A few articles back I had mentioned that I had interviewed Dr. Jared Ross, the choir director of Barclay College and worship leader of Haviland Friends, for my worship class, and that I would be doing a series of articles on “what is worship” that is based on this interview. Jared has dedicated his life to the study of worship, getting his first two degrees in music and his terminal degree in worship leadership. When asked to find a worship leader (generally conceived in Protestant thought as a music leader), I went right to the “top,” and was not surprised that Jared’s insights were both very deep and very practical. I asked Jared, How do you define worship? His response was:
I define worship from three different angles: First, the overall biblical pattern of worship that we find from Genesis to Revelation is God revealing Himself to humans and humans responding, which means worship is ongoing; a relationship. God is not some distant deity; we have to respond to Him. I know that I have worshipped because I have been changed and transformed; when I have to obey what God is asking me to do. Then I know I have worshipped. Just because I have sung my favorite song does not mean I have worshipped. It is much more than the musical side of things. Worship is also Trinitarian… It has nothing to do with style. It has everything to do with who God is. We respond in belief, with thankfulness, and obey.
There are three things I want to highlight from Jared’s response that resonate with me as I seek to help lead others in worship. The first is that worship is a response. It requires something of us. It makes a claim on our lives. As we come before God seeking to encounter Him, we come expecting to be changed. I do not, however, see this change as always reflecting a movement from spiritual “mountaintop to mountaintop.” I do not expect that every Sunday morning worship will be an unsustainable, drastic life-altering encounter. Yet I do see worship as having an effect on us, even if its effect is slow and subtle like water dripping on a stone. Last week we did a worship activity with prayer rocks where we placed them back upon the altar signifying a willingness to let God use our gifts unhindered. Many people commented during open worship about how the smoothness of the prayer rocks reminded them of the slow and graceful way God had been wooing them along in the process of transformation. My experience with worship reflects this slow and steady work, where rough edges are hewn and polished into something beautiful. If when we worship we do not allow ourselves to be changed—if we do not come with an expectation that God will move through us—we might need to take a deeper look at our motivations for coming to worship in the first place. We as Friends believe that God is still speaking, and should come waiting in holy expectation for God to show up and make an impression on our hearts that leads us to action.
Next, I love that Jared points out the two-way give and take of a dynamic relationship. We come expecting God to reveal Himself to us afresh. We experience comfort for our afflictions and afflictions for where we are more comfortable than we should be. Worship is also Trinitarian in nature: the Father molds us as a Potter into a new creation, the Son redeems us and teaches us by His example, and the Holy Spirit gathers us together in unity as the people of God. We experience this not only as individuals, but corporately. We understand God, not merely as a proposition, but as a person of energetic and frothing immediacy. We connect with God in the present moment, experiencing union with His very identity.
Lastly, this experience is something we take with us into the practical realm of daily life. We follow through with what God is asking of us in sacred obedience. While God does give us mystical experiences and sweet experiences of ecstatic worship, these are not an end unto themselves but seeds within us sprouting up in kingdom building and living into our own unique ministry and calling. Worship then, as Jared points out, is not merely about singing our favorite songs. Worship has nothing to do with musical or liturgical style, formality or informality. It has to do with encountering God and exploring faithfulness together in a lived response to who God is.
What this means to College Avenue Friends, I suspect, is that we should come open to change, open to a God who still moves and still speaks to us and through us, and that we should come open to obey and be led by God. It is easy to put our conceptions of God in a box, a box where we resist change in our innermost being, a box where we rush off ahead of God in our impatience, and where we are closed off to anything that stretches us beyond the comforts of the safety and predictability in our lives. Yet without a willingness to respond with belief, with thankfulness, and with the courage to obey, we make our reservations to response a false god; we hold ourselves back from worship in ways that are justified by fear-based reasoning that stems from our worship preferences. As you wrestle with these three tensions and tendencies in our worship, what ways are you discovering an encounter with God that rises above preferences and style? In what ways can we revive a focus on who God is, rather than what we want, like, or enjoy; on encountering God in an ongoing relationship; and with a faithful response to what we are being called to do, not merely at Meeting for Worship, but out in the marvelous and mundane of our Monday through Saturday lives?