It’s tempting to begin this piece by claiming that its “brought to you by the letter I.” Levity aside, the challenge facing our Church to re-invent itself, and its worship in particular, is serious and complex. Employing music bands and video screens is no more effective than a person deciding to update their wardrobe in order to be more effective in their employment or their personal relationships.
While the Church’s presence in the local neighbourhood may be the top priority for its impact in the world, the Church’s core identity lies in its worship life. It is in worship that members and non-members alike experience the Church’s primary purpose, values, and nature as an identifiable body. And it is through worship that the Church and its members create meaning for their existence – both for the challenges of contemporary living and for their understanding of ultimate reality.
The overall mission of Christ’s Church, and for each Christian, is to enable others to experience God in their life in such a way that illuminates their understanding of themselves, and this creation, as beloved by God. The greatest potential for this to happen lies in experiencing the risen Christ in the midst of the Christian worshipping assembly.
While the certainty of having an encounter of the Risen Christ ultimately depends on the invitation of Christ and the openness of the worshipper, there is much that worshipping congregations can do to enrich the experience of God’s transformative grace. However, this encounter faces two specific challenges in the dominant culture of contemporary western society. Firstly, we have been formed by modernity to believe that all of reality is contained within a rational frame – experiences that can be examined, explained, and, at least potentially, controlled. The corollary of this is that we are not intentionally open to experiencing reality beyond these boundaries – entities that we can neither fully understand nor manipulate. Hence, a person coming to worship in order to explore the Christian faith is not expecting, or looking for, a spiritual encounter with the Divine beyond their rational world.
Secondly, since we live in this finite, rational world, the only way we can experience God is through the power of symbols, which mediate God’s real presence into our lives. Hence, our worship is full of symbols – bread, wine, water, ritual, vestments, incense, music, art, etc. However, these symbols are only effective if their presence connects with a worshipper’s spiritual life-experience or theological understanding. This is the second contemporary challenge. Many people today have little or no Christian history, biblical, or theological foundation upon which to draw. For example, the symbol of the cross has little potency if the observer does not know about Jesus’ crucifixion, or any notion of its purpose or significance.
Therefore, how can we help to make the presence of the risen Christ more “real” in our worship?
Intentionality. As in our other personal life encounters, we speak and behave differently in a group when we are aware of a particular person we care about. We refer to them by name, and we make room for their contribution to our gathering. So it must be in our worship as well. Leaders and other participants alike must be intentional in acknowledging, welcoming, and celebrating the presence of the One who is our source of love, healing, forgiveness, joy, and hope. The way we praise, pray, seek God’s Word in Scripture readings and homilies, and commune around the Table needs to celebrate the presence of the living God in our midst.
Instruction. Whether it’s with a new job, a new culture, or a new relationship, we all need instruction in order to appreciate and “make sense” – meaning – out of the new situation. Worshippers need to be able to learn the significance of our symbols and symbolic gestures – why bread and wine is prayed over; why texts are sung; why worship leaders are robed; why we share the Peace.
Intensity. Our learning about how symbols work (semiotics) shows that, in order to be effective, symbols must come from our common experience of the ordinary (bread, wine, water, written and verbal texts), but then must be used in extraordinary ways – with prayer, with specific ritual gestures, with authoritative texts – in order to intensify our experience of them. We have enough familiarity with the symbol to know what it is, (e.g. bread) and yet we are stretched by our experience of the symbol to be open to new spiritual realities associated with that symbol (incorporating Christ into ourselves). Worship needs to be sufficiently intense to move us beyond the familiar and comfortable to new experiences – new truths – and the potential for transformation.
Inclusion. While intentionality, instruction, and intensity are key to worshippers experiencing Christ in the gathered assembly, the experience must take place in such a way that they feel included. If the experience excludes or even alienates the worshipper, not only is there little chance of a grace-filled encounter with Christ, it may actually serve to further distance the person from that possibility in the future. Everything that takes place, even admonishing and confronting our failings, must happen in such a way that we are certain they are taking place precisely because we belong – precisely because the redeeming love of God convinces us that we deserve nothing less.
Intentionality, Instruction, Intensity, and Inclusion – all critically important ways that our Church needs to re-invent, not so much our liturgy, but rather the way we worship. When we focus on these principles in our worship, not only will we be better prepared to embrace the inquiring Christian in our midst, we will be much better ministered to ourselves by the One who promises to be in our midst when two or three gather in Christ’s name.
Donald Phillips is the retired Bishop of Rupert’s Land and currently serves as an occasional sessional lecturer in liturgical and contextual theology. He lives with his spouse, Nancy, in Winnipeg.