Reflection #22 on Worship in the Contemporary American Church

This is post number 22 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 #22: Evangelical churches do a much better job of greeting incoming newcomers than when I was growing up, but what other things might be feasible where hospitality in worship is concerned?

Contemporary American evangelical churches, more often than not, do a fabulous job greeting folks as they enter the doors on Saturday night and Sunday morning.  As my wife and I have traveled Chicagoland the past two years, visiting churches where current and former students serve in worship ministry, rare has been the occasion when we weren’t welcomed warmly at the door by relaxed, smiling greeters whose sole responsibility is to offer a safe and pleasant entry for all, but especially guests.  Churches now have greeting committees, hospitality teams, and other groups designed to make the church-going experience as pleasant as can be at the onset.

ArendsAll this is great, but what else might make those who attend our services as visitors feel more welcomed?  Carolyn Arends gave some suggestions in an article for Christianity Today a few years ago entitled “Hospitality Sweet.”  I quote it at length because she captures the practical through the prism of the theological, always a good strategy.

Robert Webber was the first person I heard speak about hospitality in the context of worship.  He told a story about attending an unfamiliar church while traveling.  About half of the church members constituted the choir, sitting up front in the loft.  When it was time to sing, the choir director turned to the congregation and took the time to teach each parishioner his part, going over the soprano, alto, tenor, and bass lines until everyone knew what to do.  Webber claimed that in the course of the opening song, guided by a choir at the front, he went from being a stranger to someone who belonged.  He knew exactly how to enter into that community’s worship, because he had been taught his part in it.

“In the church,” Webber concluded, “singing is hospitality.”

I’ve been in churches where the singing (not to mention the praying and preaching) is impressive and professional, but not hospitable.  Those services have been more of a show than a family reunion, more a presentation than a meal together at a life-giving table.  They have been effective to a point, but they haven’t held a candle to hospitable churches that use every resource available (from the church’s architecture to its care in establishing and teaching its liturgies in any style) to make each person included and sure of her part.

Hospitality matters because every time we worship together, we are drawn not only into our particular community, but also into the community of angels and saints who are always praising God.  Even better, we are being reminded that we are included in the circle of fellowship between the Father, Son, and Spirit.  The Son is the true worship leader who helps us express our thanks to the Father, the phenomenally hospitable God who invites us to make ourselves at home with him.

Church is powerful when it embodies this inclusion. . . . becom[ing] the home away from home where we offer each other a place to reunite, be fed, commune, wash, rest, and receive what we need for the road.

I can relate.  I grew up Low Church, by and large, and even with a doctorate in worship studies, and even having sung for a couple of years as a paid soloist in a Catholic parish’s choir, my default setting features variations on the two-fold worship theme (music and message).  As much as I love and appreciate “liturgy” (colloquially defined), I don’t experience it as frequently as I experience “three Tomlins and a Redman” (in the words of author/worship leader Aaron Niequist) and a 45-minute message.  (See the previous post for more on this.)

So when I worship in High(er) Church settings, I love it when the worship facilitator takes just a moment to explain what’s going on or what’s to come–from the Anglican priest leading worship with a congregation full of doctoral students several years ago to the Lutheran pastor putting worship into context for a whole slew of mostly Low(er) Church Judson University Choir members on our winter tour a week ago.  And I am always blessed when the worship leader at Chicagoland’s best-attended monthly Taizé worship service stands in front of the hundreds assembled 10 minutes before the service to rehearse the more difficult choral parts–and to give us a taste of what it all will sound like when the soloist offers a descant on top of our singing.  (Lest you think this concept doesn’t apply in contemporary worship contexts, the worship leader at the very-contemporary church my wife and I visited yesterday did a fabulous job with hospitality during a prolonged worship set that featured an unusual congregational object lesson with bags and faux-candle luminaries that was illuminating both literally and figuratively/spiritually.)

Worship leaders, the Lord be with you as you seek to bring everyone into the worship experience with your hospitable choices!

Coming next week (Lord willing): Pastoral burnout.

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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