Two words: corporate and worship. A few thoughts on each of those words that have been rattling around in my head.
Worship. Worship is a thoroughly metaphysical and thus qualitative activity – and it is in between the lines of all that we choose to do. What’s more, what is sometimes called the ‘rule’ of worship, is that “you become like what you worship”. Keep on worshipping (or ‘giving ultimate worth to’) money (or any idol) and you will become the sort of person who looks at life through the lens of money. Replace money with ‘x’ – you get the idea. Worship is formative. And the more a worship practice ‘seeps into our bones’, the more ‘a part of us’ it becomes, the more formative it is. Like driving a car or riding a bicycle, you know a practice is ‘a part of you’ when you no longer have to give it much (if any) conscious thought. The practice becomes automatic.
When it comes to riding bicycles, driving, making coffee or what have you, we appreciate ‘automatic’ practice as a good thing, that shows we have attained a level of maturity, competency or expertise. You would want at least a few of the operative actions of a doctor to be a least a bit automatic! (‘Let’s see, do I use the scissors or scalpel here..?’) For some reason, however, when it comes to ‘worship’, some of us have been conditioned to see an ‘automatic’ act of worship as being insincere, heartless, ‘dry’, or not genuine. We call it ‘just going through the motions’ with no emotion. I certainly do believe that an otherwise good action can be done poorly, and this includes doing it without sincerity. But I am wondering if we throw out the baby (i.e. a specific type of practice) with the dirty bathwater (i.e. because it can be or has been done with little or no sincerity).
An example may help here. Just last Sunday, the sermon was on Psalm 116, and after communion we sang a re-metered version of the Psalm to the tune of Amazing Grace. The tune is so much ‘a part of us’ that we were able to sing the lyrics – which we had never even seen or read! – with a great deal of both heart and mind. Because the tune (part of the form of the worship in this case) was ‘automatic’, our hearts and minds were more free to engage with the sentiments being felt and thought as we sung. This is why when we are learning a new song, a new prayer, or any new form of worship, it is more ‘work’. Naturally, we cannot join in immediately in a new form of worship that we do not (yet) know. The more practiced we are, the more automatic the participation becomes, the more free we are to participate in the song, prayer, responsive reading, litany or what have you.
Corporate. Corporate worship has similarities and differences with private worship. It is the same God worshipped, and the same Gospel and same Faith that both are an expression of. However, whilst private worship is primarily a personal, ‘you’-and-God expression of faith, corporate worship is about not just ‘you’ or ‘me’, but first God and second ‘us’. Individual private worshippers will be able to use whatever words and forms (silence, free prayer, free song, etc.) that are helpful and relevant to them. Corporate worship, however, needs forms (songs, prayers, readings, gestures – even sights and smells!?) that everyone can participate in. Corporate worship celebrates God, the Gospel, concern for the World, and the identity and mission of the Church in ways that are diverse and creative, but always in a form that the whole gathered congregation can share in.
I wonder if there is a tendency for the same forms that are perhaps most appropriate for all to join in, end up being the forms that are suspected to be the most heartless, insincere and dry? After all, are we really to believe that every single one of these people singing this song all equally and fully ‘mean it’!!?? It is this concern which sometimes leads song leaders to discourage people from singing ‘if you don’t mean it’. I’m not wanting to encourage hollow or false worship, but there is a rather obvious question lurking just beneath the surface here. Do we ever ‘mean it’? How can we tell, and who gets to say who can participate? (Some churches have ‘closed’ communion for the exact reason – we must be in a ‘right’ standing. Who, then, can ever take communion?)
In Christian theology, there is a distinction made between ‘over-realised’ and ‘under-realised’ eschatology. Eschatology is the study of the ‘last things’ or ‘end’, and it is concerned with Heaven, or the “New Heavens and the New Earth”, and the final “Age to Come”. Those with an ‘over-realised’ eschatological outlook will tend to be ‘idealistic’ and expect heaven to be ‘realised’ and experienced to a large degree now. Those with an ‘under-realised’ view will tend to be ‘realistic’ and as a result not expect to see much at all of heaven to be seen in this dark world. Theologians speak of a healthy ‘now-but-not-yet’ tension between the need to anticipate here and now the love and freedom and life of heaven, even though it will not come until it comes. This distinction is seen in the topic of physical healing, but also in the question of do we ‘mean it’ when we sing or pray. We will never ‘mean it’ perfectly, but we should anticipate what it would feel like to ‘mean it’. We don’t have to ‘mean it’ perfectly to sing it – for who could? But we also don’t want to slide into a lazy ‘it doesn’t matter if I mean it’ attitude. Like riding a bike, ‘meaning it’ is a matter of practice. There will be times where ‘meaning it’ might feel natural and effortless; other times it might feel false and laborious. This too, is why corporate worship is so important. Some days, ‘I’ may not ‘mean it’ very well. At no time will ‘I’ ‘mean it’ perfectly. Which is why ‘I’ need ‘we’ – ‘us’ – to be a community that seeks to ‘mean it’ together.