On Christmas Eve, I had the opportunity to worship with the Missouri Synod Lutheran church that I grew up in. The sanctuary looked virtually the same as it did on December 24, 1970, the first Christmas Eve in that building. The hymnals had changed color since then, but the liturgy inside was identical except for a few “thee’s” and “thou’s” being replaced by “you”. It was the midnight service complete with candlelight, communion, and the choir singing “O Holy Night”. I was anticipating that “ahhhhhhh” feeling … when you’re in familiar surroundings and experiencing holy and traditional rituals that transcend time … and the Holy Spirit comforts that restless child inside you.
Something was wrong. Aside from the glaring “tech” error, when the lights came on during the singing of Silent Night, everything was done, as Presbyterians would say, “decently and in order.” Liturgy was directly out of the worship book, the Pastor chanted (in tune, I might add). The service was spotted with the traditional carols; the choir processed. The traditional Christmas readings from Luke and Isaiah were read, and the pastor preached about royalty being born in a manger. It should have been beautiful. It should have touched my heart … but it didn’t … at least not in the way I expected.
The liturgy was rushed. The organist played the hymns faster and faster with each verse. The sermon lacked imagination. The choir was ill-rehearsed. Communion was perfunctory. Oh, and there was that mistake with the lights, which wouldn’t have been so bad if the pastor hadn’t stopped the communion liturgy to yell at the light guy. *sigh*
I know, this is EXACTLY why pastors and elders get nervous when the Regional Presbyter comes to visit … she’ll see our mistakes! And it’s why pastors often have a hard time worshipping with congregations … we pay too much attention to the details of the “performance” and not enough attention on the One we worship.
I share this story, though, not to complain about my home church or to give you more reason to worry when I show up to worship in your congregation, but to make the distinction between going through the motions of worship and actually worshipping. It’s the difference between “doing church” and “being church.” Just because you’re following the script, doesn’t mean you’re leading worship.
A mentor of mine once criticized my reading of a prayer during worship … it was well-crafted and very appropriate to the context … but, he said, “you read it, you didn’t pray it.” That’s what I was experiencing on Christmas Eve. The worship leaders were saying the right words, but there was no prayerful, heartfelt invitation for the Holy Spirit to show up. There was no real joy, no authentic praise, no genuine awe at the glory of God. The tangibles of worship were all present, but the intangible was absent. Well … not completely absent. I looked around during worship and saw my brother, my sister-in-law, my husband and my nephew … we were all standing in the same pew, lighting our candles, singing our hearts out, remembering our shared past and celebrating our shared faith. Ahhhhhh … O Holy Night, the birth of the Spirit of God.