On Monday I had the privilege of meeting Dr. Constance Cherry, Associate Professor of Worship at Indiana Wesleyan University and Professor of Worship at the Robert E. Webber Institute for Worship Studies. I first read something of hers a couple months ago in Worship Leader Magazine's July/August issue. Dr. Cherry penned the cover article, "Shifting from Professional Programs to Participatory Worship," in this wonderfully constructed "Folk" issue of WL Mag.
So when Dr. Warren Anderson, friend, IWS grad, and Dean of Chapel at Judson University, invited me to this Inaugural Worship Arts Lecture featuring Dr. Constance Cherry, I was all over it. I quickly contacted our network of local area worship leaders here in South Bend to see who wanted to come with. We were also looking for our next book to read and discuss together this fall, and Dr. Cherry's new book, The Worship Architect: A Blueprint for Designing Culturally Relevant and Biblically Faithful Services, attracted us. Five of us hopped into my minivan and headed to Elgin, IL for some sweet fellowship and teaching and to purchase Dr. Cherry's book.
The title of her lecture was, "Moving Congregations from Passivity to Participation in Worship." Here are some of my notes and thoughts, and then I'd love for a discussion to get going.
To be passive means "to be acted upon," and to participate means "to act upon" or "to partner with." Are our congregations being acted upon, or are they doing the acting, partnering with one another? Soren Kierkegaard presented the Stage Play Model vs. the Preferred Worship Model. In a stage play the performers of the work are the actors on stage, the prompters direct the work behind the scenes, and the audience passively sits in the seats to watch the work. This is what much of church worship looks like today. Kierkegaard suggests that church worship should look like this: the audience is God, the prompters are the leaders and pastors on stage, and the performers of the work are the people in the congregation.
Worship Is Work
But this is a call to a complete paradigm shift. Virtually nobody who enters a church for worship these days expects to work, let alone sweat, get their hair messed up, and leave with wrinkled clothes and scuffed shoes. Instead we come to watch, to be entertained by good music and feel good messages. Church leaders have perpetuated the problem by catering to the comfort desires of the people by offering them coffee, cushioned seats, and creative spectacle. This is not the picture of worship presented to us in Scripture. Worship in the Bible is active and participative. "Participation is the expectation of the gospel," says Dr. Cherry.
The word for worship most often used in the New Testament is proskuneo, which means "to prostrate oneself." Could you imagine an entire congregation lying prostrate in the presence of the Lord? Talk about vulnerability! When the kings came from the East to see the newborn King they prostrated themselves before him. Think about that for a minute--rulers laying down their power, authority, control, their own kingdoms in an act of complete surrender...to an infant who was God with us.
In Romans 12:1-2 we find another important Greek word for worship, leitourgia, which means "service" or "work." Offering our bodies in view of God's mercy as living sacrifices holy and pleasing to God is our spiritual worship (leitourgia). "Liturgy is the work of worship performed by the people for the benefit of God and others." But again, who in their right mind nowadays would expect to work when they come to church (besides the staff), and not only that but enjoy the work they are doing? We are accustomed (shaped by the culture) to expect pretty much the opposite in worship--we come to get blessed, not to be a blessing.
Six Principles for Moving Toward Participation (with my extended thoughts)
- Recognize that this generation desires participation. Plan worship that engages all five senses and physical movement. Even though it's pulling teeth to get people to participate at times, deep down they really want to. It's like Paul who just can't get himself to do the things he wants to do. Remember, the leaders on stage are really prompters who help the whole body participate. What we'll find is that if we are leading well and the people begin engaging actively in worship, not only will they greatly enjoy the work of worship, but they will begin prompting others around them.
- Recognize that participation involves partnering with others. Plan worship that connects people together. Congregating in one place and singing in unity are pretty much the only things we do that connect us together. What other kinds of prompting can we do intentionally, perhaps symbolically, to connect people together? Join hands in prayer, partake of the elements of Communion together, all kneel. Sometimes very simple actions can be very effective.
- Recognize that people will naturally tend to be passive. Unfortunately, that's the reality, but don't be afraid to address it; don't let passivity rule your worship. Participation triumphs over passivity.
- Recognize that congregations have been oriented toward audience mentality. It is what it is, but what are we doing to deal with this problem. Much of what we do as leaders actually contributes to the congregation-audience problem. Confess this and begin transforming your culture one participatory invitation at a time.
- Worship is work. How much of what the leaders do could be done by others? Are we as leaders okay with settling for less than the best production? Leaders are robbing the congregation of their work by doing all the performing. We must get it out of our minds that the best way is always the right way. Sometimes the third or fourth best way is the right way, God's way. But a congregation-audience mentality demands only the best product, or I'm leaving. Leaders must prompt the people to do the work and train them to actually enjoy the effort and sweat that will happen.
- Encountering God in worship results in powerful responses. Much more powerful than any feeling that an audience can have watching a good performance. Perhaps our people have been conditioned to think that they are encountering God in worship when in fact they are not. Passivity does not lead to an encounter with God, participation does, work does. This could be the reason why so many of our people come to church out of obligation and find no real joy in it. This could be why leaders get so frustrated and discouraged by the lack of response from their people both in church and in all of life. But perhaps the leaders are responsible for their own frustrations by the way they are leading, always trying to perform to the pleasure of their people.