Worship Illiteracy

There are some Sundays when my thirty-minute commute home after worship is a difficult, disheartening experience. Last Sunday was one of those days, a commute that included an internal debate on why I do this work, as a pastor of a small church in central Maine. And, more than that, does the work I am doing make any difference at all? Is this ministry in which I am engaged, or something else?

Yesterday involved an experiment that I’ve been thinking about trying at Old South for some time. It all started about six months ago when a pastor I know, but do not know well, visited Old South’s worship one Sunday. When he approached me after the service, he asked a few questions about my family and my plans for the day, but said nothing about worship. I wasn’t looking for a pat on the back for my sermon that day, but I found myself wanting to hear something from this pastor about the worship experience. The choir sounded great that day. Other parts of the worship were also meaningful—at least from my vantage point.

So, this got me to thinking: maybe we need to practice talking about worship and the worship experience. At a time when fewer people go to church and entire generations of people in our community have little or no church experience, shouldn’t we church people be able to talk about why we go to worship and what the worship experience is like?

Last Sunday, I announced at the beginning of worship that the congregation had a homework assignment. I asked them to pay attention to a time in worship that resonated with them, and then to tell someone about it after worship—their spouse or good friend sitting next to them in the pew, or a complete stranger, or maybe even me. But, something. I wanted them to talk about something that resonated with them, to explore ways of articulating that experience. Maybe after some practice they might be able to talk about worship in other contexts and places . . . but let’s not get too far ahead of ourselves.

I made my announcement, and then reminded them again just before the benediction. A couple of people decided that they wanted to report on their homework assignment directly to me. One was a first-time visitor who told me that he had found a piece of the responsive call to worship meaningful. It had made him think about the difference between how people perceive other people, and how God perceives people. It was a good, thoughtful comment.

And, then there was the other comment. This one was from a long-time member of the church who attends worship regularly. She made a beeline over to me after worship, eager to share her “homework” assignment. Her report? A complaint about an area nonprofit that I had briefly referenced in my sermon. One of her friends had had a bad volunteer experience at that particular agency. This long-time church member was full of anger at a nonprofit agency that was practically a footnote in my sermon that day. That was what had “resonated” with her. I couldn’t think of anything to say in response, but was completely taken aback by how far she was from what I had intended.

It’s not that I was looking just for positive comments, but I was hoping for a substantive comment or reflection about the worship experience. The first-time visitor was able to express something that had got him thinking theologically, a small part of worship that spoke to the spiritual dimension of his life. The comment of the long-time church member, in contrast, offered nothing substantive about worship or her spiritual life. Her comment was really nothing more than a piece of gossip.

I know. It’s just one person. But, really? Is that we are about? Does the average person attending worship on a regular basis really have nothing meaningful to say about the worship experience?

It’s not that I’ve completely fallen into the pit of despair. There are certainly Old South members who are able to speak about worship in meaningful ways and are even able to refer to aspects of worship—the sermon, the prayers, the anthem, etc.—days after the actual experience. My worry, though, is that the number of people who are able to talk thoughtfully about the worship experience is very low.

The experiment will continue through the next few weeks, including different ways of offering instructions for the homework. I’m not ready to give up, despite my sense that there are many people who attend worship regularly yet remain essentially illiterate when it comes to meaningful articulation of what happens during worship—and why they are there.

Even if I improve the worship literacy of only a few, it will be more than worth the effort. It’s important that those who regularly attend worship possess the capacity to speak meaningfully of the worship experience—certainly for the purposes of evangelism, but even more important than that, for their own relationship with their Creator.

About smaxreisert

I'm a United Church of Christ pastor serving the small, faithful Old South Congregational Church, United Church of Christ, in Hallowell, Maine. I was ordained in Massachusetts in 1995, moved to Maine in 1997 and have served the Hallowell church since 2005.
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