Thursday, May 07, 2009

The Narrative of Worship, Part II

In Part 1, I described what narrative worship is, and where the process of designing narrative worship starts. Here I'm going to give you a practical example.

In September of 2007, I had the chance to lead worship for Santa Barbara Free Methodist Church. The text for the week was the parable of the lost sheep, and our pastor intended to ponder the question, "How lost is too lost?"

So I asked the worship team to ponder this question: what is it look and feel like when we are aware we are lost? We spent the week as a team sharing our experiences of wandering, reflecting on how God had come to find us when we had gone so far away. The story of the Prodigal Son seemed to fit many of our own experiences, to be a parallel to the text for the week. We thought about what it meant to be a long way off from God, to return.

We asked that, contrary to our usual practice, that people remain seated or kneel, to enact where we start when we return to God: kneeling in contrition, or sitting in refection

Then we began with a reading from the voices of the Prophets:
Leader 1: We all like sheep have gone astray...
Leader 2: ...people lost in the Darkness...
Leader 1: ...Everyone to our own way

1: Even now, Declares the Lord, return to me with all your heart
2: Rend your hearts, and not your garments
1: Return to the Lord your God for he is gracious and compassionate

Leader 3: (Will you respond in this call to worship--) As the deer pants for streams of water, so my soul longs for you, my God
Congregation: Lord Jesus, our hearts can find no rest until they rest in you
And we began singing "Hungry, I come to you for I know you satisfy..." Our next song, Come ye Sinners, invited us to move from contrition to action, from the awareness of our need to the promise of God's sustenance. We did this by using the traditional minor-key hymn tune for the first two verses, and segued to the major-key version written by Robbie Seay. During the segue, we read this text, from Psalm 51:

Generous in love—God, give grace!
You have all the facts before you;
whatever you decide about me is fair.
I've been out of step with you for a long time,
in the wrong since before I was born.
Going through the motions doesn't please you,
a flawless performance is nothing to you.
I learned God-worship
when my pride was shattered.
Heart-shattered lives ready for love don't
for a moment escape God's notice.
What you're after is truth from the inside out.
Enter me, then; conceive a new, true life.
God, make a fresh start in me,
shape a Genesis week from the chaos of my life.

And as we sang the chorus/refrain after the third verse ("I will arise and go to Jesus...") we invited people to stand. We finished with Chris Tomlin's Holy is the Lord ("We stand and lift up our hands...") and Your Grace is Enough. Musically, these songs move from mellow and reflective to driving and jubilant. Lyrically, we sequence the songs to match our bodily posture, going from sitting or on our knees in confession to standing and lifting our hands at the celebration of God's all-sufficient grace.

There are all sorts of ways to bring narrative structure to a worship gathering. As in the example above, you can consider the content of the message and build a narrative around that. A number of weeks ago, I structured our whole Sunday morning gathering using Psalm 40 as a template (and singing the U2 song of the same name as an opener and closer). For our church's recent Good Friday service, I used the classic Seven Last Words of Christ in a tenebrae service, darkening the room with each reading. The point is to listen to the story before you, structuring your story around that.

One more thing to consider: the more willing you are to treat the liturgy as a living tradition and not a script set in stone, the more freedom you have to arrange and re-invent elements for the gathering, and the more vital I believe your storytelling can be. If you don't follow a formal liturgy, you miss the benefit of being formed by the work of generations of saints before you, of the larger communion of the body of Christ. Worship is then only what you invent yourself. (See Jodi-Renee Adam's recent post for more thoughts about this.) Other other hand, if the liturgy becomes a formula, a law, then you miss the reason it came into being in the first place: to structure worship gatherings in a way that forms us into the story of God. To re-use a phrase of Jesus: the liturgy was made for man, not man for liturgy.

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