Designing and Leading Worship: From the Motions to the Movement

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My First Job Leading Worship

My first worship leading job came as a child in the sleepy little First United Methodist Church in the small town of Dumas, Arkansas. Week after week I served in the esteemed role of “door-keeper.” More on that story later. Suffice it to say, as doorkeeper I dreamed of the day I would get promoted to the rank of “flame-carrier.” They called them “acolytes.” Dressed in strange white robes the flame-carrier’s sole responsibility, other than handing the offering plates to the preacher on cue, consisted in carrying the flame from the narthex (think lobby) to the altar in the front of the sanctuary at the beginning of the service. We made up the “special teams” of worship and this candle lighting routine served as the “kick-off” for the 59 minute 59 second service.

The equipment of choice: the torch. I like to think of it as a light-saber. The torch, evolving to perfection over the centuries, had a long adjustable wick and a snuffer at the end. The veteran torch-bearers possessed meteorological knowledge of the wind currents from air ducts across the cavernous room. They knew the precise traveling velocity to maximize the dance of the fragile flame and the precise speed at which it would extinguish. The pros mastered the up and down movement of the adjustable wick to perfection, never coming close to the ultimate disaster of a dropped flame (i.e. a fumble to keep the metaphor going). Like Jedi Knights, acolytes always traveled in pairs moving like swimmers in perfect synchronicity, right up to the candle snuffing and grand exit at the close of the service.

For a kid, one could ascend no higher up the liturgical food chain than the coveted role of acolyte. We were the celebrated keepers of the flame; only for us it was more about the fire. No one ever told us the amazing story of the flame, or that we were participating in an ongoing epic adventure. Informing us, as they did, that our flame merely symbolized the Light of the World effectively jettisoned a true story into an abstract truth. Looking back, I’m not sure they remembered the story. In fact, I’ll bet they never knew. The memory was lost, the mystery gone, and the movement stalled. Only the motions remained.

What held immense potential to shape the faith and imagination of impressionable teenagers devolved into a sanctioned opportunity to play with fire at best or a religious performance of an empty ritual at worst. It meant nothing to me other than a chance to trade the doldrums of my usual pew for a comfy chair and an opportunity to move up in the religious ranks like the older kids had done before us. We knew the what, how, when, where and who of acolyting, but no one bothered to let us in on the why. Consequently, we tried to make the most of the motions, constructing our own sense of meaning or meaningless-ness in the task. In retrospect, I think that’s what we all tried to do; to make our own meaning out of the motions.

Reconnecting the Motions of Worship to the Movement of the Kingdom

I’ve said it before, I’ll say it again, “What worship leaders of all stripes must understand is how the motions of worship connect to the movement of God’s Kingdom in the real World.” We must grasp how the movement of the Kingdom makes umbilical attachment with a dynamic memory of the Living Story and how this Story flows out from the Triune Mystery, namely the mind of Christ.

The motions often have intrinsic value, yet disconnected from the memory and the movement they have no sustaining meaning. Worship leaders, from acolytes to organists to singers, must work to reconnect the motions to the memory. When we remember in the biblical fashion, the Spirit ushers us into the experiential heart of the mystery where the movement kindles again.

I often journey back to that sanctuary of my childhood and tour it in my mind. Week after week we sleepily walked through ancient rituals and readings, standing and sitting and standing again. We listened to the preacher with the hope of hearing a word that meant something to us. I can still see those marvelous stained glass windows surrounding the room, etched with intricate signs and symbols, each one telling another chapter of the biblical story. How did I miss that?  I see cryptic letters everywhere from some foreign language on the doors, the altar and on the windows and I still wonder what they stand for. And what about the magnificent shape of the building, pointing like an arrow into the heavens. Though I saw it every week, no one bothered to tell us why this building differed so from all the others. Did anyone realize that this entire edifice told us our story, from the floor to the apex. I appreciated the beauty but had no idea of the meaning.

So often the deepest mysteries lie dormant, hiding themselves in the obvious places, waiting to be discovered and shared. We worshiped in the preserved remains of an ancient civilization admiring its grandeur, only no one could interpret the inscriptions. We sat on the floor of a missile silo staring at the massive rocket and imagining it’s power, only no one could remember the launch codes.
All of this brings me to one of my favorite movie lines of all time. It happens in the Lord of the Rings Trilogy movies during the prelude segment of the first film. As haunting music begins to play, the chilling voice of a woman begins whispering words in cryptic code. After a few short phrases comes a sentence of crystal clarity.

Much that once was is no longer, for none now live who remember it.

Now track ahead with me to a stunning scene near the end of the third installment of the series, The Return of the King. Gandalf and the young Hobbit, Pippen, reach the capitol city of Gondor, Minas Tirith, which means “the Tower of Watch.” The Witch-King ordered his vast army of Orcs to lay siege to Minas Tirith, the last hope and stronghold of Middle Earth. Learning of this impending attack, Gandalf urged Pippen to climb the tower at the top of the city and light the ancient beacon. Miles away on a distant mountain-top, the watchman sees the lit beacon, jumps to attention and lights the beacon on his tower. In one of the most inspiring scenes of the trilogy, we see this signal of fire move from beacon to beacon traversing Middle Earth, heralding the call to the final battle. The fate of Middle Earth hung in the balance. Who knew the Hobbit, Pippen, would become the acolyte of Middle Earth, lighting the fire that saved the kingdom.

If only I could be an acolyte again and wield the fiery torch passed directly from the burning flame in the empty tomb. I’d run down the aisle, bound up the steps and light the candle like a beacon atop a city on a hill. And the World would be glad again.

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