I grew up in a pretty conservative household. It wasn’t radically fundamentalist or anything, but we did live by the standard behavioral codes most mainstream evangelicals held to at the time—no drinking, playing cards, or dancing. Movies were on the borderline. As a youth, I could follow the rationale behind the prohibition of drinking, but as for the problem with cards and dancing, well, I was at a loss. Nevertheless, it wasn’t a huge deal because it didn’t really affect me personally, that is, until a boy invited me to the prom. Suddenly the idea that Christians shouldn’t dance became very irrational. My budding gifts at logic were tested and found wanting, at least from my parents’ perspective. So after numerous attempts to challenge the “no dance rule,” the answer remained the same: tell Randy, “Thank you for the invitation, but we don’t dance.”
Thanks for the invitation, but we don’t dance. I wonder whether these same words aren’t often spoken by worshipers to Jesus Christ when he invites us to the dance—the dance of worship. As Reggie Kidd explains (see the feature in this issue), there’s a dance in progress; it is the ongoing Trinitarian movement of mutual worship between Father, Son, and Spirit as the Persons of the Godhead celebrate their eternal relationship with holy abandon. The wonderful thing is that we are invited to the dance. Jesus Christ, our risen Lord, our high priest, and our true Worship Leader, invites us to join him in the dance of worship. As high priest (see Heb 7-8), he teaches us the steps; he converts our many voices into one voice; he orchestrates the whole experience so that, together, the body of Christ with Jesus as its leader, participates fully in relational worship to the glory of the Triune God.
Yet so often we do not accept the invitation to the worship dance, largely because we are so absorbed in our own, alternative, views of worship. We think worship is about a program we put on for God. Or we think worship is about our own satisfaction and blessing. But these views of worship are a far cry from biblical worship, which instead calls us to actively participate in Christ-centered worship. So how can we accept the invitation to the dance and participate fully with the One who invites us? Let me offer three words to help us increase our participation in Christ-centered worship: anticipation, incarnation, and resurrection.
Anticipate the real presence of Jesus Christ at worship. Hours before your arrival at the appointed time for corporate worship, contemplate actually encountering the risen Lord in community. He is truly present to both enable our worship and to receive our worship. How can anticipation of this reality lead to greater participation?
Here’s just one idea: involve artists trained in liturgical movement or children or choirs to enter the worship space in procession as the service begins. A simple thing, such as a processional, can build anticipation of meeting with Christ. The processional is rooted in the Old Testament practice of pilgrimage. Worshipers made pilgrimages to Jerusalem three times each year for high festivals of worship. As they approached the Temple, there was widespread singing, dancing, marching, playing of musical instruments, and more. The closer they got to the Temple, the anticipation of meeting God certainly must have heightened. Anticipate a real meeting with Christ and you will participate in worship at a new level.
Embrace incarnational worship. Incarnation simply refers to that which does not have material substance taking on material substance. The unseen presence of Jesus in worship is manifested through the Spirit in the body of Christ that is gathered to worship. Worship is incarnational when the body becomes the means through which Christ is seen. How would our understanding of incarnational worship lead to greater participation in Christ-centered worship?
Here’s just one idea: begin to select your songs and prepare your words for prayers with the purpose of Christ singing through the community, Christ praying through the community to God. (He is our high priest, remember?) This is incarnational worship: when the unseen Christ is manifested through the worshiping community. Our participation will become more Christ-centered when we view our songs, prayers, and other words as the texts, which the unseen Worship Leader perfects and uses to glorify God.
Recall the resurrection. The resurrection is the primary event of worship. We worship because Jesus lives. When the early church celebrated the Table of the Lord, they did so joyfully. This is because the last image on their mind was not the cross but the empty tomb. Our resurrected Lord is the central theme of worship. How would our recalling of the resurrection lead to greater participation in Christ-centered worship?
Here’s just one idea: start with the Table of the Lord. Begin to make a gentle shift toward celebration when inviting people to come to the Table. Remember that the bread and the cup represent not only Christ’s death but his triumph and his promise to come again. Gradually insert songs of celebration at the Table, preside at the Table with a warm smile, choose words that recall not only Jesus’ death but his resurrection. The simple creed captures it well: Christ has died, Christ is risen, Christ will come again.
There’s a dance in progress and we have been invited. I pray your response will be, “Thank you for the invitation. I’d love to participate.”
For more than three decades Rev. Dr. Constance Cherry has served the church in various full-time ministries: Director of worship and music, pastor, professor in the academy. In addition to teaching regularly at The Robert E. Webber Institute for Worship Studies, she also teaches in various international settings and speaks at conferences. Her latest publication is The Worship Architect: A Blueprint for Designing Culturally Relevant and Biblically Faithful Services (Baker Academic 2010).
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I like to think of those of us who have responsibilities for planning and leading worship as “worship architects.” I am called to equip present and future generations of worship architects. I do this through conference speaking, teaching in various academic settings, webinars, writing books, composing music, and producing a variety of worship resources of all types.