A few weeks ago I wrote about my sermon preparation process and shared that my next post would be about sharing a sermon in worship. I want to change that a bit and simply share about what it is like to guide the people of God in worship, of which sharing a sermon is a part. Just a word of warning…this might be a bit lengthy…
First, what is happening when we worship? The temptation is often to feel that the congregation (those in the pews) are the audience and those up front (liturgist, preacher, musicians, etc) are the leaders. But when we have that perspective, where is God in it all?
Philosopher and theological Søren Kierkegaard shared the perfect description for what worship is supposed to be. He felt that worship is like a reversed drama. The people gathered (congregation) are akin to the ones on stage in a drama, the musicians, preachers, liturgist, etc are the prompters (or guides as I like to call them), and God is the audience. This way of experiencing and understanding worship turns the whole thing around in a new way.
So for me, as a guide in worship, my role is to try to direct people not to me or to what I am sharing but instead that people are directed to God. Same goes for any other person guiding in worship, be they musicians or liturgist or any other role. It is for this reason that, if you stand next to me during a song or hymn, you may hear me changing the lyrics of the song on the fly. I don’t like just singing “about” God but when I am singing, I want to be singing TO God! I would much rather lift up, “Great ARE YOU God!” rather than “God is great!” Both make powerful statements but one is being directed at the audience of our worship – God. I encourage you to try it sometime in worship – see how it feels and see how it changes your experience of what happens in worship.
It is for this reason that as a preacher, the best thing I can hear back from people right after a service or in the days to follow is something of how someone heard or felt the Spirit through some part of the service. Yes the aspects of worship can be enjoyable but hearing the ways that a song, an anthem, a prayer, the sacraments, or the sermon drew you closer to God – that’s the greatest thing.
So personally, as one helping to prompt or guide worship, I simply have to say that is is an honor and privilege to have this role. I am not the mediator between God and people, but I am hopefully helping people see, hear, experience, and know God in more vital and real ways. That is a true gift to be able to be in this place. It is a humbling thing to take the bread and break it, reminding us all of Jesus’ great love and sacrifice. It is a deep joy to baptize a person speaking both in word and in action of God’s cleansing grace. To try, in a time of prayer, to connect the different pieces of our individual lives with the larger work of God in the world, is a beautiful thing. I’d love to speak of what it is like to guide the musical aspects of worship but that is far from one of my gifts, so I’ll leave that to people like Toni and Max!
But about preaching specifically…I asked one of my mentors while I was in my ordination process about how he felt each Sunday when he preached because he always seemed so calm and collected when he got up to share. Dr Barnes replied that he was always some measure of nervous before he shared because he was going before people to help interpret God’s Word for the people – something that should never be taken lightly. I have also come to recognize that while I have a plan (hopefully one that I feel God has helped guide and direct throughout the week) that there are times that the Spirit truly takes over when I am sharing. As a preacher, my role is to be a vessel for the Spirit to speak. That doesn’t mean that I haven’t prepared, studied, refined, practiced, etc but instead that there is an openness to the ongoing “new thing” that God is doing.
And that “new things” happens even as the sermon is being preached (or liturgy is being shared). I know that the congregation is watching me, but I am also watching you. I am trying to read you as well – what seems to be connecting, what feels like it is falling flat. What is happening when we worship is not one-way. There is a living dynamic that is moving when we gather for worship and so as a guide for worship, I try to draw upon what I am receiving from the congregation in worship. A friend of mine who was taught in the African-American preaching tradition once said, “saying Amen to a preacher is like saying sic’em to a dog!” This isn’t just about responding with Amens in worship (although I am not opposed to that by any means) but about how the energy in worship has a powerful dynamic that is tied to not only the Holy Spirit, not only the ones “up front” but also every person gathered.
Finally, what each person experiences in worship is different and unique. Not every person will experience worship in the same way. No one sermon will connect with everyone. No piece of music will speak deeply to each heart. And even when I think I know what people will take away from a sermon or a service, I am often surprised by how the Spirit speaks in new ways. I am grateful for each way that the Spirit speaks regardless of whether it was exactly as I expected or it was something totally new. That is the energetic, life-giving, dynamic, moving, and beautiful thing about worship.