Building the Body of Christ through Renewed Worship (Part 1)
By Cynthia Wilson
Part one of a five-part series for worship leaders.
Passionate, engaging worship of God is the centrally defining characteristic of the Christian life. As The United Methodist Church celebrates the 40th anniversary of its General Commission on the Status and Role of Women (GCSRW) in 2012, it is our prayer that annual conferences and local congregations will take this opportunity to renew their support for the full participation and inclusion of women at all levels of leadership in the church. This resource is designed to equip worship leaders to lead celebrations and renewal events on behalf of all of God’s people and serve as a guide for those who hold responsibility for planning worship in particular faith communities.
This narrative has been created to strengthen and deepen the liturgical planning experiences for pastors, musicians and worship chairs, all of whom strive to enable “full, active and conscious participation” of all present. As an accompaniment to the Worship Planners Resource and Sample Bulletin, the intent is to offer basic ideas around the development of liturgical worship events that communicate, affirm, welcome, reconcile, unify, empower, equip, transform and challenge twenty-first century worshipers to become courageous, prophetic leaders in the world. We desire nothing less than equipping every one of Jesus’ modern-day disciples to share in the fullness of God’s work in the world, in all of Her glory.
As an ordained deacon responsible for the conceptualization, design, development, delegation and implementation of every component of worship in various faith settings throughout the world, I have discovered that in any given context, God’s people assemble in the spirit of unity to praise God and to offer God their best worship as one body with many valuable parts. Indeed, when Christian liturgy (Greek: leitourgia) is the work of all the people (Greek: laos), it potentially stands as spirit and truth worship. However, just as often, I have painfully observed words, actions, lyrics, gestures, symbols, images, choreography, etc. in some settings that impede, marginalize and exclude certain people. As a result, worship becomes the work of a select few rather than the work of all the people. Therefore, without exception, twenty-first century faith communities must correct imbalances in worship that create barriers to full participation in Christ’s cosmological, ecclesiological and eschatological mission.
In other words, if careful consideration is not given to the ethic of inclusion in the processes of designing, planning and executing regular worship services, then the character, the very essence of God and all of creation are called into question. More specifically, if language, metaphors, images and descriptions used to talk about God are consistently dominated by patriarchal vocabulary, how can the gospel story be transformational and empowering for the mothers, daughters, grandmothers, aunts and sisters present in worship? Further, if the preached word, the prayed word, the sung word or the read word, excludes the voices, stories and issues of persons who have been relegated to the edges of society, then is it possible for God’s spirit to be felt as liberating? Can God’s word be realized as redemptive for them? If the dignity of diversity cannot be genuinely celebrated in a faith community, then can the real presence of Christ be made manifest in worship? The answer to each of these questions is a resounding “No!”
The church’s resounding “Yes!” to gender and culturally inclusive leadership and overall conspicuous participation will enable all persons to experience God in all of God’s complex, awe-inspiring, glory. Men’s as well as women’s experiences and understandings of God will be enriched through expansive imagery and diverse leadership.
Here are four key principles for planning vital worship for the twenty-first century:
- The presence and gifts of every participant must be respected and understood as significant.
- Vital worship invites God’s presence, expresses the ethos of who God is to the community, promotes an atmosphere of grace, nurtures authentic relationships within the worshipping community, and transforms the lives of the worshipers.
- Such an atmosphere encourages and inspires the enthusiastic participation of all persons present.
- Ultimately, much like on the day of Pentecost, irrespective of diverse languages, cultures, attire or musical styles, difference can lead to authentic spirit and truth worship.
“If we want to renew worship and watch people grow in Christ, then we should look at how we enable people to participate and to share their gifts for the building up of the church.” – Ruth Duck
The key to vital corporate worship is accessibility. As you envision and re-vision the celebration of worship for your own community, I encourage you to work toward a more conspicuous sharing in liturgical celebrations—with the understanding that all liturgical elements used in Christian ritual should direct us to the Triune God as Creator, Liberator and Redeemer. Ultimately, worship is the power of connection that sets the atmosphere for the work of redemption. So then, the important question becomes “How can our particular worship celebrations be energized, revitalized, renewed and strengthened in light of the following observations?”
- The central theme of all of worship must be God.
- The basis for articulating this theme is scripture.
- The words, gestures, symbols, signs, choreography and visuals used to articulate the primary theme must be within the grasp of every worshiper.
- The ways in which elements function in worship must be ordered in ways that reflect God’s character and essence to the extent that worshipers are moved toward God, toward each other, and ultimately, as the unified body of Christ into the world.
- The end result of liturgical worship must be a decision and passion for following the example of Christ in the world.
- The path that leads from the Gathering to the Sending Forth must be balanced by a liturgical tradition and liturgical freedom that engages all five senses (sight, sound, smell, touch, taste).
- The intersection of all of the above can only result in the development of a sixth sense: Incarnational worship. That is, the Word made flesh or life wedded to worship.
With Christ as the primary metaphor, you are encouraged to allow for the uniqueness of your context to speak through the prayers, creeds, litanies, music, testimonies, sermons and spaces of the worship as a symbol of and vital witness to our rich heritage. Search for new words, new voices and new lenses for seeing the faces of those who have been historically rendered invisible. Take inventory of your annual conference or your local congregation as you plan the celebration. Who has been absent from the table of Christ? Who has been present, but rendered invisible? Make sure that the words, metaphors and images do not impede the worship of women, children, differently abled, ethnic persons and others who have been historically alienated or marginalized.
Keep in mind that liturgical writings by women and other marginalized peoples are no longer a scarcity. New language for God, fresh images for Christ and more inclusive ways of naming the Holy Spirit are readily available from a myriad of resources (see Worship Resources). The accompanying Worship Language Guidelines provides an instructive discussion of expansive imagery for God, diversity of leadership, inclusive visual images and the use of metaphors for God and God’s work – and why it matters for full participation in worship and equipping disciples.
 Sacrosanctum Concilium 13-14, 1965.
 Ruth C. Duck, Worship for the Whole People of God: Textbook for Christian Worship. (Westminster: John Knox Press, 2012), 11.