There are many questions about what worship does. Implicit in these questions is a central critique: that our concern for effective communication in worship sometimes eclipses the importance of the worshiping community and true communion with God. In our understandable eagerness to communicate a message about God, we may overlook the priority of the people who are gathered and the God who is present to meet us. Meaning starts to takes precedence over meeting. Presentation becomes privilege over presence. And production values begin to trump pastoral sensitivity as we lead worshipers in what should be participatory prayer.
As a church musician and liturgist, I am sometimes tempted to plan worship as if it were a presentational event. But through repeated missteps, I am slowly learning an important principle: Worship is not an artistic, productioncentered ministry in which we utilize people; it is a Godand people-centered ministry in which we utilize artistic production.
Here are three suggestions for how we might prioritize the “who” of worship—God and the worshipers—over the “how” of communication and ritual artistry:
1. Think of ways to be physically present to one another in worship. As Marshal Mcluhan famously asserted, “The medium is the message.” If a worship experience is predominantly mediated by projection screens and amplified sound, to what degree are we truly present to one another? And what does being digitally present to one another suggest about how God is present to us and how we are present to God? Plan moments where worshipers can tangibly interact. Even a simple physical greeting can enable participants to more fully embody the body of Christ in worship.
2. When planning worship, consider relationships first and artistic production second. Before beginning any worship-planning session, think through the impact of the planning process itself on the leaders involved. Efficient ministry is not always effective ministry. For example, emails and text messages can be a quick way to get things done, but without the nuances of nonverbal communication, such efficiencies are often more than offset by the time it takes for relational damage to be undone. Whenever possible, meet face to face.
3. When meeting to plan worship, we must remember that we are discussing an encounter with a holy God who is already present. Too often, we talk about God as though He isn’t there—as though God isn’t listening to the conversation. We speak differently—positively or negatively—about someone when we know he or she is in the room. Perhaps if we planned worship with a greater sense of God’s presence, we would be less cavalier in what we say, less confident in what we intend to do, and more prayerfully expectant regarding what God might do. Perhaps if we planned worship with a greater sense of God’s presence, we would worship with a greater sense of God’s presence—the presence of the One who graciously meets us when we gather in Jesus’ name.
This article was first published in Best Practice, September 30, 2012.
Nicholas Zork is a doctoral student and part-time pastor at Advent Hope in Manhattan, New York, USA.