Tuesday, September 23, 2014

NuDunkers: Worship & Authority

This post is part of a NuDunker conversation happening this Thursday, 9/25, at 10am EST. For more info, and to join us via YouTube stream, click here

And because every NuDunker Hangout aggravates my bookshelf envy (those brothers of mine have some serious reading chops, y'all, and somehow manage to include their personal libraries in full view of their computer-screen cameras, allowing their video chat avatars to be oh-so-scholarly and wise while my office walls are pitifully bare and I cannot seem to erect a desk anywhere near a bookshelf background), here's a selfie with some books. Just to prove that I do, in fact, have them. Also, yes, those are crayons. And maybe a board game. It's youth ministry, OKAY?

I know people who are good at doing worship. I went to seminary with them. I’ve worked with them. These people are creative and motivated and under the impression that when an idea arrives, the next logical step is to turn it into a reality.

I am not one of those people. I appreciate worship. I have ideas. Some creative spark makes its way through me in other ways. But creating worship elements, arranging blocks of liturgy in meaningful ways, figuring out the logistics of how people might act and sing and encounter Jesus through the movements of worship is just…not my thing.

For one, I’m not such a huge fan of formalized worship practices. I like RITUAL, and SACRAMENT and ORDINANCE, sure. I think there’s a reality larger than our own that breaks through in those moments, and that we as followers of Christ and people intent on living as created and contingent beings have both the responsibility and the joy of creating space and time to do those things together. But my personal preferences lean toward the casual and spontaneous rather than the standardized and suited-up. I’d much rather sit around a fireplace with BVSers wearing sweatpants than stand in the pulpit wearing heels. I’d jump at the chance to emulate an un-programmed Quaker meeting in place of those unwieldy conference worship services that I helped to plan this year. This rocking chair church in Floyd, VA sounds pretty much like the worship of dreams. But that’s mostly a style preference. Some people are just fancier than I am.

More importantly, I don’t believe that I, as an ordained church leader, ought to be the only one making decisions about how an entire community celebrates its life together. First of all, I am boring. I only think about a few things. I like particular scripture, and certain hymns, and I am a creature turned, perhaps more than most, toward repetition and habit. Worship planned week after week by a single person is BORING. Second of all, my Brethren ecclesiology insists on a communal hermeneutic – we work together, pray together, read scripture TOGETHER in order to discern God’s voice breaking through to us. Why – WHY – should this be different when we gather to worship? Why do we assume that when we enter a sanctuary that the only person with the right to speak is the ordained person? Why do we entrust the shape of our communal worship to only a few when we insist in other parts of our life together that each one is gifted, that each one brings a piece of Christ, that each one is necessary to discerning God’s will for the body?

Last summer, I went to Sunday morning worship at a congregation other than my own. Part of the service was a piece of music played by a developmentally disabled teenager accompanied by his adult friend. The two walked up toward the pulpit, the man sat on a stool with his guitar, the boy stood behind his drum set. After strumming a few random chords, the man looked up from the strings, a strained look on his face. The boy was getting anxious, wringing his hands, ready to jam. “I can’t remember how it starts,” the man said aloud. The congregation chuckled a bit, and I heard a few people start humming different notes under their breath. Finally, a woman toward the back held up her phone and pushed “play” on a YouTube video of whatever song they were trying to play together. “Oh, right, right!” the man nodded. The woman returned her phone to her purse, and the duo up front launched into a beautiful, loud, chaotic, off-beat rendition of the hymn.

As they crashed through their song, I couldn’t help grinning. It was gorgeous. That this congregation made joyful space for everyone – young and old, differently-abled and forgetful; that they could shout out help from the pews when the ones up front couldn’t get started; that the help could come in the form of a youtube video played at full volume on an iphone; that all of this transpired without a single apparent notch of anxiety or discomfort from anyone present there in worship; that the mistake and subsequent cooperation WAS worship…all of this made me proud, comforted, convicted.

This is not something that would happen in my current congregation. We’re larger, more formal, less shout-it-from-the-pews than that congregation is. We worship together in a different way – more structured, more scripted, more practiced, more professional, more vetted. Sometimes, this is just necessary. And sometimes, it enables a worshipful mood in ways that the clumsy joy of chaos does not. There’s a bit of personal preference at work, generational divides as well as cultural ones. But often, buttoned-up worship styles leave me longing for more openness, more mistakes, more help from the pews, more reality.

And that’s why we need more people participating in the planning, writing, creating and leading of worship. We need to hear all the voices – old, young, strong, weak, high-pitched and low, from the front of the sanctuary and the back, the tiniest old lady rasp and the shrill newborn cry, the voice dripping with confidence and the one shaking with nerves, even the voice of that one guy who sits outside the sanctuary gazing in from the narthex, the balcony-whisperer and the overpowering choir alto – we need to hear them all. That means, I think, that those of us with the authority to plan and lead worship are responsible for finding ways to incorporate as many voices as possible – to pay attention to who’s doing what, to watch out for the poets and the dramatists, the ones with stories to share and the ones who are tentative and frightened. Authority in worship means making space – for all of us to speak up.

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