When we talk about worship we really need to consider the whole of the liturgy. So while the songs of worship are very important (previous post), there is much more than singing that goes on in the corporate setting. Specifically there are spoken/read bits and there are symbolic bits that also need to be considered in a thorough treatment of the topic of worship.
In my own tradition we have greetings, prayers, sermons/teachings, readings (although not as frequent as in other traditions) and announcements. Yet we could add to this, intercessions, collects, benedictions, homilies, creeds and many other verbal elements that belong to the worship of the Church. (Note Jonatan has excellent series on liturgical elements from the Lutheran tradition). Generally these spoken parts are oriented in two directions, those that inform and those that collect.
When I talk about collecting, I am referring to those elements that gather or unite our worship into a corporate declaration or prayer. Corporate prayer is the obvious candidate for this category, but equally fitting are community declarations such as creeds and responsive readings. These elements align our hearts to worship in a corporate way. They are also touchstones with which we all commonly engage with worship (much like singing). They are intended to give voice to the community in the dialogue of worship that is the liturgy. This is where they differ from those elements that inform.
When we think of the sermon, no matter what you call it, the primary goal is to inform the congregation about a specific topic (ideally as flows from the scriptural readings). In fact it is hard for many of us to imagine a service without some form of message delivered in this way. (Except of course for those of us who have made a point to experience a liturgy with no sermon which our community enjoys monthly as our Eucharistic celebration).
Both directions are needed in the liturgy. We need to unite our hearts but we also need to be brought into the presence of God, which is entirely individual, it just happens in a corporate setting. So those elements that collect prepare us corporately for a personal experience. The personal experience is where we recognize Christ and are transformed by this encounter. In Lukan terms the good liturgy must take us into the tent, not just further along the road to Emmaus.
Now the very elements that collect us can also be the vehicles for this encounter. And I would say that the line between a good corporate experience and a good personal experience is as fuzzy as the line between that which collects and that which informs. I find it helpful to view the elements of the liturgy as potentially liminal. Liminality refers to a sense of crossing over from one place to the next, and indeed there is a invitation into the recognition of God’s presence that is very evident in corporate worship. I would even say that this is the purpose of our coming together corporately. (I would be surprised if this notion is not challenged though). Liminality is even more apparent in those elements of the liturgy that have a symbolic nature.
Unfortunately many traditions have a suspicious view of the things I lump into the symbolic bits of a liturgy. Yet these elements provide a rich place of meaning for a corporate worship experience. Our fear is that we always need to explain things so that people don’t get the wrong idea. But when we situate these things into a purely didactic form then they are stripped of their ability to mediate new meaning, even transformative meaning, to the worshipper. In simple terms how can we recognize Christ in the breaking of the bread if we are aren’t willing to let the symbol mediate itself? Symbols are not signs; signs are flat and have single definable meaning. Symbols are not flat representation, but a dynamic interaction between the symbol, the represented object and the experiencing subject. Many times after a service I will have parishioners tell me how an element of the liturgy gave them insight into God and God’s heart for them. Because these aren’t directed, they become powerful meaning for those individuals, meaning that they will live over and over again in the corporate worship setting.
So good worship is that which allows a variety of interactions between the worshipper and the liturgy. The liturgy indeed is the work of the people. It provides praxis for God encounters, where we recognize Christ in the liturgy. These encounters transform the worshipper and feed back into the liturgy enriching the experience for everyone. Healthy worship makes healthy worshippers.
Next a little insight from Dr. Seuss.