Worship that Surprises

Our current worship theme focusing on the new hymnal and questions about the very nature of worship has me reflecting on some of my own worship experiences.  For this week’s blog, I thought I’d share an experience that was especially meaningful to me, and I’d love to hear from you any stories of particularly meaningful worship experiences (whether in the “traditional” sense of worship or beyond) that you have had.

During my senior year at Bluffton University, I was the worship band leader and co-coordinator for the Sunday Night Worship service.  Unlike the Thursday Chapel services, these Sunday Night Worship services were freer and more student-led.  As one of the co-coordinators, I had the opportunity to explore creative ideas and different forms of worship.  More often than not, we ended up with a pretty typical worship service, but every once in a while we would shake things up. 

As we were prepping for one of these upcoming services, I could tell that the worship band, my fellow planning team, and myself were all feeling especially stressed.  Maybe it was the week of midterm exams, maybe it was trouble finding volunteers to help lead, or maybe it was just the general busy-ness of college life.  Whatever it was, I could tell that we needed to do something different, so my co-coordinator and I came up with a plan. 

We advertised the service like normal and didn’t tell the worship band our plan until it came time for the pre-service rehearsal.  We revealed that instead of a typical service with singing and scripture reading and a sermon, we had put together a completely silent service that would consist of readings and prompts for meditative contemplation projected onto the screen. 

The band did our pre-service rehearsal, so when people started to file in, the stage area looked the same as it usually would with instruments and mics scattered about.  When it was time to begin, we had the band come up to their spots, but instead of beginning to play, we began to silently clear the stage as the words to the worship song, The Heart of Worship began to show on screen. 

When the music fades
All is stripped away
And I simply come
Longing just to bring
Something that's of worth
That will bless your heart

By the end of the song, everything had been cleared from the stage except a small altar with a cross and a candle.  The projected slides gave a brief explanation of what would be happening, then began progressing through a series of prompts for silent contemplation.  We even used white text on a black background with the goal of eliminating as much noise (both literal and metaphorical) from the worship space as possible.  One final idea we came up with was to free this service from feeling like there was a definite ending point.  Instead, after about 30 minutes of guided prompts, the final slide invited people to stay and sit in silence as long as they wanted. 

I’m not going to pretend that this was everyone’s favorite service, but I did hear from a number of people how meaningful it was.  I know it was the kind of worship service I needed. 

Beyond just one interesting idea for shaking up worship, reflecting on this service has me wondering whether we show up to worship willing to be surprised.  Is a meaningful worship service one that checks all of our preconceived boxes, or is it one where we are pushed to move beyond those boxes?   Even if a worship service fits into a traditional mode, how can we pay attention for the God who shows up in surprising ways?