Question: I’m the assistant organist at a large Presbyterian church. To commemorate All Saints/Souls in worship our choir presented the incredible “Requiem” of Maurice Duruflé. The following week at the end of choir rehearsal, my Director of Music read a few emails members of the congregation wrote to him to share with the choir. They were moved, touched, etc. I didn’t have these reactions as I was preoccupied with the demanding organ accompaniment among other things during the service. Do you have any advice for those of us involved in worship services? How can I get more out of the service when I’m so busy leading it through prelude and postlude music, hymns, anthems, responses, directing bells, making sure the children and youth choirs behave…etc.
Frank answers: This is an important question for worship leaders. How can we also be worshipers? What are we getting out of the total experience of worship when we are necessarily giving great attention to details of the liturgy.
This issue applies to anyone with a role in the liturgy. Pastors are concerned about making sure that all the servers know what they are doing as well as delivering a sermon while trying not to be distracted by their other parochial duties (real or imagined) while they are leading worship. You can appoint a minister of ceremonies to look after the servers and rehearse them, but then that person is also focused on details. Servers can’t become so absorbed in the experience of worship that they forget their cues. Acolytes need to pay attention. Altar guild members need to have a check list of all the things needed to set up for communion so they aren’t fretting about it when they’re in their pew. Ushers are also participants in the worshiping assembly, but they have to keep their eyes open to help distressed worshipers or to maintain security. And then there are the musicians. Choir directors and organists or other instrumentalists have more details to focus on than anyone else with liturgical roles, especially on days when there is a lot of music to perform.
One thing we can get out of worship is a sense of satisfaction for a worthy performance. We are serving God by serving God’s people. We serve the worshiping people by keeping the liturgy flowing without any noticeable ritual breakdowns and by thoroughly preparing our material ahead of time.
Let me say something about “performance” as it relates to worship. People think of “performance” in a negative way when it comes to worship—usually to criticize a style of worship with which they do not resonate. The evangelical free church worshiper criticizes high church liturgy with the accusation that it is “too much like a performance”. The worshiper who is used to high church liturgy attends a contemporary service, experiences the praise band, and says “it is too much like a performance”, as if the highly skilled organist in his or her own church is not putting on a performance. What is needed is a more neutral understanding of “performance”.
We are well aware that the term is used without prejudice in describing performance in the performing arts of music, dance, and theater. Critics analyze and evaluate performances based on the technical accomplishments and interpretations of the performers. They would not say that what they experienced was “too much like a performance.” They would say it was a good performance or a bad performance. They have criteria by which they can form that judgment.
Public worship is also a performance. It is an action done —a ritual performed—before God, before the world, and for the edification of the worshipers. As with most performances in the performing arts, things that are amiss will call attention to themselves and distract from the total impression. Worshipers will surely notice if the procession moves without dignity, if the readings are garbled, if singers are off key, if the preacher seems ill-prepared, if communion assistants seem confused, etc. They will also notice if the whole service seems coherent and flows seamlessly from one part to the next. Those who are leaders in public worship are “performing” an important service to their fellow worshipers by being well prepared in the specifics of their role.
Consider also that we who are worship leaders are inspiring one another. We are all participants in the liturgy; we are all engaged in public worship. The musicians hear a challenging or comforting sermon. The pastor hears great music well performed.
Some of what we worship leaders will get out of worship comes from our own preparation ahead of time. As a preacher I’m dealing with the readings for the Sunday liturgy all week long and working on how to explicate and apply those readings in my sermon. When the sermon is finished I have already preached to myself and I am eager to share it with the congregation. Choir directors and organists will squeeze the spiritual juice out of the music they are preparing during their rehearsals and practice times and, like the preacher, will be eager to share it with the congregation. Confidence in what we have to present—God’s word in speech and song—goes a long way in inspiring those who receive it. If we are not confident in what we have to present, it would be better not to present it. Preachers have been known to scrap their sermon and organists their prelude at the last minute and substitute something else.
I would remind us that we are presenting our worship in all its myriad details before the Lord who is worthy of all worship. We do so with a sense of humility that our worthiest efforts are offered to the One whose worthiness we cannot match. As one of the classic Eucharistic prayers says, “we offer our sacrifice of praise and thanksgiving not as we ought, but as we are able.” The worst mistake worship leaders can make is to be consumed with fear of making a mistake, of mangling a sentence or hitting the wrong note. It happens in almost every performance. We do not obsess over it. We move on to the next liturgy.
We do not neglect to invoke the Holy Spirit to work in and through us to build up faith in those who hear the word. Worship leaders need to pray before they serve—also to calm their own minds, to be able to focus on what we are doing with intentionality and without being distracted. Prayers for a worthy celebration were built into the Roman and Eastern rites. It has been a standard practice for the ministers to pray with the servers in the sacristy and for the choir to pray in their rehearsal room before the liturgy begins. Everyone needs a bit of quiet time before worship to shift mental gears into the act and attitude of worship. This includes the congregation.
Finally, while I believe it is possible for us who are worship leaders to participate in the liturgy as worshipers, it is also a good idea to be able to participate in worship without having leadership roles. Maybe four times a year pastors and musicians should have a Sunday off to visit another congregation or parish. These would not be vacation days but opportunities to experience worship without being responsible for it. Quarterly retreats would be another way to provide this time to be among the worshipers, such as the Society of the Holy Trinity and its chapters provides for the pastors who are members and any guests (clergy or lay) who would like to join them.
I know I don’t have all the wisdom on this issue. I invite other worship leaders—pastors, deacons, cantors, organists, lay leaders—to comment on how you, who lead worship, also get something out of it. The comment box is available and ready to receive your input.
Pastor Frank Senn
Images: above – Choir of St. Matthew’s Episcopal Church, Wilton, CT, Robert Ayers, music director
below – Presiding Bishop Michael Curry, The Episcopal Church, preaching