The Red Couch: The Next Worship Discussion

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In the early stages of dating, I invited my now husband to come along with me and another of our friends to a Taize service held monthly at a local Franciscan Friary. The service, shaped by meditative silence, prayer, and chants was one I attended regularly. It was a change of pace from the more contemporary charismatic service that shaped the worship of our local church. After the service closed we made our way back to the car. Enfolded in a pensive quiet, the words of Veni Sancte Spiritus hanging in the air around us, when suddenly Jacob blurted out: “I think I like the idea of silence, more than I actually like silence.” My friend and I locked gazes for a moment, then the three of us collapsed into a fit of laughter.

His response was not really surprising. We are very different people, and worship is one of many spaces where we find ourselves drawn in different directions. I tend toward more formal, contemplative spaces – liturgy, symbols, meditative silence. He is drawn to more informal spaces, where there is lots of music and room for emotive responses and dialogue. Additionally, we come from vastly different socio-economic and ethnic/cultural backgrounds. It is not surprising that our preferences for expressing our spirituality are so diverse.

Something about his candid response at that moment though has left its imprint on me. So often we can be intellectually committed or open to an idea, but when we find ourselves immersed in its reality, resistance raises its head. We like the idea far more than we enjoy what living into that reality requires of us. This is the challenge that lies at the heart of The Next Worship: Glorifying God in a Diverse World. Throughout the book, Sandra Marie Van Opstal seems acutely aware that the greatest barrier to creating diverse worship is not convincing others that it is valuable or necessary. Instead, it is ensuring that people have the skills to keep leaning into the process when it becomes uncomfortable.

Van Opstal describes the movement toward diverse worship as an awkward dinner party. The temptation is to leave as soon as possible for the comfort of the familiar. However, if we are unwilling to ride out the discomfort the experience will never move beyond that, and we miss the opportunity to build new relationships and experiences with the other dinner guests. As Van Opstal notes, this is particularly challenging in our time, where choices are driven primarily by our personal preferences over other considerations.

However, as Van Opstal drives home, worship while intimate and personal is not solely a vehicle for personal expression – it is also formative: “as we gather together we come as we are, but we should leave different from how we came.” The formative goal of worship is not limited to our personal spirituality, but to communal formation – in worship, we enact the vision of a diverse body functioning in perfect unity. As the words of a familiar communion liturgy expresses, as we gather in worship “we become what we receive, the body of Christ.”

Embracing the challenge of becoming that body, will require us to move beyond our instinctive desire for what feels authentic and comfortable and towards an expression of worship which pushes our boundaries. Like making new friends there will be awkwardness, and times when our communication doesn’t land. But if we are willing to commit to being formed by it, we will find both our understanding and connection with God and others expands in profound ways, as we are shaped by the stories and priorities of those different from us.

One of the things I appreciate about Van Opstal’s approach is her willingness to embrace the complexity and difficulty of creating diverse worship spaces. She does not attempt to offer a neat and tidy plan which can easily be followed. Instead, she presents questions which she invites the reader to wrestle with within their own unique contexts. This is not a book of one-stop answers, but a book which invites the reader into a conversation where they can bring their own insight to the table.

Van Opstal stresses the need for approaching worship in a holistic way. Creating diverse worship is not simply a matter of who we see or what songs we sing – though these things do matter. They are just the beginning, not an endpoint if we are committed to creating truly inclusive spaces which elevate and esteem a variety of voices. In her words:

“Our desire to include others and embrace them for who they are is communicated in our worship practices. If biblical reconciliation calls us to welcome one another, stand with one another, and depend on one another, how are we communicating this through our worship?”

For Van Opstal, answering this question requires us to consider the whole of our worship: Not just what we sing but how and when we sing. Not just the words we pray, but how and when we pray. Not just who we see, but who we empower to influence how worship is shaped and structured.

All aspects of our Sunday worship––the kinds of instruments we use, the way we pray, how we share communion together, all of these different elements reflect our cultural narratives and preferences. Worship which models biblical justice will share power in ways which allow a variety of different cultural gifts and narratives not simply to bring their gifts to the table, but to shape the table around which we gather. As Van Opstal points out, the form of our worship along with its content reflects and shapes our theology. Therefore we must ask ourselves:

What does our Sunday worship gathering communicate about God and others?

Whose voices are excluded or marginalized in our worship spaces?

How are we creating space for the vision of God’s people to be realized?

Embracing the kind of change that Van Opstal envisions is extraordinarily challenging. She is both enthusiastic and realistic, cautioning that change should be approached with care and respect. If we want people to follow us into the next worship, we need to develop a plan that will empower people to embrace the discomfort that comes with change and to find their place within it.

Questions for Reflection:

Van Opstal challenges the common demand for authenticity in worship, instead stressing that spiritual formation requires us to enter uncomfortable spaces that don’t feel natural for us. How do you feel about the challenge she presents? Do you agree or disagree with her point of view?

In what ways has The Next Worship inspired you to think differently about worship in your local church context?

In August we’ll be reading This is Not a Border: Reportage and Reflection from the Palestinian Festival of Literature over in our Facebook group. In September we’ll be discussing No Other Gods: The Politics of the Ten Commandments by Ana Levy-Lyons right here. Join our Facebook group for discussions and deeper resources.

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Melissa Powell
Tēnā koutou e hoa ma, ngā mihi nui ki a koutou katoa. (Hello friends, warm greetings to everyone.) My name is Melissa and I live in Auckland, New Zealand. I live with my family - my husband Jacob (Ngāti Porou, Ngāti Whātua) and our two daughters. We live in the shadow of Maungakiekie (aka One Tree Hill), the second largest of Auckland's many dormant volcanoes. Though its rumbling belly has long been quiet, the marks of its origins live on in the rich fertile soil on which we have made our home. We live in Onehunga, one of Auckland's most ethnically and socially diverse communities and have been engaged in community ministry here for the past 10 years. After 12 years in pastoral ministry I am currently taking a break to complete my Masters in Theology at Carey Graduate School. I am passionate about languages and stories and the way we tell them.
Melissa Powell
Melissa Powell

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Melissa Powell