Sunday, June 6, 2010

Assertive Worship

In the last two out-of-town worship services I attended I was brought up short by the assertiveness of the congregation.

When it came time for the responses back and forth between the leader and the people, the people were outspoken in the best sense of the word. They spoke firmly and gave the impression they knew what they were saying and it was really important enough to be heard.

The unison prayers were not mumbled through, but offered with confidence that they needed to be said and would be graciously heard by the Almighty. Even for the Lord’s Prayer, the people’s voices filled the hall as though it were a declaration of faith as much as a prayer.

When a prayer was vocalized by the leader, calling for a congregational “amen,” the response was said as though folks knew what it meant.

If the people spoke affirmatively, they sang equally as well. Hymns were sung out fully. If not everyone was exactly on pitch and some not even close, nevertheless the music was sung with considerable verve and zest. Some of the people around me even seemed to enjoy singing the hymns.

I must confess this really wowed me. I wasn’t used to such assertiveness by a congregation. Too often my experience, both as pew-sitter and worship leader, has been that folks just don’t get into worship like that. Most of the time they seem to mumble, or speak in hushed quiet tones. Unison prayers often have the sound of a gentle rumble. And if there is an “amen,” it’s barely above a whisper.

I wondered how this congregational assertiveness was accomplished in these two places, and yet was so foreign to most of the churches I usually attend. One reason, I’m sure, was that they were large churches with lots of people there—sheer numbers helped up the volume. But that didn’t really account for the assertiveness, the enthusiasm I heard and saw around me.

So I wondered if somehow the people in charge of worship, clergy and musicians and others, took the time to train the congregation. I could imagine the presiding clergyperson standing up at the beginning of the service and announcing: “This morning, friends, we’re going to learn how to say “amen” at the end of prayers…,” thence proceeding to give instructions about speaking forth firmly. It’s an idea worth pondering and perhaps trying from time to time, just to see if it makes any difference.

Maybe they sang hymns well because somebody got up in front of them and taught them how. It’s not an unreasonable possibility. Congregations take to new hymns reluctantly, but if they are educated a bit, they might come to enjoy singing again.

Even if no education or training formally took place in those churches where I was, there’s another thing that I’m sure did happen—the leaders led. They took part in the worship service as they expected everyone to take part—they were not just good examples, but they led the way.

When the worship leader speaks out the unison prayer, and does so with meaningful inflections, the people are encouraged to do the same. When the choir members (and clergy) sing the hymns with enthusiasm, it’s more likely that the people will do the same.

Common worship should be done at full enough voice so everyone knows they are worshipping with a community of people. Public worship (and what we do in church on Sunday mornings is, among other things, a public witness) needs to be said in such a way that everyone within hearing distance knows that in our prayers and our songs, our faith is asserted, affirmed, avowed, declared and professed.

How assertive is your congregation? What could be done to help worshippers worship more zealously?

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