Worship Culture and the Personal Journey

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Young Man Relaxing Sitting On Sofa Playing Acoustic Guitar

The nineteenth century naturalist John Muir is quoted as saying, “The mountains are calling and I must go.” That saying gets a lot of traction here in Colorado. From the great room in our church building you can see the very tip of Pike’s Peak off to the southwest. Off to the west is the Rampart Range and Mount Herman, a place I have gotten to know well. Since moving here, I have had the chance to hike in a number of these beautiful areas and enjoy the creation as God has crafted it.

Recently, someone asked me what I thought of when I thought of worship and my mind went to hiking trails around the mountains and listening to John Coltrane’s religious magnum opus, “A Love Supreme.” Coltrane “presented it [A Love Supreme] as a spiritual declaration that his musical devotion was now intertwined with his faith in God.”[1] Coltrane poured all the pain of his addictions and broken relationships into a four movement masterpiece that garnered him to Grammy awards and a permanent place in the lexicon of jazz music.

And, I get it. Walking those trails listening to opening saxophone solo of Acknowledgement, there is a sense of peace I have nowhere else. It’s me, God, the music, and nature. In those moments, I feel a oneness with creation and Creator that I feel nowhere else. It becomes my liturgy, my nonverbal expression of love played over my iPhone by a jazz quintet from yesteryear. It is there that I understand a part of what Jesus means when he says, “I and the Father are one.” That oneness, that connection is a beautiful moment, beautiful and haunting and majestic and so much more than I can describe with words.

As I stand up on Sunday mornings, I try to bring a piece of that with me, guitar in hand as I lead worship. But as I look out on the congregation, it becomes apparent that everyone there brings such a thing with them as well: the sunset falling behind the mountains on the way home from work; the praise song they heard on the way into church; the family vacation a few weeks or months ago in the mountains or by the lake or on the coast. We all bring these inner worship moments with us as we cross the threshold into the sanctuary together.

The question that we have to ask ourselves as worship leaders is, ‘How do we bring these disparate, individual, worship experiences held within each of us and create a communal offering to God?’

For me, the so-called worship wars are simply the failed attempt of recognizing this need to find a collective voice to praise God. With that in mind, a couple of things might help in this transference from personal to communal:

  1. Recognize that yours is not the only voice to be heard. Just as a symphony needs many instrument playing many parts, corporate worship brings many styles and expressions. I have worshiped in churches that were driven musically by high church organ and hymnal worship, country and bluegrass music, and modern expressions of pop and rock. All are valid because all can be used as vehicles to offer praise.
  2. Mix it up a little. At my current church we have two traditional services with a contemporary service sandwiched between. Recently, we have begun mixing the music together a bit as choir and piano from the traditional have joined the praise band for special celebrations. Our traditional-contemporary mix worked well and we plan on doing it again soon. Never be afraid to experiment with styles. You never know who likes what and when it will strike a chord.
  3. Know your people. When I was in seminary, I pastored a small, rural farming community church. The first Sunday I was there, I scared most of the congregation by picking up my SG knock-off and playing along with the hymns. The unnerved expressions were enough to make me believe I had all but lost my congregation. A few weeks later, I brought out an acoustic guitar and the anxiety level dropped. A few weeks after that, I brought in my mandolin and all but won them over. Getting to know the congregation and their worship style made all the difference in my being able connect with them and help them connect to God in worship.
  4. Its about connecting people to God. Whether you use music or don’t use music, whether you are high church, low church, or barely church, the ultimate goal is connecting people to God in a deep and meaningful way. All of the above should lead you and your congregation to a place of intimacy with God. This is the ultimate goal of worship and if it does not fulfill this, it isn’t worship.

 

In the liner notes of A Love Supreme, John Coltrane wrote,

“In the year of 1957, I experienced, by the grace of God, a spiritual awakening, which was to lead me to a richer, fuller, more productive life….As time and events moved on, I entered into a phase which is contradictory to the pledge and away from the esteemed path. But thankfully now, through the merciful hand of God, I do perceive and have been fully reinformed of his omnipotence. It is truly a love supreme.”

Let us hope that we are constantly “reinformed” of God’s omnipotence, his grace, his mercy, and our connection to Him through all things in life that lead us to worship.

[1] Eric Westervelt, The Story of ‘A Love Supreme’, http://www.npr.org/2000/10/23/148148986/a-love-supreme

Image attribution: Monkey Business Images / Thinkstock

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Michael is the pastor of First United Methodist Church, Newcastle of Newcastle, Wyoming where he serves as pastor, youth minster, worship leader, and coffee shop host. A native of Georgia, Michael spent nearly two decades working with digital media in the Atlanta area before entering the ministry full-time. A graduate of Mercer University (B.A.) and Asbury Theological Seminary (M.Div.), Michael has served churches in Georgia, Kentucky, Colorado and now Wyoming. He and his wife Heather have two children (Avery, 11 and Donovan, 6) and a rabbit named Cosmo.

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