Friday, July 1, 2016

Worship & Community Voice

In the last couple of years I have found myself in MANY different church and conference worship services. In recent months I have again been reminded of the power of having many people and voices as worship leaders. Often I may have a Sunday morning where I go from a suburban to an urban setting and I'm becoming more aware of some dynamics at play.

Sometimes I'm in church worship and it is dominated by one voice, one presence, one personality. I'm not sure if we fell into this with emphasis on preachers, or revivalists, or paid staff, but the "one talker" phenomena is a tough gig. It takes a lot of energy, presence, and work for one primary player to fill the role. It may be strong in some respects- continuity, expectations, control, etc. But it also has a down side in connecting to many people and personalities in a community. If the community is all the same this might work though eventually boredom is liable to set in. Even professionals with monologues tend to have a stable of writers, and take a lot of time (and time off) to keep up the creativity and sharpness of their work.

The solo voice also lends itself to worship being primarily a spectator sport. It's like attending a performance where the music is presented and then an actor shares a monologue.

Of course, theologically, there are serious deficits to this as well. How does one person, from their experience, intellect, and voice, adequately share a message from God in worship Sunday after Sunday? More voices, developed and working together, may better represent both God and community and therefore enhance our church communication. Practically, one voice seldom represents and communicates well with a community and all the sub-cultures and people groups that call the place home.

My experience in worship has been wonderfully stretched by my involvement with the larger Church. I deeply appreciate the variety of languages, musical styles, and voices which can enliven worship and our experience of God. Often you may only see this on a mission Sunday or at a large worship gathering that is multi-cultural, multi-ethnic. Again, this reminds us of the deficiencies of some of our practices which too quickly narrow the possible audience of the entire community to only one group or sub-culture of the community.

I recently attended a suburban church that had a somewhat typical format where a liturgist also served as the music director, and the preacher had most of the speaking parts in worship. There were a few hundred people present and a certain "sameness" to everyone in attendance. There was a time of prayer where folk from the crowd could share a joy or concern, but often in the sanctuary the sharing couldn't be heard. So, even this, proved not to be intimate and community building, and instead seems to reinforce the suburban isolation and separation. Of course, there was a choir, and the congregation shared music. It was all very routine, easily anticipated, and carefully scripted and managed. In this more formal setting a video of recent church ministry seemed to be the primary way to get more voices into worship. Such worship seems more like a production, more like a monologue, and is interesting yet predictable as a spectator sport.

I also recently attended worship in an urban church. Think tough, declining neighborhood and a church which has grown in recent years to match the folk from the immediate community. The church was formerly all white and is now about 50/50 black and white. In contrast to the highly scripted suburban church this was a little more like a "pick up" game of basketball. Now, don't get me wrong, some of the key players knew their role and had rehearsed for music, solo, readings, and sermon. But you could tell everyone had a voice here and so the banter, the invitation to talk, was modeled by many. This gathering of 60 people had most actively participating in some way. When there is a call to prayer the various individuals who spoke could be heard and got into details- e.g. challenges of a job, friend in prison, family with cancer, the state of the neighborhood, a recent ministry of the church, etc. In this less formal, highly relational setting there were a variety of voices which lent to a strong sense of worship flow and balance. While the preacher did have 20-25 minutes of the hour there was something about the authenticity and revealing of it all that was more like a dialogue which called for participation.

As I continue to hear what this is teaching me I'm drawn to concepts of worship better reflecting the community. Any church interested in greater effectiveness in reaching the community, especially multi-cultural or multi-ethnic individuals or families, would do well to always have a variety of people consistently active in worship and church leadership. This may run counter to some church cultures (e.g. "What are we paying the preacher for?"), or some clergy personalities (it takes more time and energy to engage more people in worship as opposed to it being a "one man show"), but there is a great power in this in terms of better reflecting the community and reaching more people.

A church culture which leans toward authentic following of Christ in the neighborhood, and reflecting God through the variety of people found in those streets, will greatly benefit from engaging everyone in the sanctuary in some element of active worship leadership. Giving the community voice in the sanctuary and church life will help people of the community to find God through the ministries of the congregation.

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