I attended two worship services today: the first was Presbyterian and served as the opening session of a business meeting (a presbytery meeting, for those who know what that means—see here for more on the subject). The sermon was fine, the liturgy was mostly okay (though I found the non-gender-inclusive language quite off-putting—I mean, what the heck—and there was also a very distracting and puzzling grammatical error in another of the prayers).
But the first thing that really struck me about this service was the hymn, “O Lord, How Shall I Meet You?” The sentiment that inspired the 17th century author (and the 19th century translator) was noble, no doubt. But I had a very hard time imagining any person in the 21st century finding the singing of this antiquated poem a stirring or meaningful experience.
Don’t get me wrong—I have always loved the great hymns of the faith, and many songs written hundreds of years ago still strike a deep chord with people today. But most of them do not.
The real problem here is that sometimes it seems people select worship songs based on their musical style and thematic content, without ever asking the questions: Will singing this song be deeply meaningful to anyone? Will it help anyone to experience God’s presence and power? Will it make any difference in any person’s life? I cannot imagine someone honestly putting these questions to themselves and concluding “Yes, it is reasonable to expect so,” in answer to a single question for the song “O Lord, How Shall I Meet You?”
This is symptomatic of a very serious problem for Presbyterian pastors in general. Our denomination’s constitution recommends a carefully thought out structure for our worship services, so all we have to do is plug in the elements for each Sunday—a call to worship, a prayer of confession and assurance of pardon, scripture text and sermon, hymn of praise, hymn of dedication, sending hymn, etc. Now, there is nothing wrong with the structure itself, but if we just assume that plugging new elements into their proper places each week will be enough to keep our worship meaningful and relevant to people’s lives, we are dead wrong.
It takes real effort and a lot of work to ask the questions sincerely every week, about every aspect of the worship service, “Will this be deeply meaningful? Will it help people to experience God’s presence and power? Will it make a difference in anyone’s life?” But if we don’t ask, we’re in danger of offering nothing but empty rituals when God calls us to provide sustaining bread and intoxicating wine, the gospel of life, the truth that sets us free.
I went to another, very different worship service this evening—it was a service of Taize (and other) songs, readings, and meditation (at a Catholic church). Compared with what I’d experienced this morning, it was like traveling to another planet—like moving from a place of drab fog and empty greyness to a place of light, color, beauty, and holiness. The sense of the sacred and the emotional depth that were so frustratingly missing in the morning gently greeted me in this evening. I left the Presbyterian worship service feeling resentful of the wasted time, and even guilty, wondering if it was my own wrong attitude that kept me from experiencing God there—but I left the Catholic service thanking God from the depths of my heart for bringing me there into God’s presence.
Worship should not be boring. Meeting God in a worship service should not be a herculean feat possible only to the most advanced of spiritual disciples. It is not a goal too lofty for mortals to create an atmosphere conducive to experiencing the sacred. It was so good to be reminded of that …
But I have one more thought on my experiences today. Something important was missing for me at both worship services. Looking around among the Presbyterians, I realized probably the main reason I felt so empty there was that I hardly knew anyone. And even though the Catholic service was so wonderful, I hung around in the narthex a little while afterward (waiting for Brandon to return from the restroom), and no one said a word to me, which was both awkward and disappointing.
And that’s why I love small churches. Because in a small church, you really can worship as a community—not just as individuals who happen to be in the same room—but as friends who love each other and are growing together. And that’s one of the most beautiful, wonderful things about my darling little congregation—because it’s so tiny, and because all the people in it are so amazingly awesome, worshipping together, few as we are, is a special joy.
Definitely need to work on asking myself about the meaningfulness/relevance/power of all the things we do in worship, though. Plenty of room for improvement in our service … It’s an exciting job to start, though!