Reflection #18 on Worship in the Contemporary American Church

This is post number 18 in a series of random reflections I have been amassing over the past couple of years since retiring from steady, local-church, “weekend warrior” worship ministry.  These ruminations are in no particular order, and they vary in significance.  I welcome discussion on any of them.

Reflection #18: There is something very powerful about corporate worship, especially congregational singing, that takes place in worship spaces that allow those in attendance to see–and hear–each other worshiping.  

When I first walked into the sanctuary of the church I served for 10 years, the final stop for my 30+-year career as a part-time worship leader/music director, I couldn’t believe my eyes.  The worship space was laid out in a large rectangle, but the pews were arranged so they faced the long end of one side of that rectangle.  Unlike most churches worshiping in rectangular spaces, the stage was not at the end of one of the two smaller sides of that rectangle, although for presentation’s sake, that would have made a lot more sense–and would have afforded space for more people.  The church leaders compromised the potential for seating even more by setting the pews in a fan shape that wrapped around beyond the 180-degree mark, almost like a giant congregational Pac-Man, with its mouth about to gobble up those of us who were on the stage (if you remember that game and can picture this in your mind’s eye).

It didn’t take me long to appreciate the genius of this arrangement, however, for that organization of pews–and, later, movable chairs–afforded the congregants the precious opportunity to see and hear each other in worship.  In so many churches, with the seating laid out in traditional fashion, we sing to the front of the stage and we hear from the front of the stage–i.e., we see and hear, primarily, the worship leaders.  (This isn’t a bad thing, of course, and I have reflected in this space in recent weeks how desperately I long to be led in worship by competent worship leaders–and, unfortunately, how often today’s contemporary worship leaders function almost exclusively as music or band leaders who provide scant actual leadership to the congregation, not the worst thing in the world but nowhere near the ideal.)  The arrangement of the pews/chairs in this sanctuary, however, allowed the vast majority of those assembled to sing across the sanctuary, to each other, so that most gathered could see and hear each other worship, even as they saw and heard the worship leaders peripherally.

Praying 2XWhat a difference that made for the purposes of congregational worship!  How powerful it was for grandparents, sitting with other oldsters, to look across the room to see their grandkids in the young-and-hip section raising their hands in worship.  And how powerful for the kids to see their “ancient” relatives, tears streaming down their faces, singing a familiar hymn.  Author Brian Wren explains the dynamic the congregation I served those 10 years experienced each week in his highly recommended Praying Twice: The Music and Words of Congregational Song:

 Seating patterns affect congregational singing.  The more we can see other singers in the congregation, the more we are likely to hear each other, as other voices reach us before being absorbed, and visibility enhances our sense of singing together.  Architect Edward Sövik notes that “if you ask a group of people, young or old, to sing together in a free space without an audience, they will almost inevitably gather in a circle.”  Without verbalizing it, they are shaping themselves as a community.  Because a congregation is not a theater audience, an army parading before its officers, a class of medical students watching an operation, or a workforce being motivated by its CEO, its seating pattern should not follow such secular models.

Thus, the appropriate configuration for congregational song is not the arrangement dictated by what goes on in cinemas, parade grounds, classrooms, and lecture theaters, but something more like a circle, square, or rectangle.  In such a setting, people are more aware of one another and have a stronger sense that they are a single body whose parts belong together.

Granted, most of us serve in churches whose sanctuary architecture has long ago been fixed.  Still, Wren’s exhortation certainly can apply for those serving in churches where there is an element of weekly set-up involved (start-ups renting auditorium space; smaller church-within-in-a-church congregations meeting in a fellowship hall)–and, especially, for those privileged to be able to contribute to the conversation where the building of a new sanctuary is concerned.  And even those of us in fixed-furniture situations might serve our flock better by, at least, being aware of the dynamics at work vis-à-vis the sanctuary’s architecture.

The rest of Praying Twice‘s Chapter 3, from which Wren’s above quote is excerpted, “‘A More Profound Alleluia’: Encouraging the People’s Song,” is full of more excellent suggestions for facilitating more-robust congregational singing, and Chapter 4, “‘Some Demand a Driving Beat’: Contemporary Worship Music,” is the best argument for a Archboth/and approach to worship music I’ve ever encountered–rendered all the more gracious when you realize Wren is as “traditional” a church musician (organist, classical hymn composer) as you will find.  For more on the subject of how architecture impacts worship, see my colleague Mark Torgerson’s An Architecture of Immanence: Architecture for Worship and Ministry Today.

The Lord be with you!

Coming next week, Lord willing: Grace for the worshiper.

About Warren Anderson

Emmaus Road Worshipers is written by Dr. Warren Anderson, Director of the Demoss Center for Worship in the Performing Arts at Judson University (Elgin, Ill.), where he also directs the Judson University Choir. A Judson alumnus, he has served his alma mater in a number of capacities over the past 30+ years, especially the chapel ministry, which he led for 22 years. From 1982-2016, Dr. Anderson served six different churches--American Baptist (X2), Converge, Evangelical Free Church of America, Roman Catholic, and United Methodist--as a "weekend warrior" worship musician/pastor. He is a former member of the editorial board of Worship Leader magazine. The views expressed in this blog are not necessarily the views of Judson University.
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