I learned preaching and worship leadership from masters of the art. Their classes were captivating and remain some of the most memorable of my seminary experience. I can still hear their voices—the crisp, clear, exact wording and beautifully orchestrated cadences. From these professors I learned to read scripture publicly with attention to the meaning of the text and with the intention to play the human but still important role in bringing the text to life. I also learned to lead worship with a kind of seamlessness—that is, to allow the flow of the liturgy to do its work, or to allow the Spirit to work through the flow of the liturgy. This meant getting out of the way, specifically not introducing the hymns (they were written in the bulletin for a reason) and avoiding folksy commentary in between the elements of the service. My field education placement reinforced much of what I was learning in the classroom. Not only the elements of the service but also the use of technology, such as power point and microphones, was to be as smooth and unnoticeable as possible.
None of this was about entertainment—and if it was, it would be an abysmal failure given the shape and nature of what constitutes entertainment in our culture! Instead this commitment to a certain kind of excellence emerged from humility and reverence for the Word of God written in scripture. To bear God’s Word in worship leadership is no small thing, calling for the faithful and dignified administration of our gifts, knowledge, and finely-honed skills. Part of our responsibility is to direct the congregation’s gaze toward God, and there’s nothing so distracting as a screeching sound system.
I’m grateful for my seminary training. Perhaps there’s something about it that fits my personality as well as my theology. Ironically though, it’s created another kind of distraction for me as I participate in worship, which has led me to wonder about what constitutes real worship. Let me illustrate.
At a church service a few weeks ago, I cringed internally (hopefully not externally) when the person reading the biblical text actually read the wrong text. He caught himself, laughed, explained, and then turned to the assigned reading and started all over again. I cringed again when the guest preacher and pastor repeatedly stopped and started a video clip as a supplement the sermon. The preacher was supposed to be talking over the clip—a very nice effect actually except for all the creaturely bumbling accompanying it. I wanted to crawl under the pew as I witnessed the pastor’s waving arms and shouts to the preacher to stop and then the small group effort it took to figure out that the video wouldn’t restart because the pastor stepped on the cord and it came unplugged. The congregation laughed merrily as I turned to a friend and said with wide eyes, “You’d get crucified in many churches for this!”
And still the comedy of errors continued. The installation and ordination of the elders and deacons happened out of sequence with the bulletin, perhaps leaving some to wonder if it would happen at all. And then, for me, the pièce de résistance: one of the worship leaders dumped a glass of ice water (hear the clunking cubes) into the baptismal font in preparation for the deacons’ and elders’ renewal of baptismal vows. By now, it felt as though my every sensibility about worship leadership had been assaulted . . . and without anxiety (in others). The pastor didn’t seem phased at all, though there was an accompanying apology for the resultant ice-cold foreheads!
Holding in my laughter, I finally started to delight in the whole scene and wonder what God was inviting me to see and learn in and through this worship service. At the very least, I was reminded of the creatureliness of every aspect of our existence, including our worship. To attempt to deny, avoid, or overcome our finitude (and all the accompanying limitations, foibles, and accidents) is the sin of overreaching if not idolatry. No, I’m not suggesting that how I learned to lead (and frankly will continue to lead) worship is sinful. But the inability to accept the human fallibility that sometimes becomes very evident even in our worship: that may be idolatry, a confusion and disordering of divine action and human action in our most public form of ecclesial witness. So the next time I’m in a worship like the one I’ve described here, I hope to cringe less and delight more. I hope to hear and worship the Incarnate Word in our midst, that one who, as many a theologian has reminded us, came into this world between urine and feces.