My band and I played at AtlantaFest over the weekend, and I was on my way home, slowly coasting through the sea of cars leaving Manchester’s Bonnaroo Music Festival, when a thought struck me: it’s summertime. Glorious summertime! And the summer means music festivals or, back when I worked as a Director of Worship Arts in Canada, it meant scrambling to find the one or two musicians who hadn’t caught the troublesome seasonal disease affectionately known as: “the Cottage”. But most importantly, summer means weddings. Or, at least, it used to.
My wife and I are now in a stage of life where the annual wedding invitations are fewer than they once were, and I’ve been feeling a little nostalgic. You see while the Summer season may remind you of patios, barbecues, or baseball–it reminds me of weddings. Few things come close to the palpable feeling of anticipation at a wedding. It’s as if the air is electric with the pent up excitement and expectations of two families, now inexorably joined, and the bride and groom swept up into these rituals of handshakes and hugs, tears and tales, dancing and–for better or for worse–drama. Even at the most mundane of marital ceremonies, if you stop to think about it, there’s a certain magic. The closer you are to the bride and groom, the greater its power. It’s the telling of a story, a moment in time that magically pulls the past and future together into the present and reminds us of the people to which we belong. All in the name of love.
But what if we did all those same strange things at something that wasn’t a wedding? Would we be excited? Would we even care? What would happen to all that anticipation, all that expectation, all that…drama? Poof. Gone.
In other words, our experiences are shaped pretty heavily by our expectations, and our expectations have expectations. They change quite a bit based on what kind of thing we think it is we’re about to experience. For we humans, context is crucial.
Worship Is A Wedding
In the contemporary Evangelical Church, supposedly “free” of the ancient rituals of more liturgical traditions, we have a tendency to make it up as we go along. Which usually means doing what the world around us is already doing but in the name of Jesus. Some part of this practice is good, much like translating Scripture into the language of its day. But without the sense of history that those liturgies provide, our expectations about what we do together can move with the shifting sands of culture. We may not even notice, much like the way that word meanings change over time. For example, the word “husband” originally had nothing to do with marital status. It originally meant you owned a home. Weird, right?
Well, it’s just about as weird as fighting against ‘performance’ in worship. The Christian internet has recently spun its gears with talk of performance and worship, and I feel the need to suggest that we don’t have a ‘performance’ problem at all. We have a very serious context problem. This notion of performance and worship being somehow opposed only propagates the cultural assumption that authenticity is momentary. But sincerity can’t be put to the test in a momentary fashion, in fact, I’d argue that any expression that is only spontaneous in our relationships would by most people be considered inauthentic and without substance. This kind of thinking turns worship into a one night stand.
So, like I said, we have a context problem. It seems as though we can’t decide whether corporate worship is more like a concert with a stand-up comic or a lecture with warm-up music.
At a concert there are performances, moments planned and unplanned, lights, show and all the things that come along with it as you’d expect. As a concert-goer, you are there to consume the event for your entertainment and personal experience. You might feel a certain way or share it with friends, but your goal is to get something out of it. The concert is an event, a product, designed so that you can consume and experience the art of the artist. At a lecture, things are pretty similar. You attend a lecture hoping to get something out of it. It’s an event designed so that you can consume the information for your good or education. It’s still about you. It can be tempting to begin to think that everything that happens at a concert or a lecture is inherently happening for the same reasons, but that’s kind of ridiculous if you stop to think about it. It’s the ‘why’ that matters, in this case. The context–not the custom.
And that’s just it: we’ve lost context. I can’t help but feel like we’ve reduced corporate worship, the church meeting, to a commodity–no more meaningful than lettuce. This is no different than what our deeply consumerist society does to everything. We’ve even started to design our services like a grocery store, presenting ministry offerings so that people can take what they think they need and leave the rest.
Like a concert or a lecture, a wedding is an event, but you don’t consume it. It’s not a commodity–heck, you don’t even expect to get something out of it. That may happen, but it’s not why you’re there. It’s just not for you.
A wedding is a celebration. It’s the enactment of a story bigger than any one person in attendance. It’s somehow retelling and, and the same time, becoming part of the story of the bride and the groom. People, previously strangers, are now family or friends by extension, all gathered together in the name of love. At a wedding people might perform, sing, vow, faint, dance, cry, laugh–whatever it takes to help tell this story and celebrate their coming together. These things might even be entertaining, and that’s great, but that never replaces the thing itself: the simple fact that a wedding is about a marriage, that lifelong story of bride and groom.
And so, too, is worship. Worship is a wedding. It’s a celebration of the love of the bride (the Church) and groom (Jesus). It is the spirited retelling of this ancient story, of how we met and have grown together over the years, and, now standing together, proclaiming what our hope-filled future holds.
“(Worship) remembers God’s work in the past, anticipates God’s rule over all creation, and actualizes both past and future in the present to transform persons, communities, and the world.”– Robert E Webber – Ancient-Future Worship (2008)
Just like a wedding, the event of corporate worship isn’t consumed, but celebrated. And this is the sort of celebration that changes the rules. It’s a shift of context and perspective. After all, weddings redefine communities. Surnames change, relationships change, property lines change–the tangible and intangible alike are changed as a result of this redefined family. But the main event that we celebrate is that two are becoming one: heaven and earth, God and man, in the person of Jesus, the Groom. We may use performance art, group singing, lectures, ancient prayers or bread and wine to tell the story, but all of these means fall beautifully into place when seen by the spirit of the gathering: love.
So, as you gather this coming week to worship with your church, give this a try: shift your perspective away from judging your cheek-pinching Aunts and Uncles, long-winded preachers, and bad “wedding” singers, and instead fix your eyes on the main event, the love of a groom for his Bride, and we, the Bride, for our groom.
“Mawwiage. Mawwiage is what bwings us togethew today. Mawwiage, that bwessed awwangement, that dweam within a dweam. And wove, twue wove, wiww fowwow you fowevah and evah…”
– The Princess Bride
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