Last week I was at a conference where a couple of the sessions were on “spiritual formation.” As part of that time, the presenter provided us with a copy of this blog post from Reformed Worship, which I found thought provoking. The idea of having “drills” or exercises which I did, not for immediate result, but because they built the skills and patterns of thought which would be helpful for my work in leading worship, was challenging and encouraging, and I hope I can integrate some such practises into my own working life (currently in much upheaval as I prepare to leave one parish and begin working in another).
Of course such exercises – or disciplines – are not new to the Christian way of life. Patterns of fasting, patterns of structure to the day, the week, and the year, time set aside for work and intentional recreation… these are ancient Christian habits, steeped in two millennia of tradition. But it is also true that many of them are very much currently out of fashion; perhaps because of the rise of individualism, perhaps because consumer culture has made us lazy, perhaps for other reasons I hadn’t thought of. But discipline remains important to the Christian life, if taken seriously.
And it occurs to me, too, that most Christian disciplines have focussed on the development of virtue, and the ethical life. The folks at Reformed Worship provided ideas about disciplines for those who lead worship, but what about those who participate? What would “drills” for worship look like, for the average person in the pew?
What if we made a point of practising silence? The silence of self before God, and the silence which respects the other before God? The silence which allows us to enter a building full of people gathering for worship, in a holy hush as each prepares for the encounter to come? When was the last time you practised silence?
What if we practised singing? How often does a congregation mumble their way through a hymn, confident neither of the tune nor the ability of their voices to do it justice? What if we were able to come ready to lift our heads, open our throats and – in Wesley’s words – “sing lustily and with good courage” in a way which does justice to the God we worship? When was the last time you practised singing?
What if we practised praying? Those churches with a “prayer book” tradition are often criticised on the basis that it is easy for the set prayers to become rote, a matter of habit; something which we say without much thought or passion behind them. What if we took the time to read over those prayers, to reflect on their connections to the rest of our life, to collect our thoughts in journalling or poetry or some other creative expression, only to return to the text on the page with its significance deepened and enriched? What was the last time you practised these prayers?
I could go on. But really, each church has its own traditions and habits of worship, and rather than me imagining exercises which would be relevant to my context, perhaps it’s simply better for me to leave it there and suggest that each worshipper give this kind of careful attention to his or her own context, and see what difference it makes.
Because at the end of the day, worship doesn’t just “happen,” as if it required nothing of us. Worship which is truly worship draws on all that we are, the very fullness of our experience, of our hearts, and of our skills. For worship to be truly worship it must be entered into intentionally and prepared for reverently. It’s not enough for the person up the front to give of his or her best, while everyone else acts like a passenger on the bus; we’re all in this together, and for the communal experience of worship to be all it can be, we each have a part to play.