February 28, 2007

Complexifying the Liturgy As we plan weekly worship here at Fuller Seminary, the worship interns and I have been talking quite a bit lately about three persistent and related problems. The first problem is theologically inspired boredom: we are growing weary of planning and leading the same twenty minutes of “opening exercises” every week. The dominant feature of our pre-sermon worship time is a significant chunk of music interspersed with words of welcome and perhaps a prayer or two. In the past months we’ve worked hard at intentionally selecting congregational songs that have cultural breadth, theological depth, and liturgical clarity. Still, the logistics of the service (including the architectural shape of our space) leave us with a default organizational ordo with which we are increasingly uncomfortable. It is an order that feels not blessedly simple but distressingly simplistic: songs (led by a group from the right hand side), followed by a sermon (preached by a professor from the left hand side). The other problems we’re struggling with are thematic coherence and sacramental expectation. The seminary professors who are asked to preach each week are notoriously tardy in selecting the Scripture and theme for their sermons. Thus, the chapel staff is left to plan the preparatory worship time (singing) with no clue about what we’re preparing for. This is problematic because for some in our worshiping community, the sermon is perceived as the primary locus for encountering God. The musicians, then, feel this burden: the music we sing must serve that encounter or risk total irrelevance. Or something even worse. For others in our community, music itself has taken on sacramental qualities. For these folks the primary means by which the gracious promises of God in Jesus Christ are made tangible and real is in congregational song. Like it or not, that is a lot of freight to haul with two guitars and three chords. We are keenly feeling the need to find a better way to manage expectations for meeting God in worship. In response, we have begun to experiment with an alternative ordo for our weekly gatherings. It is an arrangement that better reflects the history of campus-based worship, and one for which sacramental expectations are spread out over a broader palate of liturgical actions. What we are considering, essentially, is abandoning the songs/sermon ordo in favor of a more complex, though no less mnemonic pattern. Rooted in the structure of daily prayer followed for centuries by the precursors of academics, the medieval monks, it has four parts rather than two: praise/psalm/proclamation/prayer. Services begin with an acknowledgment of who God is, and the natural response to that knowledge, praise. Of course, praise can be fittingly expressed in a number of ways; music is just one of many options. The psalm and proclamation follow. In them we are seeking neither scriptural ground for our expressions of personal piety, nor applicatory fodder for individual exercises of Christ-like devotion. Scripture isn’t a devotional McNugget. Instead, we hope as a community in the Word to receive...
Congregational Imagination As we've been living in the midst of house renovations, I've been thinking about congregational imagination. A congregation's imagination is reflected in many ways: how it shapes and reshapes its worship space, how it shapes its re-telling of biblical stories and its own congregational stories, the kinds of people who are welcomed and who feel at home, and the kinds of cultic practices it considers normative. I had a pretty clear sense of the congregational imagination of the church in which I served as music director for over twenty years. The congregation had a sense of the dramatic, and this was reflected in its development of the worship space. It loved to take unusual angles in its retelling of biblical stories; it was not unusual to have worship feature a potter's wheel in the centre of the sanctuary and liturgical dance, though not frequent, was welcomed as part of normal (rather than “special” or “different”) worship. I am now in a new congregation, and am still in the process of learning the scope of its imagination. The congregation's imagination cannot, of course, be completely separated from that of its leadership. There is a kind of conversation that begins early in a pastor's (or other leader's) tenure, as congregation and pastor listen to one another, and develop what you might call an “image bank”, that treasure house of story, metaphor, symbol, visions and images with which it expresses its communal identity. Dorothy Butler Bass, in “The Practicing Church” (Herndon Virginia: The Alban Institute, 2004) writes (p.5) that “…the pastoral imagination works in tandem with…the congregational imagnination, the imagination of God's people in community.” She says (p. 47) that “(f)or their entire history, Christians have invented, recreated or adapted traditions when old patterns no longer hold sway. Thus, fluid re-traditioning is an expression of the theological imagination, as biblical tradition is lived out in community, and is an ancient practice of faith that connects Christians to their ancestors.” Part of what allows a congregation's imagination to develop is trust; trust between its leaders and the people, and among the members of the congregation. Trust is key, since imagination is a risky thing: it invites to see things differently, to try different ways of acting, and to be ready to see that God is “doing a new thing” in its midst. I have seen congregational imagination flourish and develop, becoming richer as it grows; I have also seen it shrink and wither as trust erodes and a congregation becomes fearful, wary weary, and finally unable to imagine its future or re-imagine its past. One area of congregational imagination that fascinates me is how a congregation plays. In a way similar to watching a family at play in its own home (renovated or not!), how a community celebrates when it doffs its ceremonial or denominational garb is often the congregation at its most revealing.

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