“Institutionally, worship is primary because without some form of regular worship service, there is no church community. You can have focus groups that talk about how to be a church. You can have lectures that offer new knowledge or prophetic engagement with the issues of the day. You can have religious education classes to teach the doctrines and values of your tradition. You can have social events and fundraisers and parties that build community. You can have service projects and social justice demonstrations that engage people in living out their liberal religious beliefs. However, until you open the doors for public worship, no one in the world, inside our tradition or outside it, is going to identify you as a church.”Wayne Arnason and Kathleen Rolenz, Worship that Works, 2008
Worship is important, and I try to treat it that way. It can be serious, funny, educational, sorrowful, joyful, reflective – at the best of times it is all of those things. I want worship to be as varied as possible because it needs to speak to so many people in so many different places, and in so many different ways. Our services should build on multiple modalities to reach the whole person, using prose, verse, song, ritual, silence, movement – in forms that we are used to and in ways that are new to our understanding.
The worship life of the church should stretch beyond Sunday mornings, by incorporating elements of ritual in events like community dinners, offering tools to engaging ritual at home and in public, marking the solstice/equinox with services, and offering space for public vigils in tragic times. For me, worship is one of the most concrete examples of the Buddhist principles of form and formlessness – ever in tension between having a consistent container and needing to break free to express something new.
I believe that worship needs to be affective to be effective. If we aren’t affected emotionally, then the transformation that we were hoping to achieve with that new story, that new information, that new prophetic call, it just doesn’t happen. To that end I try to tell stories that have affected me, to share new information and invite insights from the stories of the people experiencing them, because stories speak to us most readily.
My internship committee described my sermons as always having both a prophetic and a pastoral effect, trying to comfort folks while simultaneously pushing them towards the growing edges. And they appreciated that I tend to sing a lot in worship, and tell the stories of the songs we’re singing. I’m also committed to diversifying the sources from which we commonly draw, incorporating more music, poetry and readings from people of colour and indigenous folks.
I also like to work very collaboratively with both staff and lay leaders in worship, having experienced a number of really fruitful collaborations with DREs, musicians, puppeteers, DJs and others. In the time for all ages I like to mix it up to meet the kids where they are by telling stories, or having a conversation, doing a science experiment or practicing consent when we hug. Incorporating ritual is also an important part of worship for me, whether we are sharing blessings, creating a beautiful tableau in a flower communion, or lighting candles in the darkness. Rituals are embodying practices and can touch us deeply.
I grew up in a musical house, singing in choirs and playing in a ukelele band (in the mid-80s, long before it was de rigueur), and I’ve lately been slowly picking up the mandolin. My father is a trumpet player, electronic musician and singer who fed me steady doses of jazz and R&B. Making music in community is a profoundly spiritual practice for me, and singing is part of both my walking and sitting meditation.
In worship, the music always feels like the third rail for me, not because it’s dangerous, but because that’s where the emotional energy so often is found. Music can give us a jolt that moves us from where we are, opening us to a new way. In worship, I am always hopeful to strike a balance between the generous blessings of skilled performance and the practice of participation. Westside is gifted with an abundance of music makers and choirs and I am so delighted to collaborate with all of you.
My Desert Island Discs (at least today)
- Henryk Gorecki’s Third Symphony, performed by Dawn Upshaw
- The Neville Brothers, Live at Tipitina’s
- Jurassic 5, In the Flesh
- Ryan Adams, Heartbreaker
- Wes Montgomery, Movin’ Wes