This summer I have really been reflecting on the essence of true worship, and feel God tugging my heart toward writing for a while about what it means to truly worship God in a way that is acceptable in God’s sight. For my worship class last semester I interviewed Jared Ross, the Choir Director and Music Professor of Barclay College, and asked him some profound questions about what it means to worship God. I will eventually bring some of his insights into this small series on worship, but for now here is a primer from my own heart to nudge us in a direction of reevaluating what worship truly means.
We each bring to College Avenue Friends a palette of our own experiences. For some of us, it was sturdy old hymns or perhaps “hellfire and brimstone” sermons that shaped and formed our early experiences with corporate worship. For others might have been more contemporary praise and worship songs and a laid back “come as you are” inclusivity. Some of us have had more rural or urban cultural experiences shape our opinions about worship. Some have grown up in Roman Catholic or Dutch Reformed churches, some in silent meetings. It is just a human default to look at worship through the lens of tradition, that tradition of course being our own experiences. At times, as our changing world puts a new twist on a “tried and true” worship methodology, it is easy to reject the unfamiliar and have a hard time joining in the fun of worship. We are easily seduced by a mentality that “it’s always been” a certain way, forgetting that what is old to us was once new, and that many of the things we do in a worship service now are actually less than a hundred years old. If you don’t believe me just think about this, Amazing Grace was once a “contemporary song.”
My understanding of worship has always been mysterious, it has always been about preparing myself to be transformed and shaped by God. While God does not come at the beck and call of incantation, somehow, we are tuned and retuned into God’s call through the act of corporate worship. In my experience (contrary to the thoughts of many), the only requirement for true worship is a willing heart; the songs, scriptures, and many prayers can help, but these different elements are not actually worship. They are activities that help us to prepare our hearts to receive God willingly, but they are not in and of themselves worship. For me, worship, simply put, is “a called people reawakening to their calling.” As we gather together, we become aware of God’s presence, aware that we are God’s people. As we remember God’s covenant relationship with us and renew our part of it, we are once again collectively drawn into an encounter with God.
It is no secret—for anyone who has ever been at church longer than five minutes—that the various outward things that are a part of a worship service can sometimes be as distracting as they can be helpful. It is easy to fall into the trap of thinking about worship in the same way a director creating a television program does, that if everything isn’t done just so or attain a certain level of excellence that we should go around doing a bunch of arm twisting to “fix” the problems. I am just as guilty about losing focus on God in the anxiety of a bad morning as anyone else. Perhaps it is the Quaker in me, or it is just part and parcel with serving as a religious leader, but the devil really is in the details at times. Trivial things can rob us of our joyful worship experiences, but one question we might ask before pointing our fingers at others is, When did we give others that much power over us?
The stripped down Quaker understanding of worship has really become something I have grown to appreciate. Music, sermons, repetitious prayers, snippets of Scripture being read with lifeless passion, can all grate on me at times, not to mention technical difficulties. I have grown especially sensitive to it now that I am the one facilitating arrangements, or the one preaching. My growing awareness that various worship actions can in fact, get in the way of my own experience of worship, is an old Quaker idea that has slowly and surely resonated within me. The biggest threat to true worship, in my opinion, is not the style of music or anything like that, it is not the drums or the pipe organ. The biggest threat to true worship is when we get wrapped up more in “performance” than in presenting ourselves before God as living sacrifices (Rom 12:1-2). When we get wrapped up in performance, we are no longer making worship about God. Whether it is fear based or pride based thinking that leads us astray, in the end we are actually making it about ourselves.
Traditional Quaker worship may grate on some at times, but settling down into the silence and seeking God’s face there—free of the chains of performance—is often the most freeing time of worship for me. As the Psalmist advises, there is a kind of worship whereby we can “be still and know that [God] is God. Quaker worship is an attempt to worship God “in spirit and in truth,” in the manner Jesus pointed to in His conversation with the Samaritan woman: free from a fixed location or a complex liturgical dance. Worship does not require a temple or a ritual, it requires only a people willing to be gathered together with God. I am struck by the romance of this idealistic simplicity, whereby God can be encountered in all places and times, in every present moment. Worship then is “paying attention to God;” it is a worship centered more on listening in stillness than on the distractions that can often go along with cramming a bunch of activities into a corporate worship experience.
For me, this Quaker stillness is the purest kind of worship, something like what Schleiermacher conceived of as a feeling of “utter dependence” as we seek an experiential knowledge of God. Within worship, we collectively reacquaint ourselves with our need for God. In wordless silence, it does not matter what I have sung or prayed, only that my will is submitted to God in the present moment. Thomas Kelly writes:
“Deep within us all there is an amazing inner sanctuary of the soul, a holy place, a Divine Center a speaking Voice, to which we may continuously return… The basic response of the soul to the Light is internal adoration and joy, thanksgiving and worship, self-surrender and listening. The secret places of the heart cease to be our noisy workshop. They become a holy sanctuary of adoration and of self-oblation, where we are kept in perfect peace, if our minds be stayed on Him who has found us in the inner springs of our life.”
At times in worship, it is the noise of the Sunday morning “worship workshop” itself that can drown out this internal experience of “adoration, joy, thanksgiving, self surrender and listening.” Our minds struggle to “be stayed” on God, and to be quite honest, even worship actions themselves can hinder as much as help me encounter God. Yet in the silence, this “inner sanctuary” can rise back to the surface, through the distractions of being a parent or being a tired grad student, even through the distractions of evaluating performance. And out of the silence, someone might speak a word from God I can simply receive. Worship should always make room for this, the pastor should not be the only authoritative voice or final word.
I do not subscribe to some sort of Cartesian Dualism about worship: I recognize we are not disembodied spirit beings for whom encountering God has no connection to what we do with our bodies. Yet some of the “work of the people” (liturgy) is internal work, it is preparing our hearts to receive from God. Songs and sermons can help us in this preparation, but they can also distract us in ways silence cannot. What I appreciate about the focus of Quaker worship is that it attempts to move from inward to outward, and not the other way around.