[I have another class starting at MSR this next weekend, this one on worship and music. For the first session we are supposed to write 1-4 paragraphs "relating an instance which you believe was an experience of authentic worship." I decided to plagiarize myself and use what I wrote for class as a blog post, since I need some fodder here. Here ya go. :) ]
Two recent examples of “authentic” worship are called to my mind. One was a very small evening gathering at our church this year for Ash Wednesday. There were approximately eight people there. The second was a service that concluded the recent “Living the Call” retreat in Kansas City, in which there were around 30-35 people participating, all either actively in ministry or considering entering ministry.
Both were “out of the ordinary” in many ways. The Ash Wednesday service at our church was not a normal weekend service, nor do we typically have a mid-week Wednesday service. The retreat service was among a bunch of strangers (although after a weekend together they felt less so), all more or less looking at the practice of religion “professionally.” Very different services, very different worshippers, very different reasons for gathering.
The common thread to both was what I’ll call a “ritual of mutuality.” At the end of the Ash Wednesday service we stood in a circle around the alter and did the imposition of ashes, one to the next, looking into each other’s eyes and each performing the imposition saying the person’s name as we did so. With the retreat service we anointed each other (with water, which is good - I wouldn't like having oil on me :), going around the circle, each anointing the next, saying their name and blessing them as they did so. Both services were full of joyful tears and not in an emotionally manipulative way, but with those emotions welling up out of a true feeling of being together, in community, loving God and one another.
So, interwoven within other worship practices both of these services had the following elements:
- A highly stylized ritual that provided a “sacred form”
- With close face-to-face and “name-to-name” contact
- Resulting in a feeling of joy, love and community
I don’t think you can pull this off on a week-in, week-out basis, although I love the fact our church is small enough that if you’re serving communion you can call each person by name as they take a piece of bread or dip it in the cup. “Normal time” church worship services serve many needs, and the feeling of loving community is only one of them. Yet while "special" services can reach into the hearts of those attending due to the added meaning and reasons for being there, we also need to recognize that for many people, myself included, sometimes a “normal” service can turn into one of those “special services,” too. At any moment we may be unexpectedly “surprised by joy.”