Worshipping in God’s Absence

franciscan1Six year’s ago I worked with five Vanderbilt seminary students on a worship project.  They attended dozens of Christian worship experiences in all sizes, shapes, forms, and cultures of United Methodist congregations, then we sat and “debriefed” each experience.  One 27-year-old woman, Erin, an Episcopalian, made an unusual and provocative observation that resulted in a lively debate.  Erin said, “The remarkable thing about all of these experiences, for me, is that I feel like I am attending a function in God’s house while God isn’t at home.”  This led to a discussion based on the question, “What kind of worship experience do we believe God would attend?”

What follows is a rambling and random set of thoughts from multiple discussions on what my “team” experienced in a wide variety of United Methodist worship settings — highlighting the good, the bad, and the ugly.  I’ve tried to put them in a single narrative flow, though they represent pieces of different conversations covering a fourteen month period of time.

An absolute positive for everyone was comfort level.  It didn’t matter so much how they were greeted.  What mattered most was that they weren’t made to feel unwelcome.  “Oh, man, it was obvious some places that we were outsiders.  People acted like they caught us breaking in!  Or they made us wear name tags, or they made us stand up.  It was creepy how out of place some churches made us feel,” explained 35-year-old, Brian.  “The best experience for me is to have someone say ‘hi,’ shake my hand, give me a bulletin, and then let me find a ‘safe’ place to sit.  More than that feels phony most places, and less than that feels unfriendly,” adds 26-year-old Lakisha.  “I don’t mind if people try to strike up a conversation, but I hate it when people are following a script or a set of guidelines on hospitality.”

brasil-330x220-lac-young-people-talkingJosh, the 24-year-old ‘baby’ of the research team, was the exception to the group, wanting to be able to slip in and out of churches unaccosted.  “I’m not really a social-type.  I am going to church to worship God, and I want the service to really connect me to God.  It ruins the church experience for me when it’s nothing more than a social club.  I hate going into sanctuaries before worship and you can’t even hear yourself think because of all the noise and laughter and shuffling around.  I have a hard time finding a church that isn’t “too friendly.”  Lakisha chimed in, “Most of the churches we have visited are very loud and ‘busy;’ there’s something going on constantly, especially in the churches that are trying to reach younger audiences.”

This shifted focus to worship styles and specifically music.  Emma, 33-years-0ld and an Asian American Presbyterian, noted, “Energy seems low regardless of the worshipping style.  The majority of people in worship are very passive — they may stand up and sit down, but many don’t even sing the hymns or recite prayers or take part in responsive readings.”  Brian considered, “When people love what they’re singing, they really sing.  When the songs aren’t well known, or poorly led, people don’t sing.  Nothing annoys me more than having ‘song leaders’ who perform instead of lead.  They act like they’re auditioning for American Idol, not helping people praise God.”  The entire group agreed.  Too many worship leaders are performing rather than leading.  At the other extreme, poor performance makes music a trial rather than a joy.  “Music is perhaps the most important aspect of worship,” reflects Erin, “if the music is bad, worship is poor; but when the music is good, it lifts the whole experience.”  “Problem is,” laments Emma, “music is pretty bad in most of the churches we’ve been visiting.  And where it isn’t poorly performed, it tends to be poor theology or a simplistic message.”  “Or it’s terribly self-indulgent — all this “me, me, me and Jesus” stuff,” added Erin.

hr_s5_taize_mass“I have to say that traditional worship styles seem better than the ‘contemporary’ and ‘alternative’ styles we’ve seen,” observes Brian.  “I thought for a long time that contemporary worship pretty much sucks because people were learning how to lead it.  But, hey, people have had forty years to learn, and it isn’t getting any better.”  Josh offered some argument.  “I think we’ve seen as much good contemporary worship as we have traditional worship — and as much bad of both.  But it is all a matter of taste.  There is nothing intrinsically, qualitatively better about one over the other.  The problem, for me, is that too much worship is all about “the show,” and not enough about God.  It’s like God is a prop, or nothing more than a topic.  There is very little awe.  Very little reverence.”  The entire team agrees.  “It goes back to what I said before,” says Erin.  “The lights and sound systems are on, but God is not at home.  Worship is about God, but it doesn’t really involve God.”  Emma offered this perspective: “It’s like the difference between gardening and having someone tell you about gardening — or watching someone else garden.  That’s what I feel like in the worship services we’ve been to.  I mean, we have attended what, thirty-six different services?  I have yet to feel swept up in any experience.”  “And a lot of worship doesn’t seem to be about God at all, but just about how tough it is to be Christian.  It’s like watching Dr. Phil or Oprah.  It’s all about us.”

I asked the group if they felt the fact that we were attending worship from a critical research perspective changed our ability to fully appreciate the experience.  Predominantly, they felt it didn’t have much affect.  “I mean, we all go to worship all the time, and what we’re seeing here isn’t all that different,” reflected Josh.  “Really good worship is rare.”  “And good worship isn’t done for us, it is something we do,” said Lakisha.  “The big problem is that pastors and song leaders are trying to do worship for the congregation instead of helping the congregation worship.”  “It’s like, older churches think they are helping you be involved by making you stand up and sit down, and younger churches get you involved by letting you clap,” added Josh.  “Most worship feels very canned and planned.  I’m not sure the Holy Spirit could break through with grenades and an Uzi.”

“It’s not that people aren’t trying really hard and actually doing some good things,” said Emma.  “We have heard good speaking, good music, and have seen good prayers and skits and dancing.  But good quality and really appropriate and meaningful worship aren’t necessarily the same thing.”  “Yeah,” said Brian, “we have heard some good sermons, but are they really good messages?  Do they really communicate the Word of God?  I’m not so sure.  I can barely remember any of the messages we have heard, and I was really listening.  There hasn’t been very much that is memorable from this project.”  “Well,” considered Erin, “what is most memorable is what has been really bad.  And that’s sad.  We do remember the bad preachers and the awful music and the absolutely ridiculously egregiously insipid prayers.”  “Oh, God, there have been some real laughs,” remembers Josh.  “It’s mean, and I’m sorry, but there has been some really stinky worship.”  “It hasn’t been that bad, and there has not been much,” chastised Emma.  “There is no more really bad worship than really good worship — most of it is just mediocre, and that’s tragic enough.”

So, what kind of worship did the group think God would attend?

Erin:  Sincere worship that connects people to God.  The focus needs to be on God.  Everything should pull people’s focus toward God.  There is too much that happens in most worship services that really doesn’t belong there.

Josh:  I don’t know, but the people should, like, look like they want to be there.  There should be some energy or some happiness.  But it’s more than just lots of energy and noise.  It’s got to be more about God than us.

Emma:  I agree with Josh.  We talk about ‘celebrating’ worship, but most of what we’ve experienced hasn’t been celebration.  Too many churches go through the motions.  God would attend worship that is real and meaningful, not worship that happens like a habit.

Brian:  I don’t think God would attend any of our worship.  I think God is out in the streets with the people and the worship that thrills him is the thankful hearts that result from housing the homeless, feeding the hungry, and caring for the poor.  Too many people in church go to worship instead of serving others.  I don’t think God wants that.

Lakisha:  I don’t think God wants professional worship or slick and polished worship or auditorium or stadium worship.  I think God wants people who care about him and each other to be together to give thanks and sing songs and pray and read scriptures.  I think we make worship “special” because we don’t think it’s special enough on its own.  That’s crap.  Spending some time with God should be the most exciting thing we do.  Isn’t it amazing that so many of us have found so many ways to so successfully make worship ordinary and uninteresting?  Shame on us when we think worship depends on how well we perform.  I think God just wants us to want to spend time with him.

8 replies

  1. To say the Holy Spirit couldn’t break through a worship service canned, planned or what have you is a pretty bold statement. I believe the Holy Spirit to be strong enough to do whatever the Holy Spirit wanted including breaking through a worship service. But the point still remains are we having worship for God or for us. I would think that the bottom line would be we do it always for God no matter how the service goes or is interpreted. God is why we are there. As a worship leader I can say we may not always get it right mistakes are made and energy is not always strong, but is God always there, does he hear all of us, does he know what’s in our hearts? I have to say yes he is, yes he does, and yes he does… even before we do.

  2. If God is present everywhere, then obviously God is present in our worship services. Even if I don’t feel God there, God is there regardless, and I can worship Him.

    Should we bring our best to God in worship in terms of preparation and execution on the the part of those leading the people? Sure. If they fall short in our judgement, does that mean that God was not worshipped? I personally think God was worshipped regardless.

    • I think I agree with you, Larry, except many people find that they worship God in spite of the worship leadership, not because of it. While worship is possible anywhere — and indeed should be practiced everywhere from time to time — most people need help to learn the best ways to prepare for worship, and our communities of faith should be prime centers where people experience meaningful worship. I don’t think it is adequate to place the burden of worship on the worshipper. It isn’t just something individual’s do for and with God, but hopefully it is an expression of who we are as Christian community.

  3. Should worship experiences be special?

    Comparing my experience of prayer practice to the possibilities or worship, in prayer, I do not expect God’s presence to be manifest every time I go to prayer. In these practices, I seek to offer my time to God, and most of the time, when those twenty minutes or so are up, I find myself at peace, with a cleared head, but rarely do I have but a fleeting sense of God’s presence (Dan Wolpert’s Upper Room books on “Life with God” have been very helpful in this regard). So it does not surprise me that when we come together for worship, we rarely experience God’s presence manifest. For introverts like myself, the crowd is a distraction. I suspect for extroverts, the draw to interaction could also be a distraction from attention to the spirit.
    Matthew 18, which is pretty clearly NOT about our usual practice of worship, speaks of Christ present where two or thee are gathered. But I’m thinking that it may not mean that God is always palpably present.
    I’m not really trying to excuse laziness here, but rather trying to acknowledge the mystery of God’s presence, absence, or hiddenness in worship.

    • I agree that it matters a lot how people prepare to enter worship — but I find that very few of our churches help people learn the basic skills to prepare heart and mind for worship. Also, in the case of this project, I selected five of the most spiritually focused, well balanced, and truly gifted pastor/preachers-in-training — young people who embody for me the best and brightest that Vanderbilt had to offer. Yes, they went into worship with a critical eye, but I cannot imagine five people more open and receptive than the five I worked with. We never got approval to “formalize” the study, and it ended before we moved from the anecdotal to a less-subjective process, but I believe their responses are both representative and revealing, and they hopefully will stir up some helpful conversations about leading worship in our churches.

  4. This column prompted an old memory in me from a year when I lived in another country. I walked almost an hour to worship (limited bus service on Sundays) and back home again. Without really thinking about it I began to make the walk too and from a part of the worship experience and it changed the way I perceived the part of worship that happened in the congregation. My language skills were limited, the other people almost never talked to me, the music was only okay…and I encountered God in some of the most powerful ways during that year. I think that was true both because I entered the sanctuary ready to worship and because the service was God focused.

    It never occured to me until just now, that one way we could teach and lead in congregations is by helping people begin centering before they ever enter the formal worship space.

  5. Wonderful posting… As a worship leader I struggle with the balance required to make worship meaningful to everyone involved- from the congregation to the band. The best experiences I’ve found are when we are willing to “get out of the way” and allow the Holy Spirit to lead. It’s amazing how the entire atmosphere of the room changes when we let this happen, and how the people respond to God’s presence with true, authentic worship.

    Man, it’s totally out of this world… might we learn this lesson everywhere, and soon!

  6. Loved this line: “Most worship feels very canned and planned. I’m not sure the Holy Spirit could break through with grenades and an Uzi.”

    It would be interesting to have non-seminary types do this. Say, gather up some people who attend one of those slick and professional services and bus them around to a bunch of others services. I wonder what they would say.

    Effectively leading worship is one area where I have much room to grow. It is so easy to fall into routine. Yet, new is often bumpy and jarring for people. The balance between fresh and familiar is hard to hit on a regular basis – especially when people are habituated to the idea that worship is something you attend not something you do.

    And, I must admit, my own views on this have changed. In my pre-Christian days, I did not like responsive readings and other acts of worship that “forced” me to say and affirm things I did not embrace. I’ve had folks say similar things to me about confessional prayers.

    Sorry to ramble. Great topic.

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