Be A Worshiper
The most important thing for you to do in worship services is to be a worshiper. That is, to be someone who is there to worship God, whatever anyone else does. Here are some hints as to how to do that :
- Be prepared. Prepare for the service before you get there. If your church uses a lectionary cycle for the Bible readings, use it so you can know that day's readings and study them for a few moments. Pray alone if you're the only believer in the family. If they too believe and everyone's awake, then go around the house singing hymns, praise songs, or psalms. Then take a few moments to be quiet before God. Also, learn the liturgy : words and tunes. Find the Scripture verses your church's order of service is drawn from, and study them.
- Be a whisperer. If you've see a charismatic congregation in worship, you'll see the people around you speaking softly in between service stuff or during the sermon, often with their eyes closed. Sometimes it's tongue-speaking as a devotional practice (which is not quite the same as tongues-as-a-gift). But most of the time, it's praise punctuations, such as 'Amen' / 'Yes, Lord', 'Hallelujah' / 'Praise God', 'Maranatha' / 'Come, Lord Jesus', or 'Thank You'. Pentecostalist congregations tend to do it out loud, but in many places it's more of a whisper or a soft mutter. Instead of letting the mind drift off into a critique of the organist's dress or the pastor's tone of voice, you're forcing its attention into moving the mouth for praises of God or agreement with what's being done or said. Some high-churchly folk laugh at this idea and call it silly, but for those of us with poor concentration or short attention spans, it really helps. Also, whisper short prayers, as the Spirit moves you. Pray especially that the preacher speaks the message the Spirit wants, and that those in attendance get struck by it.
- Know the moment you're in. There are times in a service where singing, clapping, hand-raising, and even whispering just don't belong (such as in moments of silence or in penance). There are also times in a service which are meant to be celebrative, times to jump for joy. One who really worships cherishes those moments for what they are -- special moments before God.
- If something happens to break the pattern of liturgy or break into your thoughts (such as a disruption, a spontaneous shout, or a faux pas), ask God what the Spirit is using it for or is trying to teach you through it. Practice leaving yourself open to God.
- Keep in mind that worship is not about you or your needs. You are a part of something bigger, the gathered community of believers. And it is gathered there to praise, adore, thank, and celebrate someOne far Bigger still.
"Loving God means rejoicing in God, being eager to think of and pray to God. It means being glad to be in God's presence and to be with God alone. It means not grieving God, but rejoicing in God simply because it is God who is involved, and because we are permitted to know and have God, and to speak with and live with God."
In worship there is prayer, repentance, forgiveness, education, sacrament, and sharing. But there is also "Holy, Holy, Holy", "Amen!", "Hallelujah!" and "Maranatha!". There is sorrow for sin and for the plight of others, but there is also celebration for what God has done and is doing. A congregation that doesn't rejoice in praise is simply not in worship.
The Christian faith is not just the cross, but the empty tomb. Millions of people find and treasure the power and presence of the Spirit during worship with God's people: song, prayer, confession, celebration, praising, thanking, and hearing. It is in the act of celebrating and praising that it is easiest to sense the Holy Spirit.
FEELING THE WORSHIP
Sometimes, the Spirit acts while you're worshipping to reveal that which is holding out, blocking the Spirit from bringing about spiritual growth. When you direct yourself away from yourself and toward another who is greater than you, you can quickly find out what you've been trying to hold on to. Praise becomes a call to let it go. In letting it go, the feeling can be like a fresh, cool stream flowing over you, as if bathing in God's love.
Sometimes, the simple act of cutting loose in joy over God does wonders to strengthen one's faith. It does the same kind of thing that the shared good times do for lovers -- clearing away the weeds they let grow in the relationship, which later tides them over when times get rough. Cutting loose can refresh us, re-stoking the fires of our commitment and healing our exhaustion.
Sometimes, getting lost in worship opens the door for the Spirit to break down certain fears. Like, the fear of being seen by others. Am I doing it right? Are they laughing at me? Or are they figuring out how to squash me for not keeping in place? Or maybe I'm afraid of other people knowing that I'm no longer content to be a pew sitter, that this Christ has my commitment for life. Christ says, "Fear not!" The Spirit is working on the others, too. While some of them may be thinking what you think they're thinking, others are really thinking what you're thinking. In any event, you're there for God, and God's bigger than they are, so let them think whatever they think! Praise God!
The Spirit gives gifts. The Spirit leads us to worship. Yet we dare use the concern for "right order" as a way to stop gifts as they show up when we gather. The key here is what the gift at hand does. If it is in use for building up another person or all of those gathered, or it addresses someone else's practical needs, the wisest response is to give it room and handle the more stuck-up members after the service. If it's a 'just-me' thing that disrupts, sows dissention, and draws attention away from God. Well, this is what ushers are for; take them out of the sanctuary, into a hallway or chapel or room, and let it take place there. And let there be no shame on people who find they have to do so - what is happening to them may well be one of the high points of their life and a big step forward in following Christ.
A lot of today's churches praise God only when celebrating. But in Judaism as well as older Christian traditions, praise is also given to God when we mourn, or lament, or as part of repentance. The best-known of these liturgical mourning praises is the Jewish Kaddish Yehe Shelama Rabba (aka Kaddish Avelim, "the Mourner's Kaddish"). It is a praise of and a blessing upon God, and then upon people, at a time when the mourners may not feel much like praising. And it is liturgical, chanted together as a community with either the mourners standing or (in some places) all recite it together.
One of the things that immediately makes an impact about worship among charismatics is that there's a sense that God's there, in you, with you, and around you. So much so that even writers with little or no religious interest take note that charismatics worship.
Charismatics see themselves as a sharp reminder to the rest of the church. When they look at most congregations, they see a dedicated handful of pray-ers and worshippers, while everyone else either does not pray or limits themselves to polite formal prayer at tightly specified times. This chokes off the power of not just each member, but of the congregation, and of the denomination, and of the Body of Christ (the Church as a whole).
Mainline and evangelical Christians use much of their worship services to inform and teach. This is in line with the earliest tradition of the Church and with the need to make sure that the Gospel is heard among us, lest we forget what it is. The main Charismatic critiques of this are:
- that it sets up the form or structure of the liturgical service as a new sort of Law, straightjacketing the Holy Spirit;
- that it makes it hard for each person to be intimate with God and active in praise in ways other than just with their thought processes.
This critique is often taken to an extreme, but its point is well-taken. Sometimes (especially in the Reformed and Baptist traditions), the lecture... er, sermon overwhelms the service, and the worship service becomes a gussied-up classroom session. The members try to make up for this by having more private devotional time, but by itself that leads to a private and self-oriented view of God, and the awareness of the community of faith fades away. In other traditions, culture and congregational activities overwhelm the worship service. Announcements or special music become the centerpiece, the preaching is for reinforcing old social verities rather than speaking the Gospel message, and the whole enterprise suffers from a detached, isolated niceness. The liturgical churches have known about their form of the problem for a thousand years: the worship service becomes a museum for symbols they didn't bother teaching people about, symbols which often have no direct connection to what they symbolize. The actions are run and mostly done by the clergy in ways that only clergy understand, while everyone else sits as if they're an audience - often falling asleep as they would at a boring movie.
This is not the way of the Bride in love with Christ. Luther knew this. That's why he put the traditional worship service in the common language of the people, stripped the absurdly long prayers down to their core purpose, and introduced vigorous hymns that everyone could sing with the kind of abandon they used to reserve for their local pub. Charismatics know this, too. They get their bodies involved, through lifting hands, bowing heads, swaying, linking hands, dancing, kneeling, and even lying prostrate at the altar (try it in most churches and see what happens!). And they often get caught up in singing, immersing themselves in chorus after chorus of what one critic called a 'praise-dump'. So be it; the church gathers to heap praises on God, knowing the pile can't get big enough to match what God is worth.
Right from its beginnings at Azusa, the Pentecostalist movement has stressed freedom from form, in the belief that any human planning would just get in the way of the Spirit. Yet, there's a growing awareness among Pentecostalist and Charismatic churches that being 'new' or 'now' is no good without being Godly. They are fast becoming more aware of why the liturgy developed the way it did. It was not just culture, theology, or happenstance, but it was also the Spirit working through those developments. They are discovering that the liturgy really can teach and reinforce, and that liturgical symbols really can bear great meaning and power and give hope to the hope-starved. They're also discovering that when the form of the liturgy is treated as worship and not Law, there's much room for movement, change, and difference of emphasis. When done with a whole heart, the liturgical forms can (and sometimes should) go off in an unexpected direction, not in lockstep accord with the bulletin or Missal or tradition, swimming in the current of the Spirit. The freedom is needed, but so is the structure.
Some pastors aren't aware of how much thinking and planning it takes to worship charismatically through the liturgical tradition. It does no good to just drop a charismatic element into a worship service willy-nilly to jolt the pews. It wouldn't fit right, and it may counter-act whatever else is going on in the worship service. The liturgical service is one whole thing, and to do it right the planners and worshipers need to understand each thing they are doing and why they are doing it. When the parts of a worship service are in meaningless clash or are trivialized, it takes away from the worshipful-ness of the service, and thus defeats the purpose. The congregation's leaders have to lead the way, by learning about worship, both in their own tradition and in others. Then, they will have to teach the congregation -- a very slow process -- as the changes are being made. And they have to pay attention when the congregation as a whole is telling them 'NO'; it may be a message from Beyond.
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"A radically personal vision of life flows from this [African-American] liturgical sensibility. Contrary to the depersonalizing pressures of slavery and racial oppression, the person is of ultimate value because [they are] an image of the divine. Anything, then, that defaces that image is sacrilegious."
There is cause to be concerned about some of today's trends in worship. The concern is sometimes expressed as 'high' versus 'low' liturgical styles, or emotional/energetic versus orderly/intelligent, or oral versus written versus visual, or "contemporary" vs. "traditional" music. But these distinctions just cut across the real lines of the problem. Perhaps it's better to speak of manipulative versus expressive, or show versus substance, or self-oriented versus God-oriented. By 'manipulative', it's meant that the worship service is engineered to evoke certain kinds of emotions at certain times by playing on psychological needs. Instead of being led to come out of themselves to give God the praise, those at such events are being urged to look into themselves, get in touch with feelings, and find ways to meet their own needs -- as reframed by those who run the event. When this is happening, 'happiness' and 'joy' are shallow and false, with no real roots in one's life. That kind of experience is for religion that is used, as Karl Marx in a rare moment of wisdom pointed out, as an opiate or drug. This puts a lot of power into the hands of its supplier.
It is not manipulation when you are being led to do with others what you came there to do. In any gathering-event, religious or not, things are done to bring about greater focus, express solidarity and joy, or dedication to the expressed purpose of the event. That's good. That makes the gathering more effective, memorable, enjoyable, and impactful. It's when you're being coaxed or drawn in a different or an additional direction, especially regarding money or power, that it becomes manipulation.
The examples of some of the high-powered Pentecostalist revival meeting/shows comes to mind immediately. Yet the same thing is being done through the use of symbols, solemnity, mysticism, order, and force of personality, or by calling on the power of dormant memories that are mis-remembered as 'tradition' in order to contrive a sense of awe. Such things are harder to do it with, but when used, create a much more frozen mind.
What's the best thing to do when you notice you're being manipulated? Simply decide to keep your focus on Christ. You can say something about it afterwards, especially if it's your own church or if asked. If visiting, you might send a letter or email afterward, but be very specific about what the manipulation was. (Some churches never get feedback, and pay attention to what they get; others gather lots of feedback and don't care what it says.) You can also say nothing and choose not to go there again. That helps no one else, but at least takes you out of it before you start getting used to it.
The Sign Of the Cross
One very ancient act of worship and devotion for Christians is to make the sign of the cross. To cross yourself :
- touch your forehead; then
- move that same hand to touch the lower center of the chest, over the heart or just below; then
- move the same hand to touch the upper left of the chest just below the shoulder; then
- move the same hand to touch the upper right of the chest just below the shoulder.
(Or at least, that's the Catholic direction.) The shape that you trace out with your hand is that of the cross. If we are to cross, it is because He first crossed us. This action is traditionally done during worship when the Triune name is used and when a person approaches the altar. To give someone a blessing, move just the hand with the pointer and middle fingers stretched out up, then down, then left, then right.
Crossing yourself is a great way to remind yourself of what Christ did on the cross, and a great way for a lay person to bless someone in a way that can be seen and linked to Christ's blessing on humanity. Roman Catholics are best known for crossing themselves, since in their tradition it is common to cross oneself many times throughout the day. Orthodox, Anglicans, and many Lutherans cross themselves too. When done with a knee-bow and/or head-bow in the direction of an altar, cross, or other holy object, it is the classic Roman Catholic action of genuflection.
Many people get carried away with crossing. It becomes a reflex action that has lost all real meaning or effect. It becomes a superstition, a trigger for a longing for miracles, a blessing that can be taken back by doing it backwards as a double-cross, or a way to summon divine protection. Some people never pass an altar or a cross without bowing and crossing themselves. Many people know someone who does it a lot, and they think the person is superstitious or is brainwashed into their faith. I cross myself sometimes in the morning when I get up, also when I arise for holy communion in a worship service, and I cross on others sometimes when I give goodbye blessings on friends or relatives. You may find it helpful or right to do it more often, or not at all. It is not something Christians have to do. If it is not helping with your walk of faith, don't do it. If you do it, keep it focused on its purpose.
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