Few of us give much thought to entering worship. On most Sundays, we consider ourselves fortunate to get out of bed, locate suitable clothing, swallow some coffee, and glance at the newspaper before scrambling out the door, driving to church, and sliding into the pew in time for the prelude. Add children, a partner, a spouse, or out-of-town guests to the mix, and the minimal goal of arriving in time for the first hymn may be the best one can do. At this pace, we might finally feel centered enough to “enter” worship toward the end of the sermon, or maybe not until the final hymn.
We do deserve some credit: by gathering for worship weekly, we demonstrate that worship matters to us; we want the worship of God to be part of our lives. Yet it is difficult for worship to be a full and fulfilling part of our lives, let alone its life-giving core, if we do not allow adequate preparation time. We will not be able to listen for God’s voice if we do not take time to make ourselves ready.
Preparing for worship entails three steps: slowing down, making a transition, and warming up. If we play an instrument, we set aside time before we perform for playing scales or other preparatory exercises. If we play a sport, dance, or practice yoga, we take time to warm up, elevate our heart rate, and stretch properly. These preparations help us make the most of our practice or performance because they help us move our focus from other parts of life to the activity at hand so that we can engage in it more fully. Worship demands this same preparation.
Slowing down must start with the pace we establish on Sunday mornings before we arrive at church. It starts with the pace of our morning routine—the kind of music we listen to, the way we have breakfast, the tasks we try to accomplish. Rushing around on Sunday mornings and arriving barely in time will prevent us from making the transition, warming up, and entering worship well. All people who gather for worship need to prepare—not just the presiders, choir directors, or worship leaders. All of us can benefit from slowing our Sunday pace. Even when worship is lively and joyous, with upbeat music and a fast-paced flow, we will still benefit by starting slowly and with calm and turning our focus toward the one whom we worship.
Our preparation for worship demands that we make a transition: we recognize that worship is not separate from our daily lives, that it is a special event within the patterns of life. We move from self-directed, outward-focused activity to a time of structured and active listening and openness to God’s presence and guidance. As a special event, worship is liminal: it names and addresses the “limits” of our lives, where the edges of our ordinary lives meet the limitless reality of God. Like a child on a swing, we are most of the time in the safe middle, comfortably moving through daily pleasures and aggravations. But sometimes we are pushed to our limits. Then the swing is no longer safe or comfortable, and we experience birth, death, grief, or ecstatic joy.
Because worship can name and address these limits, it can be a powerful experience. We may be moved to tears during worship as the hymns and prayers touch our sadness, loneliness, or anxiety. We may become angry during worship because the word from God we hear in Scripture touches us to the core and exposes the ways we have been harmed or wounded. We may be transported to a state of great joy, even ecstasy, during worship as we experience the good news of God’s grace around the table in the company of our dear companions. In all of these situations, we have bumped into our limits and the power of these limits.
Since worship has the potential to affect us so powerfully, we need to pay adequate attention to our transition time. When we do not take this transition seriously, the power of the grief or anger or joy we experience in worship can be scary and overwhelming. By making transition, we are not trying to control or resist this power, but we are acknowledging that by opening ourselves to God’s word for us, worship may touch us deeply.
If we have not experienced worship’s power, perhaps we need to focus on opening ourselves to God’s call in our transition time. How do we prepare to be touched so deeply? The simple acknowledgment that worship entails a transition from our daily routine (chronos) to a special pattern of being focused on God (kairos) begins the transition, but most of us need to do something more to bring it about. Perhaps on Saturday night or Sunday morning before worship we can take some time to reflect on our week. In a journal, in conversation, or in silent prayer, we bring to mind the hurts and pains, or the causes for celebration that we may bring to worship this week. By reflecting on our weekly experiences, we become more aware of what we need to let go of and offer to God. We become aware of how God might be calling us to something new, whether a relationship, a job, or a role. We become aware of what we need to celebrate, what we are thankful for, why we are offering God our praise.
In this transition we depart from the routine of our daily lives and enter a different pattern. The more attention we give to making this transition, the more natural it becomes. Our daily lives and our worship life are flowing into one another: we are bringing into our lives what we do on Sunday mornings, and what we do on Sunday mornings affects and drives what we do during the week. Moving from being alone or with a small circle of loved ones to being with our family of faith and greeting one another as we enter the church building completes our transition from every day to special day and begins our warm-up, getting us ready to worship.
Our warm-up begins when we approach and enter our common worship location. In some congregations people greet one another before the worship service in a narthex or other room where there may be refreshments provided over which people can meet and reconnect. Some of us attend a Christian education class or a music rehearsal before worship. All of us are worship participants, and we all need to warm up.
At the appropriate time, we make our way to the sanctuary. We get the things we will need for worship: a printed order of worship, perhaps a hymnal or a songbook. Children may select some crayons and a children’s worship bulletin. Perhaps the basket to collect food for the food pantry is in the sanctuary, and of course we have our donation for the offering. We make sure that these are in an accessible place so that we can share them when that moment in worship arrives. In some congregations, we remember our baptism by marking ourselves with water from the baptismal font placed just inside the sanctuary where all will pass. The opening of worship, whether it is an instrumental prelude, a time of silence, or a time of chanting or singing, gives us time to complete our warm-up and ready ourselves to participate fully.
Excerpted fromThe Work of the People: What We Do in Worship and Why, copyright © 2007 by the Alban Institute. All rights reserved. For permission to reproduce go toour permissions form.
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