I really do intend to get back to the reflections on worship in the contemporary American church, but November/December is a crazy time in the Demoss Center for Worship in the Performing Arts at Judson University, with one huge choir tour, four major concerts, five ensemble recitals, several off-campus ministry opportunities, and one all-department celebration of graduating seniors for which to prepare. And I spent too much time and money on that grad-school training in worship (which doesn’t make me an expert but does make me passionate) to throw something together half-baked . . . that, and my first-born, perfectionistic, Enneagram-1 nature won’t allow it. Lord willing, we’ll get back to a few of those reflections in the weeks to come.
For today, I share a few thoughts from the beautiful documentary on the life and ministry of Fred Rogers, Won’t You Be My Neighbor? I and countless late Boomers and Xers grew up with his PBS kids’ program Mister Rogers’ Neighborhood, which ran from 1968 until 2001, what Rogers, an ordained Presbyterian minister, and many others in the Church considered his full-time vocational ministry. My wife Lea and I watched the doc last night, and I was deeply moved on several occasions.
From the opening scene and numerous times thereafter, it struck me how many of his philosophies of ministry with children in his context apply marvelously to worship leaders’ ministry with congregations in our context. For the sake of time and brevity, here are several quotations from the film that struck me as being particularly apropos for worship leaders (if you substitute “congregations” for “children,” whether referenced explicitly or implicitly):
Rogers: “It seems to me that there are different themes in life. And one of my main jobs . . . is to help . . . children through some of the difficult modulations of life.” (Are we cognizant of this dynamic, of this potential in our leadership?)
A producer on the show: “We had a director that once said to me, ‘If you take all of the elements that make good television, and do the exact opposite, you have Mister Rogers’ Neighborhood.’ Low production values, simple set, unlikely star. Yet, it worked . . . because he was saying something really important.” (For those of us who serve in churches with significant production values, I encourage us to let this one sink in.)
His biographer: “A neighborhood was a place . . . [when] you felt worried, scared, unsafe [that] would take care of you, would provide understanding, safety. That’s what the neighborhood was for Fred.” (Substitute “church” for “neighborhood.” Do we consider anything remotely along these lines when we lead?)
Rogers: “Love is at the root of everything. All learning, all parenting, all relationships. . . . And what we see and hear on the screen is part of who we become.” (Substitute “in church” for “on the screen” and you have a strong case for worship as congregational spiritual formation.)
His biographer and David Newell (Mr. McFeely): “Fred was pretty radical in television for that day in that he used time totally differently.” “To Fred, silence was his delight.” (How can we worship leaders use time and silence to convey truth that just can’t be conveyed via typical cwm songs performed by typical cwm praise bands?)
There are countless others I could cite, but the one that brought me to tears and is sticking with me today is this, sung by Rogers, himself, with a reflection afterward:
“‘I like you as you are, exactly and precisely. I think you turned out nicely, and I like you as you are.’ And children need to hear that. I don’t think that anybody can grow unless he really is accepted exactly as he is.”
In hindsight, I recognize that once I started studying worship as an academic pursuit, I raised my standards for that which transpires in church on Sunday morning. I raised the standards for myself and my fellow worship leaders, and I also raised the standards for the congregations I served. Far, far too often, I allowed my increased knowledge of Christian worship (obviously not a bad thing in and of itself) to serve as a shame-catalyst toward those congregants (and there were many) who didn’t immediately drop years’ worth of understanding of what worship is and should be in order to embrace fully elements of worship (attention to the Church calendar, aspects of what we colloquially define as “liturgy,” a more pro-life understanding of communion) that now are so important to me. How often I conveyed–in my spirit if not in my actual words–anything but Rogers’ gracious and loving words of acceptance: “I like you as you are, exactly and precisely.”
Worship leaders, especially those with new-found insight, aspects of Christian worship that you know beyond a shadow of a doubt would, in fact, be beneficial to your congregants if they would only embrace them, you will never move people to new ways of thinking if they don’t sense that you not only love them (which is your Christian duty) but also like them as they are right now, which is a conscious choice.
The Lord be with you, and have a blessed Thanksgiving!
Coming next week (Lord willing): Back to the reflections on worship in the contemporary American church.