Attentional Worship

By Taylor Burton-Edwards

worship-planning-complineHave I captured your attention?

Chances are this writing hasn't, but the image of the candle at the right and its reflection may have.

You may find your eyes drawn to it, and as they are, you may find yourself focusing, breathing more slowly, maybe even achieving a state of calm for a brief time. Go ahead. Let that happen.

Okay now, we're going to stand and sing Hymn # 277, Hymn # 277, "Tell Me the Stories of Jesus." Let's all stand and sing it out, like we mean it!

Wo! What just happened here?

Maybe, depending on your screen settings, you weren't able to concentrate all that well on the candle, because that big red text in a different font was distracting you from the candle. Or maybe you started with the "regular" text, moved to the candle (or vice versa) and then noticed the big red text and it broke your concentration.

Okay, so now you're standing and singing the hymn with everyone else. It's a hymn that talks about joining a whole throng in singing and praise, and by the last verse, that's where you are, with that throng in praise.

You may be seated. And welcome to worship at First United Methodist Church. We're so glad you're here worshiping with us today. We have just a few announcements to make. But first is there anyone here for the first time? We'd like to recognize you. Anyone? Just stand, and tell us your name. Anyone?

Well, here are the announcements... (goes on for 5 minutes, and invites one or two others to share additional announcements, and then asks if anyone has any more announcements, but nobody can hear them because there aren't microphones in the congregation)

Now it's time for our first reading....

Now it's time for our children's lesson... (on a topic that has nothing to do with the reading before, and you soon discover, nothing to do with the reading after)

So we go from meditation, to loud singing together, to calling out individuals on the spot, to rambling announcements, to random readings and a children's lesson not related to either reading...

Does this sound familiar?

What if it were more like this?

worship-planning-complineThere is a relative hush in the worship space. Quiet talking here and there. Perhaps a prelude of some kind, but not distracting. You notice the candle, and it calms you, brings you to a place of silence, a sense of yourself.

A bell sounds.

The choir enters, singing quietly, in unison, the first verse of "Of the Father's Love Begotten" (UMH 184). As the choir nears the completion of the first verse, the choir director turns to the congregation and gestures for all to stand and join the singing of the second verse. As you complete the second verse, acolytes begin to process with more candles, a cross, and the gifts of bread and wine to place on the Lord's table while you all sing, "Christ, to thee with God the Father, and, O Holy Ghost, to thee, hymn and chant and high thanksgiving and unwearied praises be. Honor glory and dominion, and eternal victory, evermore and evermore."

A lay leader prays, beginning as the last chords of the accompaniment die away:

Eternal is your victory, O Christ,
in this world and in our lives.
We are yours,
awaiting your voice,
attending to your Word. Amen.

A reader appears, gestures all to sit, and then begins the first reading for the day.

In these two scenarios, the basic actions are similar. There is an entrance, and the beginning of the ministry of the word.

But how different the effect of these basic actions! In the first, they are obscured by the lack of any clear connection between one thing and the next in tone, leadership, or content. Personal silence is broken, not transitioned, by a garish command to look at a book, stand up and "sing like you mean it." You did mean it, and would have lingered longer there, but immediately you are told to sit down, but actually also to stand up if you are a visitor. And then you are told to listen to announcements. You no sooner get focused on one thing than something completely different happens. It is liturgical whiplash, or perhaps just plain liturgical chaos-- one distraction after the next.

In the second, the quiet of the meditation with the candle is matched by the non-obtrusive prelude, met and raised by the quiet singing of the choir, supported by the silence of the gesture to help you start singing. Your volume builds through verse 2, and in verse 3 the words of the text are matched by the action of symbols of Christ's presence among us in cross, bread and wine, moving us to deeper reverence and praise. From there the brief prayer of the lay leader (as we are still standing) is all that is needed to move us all effortlessly from high praise to readiness to listen for the word of the One we have praised. Attention is captured, held, moved, directed, sustained-- in each movement and from one movement to the next.

Which of these two approaches to the ordering of worship-- "distractional worship," or "attentional worship"-- seems more worshipful to you?

Another example.

worship-planning-complineYou are in the worship space filled with round tables, a candle on each. The room is generally dark, except for the light of the candles and artwork projected on the walls. A single voice, a child, begins to sing "Let's walk together for a while, and see where we begin." Djembes begin. An older adult voice joins the child singing, "To build a world where love can grow, and hope can enter in." Guitars join, and the voices of several others of many ages, all holding their hands out in front of them, "To be the hands of healing, and to plant the seed of peace." Lights begin to come up, and a leader gestures all to stand and join singing, "Welcome, welcome to this place. You're invited to come and know God's grace. All are welcome, the love of God to share, cause all of us are welcome here. All are welcome in this place." Lights come up fully, and all sing the second verse (Worship & Song, 3152). On the third verse, the older adult sings, "Let's dream together of the day, when earth and heaven are one." The child joins the older adult, "A city built of love and light, the new Jerusalem." The rest of the original singers join, dancing, "Where our mourning turns to dancing, every creature lifts its voice," and all join in the final chorus.

A leader says as the music begins to die down, "All of us ARE welcome here. ALL are welcome in this place. We rejoice in it. We delight in it. Now share it with one another."

And we do. There's a rhythm, a flowing and then an ebbing of sound. As the sound of our welcomes begins to ebb, djembes begin to match the rhythm of our heartbeats, and grow in strength. A guitar begins to strum, quickening the pace just a bit, and still standing we hear a few voices starting to sing, "Your Grace Is Enough" (Worship & Song, 3106), and join the singing in the refrain the second verse. During the refrain after the second verse, someone brings out a large Bible, one big enough many of us to see, and a camera projects its image onto the walls around us. After we sing the refrain a second time, still standing, the reader says, "Your grace IS enough, O God. Your grace is enough. Now open our ears to hear of your grace from your holy word. In Jesus' name." All together say (and some may shout), Amen and are seated. Djembes continue quietly as the scripture for the day is read, and as the reading nears it's conclusion, guitars join in with quiet chords. And at the end of the reading, all sing, quietly, "Your grace is enough for me... for me." And the sermon begins.

One last example. (No candle this time!).

People are coming into the clapboard-clad sanctuary from several directions. Some have just left their Sunday School classes. A few of them are still discussing something from the class. Others just move to their seats. Meanwhile, still others are entering from the main door in the back. People who hadn't seen each other yet today call out to each other across the two banks of 12 rows of pews, and move toward each other, smiling and friendly. A couple of the children and youth high five each other, laughing. The hubbub grows for a while, but begins to fade when the organist starts playing, quietly, "Rock of Ages," with tremolo.

People begin to quiet their voices start moving to their seats, and while the organist plays the third verse, two children light the candles flanking a large Bible on a table in the front. The organist plays the last verse a bit louder, then segues to "Amazing Grace," joined by a fairly rollicking piano, guitar and and banjo accompaniment. A quartet sings the first verse, then the lead singer invites the congregation to stand and sing the last verse. "When we've been there ten thousand years, bright shining as the sun, we've no less days to sing God's praise than when we'd first begun."

The pastor says, "A little bit of heaven right here this morning. It's so good to be in the house of the Lord today. Can I get an Amen?" Congregation: Amen. The Lord has been so good to us. And we're here to thank Him and praise Him for it, and hear His word and seek His face together. As we sing our opening hymn, let's greet everyone we see with the right hand of fellowship. What a fellowship, what a joy divine, leaning on the everlasting arms!"

No one needs the words for the first couple of verses at least. Everyone smiles and shakes hands with everyone else as they sing, each person interrupting the singing briefly as they do to say "Good morning" or "Glad to see you today" before resuming the singing and moving to the next person. Viewed from above, it almost resembles a square dance. By the refrain on the third verse, all 38 in attendance are back in their seats, singing at full voice. They sing the chorus twice, complete with the men singing the "little repeats" under the main words, a fermata on the second to last "leaning", and then a slow and emphatic singing of the last "leaning on the everlasting arms."

The pastor prays with a raised voice while everyone is still standing: "We're leaning on your arms today, Jesus, leaning on your arms, leaning on those everlasting arms, those everlasting arms that blessed the little children, those everlasting arms that healed the sick and crippled, those everlasting arms that were nailed to that old rugged cross on Calvary's mountain to save a wretch like me, those everlasting arms that were taken down from that cross when they put you in that stone cold tomb, and they all thought you were dead and gone. But glory, hallelujah, those arms rolled away the stone and came bursting out of that grave early on Sunday morning, still scarred to prove even to old doubting Thomas that they were everlasting and you are everlasting. So we're leaning on those everlasting arms today, Lord Jesus, asking that you be with us and bless us in this sweet hour of prayer. And if there be anyone here today who doesn't know the saving love and power of those arms, Lord Jesus, may you use something we say or do in this service to bring them close to you. And we'll be sure to give you all the glory and all the honor and all the praise. And all God's people said, "Amen" and Amen.

As the pastor comes to the end of the prayer, the organ starts playing quietly, and at the conclusion, the congregation sings, "Hear our prayer, O Lord. Hear our prayer, O Lord. Incline your ear to us, and grant us thy peace. Amen."

After a brief silence, the pastor quietly says, while gesturing, "You may be seated," and then moves to the left to help an older woman up the two steps and across the platform to the pulpit (in the center). As he does so, he says, "We are so glad that Sister Martha could read the scripture for us this morning. As many of you know, she has been sick and homebound for much of the winter, but she heard from one of you that visited her this past week that the sermon today was going to be about Jesus calming the storm, and she said she wanted to read that for us in worship today." While he is saying his, one of the youth has taken the Bible from the table, and placed it on the pulpit, then returned to his seat. Sister Martha gets to the pulpit, finds her place, and slowly, a bit haltingly, but confidently, she reads the scripture. And then she offers a prayer for the message.

The pastor helps Sister Martha off the stage. Her daughter-in-law helps her back to her seat. And the sermon begins.