How Worship Begins
I used to beg students, “Please do not begin a worship service by saying ‘Good Morning.'”
Why not? It sounds so innocuous. What could be wrong with saying a friendly, “Good Morning” as a way to begin the worship of the church? Answer: it gets the focus wrong. It puts the focus on us. On the horizontal dimension. Just us folks here.
And it domesticates worship. It takes it out of the realm of the strange and dangerous — anything could happen with this God! — and makes it something like greeting a bank teller (back when we did that). “Twenties will be fine.”
I recalled this on reading a recent piece by Tish Harrison Warren in the New York Times. Warren writes about the odd way that worship begins in her Anglican (Episcopal) tradition.
Each Sunday in my Anglican church in Austin, Texas, the priest leading the service takes his or her place in front of the congregation and begins by saying the opening acclamation, usually, “Blessed be God, Father, Son and Holy Spirit.”
What has surprised me since I first attended an Anglican service just over a decade ago is that we begin not with welcoming anyone in the pews but with a direct announcement about God.
It’s a little jarring, even now that I am a priest. We all made an effort to get to church. We woke up early on a weekend, brushed our teeth, wrestled kids into car seats, masked up and found a place to sit. But the service doesn’t start by acknowledging any of that. No thanking everyone for showing up. Not even a bland mention of the weather or how nice everyone looks this week. Instead, I stand up in front of everyone and proclaim the presence of an invisible God.
Part of why I find this moment strange is that I’m habituated by my daily life and our broader culture to focus on the “horizontal” or immanent, aspects of life — those things we can observe and measure without reference to God, mystery or transcendence. This can affect my spiritual life, flattening faith into solely the stuff of relationships, life hacks, sociology or politics.
But each week, as a church, the first words we say publicly directly address the “vertical,” transcendent dimension of life. We do not have just an urbane, abstracted conversation about religion, but we speak as if God’s presence is relevant — the orienting fact of our gathering.
Worship is, well, worship . . . of God. It is directing our attention to something beyond ourselves. We aren’t the only ones in the room.
Worship ought not, of course, be impersonal or rote, but making it folksy or focused on us gets things all out of whack from the get-go. The point is, for just a while, forget yourself, lose yourself. It’s not about you. It’s a paradox. In losing ourselves, we find ourselves. In forgetting ourselves, we discover what is of true importance.
Since the days I inveighed against beginning worship by saying “Good Morning,” it seems to have gotten worse. Pre-pandemic I visited a church where the minister spent the first several minutes telling the assembled congregation just how “thrilled,” “proud,” and “honored” the church was by their presence “with us today.” I wanted to puke. I thought the people in the pews were the church. But to listen to that minister he and the staff were the church and they were welcoming an audience.
It’s the kind of thing that causes a look of disgust to cross my all-too-readable face. Should someone say, “What’s wrong?” and you say, “That’s hideous, this saccharine fawning over the congregation,” there’s a pretty good chance that they will be wholly uncomprehending and conclude the only thing hideous around here is you.
Begin worship with a word about God, a word of God. Like, “Come, worship the Lord with gladness. Come into God’s presence with singing. Know that the Lord is God. For it is God who has made us, and not we ourselves; we are his people, the sheep of his pasture.” (Psalm 100)
It’s not all about you.