This past weekend while I was in Massachusetts, I got to experience two worship communities different from my own. The first came on Saturday at my friend Susie’s weeding. Susie and her husband are both members of the Reformed Presbyterian Church, a more-conservative breed of Presbyterianism. One distinction of this denomination is it’s theology of music in worship. They believe that the New Testament teaches us to worship with all of our heart, and that musical instruments are a barrier to this. So they only sing a capella. They also believe that it’s only appropriate to sing divinely inspired words, so they only sing musical settings of the Psalms. So at Susie’s wedding, there was a string trio that played only before and after the worship. Once the actual wedding liturgy began, the only music to be heard was the congregation singing from the Psalter.
In theory, I disagree with the RPC on their theology of music in worship, but that’s not the point. The point is that even though I don’t share this belief, I’m still really glad that they believe it, because the results were beautiful. During the wedding, the wedding guests (most of whom were members of the RPC) sang two Psalms, and they were singing them in four-part harmony. It was incredible. At one point, I looked over at the string trio that played the prelude. I’m guessing they weren’t from the RPC, because they looked genuinely surprised and impressed that so many wedding guests were capable of singing so well.
This style of worship is anything but “seeker-sensitive.” I’m pretty competent in music, and am fairly good at sight reading (seeing music for the first time and singing it correctly without hearing it first), and I still had trouble at times, especially with the second Psalm, which was not only in harmony but also had some counterpoint. If someone were to join this worshipping community, it would take weeks, perhaps months, to become fully acclamated to this style of singing. At the same time, though, I didn’t feel as if my worship was inhibited. I wanted to learn. At times I just had to stop singing and allow my act of worship to be listening to the song of praise being lifted up around me.
My second worship experience was going to Roman Catholic mass on Sunday morning with my friend, Matt. I’ve been to mass a couple of times in the past, but there are still intricacies to the worship experience that I forget or altogether miss. I nearly forgot to cross myself with holy water when I entered the sanctuary. I definitely forgot to kneel before taking my seat. At one point I put the kneeler back up too soon. And there were a number of prayers that I had to half-mumble as everyone else recited them by memory. Again, though, I didn’t feel as if my worship was inhibited. I found the intricacies of the worship intrigueing, and wanted to learn them.
Thinking about these two experiences reminded me of an analogy that I’ve heard and read from a number of different sources comparing corporate worship and liturgy to dance. The point of the analogy is that you have to take time to learn the steps and rhythms of whatever dance you’re doing. Think of the Reformed Psalm singing or the Catholic Mass, or any other complicated style of worship as ballroom dancing. Whether you’re learning an elegant foxtrot or an intense, lively swing, the dances take time to learn. The steps are intricate and rarely come naturally. The first time you try it may feel awkward and will probably require a lot of thought. As you practice and learn, though, the steps and rhythm comes more naturally and the dance feels less forced and more free, and ultimately more beautiful and memorable.
As a mainline evangelical, I find it frustrating that in most churches of this color, the worship tends to focus on the least-common denominator and being “seeker-sensitive.” The music should sound familiar and be easy for anyone to sing and learn quickly. Practices that might not make sense to a first-time visitor, whether something as minute as the sign of the cross or as substantial as the Eucharist, are either dropped altogether or explained away so that any element of mystery is removed. To use the dance analogy, most evangelical churches aren’t teaching their congregations the foxtrot, or swing, or any other difficult dance. They’re teaching the hokey pokey… over and over and over again. A dance that’s easy to learn, and maybe even fun, but also a dance that lacks beauty and intrigue and ultimately gets old if you do it too often.
Perhaps evangelical communities needn’t fear about whether every element of their worship is easily understood or explained. Perhaps it’s better to focus on doing worship well, on making worship beautiful and intrigueing. Maybe that’s what draws people in. Maybe that’s what it’s really all about.