By William Dyrness
Perhaps for many people the most memorable image of the last few months is Andrea Bocelli, standing alone on the steps of a deserted Milan Cathedral on April 19, singing some of his favorite songs, including the simple words of “Amazing Grace,” a performance that has been watched by millions on YouTube. Though it wasn’t formally part of a worship experience, this moving performance struck me, in the light of all the fear and uncertainty of these weeks, as one of the most powerful expressions of what worship does for people. Similarly, when President Barack Obama started singing “Amazing Grace” in Charleston, South Carolina, just after the horrible massacre at a church bible study, the audience joined in singing along. Perhaps, like me, many joined with Andrea Bocelli too.
The “Why” Of Worship
We come to worship because we are hurting and broken people, and we come for words of healing—from Scripture, teaching, warm greetings from our friends, but most of all we come to join with them in singing our prayers to God. Why is this? Surely, the truth of Scripture about God’s love for us shown in Christ, the teaching of our pastor and the encouragement of our friends are all important, critical even. But in order for us to be moved and inspired with hope, we need a song. Or, for others of us, we need the beautiful movement of the liturgy or lovely images of saints or biblical scenes—these things wake up our imaginations and move us along what St. Augustine called the journey of our affections leading us to God.
This is why of all the things we need to pray for, after these weeks of trauma and pain, is that God would raise up not only prophets to speak the truth, but artists and poets to inspire hope and courage. If you agree with me on the importance of this, I invite you to join me on a suggested journey that your own congregation might take to “release the poets.” For one cannot just snap one’s fingers in order for poets and artists to appear, they must be found, encouraged and nurtured, and that takes a village. Given that after the coronavirus has gone nothing will be the same, the time may be right to decide to examine your congregation and its worship life and make a fresh start. Here is one way a thoughtful process of renewal might happen.
Your Community’s Worship Story
Spend the first weeks and months of this process getting to know the stories and culture of your congregation—don’t be in a hurry, transformation takes time. Take some time in worship to listen to stories of people who have been in your church the longest, others who came more recently, children who have grown up in the church. Find out what your history is, and why people are drawn to this congregation, what funny and moving things people like and remember, what memories or music draws them back week-by-week. Perhaps, to begin with, this will need to be done by Zoom, but no matter, listen to these stories and take some time to get to know each other in this way. If yours is an old church, explore your history and find out from the older members how it has survived all these years. What is unique about this group of people? What do people love about its life and worship? Think about what you’re learning. One thing is sure, nothing that you try to do will succeed without a good sense of who you are as a people and what makes your congregation special.
Deeper Discovery and Reflection
Reflect on your worship. The next step is to take the time, either by a sermon series, or during Sunday forums, or even in the small groups you have formed, to think specifically about worship: What are its elements? What is the tradition your church represents and what are the particular contributions of this tradition? Spend time together studying what Scripture has to say about worship: how did worship develop in the early Christian community? What were its earliest creeds and hymns (some already appear in the New Testament)?
We may not think much about liturgy, or our order of worship—its prayers, songs, scripture readings, but these are what form us week by week, and they are the responsibility not just of the pastor(s) or worship leaders, but they are the work of all of us together—liturgy, after all, means literally the work of the people. That means all the people, young and old, together.
If I’m not mistaken this process of listening to one another, begun in step one, now will begin to give you a sense of the different styles and ideas of worship that exist—what sparks worship. And most important of all, it will begin to reveal the different gifts that are present, often hidden, in your community.
Expanding Your View
Listen to the culture. Since as a body of believers you are a part of a larger community, it is now necessary to get to know your community in a deeper way. I am not referring here to how you might reach out to them in ministry and witness, though that may happen in time. What I have in mind is to ask: how does your worship reflect (or not) the community (or communities) around it? How has your neighborhood changed, what are its particular characteristics and needs? What we often overlook is the way, from the very beginning of Christian history, the liturgy and culture have had a mutual influence on each other. Churches that have listened—prayerfully—to their culture have often experienced fresh winds of change, and these revived practices have often in turn had a deep influence on the surrounding culture. Think of singing the Psalms in Calvin’s Geneva, Isaac Watts’ or Charles Wesley’s choruses of the Great Awakenings, the Black Spirituals, or recent Praise Music. These innovations in worship have all found deep ways to connect with the longings of their communities, and have in turn sparked renewal both in the church and culture.
Open The Gates To Creative Space
Release the poets. Unless I am mistaken any church taking the time to get to know its contemporary culture will have to hear from the younger members and help them discover their gifts. Just as we older members need to ask our children how to work all this technology, we need to find out from them what music to listen to, what movies are worth watching (and what is TikTok anyway)? No church worship has ever thrived without opening up spaces for creativity and imagination. This is why the giving of the Spirit is associated with young people seeing visions and the old dreaming dreams (Acts 2: 17).
In the late Middle Ages a movement called theologica poetica holding that great art involving imagery and poetry could be carriers of theological truth had deep influence on the art and architecture of the Renaissance; songs birthed out of the first Great Awakening—and those Awakenings to follow—were heard on the streets and homes everywhere—even ending up on the steps of the Milan Cathedral; and in the 1970s, music (and even visual art) from congregations of Calvary Chapel (and its offshoots: the Vineyard and Harvest) not only ended up influencing worship around the world, but impacted the rise of popular music (and popular culture) in multiple ways.
If we have listened carefully to each other we will find ways to include music and images that all generations will enjoy—perhaps even commissioning songs and visual art. In my church with its beautiful neo-gothic arches, each week we may enjoy Bach, a hymn by John Wesley and a Spiritual. We not only need our business leaders to balance our books, but we need artists to move our hearts in praise to God, to dream dreams about the new creation God is bringing.
Dreaming Out Loud
Now is the final step when we can re-imagine how worship might be done for our particular community and setting. When people ask about how arts can serve in worship they often start at step five, without going through the process of preparing the way. And this is sure to fail in producing any lasting change. But with a careful process of reflection, prayer, and ongoing conversation among all of the people together, we might nurture spaces where those poets in our midst might get busy shaping lyrics, or images, or dramatic dialogues, that will lift hearts in praise to the Creator. However you proceed, my prayer is that you find some way in your place to be inspired to deeper worship like that of Andrea Bocelli on the steps of the Milan Cathedral.
Conversations That Awaken Re-formation In Your Congregation
What does Scripture say about worship?
How did worship develop in the earliest Christian communities?
What were its earliest creeds and hymns (some appear in the New Testament)?
What is the tradition your church represents, how did worship develop in it and what are the particular contributions of this tradition?
What are elements of worship in general and in this church particularly?
What is unique about this group of people?
What do people love about its life and worship?
What are the different styles and ideas of worship that exist in your congregation?
What do you observe that sparks engagement with God in worship in your congregation?
What different gifts are present/hidden in your congregation that could ignite worship?
How does your worship reflect (or not) the community (or communities) around it?
How has your neighborhood changed, or how is it changing?
What are its particular characteristics and needs?
Are their innovations in worship that might connect with the longings of your surrounding communities?
What kind of music do the various members of your congregation listen to?
How might you open up creative space across generations, content and style preferences?
How do you imagine worship being re-formed in your midst?