We script them out carefully, planning each part of the service diligently and in detail, so that we know who will do each part of the service, when they will do it, what they will say while they are doing it, and how long it will take them to do it. Then, we commit the plan to writing, print it out in a good bit of detail – we call it a “bulletin” – and put it in the hands of everyone in the room. That way everyone can be assured that there will be no surprises and that everyone will know exactly what to expect at every point in the service.
Now, from what I’ve said so far you might be thinking that I am opposed to planning and preparation for worship services. But, that is, in fact, not really true. I, for example, spend a lot of time and energy preparing for our Sunday’s worship services. I expect everyone else who is involved in the ministry of worship here at my church to come to the service well-prepared to do their part in the service.
But we make a terrible mistake if we allow ourselves to believe that preparing a worship service is the same as preparing a concert or a play. In things like plays and concerts, the preparing is really a matter of getting ready to execute a plan – that is, the playwright’s script or the composers musical score – and to do so with precision and without deviating from that plan. That is the right approach if one is performing one of Shakespeare’s plays or one of Mozart’s symphonies. But that isn’t what worship is. Living worship of the living God is something very different.
One very helpful worship resource on my bookshelf describes Christian worship this way: “In worship, God speaks and God listens.” (The Worship Sourcebook, 16). Christian worship is, then, not a concert but rather a conversation. It is the essential act of a people who are in relationship with the living God. It is the living out of that relationship in the form of a genuine conversation between us and our God.
It is not a symmetrical relationship or a symmetrical conversation. We and God do not come together in this worship conversation as equals. God is lord, and we are subjects. God’s love is pure and powerful, and our love is weak and intermixed with many other desires. God is holy, and we are sin-sick and broken. God is complete and sufficient, and we are hungry and in need. God is Father, and we are children. . . . And the list could go on, but you get the idea. Still, different and unequal though God and we are, the glorious fact is that our God loves and seeks us out for this rich and wondrous conversation of worship. And he draws us into it with him.
Now, imagine. You are about to begin a conversation with someone. Your conversation partner arrives and hands you a sheaf of paper stapled together and says, “Here. I’ve planned out our conversation for today. I’ve written out what I’ll say. I’ve also written out what I was pretty sure you’d say. So, if you’d like to just read through that and make sure you don’t stumble over any of the tricky parts, we could then perform our conversation….” Well, I don’t really need to spell that out for you, do I? You know that something like that isn’t a conversation.
So, what might this all mean for our worship? Does it mean that we don’t plan our worship services or prepare for them? No, not at all. When I know I’m going to have an important conversation with someone, I often spend some time thinking about what I want to talk with that person about. But if I hold rigidly onto my plans for a conversation and try to impose my plan on the other person, that “conversation” will soon turn into a lecture, a sales pitch, or a rant. None of those is a good model for worship.
So, in Christian worship, we plan. But we hold our plan loosely. If God chooses to take the conversation in a direction that is different from what we planned, we need to be willing to let go of our plan and follow where God takes the conversation (worship service). And that’s where that talk of surprises comes in. For worship to be a living and genuine conversation with our living and active God, we need to be willing to be surprised by him, willing to let go of our plan and follow his different plan.
Mind you, I’m not advocating chaos in worship. I’m advocating trusting God and trusting our ability to sense his leading. I’m advocating a willingness to be surprised by God and to follow his lead. If we want our worship to be a living and vibrant conversation with our living and vibrant God, then I think it will be important for us to loosen our grip on our plans, and let God be in control.
© 2013 Gary A. Chorpenning; all rights reserved.