Here's a bit of what I've been working on lately, though it's definitely not a finished product yet. So, read it as such and if you have any suggestions, comments, corrections or whatever, I'd love to hear them.
(The proper footnotes in the word document do not translate to blog form, so I included links to the books on Amazon along with the page numbers).
My vows to thee I must perform, O God;
I will render thank offerings to thee.
For thou has delivered my soul from death,
Yea, my feet from falling,
That I may walk before God in the light of life (Psalm 56:12-13)
The psalmist illustrates in Psalm 56 the reciprocal nature of the relationship between God and his people: God initiates a relationship with us, we respond to God in faith and by following his commandments. The very basic component of our life with God as well as worship is this dialogue between God’s initiation and our response to God. “The starting point for authentic participation is the individual Christian’s own heartfelt and genuine response of praise and thanksgiving before the presence of God.” (Craig Douglas Erickson, Participating in Worship
, 3) Worship as dialogue requires participation, as the word ‘response’ implies an action. Emily Brink suggests that this principle of worship as dialogue “provides a useful corrective to the conviction that worship is a purely human activity and that worshipers are merely passive spectators rather than vital participants in an active engagement with God.” (Emily Brink, Authentic Worship in a Changing Culture
Harold Best expands on the understanding that worship is not merely a human activity. He defines worship as “the continuous outpouring of all that I am and all that I do and all that I can ever become in the light of a chosen or choosing god.” (Harold Best, Unceasing Worship
, 18) It is not that we were created for worship or made to worship but simply that we worship. Worship is an inherent trait as beings created in the image of God. A trait that is built into our very DNA as the way we were created undermines the idea of worship as a human act. Whether we worship God or an idol, we worship. Not only do we worship, but in Best’s definition, the phrase ‘continuous outpouring’ gives a specific quality to that worship. Continuous outpouring conveys a sense intense activity on the part of the worshiper. Notice that Best’s definition does not specify that this continuous outpouring is automatically and always directed to God, the rightful recipient of our worship. Instead, we are always bowing down either to God who is always choosing us and whom we in turn choose, or we bow down to something else which may in fact hold us completely captive. We would do well to examine where we find continuous outpouring in our lives. Is our worship directed to God or to some idol? What might our worship look like if it were directed toward God?
Defining participation in corporate worship is an elusive task. Worshipers can outwardly appear to be participating in an action. In one congregation, this may take the shape of raised hands, robust singing, dancing, and an outward expression of emotion. In another congregation, this may take the shape of kneeling, genuflecting, crossing oneself. Worshipers can also outwardly appear to be not participating. Perhaps they sit quietly, choose not to sing the songs or hymns, and maintain a reserved air about themselves. It is possible, however, that those who are outwardly demonstrative in their worship may just be ‘going through the motions’ or joining with the crowd. Outward-only worship is the very thing God cries out against in Isaiah 29:13-14: “The Lord said: because these people draw near to me with their mouths and honor me with their lips, while their hearts are far from me, and their worship is of a human commandment learned by rote; so I will again do amazing things with this people, shocking and amazing. The wisdom of their wise shall perish, and the discernment of the discerning shall be hidden.”
It is also possible to be highly engaged in worship, though not visibly so. Take for instance the person who sits with eyes closed during a congregational song. Perhaps they are choosing to disengage from the action, or perhaps they are worshiping deep in their hearts, moved to silence and stillness. “But the Lord is in his holy temple; let all the earth keep silence before him!” Habakkuk 2:20
To some extent, we can dismiss any discussion of participation as purely conjectural. No one knows what happens in one person’s heart except for that person and God. But, in our very humanness we are more than mere thoughts or spirits. We are physical beings who experience our world in a physical reality. We know each other in physical ways, and survive in the world in a physical body; a physical body that was created by God. Not only are we physical and experience the world in a physical reality, worship involves more than just the individual and God. The dialogic nature of worship, of our response to God’s initiation, happens within the context of community. We do not dialogue with God in a vacuum, but with each other.
Participation, according to Constance Cherry means to take part in; to share in; to partner in. She goes on further to look at what it means to be a partner. To be a partner, one shares or takes part in with another. A partner is also one who dances with another, or can be a player on the same side in a game. Participation, from this perspective, is clearly not an individual activity. “What would happen if we came in and decided that God has called us to be a partner to one another in the community of faith to assist them in their experience of worship that day?” (Constance Cherry, From Passive to Participative Worship
, audio [at about 17:20] from Calvin Symposium on Worship 2006
Simon Chan, in Liturgical Theology: The Church as Worshiping Community affirms the thin ice one walks on when trying to define participation in worship. “The complexity of trying to determine what constitutes active participation should make us wary of simplistic solutions to the worship crisis affecting the church.”(Simon Chan, Liturgical Theology
, 151) He proposes, however, a few broad principles that can lead to [better?] active participation in worship. First, within the various elements of liturgy, including prayers, acclamations, physical postures, music, psalmody, and liturgical space and decoration, there are many opportunities for active participation. Second, whatever choices are made for the liturgy, such as what hymns or melodies, what types of physical postures, or the amount of silence in a given service, the people’s understanding, their preparation, their specific sets of gifts and abilities and their particular needs must be taken into account. “In other words, active participation is possible if the people understand what is going on, are inwardly prepared and are able to use their gifts in the worship service.” (Chan, 152)