Worship is more than performance

Symon Hill
By Symon Hill
2 Feb 2010

“Before the service starts, we'll practise the songs”. There are few sentences more guaranteed to make my heart sink.

This is because I “can't sing” - or rather, I can't sing conventionally. As the Iona Community's John Bell points out, everybody can sing. It's just that I sing rather differently to most people, I hear music differently and as a result feel alienated from a lot of music-based worship.

My problems with music began when required to sing at primary school. The teacher spoke of “high” and “low” notes and I was accused of “pretending” to be unable to tell the difference. Although I can distinguish very high and very low notes, I still occasionally amaze people who play several notes and insist, “They do sound different to each other, don't they?”, to which I generally reply “Not to me”.

But please don't think that I don't like singing. I sing in the shower. I sing while doing the washing-up, although this often causes the cat to walk out of the kitchen. And I enjoy singing in church – if I don't have to do it the “right” way. But “practising” songs unnerves me, as the priest or worship leader speaks of keys, harmonies and other such mysteries.

If you play music, or put a lot of effort into singing, I hope you won't be offended by my attitude. I respect the importance that music has for many people. Musical and singing talents are gifts from God. Nonetheless, in an act of worship, surely God's primary concern is with the sincerity of our singing, rather than its quality. The same, of course, is true for prayers, readings, flower arrangements and so on. This is not a reason for neglecting the quality of the singing or speaking, but rather a matter of priorities.

Unfortunately, churches' priorities are skewed at a very basic level. Most worship services function largely as performances. A small number of people do things at the front – preaching, presiding at the sacraments, reading from scripture, leading prayers or playing music – while everyone else joins in when they are allowed to. Even the layout of most church buildings reflects this, with the congregation facing the leaders as an audience faces a stage.

Some years ago, a friend who attended a charismatic church told me he was responsible for changing the acetates for the overhead projector that displayed song lyrics. This was difficult, as the musicians would choose each song based on the Holy Spirit's leadings, and my friend would have to find the right acetate quickly. I wondered why the Spirit could not lead him to choose a particular acetate, with the musicians then responding, rather than the other way around. God seemed to prefer the influential people at the front.

However, it is impossible for worship to be fully inclusive. Just as I feel excluded by the centrality of music, those who tend to think visually may struggle with services focused heavily on Bible readings and sermons, while people who think in words my be put off by icons or the drama of an elaborate eucharist. Even conducting a service in English is by definition exclusive, making participation harder for anyone not fluent.

It is necessary to be aware that all worship can exclude and to consider how best to deal with this reality. But if we want to make churches more inclusive and welcoming, changing our worship style is of only secondary importance. To make a much bigger difference, we need to move away from the centrality of worship services in church life.

Being a Christian community is not only about worship services. It is not even primarily about them. Worship in a fuller sense means seeking to model the radical inclusivity of Christ in our daily lives, both as individuals and communities. Like most people, I am very far from achieving any such thing. But if this is the aim, we can give up defining church in terms of worship, denominations by how services differ, and inclusivity by who feels welcome on Sunday mornings.

In this context, phrases such as “before worship” or “after the service” make no sense. Worship happens whenever we sincerely honour God with our thoughts, actions, prayers, campaigns, words – or music.

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(c) Symon Hill is co-director of Ekklesia. This article was published originally in the January 2010 issue of Movement magazine, in which Symon writes a regular column. See http://www.movement.org.uk/movement-magazine.

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