a community, but they also reflect the beliefs of that community. It is interesting because occasionally I will find myself in a community worshipping and when we reach a song that is new to me I often refrain from singing until I am confident that I believe what that song is saying. When you are visiting that isn’t so much of an issue, but if this happens too often in my own community then I have to wonder who else is experiencing worship interruptus. So when we are developing worship, lyrics are very important. Not that this replaces our creedal affirmation but that it is part of that commonality in worship we build from.
Next I’ll move into other aspects of the liturgy.
1. As an insight into worship development beginning where people are at and taking them deeper should not be overlooked. We started the series talking about the need to develop (ongoing) worship in our communities and I really want to keep coming back to that as an overarching purpose for this series.