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What are we really aiming for?

Nowadays worship has become, for many, a church department in its own right. Magazines are devoted to the subject. 'Worship leader' is used as a recognised title, along with 'pastor', 'teacher', 'lay reader'. Usually it refers to the leading of music in worship, as opposed to liturgy, which is the design and organisation of all the component parts of public worship.

Like any other subject, 'worship' breeds its own experts. Their expertise is honed through practice and, perhaps, through study. But when it comes to teaching others, the gap is often too big to bridge. With a few exceptions, the best examples are confined to centres of excellence: cathedrals, perhaps, in the case of the Anglican tradition, or big national gatherings in the case of contemporary 'family' worship. Ordinary churches have to make do with what they have, and often produce poor imitations.

Celebration is no stranger to this dilemma. Our style of worship was intensively developed a generation ago, and follows well tried principles. But teaching it at conferences and outreaches does not, in our experience, produce the results in churches that one might hope for.

Why? Not because trainees are not receptive, nor because there is a lack of talent. But worship, at the end of the day, is not about expertise. It is an activity of the heart, of the people. Leaders can acquire technical knowhow that facilitates worship, but they cannot produce a worshipping people. For us at least, that is the prerequisite for authentic worship.

Being part of a parish which is actively thinking about its worship, especially when the technical (music) expertise so characteristic of Celebration is not readily available, is thus a salutary experience. We have to think about it from a different point of view than the secure position of the expert. What principles has our own worship experience taught us?

Many fairly typical Anglican churches have a trained choir, used to leading in the 'cathedral' style, and various groups with an interest in other kinds of worship on offer today: charismatic, Taizé, Iona, New Wine, the orchestra or big band style. How can one make sense of all these types? And is Celebration's style just one more type?

Worship Strategies

Faced with this situation, what many churches do is opt for one of two strategies. They can either settle for one style which more or less eclipses every other kind, or they adopt the 'slot' mentality.

The slot - itself an expressive word, with its image of separating walls - can either be within a service itself or a separate activity. The classic case is the 'children's slot', when a song or activity is allowed in an otherwise adult service to cater for the supposed juvenile taste. Alternatively, the interests of some may be provided for through fringe meetings and special services.

In discussing worship, however, assumptions are often made which are not examined or even made explicit. This can make it difficult to reach agreement in any other way than through the strategies just described.

The motive force for worship

The language of worship is the high language of praise, or the language of 'commitment', to use a modern jargon word. In other words, it has an intimate connection with Christian discipleship. Once discipleship is taken for granted or simply assumed, its connection with worship is weakened and worship itself loses its real meaning. Worship becomes an activity for its own sake, to be enjoyed for itself apart from a life of discipleship.

When this happens, the principle or motive force for worship becomes subtly altered. It matters little what style one takes. Take, for example, two contrasting forms, cathedral and charismatic worship.

The argument for cathedral worship is that we must do our best for God. It sounds a good principle. But if 'our best' refers primarily to the words and music, the driving force of this kind of worship is not so much discipleship as aesthetics. It is a form of fine art.

By that principle, no doubt Beethoven is better than the Spice Girls, and more satisfying to those with trained voices. But to press that principle to its logical conclusion, the criterion for judging worship which it produces has less to do with nurturing Christian faith than with soothing the palette of sophisticated musical taste.

To put cathedral worship into perspective, it has to be recognised that soldiers do not generally march into battle singing Bach chorales. Some of the movements which have helped shape our times - the peace and anti-war movements, for example - have drawn more inspiration from the likes of John Lennon or Bob Dylan than Mozart.

There are many Christians today, both within and outside the Church of England, who feel that cathedral worship, for them, represents Oxbridge dons and sherry and the cloister rather than the market place where they live. Hence the popularity of contemporary forms of worship. But are they any better?

Charismatic worship is supposed to liberate the spirit. Even though many of its songs are as set in stone as any ancient hymn, the style of the worship gives expression to the freedom of the Spirit within. Yet here too the same problem arises. When the focus is on the style, the principle of this kind of worship can easily slip into sentimentality.

For example, there is nothing wrong with singing 'I love you, Lord' with arms raised. But those who do it must reckon with Jesus' warning: there will be plenty of people to whom he will have to say, 'You don't love me. You have no idea what I've been about. Are you ready to hang on a cross, like me?'

The same can be said for any other form or style of worship. When the wellspring for it ceases to be our following of Christ (or when that is taken as read), it comes down in the end to personal taste or preference. And it is not surprising that minority tastes get minority treatment.

Faced with the variety of preferences that we find in any parish church, perhaps the primary pastoral task is to re-establish the link between the worship of our lives and the worship of our lips. That is what gives the words we sing their true meaning. It does not eliminate preferences but it does prevent them becoming absolute or independent.

The function of corporate worship

But there is another important function of worship. If discipleship gives meaning to the language of worship, corporate worship expresses and teaches theological truth - the truth of who we are together.

Here again, when the focus is less on the mystical truth and more on the 'who we are', the same kind of problem arises. Worship provides expression for a particular 'spirituality'. But that can mean little more than whatever satisfies my religious feelings and supports my particular world view. It does nothing to heal the fragmentation of the Body of Christ; in fact, it may well reinforce it.

Cultural and ethnic worship, which often gives a genuine sense of identity to a minority and perhaps oppressed group, is an obvious example of this. One should not underestimate its importance. Tyrants through the ages have tried to impose their will by banning ethnic worship. There are countless instances where it has given hope and strength to an otherwise oppressed group. But the issue of catholicity in the church worldwide is beyond the scope of this article.

Here, we are less concerned with the wider social role of worship than with its power to reinforce group identity amongst Christians who are more or less homogeneous. At its worst, it creates the 'us and them' mentality. Its religious content, however, does even more, in a subtle kind of way. It also 'sanctifies' the group in question, reinforcing their resistance to change or input from the wider church.

This is the problem with the 'single style of worship' strategy referred to earlier. Whether it is judged as best according to some 'objective' standard, or whether it is simply the lowest common denominator, it is inherently exclusive in more ways than one. And in being so, it can send out a very strong (unspoken) theological message.

We cannot, of course, eliminate exclusivity (a service taking place in English is exclusive), but the function of worship is not to reinforce it. Corporate worship should express the catholicity of the church and the theological reality of the Body of Christ. It should make us aware of who we are together - all of the body, that is, not just those who think like us.

In the historic churches this is the function of liturgy, but in modern times hymnody and non-liturgical aspects of worship have acquired enormous power to influence people's perceptions and understanding.

If the term 'Body of Christ' is seen as a static definition or metaphor, it will not matter too much if our worship feels exclusive. Exclusivity does not affect our status. If, on the other hand, it is seen as a living organism, something concrete to which our theological language gives a name, the way in which we worship is of crucial importance.

Worship needs to express the reality - thereby teaching and reinforcing it. Can this be done with our present diversity? It depends on how we deal with it.

The 'single style' approach will not do it. Even if that happens to be the majority taste, it will close people's eyes and ears to what God is doing in his church today. Its evangelistic power will be confined to those who like that sort of thing. The 'slot' mentality will not do it either. It will often do the opposite of what is intended, by reinforcing our separateness.

There is an old community expression about being like marbles in a bowl. The marbles are all together in one place, but fundamentally they are all separate. That is what the 'slot' mentality communicates, in effect. It is the very opposite of a living organism.

In the organic understanding of the Body of Christ, unity is seamless. It does not have dividing walls, or screws or stitching to hold it together. We can speak about the finger, but there is no part of a body which does not feel 'at home'. The body as a whole gives to each part a sense of its identity, its consciousness of belonging, and the knowledge of its importance.

This is the theological truth that our corporate worship needs to reveal. It is not simply a matter of making room for diversity, but of weaving the various elements of corporate worship together so that they form a unity. There are many levels at which this principle can operate, from the design of a service as a whole to the musical treatment of a particular song; from the handling of liturgy to the relationships between worship leaders.

In a bygone age, the historical liturgy itself was sufficient to fulfil this role of expressing the unity of the body, although it was not and never has been as static as some may imagine. But with vastly increased wealth, education and communication, times have changed. It's no longer possible to ignore the diversity in the church. The task of the worship leader is to express the mystical unity of the body whilst giving integrity to its diversity. That takes creativity and skill, but in the church there is no shortage of either.

The material for this article did not come from thinking about worship in a vacuum, but from trying to understand the relationship between the principles of Celebration's worship and the ordinary workaday problems of a church. There are of course many practical aspects of worship, but it is only when confronted with normal church life that one has to reconsider one's basic assumptions.

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