Worship Worries: Do We Understand What We’re Doing? Mar27


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Worship Worries: Do We Understand What We’re Doing?

Sometimes, while I’m attending church I think about what it would be like to be new. Not just new to this particular church, but new to church, to Christian worship, to everything. Usually when I do that exercise I’m almost immediately discouraged, as I realize that I would probably understand very little of what was going on. More than that, I’d have to juggle a book and bulletin or keep following what’s being projected on the screen. Most of the decorations around the sanctuary and the dress of the people up front would be foreign. And, let’s not forget, I’d probably be singing (or at least listening to) a style of music that I don’t hear anywhere else. Which makes me wonder if I’d ever come back if I ventured into worship in the first place.

Okay, so I realize that’s what hospitality is about, and how we ought to be patient with folks who are new. And, more than patient, we ought to help visitors find their places in our books and bulletins and explain to them what the various parts of worship mean. I get that. But every once in a while I go the further step of wondering how many in our congregations could actually do that, explain to visitors what’s going on, I mean. That is, how many of the non-seminary trained folks in our congregations understand what’s happening in worship, too. I don’t ask that to be condescending, but rather to be realistic – because, quite frankly, our worship can be fairly confusing.

For instance, when we have communion we often sing “The Lamb of God” (Agnus Dei in Latin) just before coming up to receive the bread and wine. The lyrics are relatively simple and so easy to memorize: “Lamb of God, who takes away the sin of the world, have mercy on us,” repeated three times, but the last time substituting “grant us peace” for “have mercy on us.” But while the words are simple and the music meditative, it occurs to me that you need to know a fair amount about of the biblical story in order to understand it. You need to know, for instance, that John the Baptist says those words when he sees Jesus: “Behold the Lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world” (Jn. 1:29). And it helps to know that John only says that in the fourth gospel, The Gospel According to John (the evangelist, not the Baptist, although John doesn’t actually baptize Jesus in the Fourth Gospel, which is a whole other story). But why does John the Baptist greet Jesus with these words in John’s Gospel? To understand that, you have to know something about a number of Old Testament stories, particularly the stories about scapegoats and, to a lesser degree, Passover.

Do you see what I mean? There’s a lot you have to know even to follow, let alone really understand this familiar song. And if you don’t know these stories, then what does that song mean? For most of us – and I mean those of us who have been attending worship most of our lives – it means that it’s time to go to communion. How, then, are we to teach visitors what our worship means when we ourselves don’t understand a fair amount of it?

I thought of all this when I stumbled upon a series of videos called “A Capella Science.” It’s the brainchild of Tim Blais, a self-described “harmony addict working on a master’s in theoretical physics” at McGill University in Montreal. In each video, Blais rewrites the lyrics of familiar song in order to explain a complex theory in science. It’s really fun and educational…sort of. Okay, so it’s totally fun, but I’m not sure I’m learning all that much because while the music is familiar, I can’t say I understand what he’s singing about. Consider, for instance, his use of Queen’s “Bohemian Rhapsody” to explain string theory, a video he’s called “Bohemian Gravity.”

It’s kind of genius, isn’t it? He’s so creative in combining his love of vocal harmonization, use of video, and and competence in science to create a unique experience. But while I enjoy it, I’m not sure I really understand all that much more about string theory after watching it. Which is what I wonder/fear is going on for a lot of us during worship. So…what to do?

I have no simple answer to that question. I’m not terribly interested in making worship so simple it becomes simplistic. And I realize we need to do a much better job of teaching folks – regular folks, new folks, pretty much everyone – what’s going on in worship and what it means. And I’m pretty convinced that we can’t just keep doing the same thing over and over hoping for different results. (Einstein’s definition of insanity. BTW: did you catch the cool Einstein puppet?)

So, absent any answers I can only offer you my questions and invite your insights and suggestions. Thanks for considering sharing those in the comments. I look forward to the discussion.

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