Our Walls Around What Worship Is
1.The sun was shining in Dallas, on a standard playground in the center of an immigrant-heavy apartment complex. The crowd was diverse in all ways imaginable: African refugees, white seminary students, children, poor Dallas natives, visitors, long-time community members, university professors, a differently-abled deacon in a wheelchair.
Before worship began, we shared a simple meal of fruit, beans and rice, chicken, and bread. Kids who just happened to be on the playground milled around the table, testing whether or not they'd be welcome to the food, too. They were, and were filled.
Our call to worship music started with nothing more than a guitar and a drum, led by another deacon in two or three different languages. We were terrible singers, truth be told, and could hardly repeat back to the leader the lines we were singing. Far from this being annoying, it lightened up those gathered, laughing at our own inadequacies.
The teaching time was led by the aforementioned deacon with cerebral palsy. His slower speech forced us to be calm, to hang on every word, to be present. Rather than a sermon, he asked us to break into small groups according to where we were sitting and reflect on the scripture we'd read right before his teaching time, which had been read in five different languages that all could understand (something he noted reminded him of Pentecost). Our group was reflective of the diversity of the crowd, requiring us to be open to the other, to lay down our guard and have a conversation.
The leaders of the community hung on the edges of the gathering for the entirety, at the edges of the worship, away from the center. At the end, however, an elder stepped into our center and blessed the elements, serving communion accompanied by a young, shy Latina girl.
We went home.
There is no other place in the world where I have experienced worship like this, but the closest correlate I have in my life was in the most rural area of Mozambique I traveled to in 2011, among some of the economically poor people I've ever met. They didn't have things to rely on. They relied on God in a real way that most of us can only ever imagine. I would venture to say that this holds true for many of the people gathered in Dallas last weekend. We in the United States have built up walls around our worship. Worship should be done by, so the wisdom goes, professional church folk who have everything practiced and ready, scripted and polished. We know what we're going to get. We rehearse the Spirit right out of the way, leaving no cracks of happenstance into which God can speak, or make nervous, or unsettle, or inspire. We face the front of the sanctuary in calm anticipation of what we know is next, the same way we would at a concert. We tell God when to move us, when he should ignite us to stand. We tell the Spirit that the best she's going to get is some applause after the worship band finishes a song.
We must do better. Allowing room for mistakes doesn't mean throwing out our liturgy, either. In Dallas, there was still a clear call to worship, scripture, teaching, communion, and prayer. Yet, hardly any of it was done by "experts" with a UMC Book of Worship in hand.
When our leaders decide to lead in the way that the Spirit asks them to, instead of the way attendees of our attractional model churches demand, we will truly find God. I just hope he's patient enough with us to allow us to get there soon.