What is worship supposed to be like?


Last Sunday, I caught part of an interview with Barbara Brown Taylor on Marty Nemko's NPR show. Taylor is a retired Episcopal priest who wrote a book, Leaving Church, about her experiences as a priest and her decision to leave that profession. I was intrigued enough by her comments that I decided buy the book.

What I gathered from the interview was that she has surprised herself over the years in the life changes that she has made, and she suggested that she doesn't know what is yet in store for her in the future. She seems to have certain ideas about the kind of church she would like to be a part of--one in which the roles of ministry are shared among the congregation--or perhaps divvied up would be a better description of it. Nemko suggested a comparison between her ideas and the model of Quakerism. There are certain similarities, although in traditional unprogrammed Quakerism the ministerial roles are not assigned or divided, but emerge naturally in the course of Quaker meetings for worship.

In many ways, I find the kind of model that she suggested for a congregation to be similar to what I have been envisioning--a kind of radically democratic body in which different members of the congregation can assume the responsibility for creating worship experiences over the course of time. Whether this makes sense in the long run is another question; in any case, I don't think that this role should ever be forced on anyone. For some people, the worship experience is passive and quiet, but fulfilling for them. A congregation should never demand more from a participant than they are comfortable with or willing to give. Everyone is at a different place spiritually, and in their ministerial skills. My Quaker background makes me appreciate the idea of everyone as a minister; but I also appreciate the value in other kinds of worship (rather than the traditional Quaker unprogrammed meeting) of having a trained individual with a full time job who carries out special responsibilities in a congregation.

I think that there are many ways of approaching the worship experience. Quaker silence often endows me with a kind of meditative peace. I've never been much for participatory music in church; I am a terrible singer, I don't like singing in public, and I in particular really like standing up and singing a song I don't really know the melody for. My experience with such singing in UU services is that I stand up (because they request that everyone do so), holding the song book, and just looking at the lyrics while everyone else sings. The last time I attended, I dispensed with holding the song book at all, and I just stood up. On the other hand, I often do like listening to performed music at such services.

I believe that worship is supposed to be a participatory experience--hence the idea of participatory singing. And many people really do seem to like the music. I think there are other kinds of participatory worship, some of which are certainly unconventional for Christians--shamanic drumming, for example. I think that varieties of worshipful experiences can in and of themselves be interesting. But others might wish to settle into the same basic pattern week after week for their worship practices.

I'm not sure there is a right or wrong answer. I'm not sure where I would fall into the spectrum of desired worship practices. My Quaker experience has made me much less attracted to rituals, music, and liturgy. But I am not opposed to them in principle either. What makes me more uncomfortable is the use of such practices as the expression of literalized belief in myths. Some traditional Christian practices-- baptism and communion come to mind--are steeped in centuries old myths that Christians have literalized, and I find them the least appealing of the various Christian practices. In general, though, if it is absolutely clear that we are not literalizing the myths, I am more comfortable with at least some of the more regular Christian practices.


CT said...

Likes and dislikes for someone who spent 20 years attending traditional Church of Christ and Baptist churches...

I dont like the word 'worship'! It suggests I am going to a place to be in awe of someone/something. To show my adoration. And I cant feel those feelings about a God that is so difficult to identify or interact with.

Songs are also tricky as they often include concepts that I don't agree with. I have to mime at these points. Unfortunately I did a lot of miming.

My main goal is to hear a decent sermon that might inspire or challenge me. Something that relates to our everyday experience, and not simply an explanation of a bible passage. You can always tell the difference between a sermon that has been lifted out of a bible study book and a sermon that attempts to relate current events in the world and our lives.

Worship ? From the sounds of it the Quaker experience sounds appealing.