(Re-)Imagining Worship

It’s interesting that the New Testament never gives a detailed description of exactly what went on when the first Jesus-followers gathered together to worship. There’s no divinely inspired “order of service.”

The closing worship service at Mennonite Arts Weekend 2016, Cincinnati, Ohio. Photo by Cara Hummel. Sure, we get some glimpses of early Christian worship here and there: some snippets in the book of Acts, some clues in the New Testament letters. But nowhere in the New Testament do we get a really detailed description of what a “worship service” looked like for the first Christians.

Probably it was different in every place.

Jewish Christians in Jerusalem likely modeled their worship meetings after the synagogue service they were familiar with: Scripture readings, a sermon, singing psalms, prayers. Gentile Christians in Corinth may have modeled their gatherings after religious banquets or society meetings: religious rites, speeches, a shared meal.

The “worship services” in churches planted by Paul in Turkey or Greece probably looked very different from the regular meetings in churches planted by Thomas in India or Philip in Africa—different languages, different music, different food and dress, and, of course, different kinds of people.

In fact, the Bible provides quite a diverse list of the sorts of things that God’s people did when they got together to worship, from the ancestors of Israel all the way through to the earliest Christians:

  • telling stories, reciting poetry, chanting psalms;
  • loud cymbals, drums, and horns; soft harps and lyres; no instruments at all;
  • responsive reading, antiphonal singing, dramatic re-enactments, visual art;
  • kneeling, standing, clapping, dancing, eating, drinking;
  • confessing sins, receiving forgiveness, blessing one another;
  • hearing Scripture, teaching the faith, affirming the faith, proclaiming good news, encouraging one another;
  • praying, praising, thanking, silence.

And then there’s the diverse worship history of the church. Beautiful sacred spaces, from large cathedrals to small parish churches. Stained glass, exquisite art, imposing sculpture. Gorgeous cantatas, plainsong chants, simple hymns, well-known carols.

In our own Mennonite tradition, there has been everything from simple unison singing to full-throated four-part harmony, from plain furnishings to elaborate quilting, from the basic hymns-prayers-Scripture-sermon format to intricate services incorporating ancient liturgies from other traditions.

And beyond our Mennonite tradition, beyond the Western history of the church, there’s a whole world of worship out there from across the globe, from every language and culture and tribe and nation.

We can tend to think that there’s only ever been one way the church has worshiped, or that there’s an obvious “best way” to worship God when we gather together, but clearly that’s not the case. It’s never been the case.

And, in fact, it’s not really healthy for us to get stuck in a rut in our worship, always and only doing everything the same way. There’s a reason the Psalms exhort us multiple times to “sing to the Lord a new song.” It’s because a willingness to try new ways of worshiping is like a willingness to explore new ways of thinking about God or to work out new ways of following Jesus—it is evidence of an authentic faith, a faith that is vibrant and growing and very much alive.

All this is what I mean when I say we need to develop a “liturgical imagination.” We need, to use Paul’s words in Colossians, always to remain grounded in the gospel of Jesus Christ, letting the “word of Christ” dwell among us richly in our teaching and preaching, our singing and music, every “word and deed” of our collective worship. But we need to continually re-imagine what this all looks like.

And we have no shortage of resources to work with. We have the examples of worship throughout the biblical writings. We have models of worship throughout the church’s history and from around the world. And we have rich resources among us a congregation, creative gifts in preaching, teaching, storytelling, poetry, music, visual art, tactile art, culinary art, drama, dance, and so much more.

I wonder: how might God’s Spirit prompt us to “sing a new song” in our worship together, to try out new “words and deeds,” fresh ways of worshiping God?

But “developing a liturgical imagination” is more than just the people up in the front leading us in trying out some new things. Each one of us needs to use our imagination in participating in worship.

When we walk into the sanctuary every Sunday morning we all need to be ready to use our God-given imagination, using our imagination to enter into whole new worlds of worship.

Using our imagination to enter the world of the songwriter when we sing their words. Using our imagination to enter into the world of the biblical author when we read their words. Using our imagination to enter into the world of the worship leader or preacher when we hear their words.

Using our imagination to enter into the presence of God here on earth as it is in heaven.

And in this way, as we teach and sing the gospel of Jesus Christ to each other before God, letting the “word of Christ dwell among us richly,” we can come to believe with ever-increasing faith that we are God’s “holy and beloved” children, “chosen by God” to be more and more like Jesus.

Adapted from a sermon preached at Morden Mennonite Church on October 23, 2016, part of a sermon series called “Stirring Our Imagination.” Cross-posted from http://www.mordenmennonitechurch.wordpress.com. © Michael W. Pahl.

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