Over the weekend I had the privilege of leading a church leadership team on a retreat exploring creative worship. To begin I led them through the traditional flow of worship, in a pretty non-traditional way.
Beginning with our Call to worship, we scattered around the complex. We listened to this song, and as we felt drawn to respond, we came and took our seats in the circle.
We moved into thanksgiving, where we wrote the names of people who had formed and shaped our lives and faith on little tags. Then we attached them to a large family tree, marked out on a big piece of fabric.
Then came a time of confession and lament. We took a moment to reflect on our week, finding a moment that filled us with pain, or regret, or yearning for wholeness. Then one by one, we simply shared the day of the week it had happened on, and whether we were briniging a lament or a confession to God and the community. Then the group gathered around the person who had shared and spoke words of forgiveness and assurance.
Now we listened to God’s word. Through a simple process of Lectio Divina, we heard a short passage a number of times and then shared with the people around us what we felt Jesus was saying. Strikingly, a significant number of those present were hearing a similar message.
Then we shared communion. I began, bringing one person to the table and serving them. Then they brought someone else. By the end we had all been brought to the table, and we had all brought someone else. A nice little missional parable there.
Praying for the world came next. I made a simple drawing of Jesus alone at the last supper – and as our prayers we drew or wrote the names of the people we longed to see find healing and belonging in Christ.
We finished with a simple blessing and sending.
It was great. At the end, I realised that without intending to, every act of worship had relied heavily on the participation and engagement of those gathered. There wasn’t a single piece of the worshipping journey that I could carry on my own. It dawned on me that while I was leading the worship, I certainly wasn’t making it happen.
I got thinking about all the worship services I have led, and how many of them asked nothing or very little from the congregation. How many services have I led where the congregation was almost an optional extra? Where, if they didn’t get involved, I wouldn’t really notice?
I realised that too many of our services are happening purely from the front. The congregation are being spoken for, sung to, prayed on behalf of – and all that is asked of them, is that they rubber stamp it at the end with a mumbled ‘Amen’. Its not enough. Our congregational music is often too high or too hard for the average person to sing. The prayers of the people are too often abdicated. Our confessions have become vague and anonymous, as if they belong to no one at all.
My experience during Saturday’s retreat was that when I made space for people to bring their worship, and actually let the success or failure of the service be dependent on their engagement, it didn’t just go well. It went in a way I couldn’t have imagined. By making space and freedom, I took my hands off the wheel a little, and found myself hearing God speak, seeing God move, being delighted by the presence of the Spirit (in places I hadn’t planned or expected!) All of a sudden, God wasn’t just in one place anymore.
I know it takes more time and energy to prepare worship that involves human participation, and risks mess and untidiness. But is any other kind of worship worth doing?