Real-Time Worship

October 2nd, 2011
Lose the script so the Spirit can move.

You walk into the room to wait for the drama to unfold along with several other people, some of whom you know and some you don’t. You exchange pleasantries and small talk for awhile, but everyone is only waiting for the signal to come that it’s time to start. And you wait expectantly, knowing that you will be transported out of your daily life and into a new realm, if only for an hour.

Are you at a concert? A movie? A theater?

Nope. Try church.

Most of us worship leaders would love to know our congregations approached worship this way. We would kill (metaphorically speaking) just to have them gather around some tiny seed of expectation. And if that expectation led to both openness to God and full participation in worship, we would be thrilled.

Unfortunately, most congregations don’t gather this way, at least if you believe the countless worship leaders who bemoan the lack of energy in their congregations.

But it doesn’t have to be that way.

If we want the people who come to our churches to be fully engaged in worship with us, we need to open the door to that possibility as widely as we can. And that may mean approaching worship not as performance or even proclamation, but as drama.

The basis of such an approach is an understanding that worship happens in real time, not in a bulletin or musical score or chord sheet (much less a sermon manuscript). Worship is not the plan itself, but an event directed by the plan.

What’s the difference? Think about the last time you went to a play—not a movie, where the only risk is a projector breakdown, but a play with live actors on stage. The characters in the drama all work from a script that guides their moves and actions, but the audience never sees the script.

That’s because the actors have internalized the drama they present. They have become part of a different world for a time, and invited others into that world as well. In a good play, the script is strong enough and the actors prepared enough that the audience can ease quickly into the drama.

A similar thing is true for worship. When we plan and internalize the drama well, we put ourselves in position for a meaningful worship event that invites the congregation into our celebration of God’s work among us.

The analogy with traditional theater breaks down at this point. In worship, the “fourth wall” between stage and audience doesn’t exist. There are no superstars who present a story for the audience to receive. Rather, everyone gathered is an actor in the drama. Everyone gets to take part not only in enjoying the moment, but also in creating it.

For worship leaders, this may mean changing our script.

In most worship services, elements are presented by the people "up front." We ask the congregation to sing and read responsively and give. Usually, at the end of the service, we invite them to some programmed response, usually prayer or baptism or church membership, all of which may be filtered through the clergy. Both leaders and congregants are following the order of worship like an actor still learning his lines.

But what if we allowed for more possibilities within the worship event? What if we lived the worship experience in real time? What if we planned worship that left room for multiple moods and outcomes for both individuals and the congregation?

My friend Anne is committed to that kind of planning. And artist and free spirit in her own right, she creates different stations that are open during worship for people to pray or sculpt or otherwise create. Some of her ideas are straightforward—a puzzle to assemble, candles, or shells in a bowl of water. Others are less defined, nothing but raw materials. Everything is optional, and nothing is guaranteed.

Do all of Anne’s ideas work? Not by a long shot, if the definition of “work” is to get lots of compliments after the service. But these different pieces work together to invite the congregation into creative space together, and when something sparks a recognition of God’s spirit among them, they are ready. Because they have internalized the script enough to not be bound by it.

Anne’s method is only one way of inviting people into fuller participation in the drama of worship. But it’s not her method that matters most: it’s her understanding that worship is performance art, a moment in time we inhabit together in God’s presence. It is an event that opens our eyes to a greater reality than we normally recognize.

One that prayerfully infuses our lives outside worship with the grace we encounter within its drama.

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