So, What is Worship?

So, what is worship?

Recently the deacons, Pastor Christine and I (and others) have been conversing about worship. In part this conversation springs from the decision the deacons made to suspend the 8 am worship service, but it also has begun as we have begun the process of exploring Inter-generational Worship (on the 1st Sunday of the month).

Of course, this is not a new conversation. And it shouldn’t be. A big piece of the work of the church is the ongoing discernment about what it means to worship together. (Fun Fact: did you know that “liturgy” means literally “the work of the people”?) We should be in a constant conversation about the “hows”, “whys” and “whats” of worship, but it can be difficult to imagine what we have not seen.

At the request of the deacons I wrote up the following descriptions of some worship experiences which are different from our regular 10 am worship. I should also say clearly, these are not meant to be suggestions for us to use out of the box, but rather ideas that I hope might expand a conversation. The deacons have begun that conversation, and my hope in publishing this post is that we can widen the conversation even further.

Each of these worship experiences are different to two major ways. First they are different in the technical details: what they do, how they do it, etc. Secondly, they are different in their differing “vibes’: they feel very different. I have tried to capture that “vibe” in a few words after each description. I suspect that focusing first on that “vibe” might be a useful place to start. So, to ask first “What vibe are we going for?” before we begin asking “what should we do?” or “when should we do it?”

St Lydia’s in Brooklyn.

“St. Lydia’s is a church where life is lived out around the table. A progressive, GLBTQ-affirming congregation in the Gowanus neighborhood of Brooklyn, New York, we are working together to dispel isolation, reconnect neighbors, and subvert the status quo. You are welcome here.”

St Lydia’s rents space to hold regular Sunday evening worship. This is not an “additional” worship service but their primary worship. They call themselves a “Dinner Church.” People gather around 5:30 on Sunday evenings (they intentionally keep it small, about 25 people, and have opted to add more evenings rather than let one event grow large because they appreciate the intimacy.) When people arrive they work together to prepare dinner, set the table, etc. When dinner is ready they all sit down to enjoy the meal together. There are prayers and a brief message from their pastor during dinner, and songs are sung. Following dinner they work together to clean up, and are usually done around 9.

They put out a podcast of songs each Monday, which worshipers are invited to download and listen to throughout the week, the following Sunday they sing those songs a Capella while they cook, while they eat, while they cleanup. The advantage of publishing the songs ahead of time is that enough people learn the songs that they do not need to bother with sheet music.

Recently, they have added a Monday night meal which is similar and a Sat morning Waffle Worship which is intentionally geared to families with young children. The vibe is “intimate” “casual” “relational” “community-focused”

Old South Jazz Worship

This is a popular one, which I know several of our members have experienced. Old South’s Jazz Worship is held Thursday evenings at 6 in their chapel. Set at a time intentionally meant to make it easy for commuters (who work in Boston and live in the outlying areas) they have found that 6 pm works well. Many people come after work, and then head home after traffic has died down.

The worship experience is held in their chapel (a lovely old stone chapel!) and when I have been there they have set up the worship space “in the round.” Music is provided by a small jazz group plus a small “pick-up choir,” there is little or no congregational singing. There is a brief sermon (they often let their many seminarians lead worship), and many of the common elements we would expect in worship (Lord’s Prayer, communion, candle lighting, fellowship time afterwards) are there. The vibe is “intimate” “quiet” “meditative” “soft” and “authentic.”

Mount Olive Kingdom Builders

I love taking confirmation classes to Kingdom Builders because the experience is in so many ways similar to our Sunday Morning Worship, and yet so different. They hold two identical worship services on Sunday morning at 9 and 11:30 (because they fill up their 500 seats at each one!). Worship takes about 2 hours, and one time we were there for the 9 am service and it was 11:30 by the time we left. What surprised me the most on that day, was that the dozen high-schoolers we had with us all left saying “OMG that was awesome” and not the expected “How did that take so long!?!”

The first 60-75 minutes is almost entirely praise music (interspersed with lay led extemporaneous prayers). There is a large praise team (electric guitar, electric bass, drum set and keyboard plus 5 or 6 singers). Words (which are very simple) are displayed on several screens throughout the space. The sound system is loud, people sing (or not) people dance (or not) the excitement level remains in the red.

Around 75 minutes in the preacher enters. Offers welcome, etc. and then preachers for about 40 minutes. After the preaching there is more praise music, the offering, an alter call, a benediction and people leave. The vibe is “exciting” “exhilarating” “uplifting” “energetic” and “empowering”

Cathedral in the Night

In Northampton on Sunday evenings you can find Cathedral in the Night. This worship experience is an ecumenical effort (UCC, UMC, Episcopalian) and focuses on creating a worship experience that is welcoming for the homeless community. They worship outside (on a busy sidewalk). As people arrive they are offered a chance to lead an element of worship (if they do they are given a laminated card with the words printed out). Some people bring instruments and play and/or sing. There is no real coordination ahead of time, so songs can include everything from classic hymns to modern secular songs. There is a very brief message (maybe 4 minutes) and communion.

Some people come very intentionally, some just stand and watch for a while when they pass on the street. Others very intentionally set themselves up somewhere they can watch from afar. After worship teams take turns bringing in a meal that is served on the street.

The vibe is “casual” “loose” “unassuming” “welcoming” and “laid back”

The United Church of Christ in Keene

I would be remiss, if in this discussion for interesting worship experiences, I didn’t mention this church and our wide range of worship history. I was reminded this past Sunday, when the box of little noise makers was being handed out, that it was not that long ago that this was much more the norm. It is said that before we had the organ the norm was for a great many people in the choir to bring all sorts of instruments to worship. I believe the word “cacophony” was used!

More recently this church has many great memories of “Loaf and Ladle” plus several different experiences with Taize or otherwise contemplative worship. It was not long ago that Gordon’s guitar was scandalous in worship, and since then we have seen bluegrass worship, Ukulele worship, Jazz worship, Barbershop worship, etc. We have walked labyrinths, lit candles, done yoga, made crafts, baked bread, blessed trees, given out trees, decorated crosses with thousands of flowers, had book clubs, small groups, etc…and the list of interesting things we have done could go on and on. I would be curious how others experienced the “vibe” of those experiences?

In closing, here is a challenge for us all:

If you find yourself traveling in the next few months (perhaps you are going away for Thanksgiving or Christmas?) visit a church which seems to worship differently than we do, and then write up a short description of your own. What was the vibe? How did it feel? Were there things in particular that you enjoyed? Things you would avoid? The hope is not to find the “perfect” model that we can copy, but rather to continue to widen the discussion and see where the Spirit might move us.

About the Author
Chris Cornell, our Assistant Minister and Youth Minister, lives in Keene with his wife Tonya, kids Toby and Fiona, dog Erma and two cats Prince and Princess. He enjoys spending time with his family, hiking and traveling. Chris loves how ministry blurs the line between the church and the surrounding community. You are just as likely to find Chris in his office as you are to find him at the homeless shelter, at the local coffee shop, or just out and about town. Chris is a native of Connecticut, but has lived in Keene on and off since 1999. He received his bachelor’s degree from Skidmore College in 2002, and his Masters of Divinity from Andover Newton Theological School in 2014. He has served the United Church of Christ in Keene since 2012.

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