Ritual and resistance: 6 worship suggestions

December 29th, 2014

“ … ritual isn’t about expressing religious commitment at all, but about doing something in a way that marks the moment as different from the everyday and forces you to see it as important.” That quote came from an article about “Religion without God” that speaks of a growing movement of atheists to gather for “church” services.

As one person put it, “Singing awesome songs, hearing interesting talks, thinking about improving yourself and helping other people — and doing that in a community with wonderful relationships. Which part of that is not to like?”

I also happened upon an article about the reason people love repetition in music — we like things we’ve heard before. As the authors note, “The play counter in iTunes reveals just how frequently we listen to our favourite tracks.”

Photo: Audrey Kaperien / Wikimedia Commons

Anyway, ever been part of a “worship war” in a church? One reason may very well be that almost no one likes a piece of music the first time they hear it. It’s only on multiple repetitions that the music begins to worm its way into receptiveness in the brain.

As a “mystery worshipper” for the last six months, I have been exposed to numerous different styles in worship. These have ranged from the deep silence of a Society of Friends service to the whirling dervish experience in the Glory of Zion. I’ve sat through the perfectly read Christian Science service and welcomed ear plugs through many overly loud contemporary worship times.

Unquestionably, the ones I personally liked best had some element of musical familiarity to me — or in the case of the Society of Friends service, welcomed me into a type of silence I myself practice with regularity.

We like what we already know. We like familiar rhythms. We like not having to wonder, “What will come next? What do I do here?” Being able to suspend those questions actually opens the door to the moments of deeper awareness of the Presence of God, and thus to a space of holy transformation, to the need for grace so we may find wholeness and salvation. Or, in the case of the atheists in church, that ability to suspend questions opens people to community and personal growth.

On Christmas Eve, I gave myself the gift of familiar worship and attended Tarrytown United Methodist Church in Austin for their 11 p.m. service. I settled easily into the worship rhythms, the familiar words, the joy of the Service of Holy Communion, the deep relief of a well-planned gluten-free station so I, too, might participate.

My companion, however, was not in that kind of familiar environment and had multiple questions about what to do next or the meaning of a particular part of the liturgy. As a result he was not as caught in the luminous moments as I.

In other words, familiarity gives us space to worship. It gives us space to contemplate much greater things than “What is going to happen next?” It permits us to let down our guard and enter the flow.

Remember, we need ritual and repetition.

They can come in multiple forms, from historic patterns to contemporary forms. However, I am coming to the conclusion that, if a church really wants to welcome the outsider, much effort needs to go into helping those outsiders find comfort. That means plenty of explanation: verbally, on the screens, and in the bulletins.

Guide people gently through the services. Even the words of explanation can become part of the comforting ritual for the regulars as they provide grace moments for those who may have just come in.

For churches that do sense a need to change worship formats, it might help to understand that resistance is normal. It springs from our human need to be able to relax in the familiar so we can experience the Transcendent.

It also may be one of the reasons a fair number of people are “C&E” (Christmas and Easter) Christians. They know that on those days, they will find a familiarity that will welcome them. It’s starting to make a lot more sense to me.

So, here are a few suggestions for those who are planning their 2015 worship calendar:

• As you introduce new music, never ask a congregation to sing it without hearing it several times before. 
• Do not be afraid to repeat the favorites. 
• Lay down the need to be wildly creative with Easter and Christmas or other special season worship. Do what you’ve done before but with messages that are fresh and for the day. Your congregation will thank you and your visitors will feel welcomed and embraced. 
• Honor the human need for familiar rhythms and patterns. They serve us well, and give us mental and spiritual space for deeper worship. When the time comes when some of those rhythms need to be changed, do so with extreme awareness and generosity of the challenges they pose, particularly to the older worshiper. 
• Rethink your communications where visitors are concerned. Consider bringing in a “mystery worshiper” periodically who does not know your liturgy and rhythms and see what is confusing or unclear. 
• Remember that “comfort” is not a bad thing, despite the fact that many clergy sense they are called to “afflict the comfortable.” Comfort is also a gift given from God, and it gives us space to stop and worship the Giver. 

As I was writing this, I was reminded of the nature of fractals: natural phenomena or mathematical sets that exhibit a repeating pattern that displays at every scale. Close examination of fractals reveal startling beauty and consistency in pattern.

In this post I’ve included several of these. I think we can learn from these self-repeating patterns much about the nature of our Creator and we as the created.

Christy blogs at ChristyThomas.com.

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