Lesson 3: How can we make worship meaningful?
How can we make worship meaningful and important?
– Marcus Hong
“Remember, we’re ants.”
A few years ago, I was practicing a new song with the seven teens who made up our worship band. The guitarists couldn’t stay in rhythm and the vocalists were off pitch. If I worked with the singers, the guitarists would play a bluesy lick with their amps turned up to eleven. If I coached the bassist, the vocalists would start talking, loudly, about a movie they were dying to see. One person left to pop a bag of popcorn. We were all frustrated.
I brought everyone back together. “Remember, we’re ants.”
We had decided on this metaphor earlier in the year while writing a covenant together. We were talking about pointing to God and not ourselves in worship leadership. Someone, maybe my shaggy-haired rhythm guitarist, said, “We’re like ants, telling other ants where to find food.” The image stuck.
Some creatures use pheromones to mark territory. Others use them to attract a mate. Ants use them to leave a trail so that other ants in the colony can find food. Some musicians use their talents to make their mark. Others use them to gain fans. Worship leaders, we decided, use our talents to help others find God. Of course, like ants, we can’t leave a trail to somewhere we’ve never been ourselves. Worship is meaningful when we can share with others our encounters with God and make space for them to encounter God for themselves.
I use the word “meaningful” intentionally. I’ve grown wary of talking about making worship “excellent.” Excellence is good, but striving for it can often lead to white-washed-tomb worship — beautiful on the outside, empty on the inside. Instead, I’ve grown to love talking about worship as something meaningful — something that helps convey what God means to us; something that helps us make meaning of our lives.
I cannot pretend to offer a foolproof formula for making worship meaningful. Some days our attention will wander and we will leave empty. What I can offer are two themes that I’ve found running through the many communities in which I’ve worshipped and served, themes that may help you discover how to make worship meaningful in your own context.
- Hospitality and Simplicity. The brothers of the Community at Taizé in France are some of the most hospitable worshippers I know. They started their life together as a group of four young men committed to reconciliation after the Second World War. Slowly, and surprisingly, they began to welcome hundreds of young people. At first they worried that this would disrupt their close-knit community. Yet they were committed to being hospitable. They began making changes. Along with a few musicians, they composed short chants that could be sung easily by people who spoke different languages. They moved out of a little old church with brilliant acoustics and into a large building. They tore down the back wall of that building when even it could not contain the thousands who now come weekly during the summer. Each week, they adapt their repertoire to whoever comes. The week I was there, we sang mostly in Russian and German.
At the same time, their worship is anything but “easy” or “comfortable.” No one stands up front to lead. They sit in silence for an extended, uncomfortable amount of time. A few benches line the walls, but most people, including the brothers, kneel on a hard concrete floor, barely buffered by a thin carpet.
Still, a sense of hospitality pervades their worship. They want to share their encounter with God. For Brother Roger, the founder of Taizé, two themes go hand in hand: hospitality and simplicity. In the community’s foundational text, The Sources of Taizé, he writes,
“Do not start worrying if you have very little to share: such weak faith, so few belongings. In the sharing of that little, God fills your heart to overflowing….So little is needed to welcome others. Having many possessions is a hindrance rather than a help to a wider communion… Simplify in order to live intensely… And then, even with very little, your inventive imagination will succeed in creating beauty around you.” (1)
I don’t think hospitality in worship means making everything somehow relevant or watering things down for broad accessibility, or serving high quality coffee and transforming hard pews into comfy couches. It might mean all of these things. Or it might mean having everyone kneel on a concrete floor in silence. Mostly it means, as Brother Roger insists, “put[ting] into practice right away the little [of the gospel] I have grasped.” (2) Hospitality means sharing the crumbs of your simple encounters with God, confident that God will use a couple loaves and a few fish to nourish the thousands hungry for Christ’s presence.
- Honesty. When worship has been most meaningful for me, I have often found myself in the midst of others who were worshipping with honesty. They were not trying to impress. They did not all use the latest technology. They didn’t necessarily sing the current hit on the Christian radio charts. The people prayed because they knew things would fall apart if they didn’t. They sang with full lungs because they knew the songs by heart. They greeted newcomers not because they were worried about declining membership, but because they were glad that someone else had come to experience the presence of God that they had found in this place, with these people.
As liturgical theologian Don Saliers insists, in worship, God comes to us vulnerably in Jesus Christ and we come to God with all of our “pathos, the reality of human life, our daily struggle to make sense of longings, hopes, fears, joys….participation in the liturgy requires our humanity at full stretch.” (3) Or, as Brother Roger put it, perhaps worship will remain meaningful when we come willing to
“commit everything to [Jesus], with the heart of a child. Abandon yourself to him. Entrust to him all that goes against your heart or upsets your plans; pray for your opponent. And sometimes even go so far as to cry out your pain, when trials abound. Dare to use blunt, strong language: he understands it, even if others cannot. Entrust to him now and always whatever disturbs and torments you. And, keep silence in his presence. Then, little by little, the praise of his love becomes the only thing that matters. Play within me, organs and zithers. Flutes, sing in me. Soft sounds and jubilant music, all together, let nothing stop the indispensable praise of his love.” (4)
Remember, we’re ants.
(1) Brother Roger of Taizé, The Sources of Taize: No Greater Love (London: Continuum International Publishing Group Ltd., 2000), 18.
(2) Marcello Fidanzio, ed. Brother Roger of Taize: Essential Writings (Maryknoll, NY: Orbis Books, originally Ateliers et Presses de Taizé, 2006), 58.
(3) Don E. Saliers, Worship as Theology: Foretaste of Glory Divine (Nashville, TN: Abingdon Press, 1994), 27-8.
(4) Fidanzio, Essential Writings, 106.
Marcus Hong is a child of God and a cultivator of worship, a writer, learner, teacher, musician, and PhD student in Christian Education and Formation at Princeton Theological Seminary. Born in the foothills of the rugged Rocky Mountains, Marc now lives in New Jersey with his wife Sarah and their precocious children.
Gathering and Opening Prayer (5 minutes)
Logistics and Organizational Topics (5-10 minutes)
Training Time (20 minutes)
- Who has ever felt that worship is boring? Why,or when?
- Watch Video together
- What do you find meaningful about worship?
- Tell a story about a time when you experienced worship and wanted others to share in
- What do you think of Marcus’ thoughts on simplicity?
- What are you doing yourself to make worship less boring?
Take aways (10 minutes)
- How will this impact our church, our youth, or our team?
- Hand out essay for further reading
Close in Prayer (5 minutes)