Worship and the Word

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Worship isn’t about the Word.
And we certainly shouldn’t worship the Word.
Not if you equate The Word with The Bible anyway.

But if you understand The Word to be The Word that was there in the beginning, and was with God … “The Word (which) was first, the Word present to God, God present to the Word. The Word (which) was God, in readiness for God from day one.” (John 1, The Message), then worship is all about The Word. It’s all about engaging with Jesus and the Trinitarian community that is God; and it’s about being transformed by that engagement.

Because our primary access to Jesus is through the God Story found in the Christian Scriptures, we do end up engaging with that story. But that’s an end point, not a starting point. Worship curators (people who design and “lead” worship events) need to always be coming back to the written story, but only because it accesses the Word behind the story. If the Holy Spirit is not engaging with us in worship, then the story remains just words; it never becomes The Word that is life and hope and transformation.

So worship curators have a huge responsibility (as do worship leaders if you choose to use that more narrrow term). They must constantly be pointing people to The Word behind the Word, and not be satisfied with anything less.

In practice, this isn’t as easy as it may sound. God has made us all with different personalities, allowed us different life experiences, grown us in varying sub-cultures and given us different learning styles. So there is no “one-size-fits-all” worship style that will guarantee a transformative engagement with God. Experiencing the worship of many churches you could be excused for thinking there is.

There is no best or even better style of worship. There is definitely no one model that all churches should be following. There should be many worship events I don’t particularly like or identify with. That means that across the Church we will be providing worship that more and more different people might encounter God in without having to undergo cultural circumcision.

We need a wide variety of corporate worship styles around our churches, and a variety of approaches to worshiping within any worship event. More of both, not less. A good curator will have this in mind when she or he is designing a worship event.

This doesn’t mean worship should become a three-ring circus or try to have everything that suits everyone, every time. But over time those who engage with the world primarily through their eyes should also be able to engage with God through that sense. Likewise with those who are tactiles, cerebrals, painters, poets, singers, introverts, extroverts and so on.

Examples: I could preach a good three-point sermon on the parable of the sower (Matthew 13: 1-23). I could also read the biblical story and show the interpretation of that story in paintings by Albrecht Durer, Rembrandt and Ian Pollock. Then we could engage in dialogue about what the artists interpreted, included, conflated and omitted from the biblical account, and speculate why.

Or I could lay out dirt, turf, weeds and gravel in wide strips through the church as I talk about the story and have people choose which path they will walk on to receive communion, or to make their confession, or to come to prayer. After communion I could have them fill their communion cups with soil and plant a seed to water and nurture at home as a reminder of the commitment they made that day to tending the good soil of their life.

Around the walls could be several large format printouts of the biblical text. People could be invited to re-read the story and underline and write comments on any word or phrase that stands out to them. Even questions and parts they don’t understand, or find hard. Those sheets could stay on the walls during the week and still be there next Sunday for people to continue reading and engaging with.

We could do a lectio divina reading of the biblical text, or use any one of several other Ancient/Future ways of engaging with it; anticipating that the God behind the story will be encountered as we do that.

There are many ways of opening ourselves up in ways that make us more likely to engage with the Holy Spirit through the biblical story. Strong worship can’t avoid a strong emphasis on the written Word. That’s our main way of accessing The Word that engages and transforms.

It’s time we took The Word and how we offer him in worship, much more seriously than we have done. A few favorite proof texts don’t honor God. They won’t build committed followers of Jesus. And there will be no engagement with the living God who came to us in Jesus Christ.

We are most often stopped from doing so by fear. Fear of criticism. Fear of a few people who pull the strings or hold the purse strings. Those people can often be won over by gracious pastoral care and careful explanations. A good curator is not seeking novelty or creativity, but a community that is being transformed by its engagement with the God of The Word. What could be closer to the heart of the Gospel than that?

New Zealander Mark Pierson is passionate about designing worship events and sacred spaces that enable people, inside and outside the church, to engage with God in meaningful, creative, transformative ways. He has developed the model of worship curator over the last 15 years and is the author of The Art of Curating Worship: Reshaping the Role of Worship Leader.

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