Looking back to the hills from the Morgan Burra Road

Community Focused Worship

Gretta Vosper says if something cannot be preached from the pulpit, because of its theological error, it should not then be announced in the hymn after the sermon. She is correct.

Denominational hymn books lead worship leaders to alternating despair and fury!  We often struggle with the disconnect between new theological understandings and the traditional words of worship. This is hardly surprising. Understanding the implications of modern science and theology, what I have called The Big Shift, often leads to these three conclusions

  • a non interventionist god
  • god is an it, not a he (or she)
  • there is probably no personal survival after death; not that it matters

which are completely at odds with traditional words of worship which assume an intervening, personal God, who promises us survival after death.

Despite the disconnect between the traditional words of worship and our less traditional theology, I have persisted in talking about “good worship,” and noted the movement within a good worship.

There is movement in good worship.

  • We approach God.
  • We worship God.
  • We confess our sins.
  • We listen to God.
  • We respond to God.
  • We go out.
  • We live in the world.

I’ve suggested that what is missing in this summary, and what I think is a key factor in making worship “good,” is recognition of the place of community. The movement of worship is also a movement into, and within, community.

We can recast the movement of worship in terms of community.

Each week we

  • Rejoin the community
  • Remember who we are
  • Assess how we have lived out our aspirations
  • Re-examine our tradition.
  • Recommit ourselves to the tradition and its task
  • We go back into the world.

As a template for constructing a worship service this is significant. It allows us to describe and construct a movement independent of theology. It seems to me to be a psychologically sensible movement, mirroring the action-reflection circling with which we approach life, once we have progressed beyond mere impulse and reaction. It could be applied to hockey practice; I can remember hockey training with David Buxton when I was in theological college. Our practices followed this form. It could even be used as a model for planning my next Neighbourhood Watch meeting.

This movement certainly removes the projection of our concerns and fears about the human power elite onto the Divine. It can also become a common movement, in which you and I reinforce and nurture our relationship, despite the fact that we have different understandings of the Divine. It allows us to find common ground in our tradition, filling our need for community, where we may walk together despite our differences.

If we focus worship only upon God, then how we understand God becomes critical and central, and can be divisive. When we “own up” to the fact that worship is also about us, and our community, then the divisive edge of doctrine is substantially blunted. What we say and do in informal conversation, and in more formal liturgy, is now shaped and moderated by our desire for community and the good health which it brings us.

In my own planning and leading of worship, I have begun to make this shift and find it liberating and empowering. It consciously and deliberately recognises what has always been happening; that is, worship is about the community as much as it is about God. The emphasis upon community encourages me to create liturgy with a mindset which is more sensitive to the needs and feelings of my friends and parishioners, and less concerned with skirting doctrinal shibboleths. I have been a little surprised to find that some things I thought I did because they were good liturgy, in the sense that they opened us to the Divine, were actually more about doctrinal butt-covering.

Central in the creation of liturgy, and distinguishing my congregation from the footy club who train down the road, are the traditions of Jesus. We have very Australian ideas about community, and mateship and egalitarianism. Those ideas are critiqued by the Jesus stories. They also shine a light on the Jesus stories. I’m sure we see him in a different light than an English village of a hundred years ago, with its hierarchy of squire and priest. The Jesus stories help us to formulate what makes a good life, and guide us in living it out. They confront us with the mystery of that something more about life which we call Divine

Already in my theological education, I was more free in the creation of liturgy, than in my youth. College taught me that in worship, after listening to God, we responded. This was different from “After the sermon you must pray the prayers of intercession.” (This was itself more Christian, and deliberately less self centred, than “After the sermon you must pray the prayers of Petition.”)

But now, as I deal with the deeply ingrained, and highly contradictory practice of intercessions and petitions of a non intervening God, there is nothing in my template directing me to pray petitions. There is no call to intercede for the less fortunate, or even a prescription that I respond to God. Instead, as best as I am able, I recommit myself to the tradition and what it inspires in me. It seems to me that is what our traditional response to God was doing.

Some of my congregation may expect something like the traditional prayers. Indeed, the maintenance and nurturing of community demands an occasion to share hopes and fears, but my new template gives me permission to think beyond “the prayers of the people.” If I remain with the old template, I commit myself to struggling again, each week, with an irreconcilable contradiction. With the new template I am encouraged to work with the hopes and fears with which we all live. The simple act of being honest about these, and their intransigence and insolubility, is often as healing and freeing as praying for answers that heart of hearts we don’t believe will happen!


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