Saturday, April 14, 2007

Transformations in Worship

Transformations in Worship
St. Andrews Presbyterian Church: Pastors Steve Gribble and Kristal Smith
Shippensburg Presbyterian Church: Pastor Denny Finnegan

I had the opportunity in recent weeks to worship at both our St. Andrews and Shippensburg Churches, and on reflection, it amazes me how these two churches reflect some of the creative energy that is happening in our worship today. The worship services in these congregations are very different, and in comparing them, we see some of the vital and sweeping changes that have been blowing through our Church.
St. Andrews had adopted a model of two very different worship experiences. It requires a very gifted pastor and preacher in Steve Gribble to pull this off every week. The St. Andrews early service is fully contemporary with a praise band, and a very informal kind of ethos. An excellent PowerPoint display helps guide the congregation for the whole service. Their large screen hangs prominently above the choir loft. The sermon is preached informally from the aisle of the sanctuary with a more relaxed and engaging presentation which Steve delivers with convincing power and warmth. This service also includes a drama team was presented a beautiful enacted-parable of the Bible text for the day. With their full praise band, and drama team St. Andrews does an excellent job of contemporary worship.
And then it all is transformed for their later service. The screen disappears, and a full, robed choir uses the choir loft, the organist leads the service, and the pastors wear their formal clerical robes. Steve preaches from the pulpit with a more serious but still very engaging style. This is classic, traditional worship and it is done very well.
The thinking behind all of this is, of course, to offer different options and styles of worship for different people. It is a common model but St Andrews does it particularly well since their two services are truly unique and different. The contemporary service is unabashedly contemporary in every detail; the traditional service is fully traditional without apology or hesitation. Both services are very well done, well planned, and carefully expressed. The worship services are very strong at St. Andrews.

Now the St. Andrews model came to mind when I worshiped at Shippensburg which has adopted a very different model for worship. Their one service is truly blended. There are many touches of a contemporary style blended into a traditional order of worship and ethos. There is a full choir in robes but their offering was a contemporary praise song accompanied by guitars. The sermon is traditional, from the pulpit, and very biblical. Denny’s preaching was biblical in a classic, traditional sense which is almost rare today. This was almost a verse by verse commentary on the Bible passage. I found this to be a refreshing and very spiritually fulfilling, deep encounter with the scriptures. I found myself during the sermon reaching for the pew Bible to check out this or that verse which was being preached. In my mind, the best preaching always pushes me back into the scripture for study and prayer. This was preaching as it should be in a classic sense; this deep engagement with the scriptures.
But after this traditional biblical sermon, the Shippensburg congregation moved together into one of most creative expressions of worship that I have experienced in any of our churches. This was an extended time of shared prayer. But this was very different. Members of the congregation shared their prayer concerns at great length, much more than simply shouting out a name and a disease. And Pastor Denny, instead of waiting until everyone was finished sharing, prayed after each person shared. Moreover, as he prayed for each prayer concern, he encouraged the congregation to physically and spiritually turn and reach out to the person being prayed for. This was one of the most powerful expressions of public prayer that I have ever shared. It was truly beautiful. Because each prayer concern was shared at length and then prayed for at length, this time of prayer went on for many minutes. But it was obvious to me that this was an expected and important expression of their worship. The Shippensburg Church is a praying church!
Given all the changes and transformations which are happening in our Church, and indeed within the whole culture of religion in modern America, I believe these transformations in worship are most vital. On one hand there are exciting new expressions of creativity and imagination in our worship services. On the other hand our services of worship are becoming incredibly diverse and different. The good old days when worship in one Presbyterian Church was pretty much like worship in every Presbyterian Church are gone. Worship is the heart and soul of the Church. We need to think, pray and ponder about these transformations. There are exciting things happening in our congregations.