“The worship which is pleasing to God is offered by his people together, who have assembled in order to do so. Our Reformers understood the implications of this principle, namely that everybody should participate. Whereas the medieval mass was celebrated by the priest at the high altar, and the lay people were spectators, the Reformers deliberately brought the action down from the chancel to the nave and ensured that the lay people were not merely spectators but participants” (John Stott, The Living Church, IVP: 2007, p38).
How might this inform our modern Protestant worship gatherings? We may not celebrate mass, but are we guilty of locating worship in the chancel (i.e. on the stage) all the same? Can we truly call our gatherings participatory, or are we merely spectators of a different kind?
In my humble experience, excessively accompanied praise bands/teams tend to drown out congregational singing. My attention is drawn to the “worship” of those on stage rather than the voices of my brothers and sisters. I’m all for a variety of instrumentation (something for which we’re praying at our church!), but keep it simple. Make sure the instruments supplement, not dominate, congregational singing. They should help the church sing better, not make the songs sound louder.
In my humble experience, busy services tend to locate worship on stage more than in the Spirit. I know there’s pressure to accommodate our services to our short-attention spans. Keep it movin’, or you’ll lose ’em. I wonder if doing so makes worship about the zippy pace on stage rather than the Spirit’s pace in the heart.
In my humble experience, excessively-used screens encourage worship “watching” rather than participating. I’m all for a screen (something for which we’re hoping at our church!). It helps people sing robustly with their heads up. But when everything is on it we become lazy spectators. We’re not obliged to flip our own Bible pages or help our neighbor find Haggai. We just simply look “up there” and voila, there it is. No participation or personal responsibility.
In my humble experience, the above with their various sister elements detract from the preaching. In preaching we are commanded to engage our hearts and souls in the exposition of Scripture. It is the “foolish” focal point of the church’s gathering. Paul loved songs, hymns and spiritual songs in their proper place, but when he entered town he didn’t organize a cantata or direct a skit. He preached. We must discipline our minds to enter into the hearing of God’s word, which God has ordained for that moment to benefit our growth in godliness.
If typically everything else in “worship” is done for me “up there,” then I’m less inclined to participate in the sermon. Instead, the preacher has a few minutes to serve up something easy or else I’m gone to Carolina in my mind. Keep it snappy or I take a nappy (okay, that’s corny).
How steeped are we in (to use Stott’s language) chancel-centric worship? Just imagine what your congregation would do if your song leader didn’t lead from the stage. Would they know what to do? Would they sing with less enthusiasm? Do they expect to be performed to or share in what God has performed in Christ?
We’ve done a few things in our congregational worship to encourage participation rather than spectating. Perhaps they’d spark your own ideas.
1. Our songs are led from the floor, off to the side near the pianist. He’s more heard than seen, and our congregation has learned that we are the choir. Our attention is drawn away from the stage to focus on lyrics before us and voices around us. Our congregational singing has drastically improved.
2. We e-mail our order of worship to the church by Friday afternoon. Not everyone reads it, but hopefully more and more will. This gives the whole church time to contemplate the songs, Scripture readings, sermon text, etc. When we gather we’re less dependent on a stagehand to tell us what to do next. Rather, we’re already prepared and can help each other through the service.
3. We keep our services intentionally simple. There’s just no busyness with people up, down and around. Perhaps we’re regulative principle-with-a-small-r folks. Prayer, reading, singing, preaching, (monthly) communion. One, we don’t have a wide array of artsy folks to do much else. Two, we don’t want our worship to be swallowed up by the service. While some may equate simplicity with boring, we could not disagree more strongly.
4. We encourage children to sit in congregational worship as early and as much as possible. There’s nothing like children to keep the gathering participatory. They’ve not yet learned the fine art of our pious formality. We should help them sing the church’s songs, listen for certain words and train their minds towards the preaching text (all of which we know because we’ve gotten the order ahead of time!).
I doubt any of this may be relevant to you. But maybe there are a few boring folks out there who may empathize.