True Freedom of Worship

June 26th, 2011

Faced with the question about whether or not we value freedom to worship, most of us, particularly from mainline protestant traditions, would agree that such freedom is a good thing. After all, the Protestant Reformation is, in part, based upon this value of freedom to seek God in ways not dictated by religious institutions, right?

The problem is, when we think about freedom to worship, we generally think about freedom to do so in the way or ways that feel most appropriate to us. However, in so much as we agree that worship is a communal experience, and recognizing that no two people are alike, such freedom is an inevitable setup for conflict.

I am a part of a group within the Christian Church (Disciples of Christ) called the Disciples Leadership Institute. DLI is made up of younger leaders within the Disciples, with an emphasis on cultural and gender diversity. We invite ordained clergy and lay leaders, gays and lesbians, leaders in established congregations, and new church planters. We spend a week together with the intent of sharing as much of ourselves with one another as we can about what we believe, what we value, and how we worship.

At least once a day, we gather to participate in some new kind of worship experience. These have included more charismatic services in both English and Spanish, gospel revivals, spoken-word worship, silent meditation, and Taizé chanting, and even hands-on prayer stations. Inevitably, at least someone in every situation is uncomfortable. Never has there been a particular style of worship that connects with everyone, and there are some elements of certain worship styles that folks simply find objectionable.

But that’s the whole point.

It’s not our job as a church to make everyone feel comfortable and to accommodate exactly what they believe worship should be. As leaders, it is incumbent upon us not to be custodians of comfort as much as we are to be visionaries, committed to lovingly pressing the envelope of what it means to worship, to commune with God and with one another in sacred moments.

As new church planters, my wife and I have had the privilege to try a number of different worship styles with our group. The greatest asset in this environment is that you hardly ever hear the dreaded phrase, “But we’ve always done it this way.” The drawback is that, along with a lack of preconceptions about how worship should look or feel, most of our congregants also have no experience to bring in helping us develop our identity as a community of worship. This means that more of the responsibility falls upon us to cast the vision and to strive daily to achieve it.

There’s another side to freedom in worship. Sometimes, we humans get more wrapped up in the novelty of experience than we do the original intent of our time together. There is no better example of this than church camp with our younger folks.

One of the goals of church camp every summer is to include our youth in planning and participating in worship. This includes selecting songs and presiding over communion, which, in our church, is permissible within the concept of the “priesthood of all believers.” With freedom, however, comes responsibility, and sometimes it’s evident that we fail to emphasize the responsibility part as much as we do the freedom part.

In demonstrating the symbolic, rather than literal, value we place on the elements used at the communion table, we allow the youth to use items other than bread and juice. However, instead of tapping into the concept that God can bless anything to be used as a tool for worship, it can easily become a contest to see who can be more bizarre in their choice of communion elements: animal crackers and frosting; potato chips and soda; cupcakes and milk.

Is the point that such elements cannot be used to invoke God’s presence with us at the communion table? No. However, it is the spirit with which we employ them that gives them their significance. If we use animal crackers and frosting because they taste good or because we think it’s funny, we’re missing the point. If we use them because they have profound symbolic meaning or because it’s all we have, I’d dare say that God can bless a animal cracker as well as a loaf of bread.

The same intentional spirit holds true for all parts of the worship experience. If we use contemporary, popular songs and video in worship simply because we think it will appeal to a desired demographic, we’re not worshiping: we’re pandering. If we do something out of the ordinary simply for the sake of being shocking, we’re distracting those who have come to worship from the essence of that sacred time, which is to incline ourselves toward God.

However, we can fall into old habits and end up being equally un-worshipful. Just because we have said the same prayers, sat in the same places, or sung the same songs for a long time doesn’t mean they’re any more sacred than something new that might actually shake us out of a spiritual slumber. Jesus, after all, was a master of offering the unexpected. So as Christ-followers, why shouldn’t we do the same? Let's embrace our true freedom of worship.

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