I'm still thinking about worship, its importance and relevance, and had this conversation with a friend on Sunday about it. She told me about the church where her mom is a member. It is a very old and established church in the country with traditional worship, familiar hymns and old wooden pews. The congregation is sensing that the energy has gone out of their worship, and has formed a task force to look into ways to revitalize the experience. My friend's mom, who is always open to new ideas, suggested that they try some different music. They are currently working with that and many other ideas to come up with a plan.
My friend said that she disagreed with this approach to making worship "better" and by way of example shared her experience of the Sunday morning worship at 4th United, the congregation that has opened its doors to our house church community. I was there too, so I knew exactly what she meant.
The worship was competely traditional: we sat in wooden pews; the order of worship was much the same as it is in most presbyterian churches. We sang hymns right out of the hymnal. There was a sermon of about 20 minutes after which we prayed decently and in order, and then everyone greeted each other when it was done.
But something about that worship service was very different. It was traditional on paper, but miraculous in person.
My friend believes that what was different was the full engagement of the people. We sang "There is a Balm in Gilead!" and everyone, I mean everyone, sang it at the top of their lungs. It felt like we were going to raise the roof on that place. During the sermon, the occasional person who liked what they heard would exclaim, "Amen!" or "Mmm-hmm!" When it was time to share joys and concerns nearly everyone had something to share. They weren't filibustering or simply enjoying the sound of their own voices; they were lifting up prayer requests in a community that cares for one another. There were babies in laps everywhere. Even my 7 year old daughter said she liked church (and she never, ever says that.) I asked her why and she said simply, "everybody sang." My friend was so moved during the Gloria Patri that she (gasp) raised her hands in praise. And she is decidedly not a hand-raiser.
So when we sit down in committee to talk about worship practices we can be mindful that meaningful worship is not just a matter of "traditional vs. contemporary." It is a matter of the people being fully present to each other and to God. And music in worship, which is usually the most contentious issue, is quite possibly more than just a decision between praise band and choir. It's more a matter of creating a space where folks feel free enough to let loose and sing. Whether it is Thy Word or The Church's One Foundation does not matter. Are the people singing? That's what matters.