February 7, 2013 by Pastor Ben McIntire
I’ve spent the last two days at Mid-Winter Convocation at Luther Seminary, my alma mater, attending a continuing education event with the theme “Worship in a Time of Change.” So far, it’s been a decent discussion about worship practices, liturgies, music, the theology behind why we worship in the ways we do, and how to engage the worshippers better.
One of the keynote speakers was Dirk Lange, associate professor of worship at Luther Seminary, who told about his background and experiences, especially during his many years as a brother in the Taizé community in France. Taizé is famous for its prayers, music, and chants. You might have heard the songs “Jesus, Remember Me” or “Ubi Caritas et Amor” from the Taizé community. The main thing that I took away from his lecture was a dedication to making the worship experience powerful, meaningful, and engaging. In our current state as mainline Protestant churches, too often there is a tendency toward the blasé, “we’ve always done it this way” traditionalism or else a contemporary praise band approach that becomes a concert performance by a handful of musicians while the congregation sits and watches. That is not to say this is the case in all churches, but finding a happy medium that is both faithful to the history of Christian worship and engaging for 21st century people is not a simple task.
Some of the ideas that have appealed to me and which might possibly work in my own congregation include occasionally adding interesting worship practices from more ancient times such as incense, candlelighting, or chanting; making a space for sacred silence; a renewed emphasis on an actually Holy Book used in the worship space (we already emphasize the Bible, but I mean an actual Book to serve as a physical focus during worship); and introducing some more variety in the types, styles and modes of music during worship. That might mean some a cappella singing to well known hymns, classical J.S. Bach choir pieces, jazz liturgy, or a rock and roll setting of a contemporary song. Whatever we do in worship though, must be done with thought, purpose, and authenticity and not simply for the sake of change itself.
The other keynote speaker was Chris Trimble, a professor of business at Dartmouth. His website is http://www.chris-trimble.com. His work is focused on the process of innovation for businesses and at this event he spoke about how to transfer some of the same principles to the life of the church. One of the misconceptions about innovation is that it’s all about brainstorming some great ideas and then you’re golden. Instead, true and worthwhile innovations seek to identify an issue or problem, consider how you are equipped to handle that problem, developing a plan or strategy, and then implementing that plan. In the case of churches, our focus is often on “how can we get more people to come to our church?” Instead what we are called to do in our Christian vocation is to reach out to the “unchurched” or those outside our walls and find out what their needs are. Once we get to know our neighbors and hear what their needs are (not just what we think they need), then we can begin to discern what gifts in the church community can be used to address those needs. Only then will we be effective in reaching out in love to meet people where they are.
Trimble also made an excellent point that innovation should not be done at the expense of the things that an organization already does well. To me that means that a church that has effective worship practices, programs, and ministries must not stop or give up on those things that are working well. But we must always be willing to find ways to improve or add to what we can offer to those who are yet outside the community, or who have not yet heard the Gospel and received faith.
I’m thankful for the time I’ve been able to spend at convocation, and the insights about what worship is, means, and can look like in its many forms. It’s refreshing to gain new perspectives and energy for the work of creating the sacred times and spaces for human beings to encounter God through worship.
Heavenly Father, I praise you and worship you for all the great gifts in my life, and especially for the gift of my life itself. Help me to experience your Presence in worship daily, and also when gathered with the community of believers. Help me to worship you by using my gifts to serve someone today. In Jesus’ name, Amen.