Sustainable Worship


How was church this morning? Was it awesome?

Much church life and worship uses the high-test emotional model to fuel everything. Every Sunday the ‘praise and worship’ time is supposed to be awesome, and diving in full speed with full emotion and excitement (or seriousness depending on the songs) is seen as the true ideal for authentic worshippers. Everyone should be like that, all the time. Preaching is considered best when it dazzles, and fellowship is only good if the interactions are highly authentic, totally open, and deeply personal. Programs are judged, often, by the amount of moving stories that are later told. And though I love to see people set free to express their personalities and the emotions of their worship, I wonder if expecting a constant high level is really ideal for the whole community the whole time, Sunday after Sunday. Aren’t some weeks just bummer weeks?


Why not take a more “sustainable” approach? The word ‘sustainability’ is associated with energy use, but it could be used in terms of worship forms. The idea is that when we are building community and planning worship, we should be taking an approach which considers the ability of human beings to sustain high emotional levels. This sounds more scientific than I mean it to be, but really its about treating people like human beings and not angels. We people have a limit to our ability to sustain high emotional levels, don’t we?

My own tradition, Anglicanism, has been called the least sentimental of the reformed and Protestant churches. And I think that is often misunderstood to mean cold or ritualistic. But I’ve found Anglican worship to be deeply moving, and though it is filled with reverence and soberness, it is also filled with wonder, joy, and loud shouts of “Alleluia!” But the emotive part of our worship, perhaps due to an English sensibility, is channeled into sustainable patterns, cycles, and seasons. There is a kind of built in calmness, not to be mistaken for apathy or emotionlessness. And I wonder if that is why I’m starting to question why we all still use bursts of emotion as our litmus test instead of looking at the long term depth of the knowledge of the love of Christ in the parishes.

And this is borne out by Scripture. If you read between the lines, you find that periods of revival are followed by long “mundane” periods. And St Paul, while fanning the flames of faith in Corinth, seems also to be settling everyone down and encouraging a more structured, ordered pattern. And this everyday pattern, if open to the needed flashes of fire, can be a more long-term approach.

We’ve treated worship and church life as if anything less than total excitement and emotion is a problem. My sense is that this is not a sustainable expectation, and it causes burnout. I think that we have often placed the unrealistic and unhelpful burden on folks to be “on” all the time.

The majority of our time in life is not spent in a high emotive state and that many serious, pious, and devoted Christians are also non-sentimental people. We simply can’t sustain high emotions forever, and we can’t impose it.

We can let worship be worship. That is, we could stop looking for the responses of the worshippers as the focus, and instead focus on blessing the God whom we worship, regardless of our feelings at the moment, high, low, or in between. We could celebrate the variety of personalities involved in a congregation gathering around the throne of God. And this really does involve and call forth our emotion, but in a more sustainable way. The Prayer Book helps us do this, if we let it.

I hesitate to say this, but maybe in our zeal to raise emotional levels, we are going for the glitz while missing out on the substance. Long term Prayer Book guided worship can lead to deeper levels of emotional attachment and sentiment towards Christ and his church. If we aren’t overdoing it in trying to drum up excitement, perhaps we can create space for people to listen and hear better. I hate to use a pop psychology phrase, but just maybe, given emotional space, folks will “get in touch” with their true emotions, rather than mimicking an expected ideal. And in being given this space, perhaps the various personalities and expressions will harmonize into a beautiful picture of the New Jerusalem.

originally posted at Bull Street Blog, adapted for use here.

Published on

May 22, 2013


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