Making the Content Flow Together
In my previous post I laid out some good and not-so-good reasons related to “gluing together’ the various elements of our worship service by keeping ambient or musical sound continuously flowing.
Yes, it is important for our worship services to flow together well. The real question is: what kind of flow? Let me encourage you to think not about the flow of sound first and foremost, but about the flow of content—the way thoughts, themes, logic, and concepts flow together. My point is: whether or not we choose to embrace continual flow of sound, the flow of content is a much more important consideration.
What I’m encouraging is a different standard for “flow” – our priority should be to create a flow of worship content that nourishes and strengthens the faith of our congregations. Musical flow may be fine, but prioritizing musical flow above content flow is a mistake. Ask yourself, as you move from song to prayer to song to Scripture reading to song, will it make sense to most worshipers what one piece has to do with another? Will people be able to tell how the concepts fit together, and that they aren’t simply a random shuffle?
Non sequiturs are a real danger. If you text me that your grandma just died and the funeral will be Friday, and I text you back about the Cubs beating the Pirates last night, that’s a non sequitur. They are unrelated. Of course we would never do that in conversation with a friend in real life… but are we always taking care not to do it in our worship services?
One tool that’s been helpful for me is to think in terms of “if-then” relationships. For example, if we have read Scripture and sung about God’s mercy to us in Christ, a good response—a “then” response—would be gratitude. We could sing our thanks. Another good response would be asking for God to make us dispensers of His mercy at every opportunity.
Here’s another example: we could sing our commitment to love as God has loved us, a “call to action.” A “then” response to this could be recognizing that we can’t do it on our own; that we need the empowerment of the Holy Spirit. We may read Scripture where God promises to fill us with power in the Spirit, or we may sing about it.
Reading Scripture publicly is one of the very best ways to create flow of content, flow of meaning. This is the type of flow that is always right, no matter what. Not only can the content of a Scripture reading clearly tie one song to the next, but much more than that, our people will have the very words of the Lord Himself coming to them. Those who have ears to hear will hear, and His Word will never return void (Isa. 55:11). Keep the music playing underneath or not, but do think carefully and deliberately about how Scripture reading can illuminate the spiritual truths we celebrate in song.
Experience and Ambience
I’m not downplaying the experience of God’s people when we gather. It may be tempting to say that congregational worship shouldn’t be thought of as an existential experience. But this is untrue. It definitely is. All of the components coming together are part of that: preaching content, Scripture presented, testimony of God at work, fervently interceding in prayer, tasting the bread and cup, confessing sin and repenting, worshiping through our financial gifts, lamenting brokenness and pain in this hurting world, praising God and lifting up our hearts in song over who He is and what He has done. When the believers gather as church, all of these and more will come together as a rich and profound worship experience—and one that impacts and shapes us deeply. But as leaders and planners, we must be careful never to come at it backwards, trying primarily to create experience, and then letting that experiential ideal guide our content decisions. “Experience first” is definitely the wrong way around.
The concept of musical flow and ambient sound is part of a larger category of discussion – the way in which physical surroundings and environment influence congregational worship. It has been said that “art is how we decorate space; music is how we decorate time.” We do think intentionally about our worship spaces, how they look and feel. We do what we can so that the space nourishes the spiritual reflection of the worshipers. And if the space is such that we can’t do that positively, then we at least work to make sure it doesn’t detract. Sound can and does fall into the same category. The key is to approach both sound and space with discernment and intentionality.
In our worship planning and design, we must be sure keep the pastoral goal of music ministry at the forefront. To be discerning in our approach we must remember that worship is fundamentally revelation and response. This is the core:
Revelation: ‘revealing’ or considering together as His people who God is, what He has done, and what He is doing.
Response: Responding to who God is and what He has done – this is the essence of worship.
No matter what, do whatever you can to make sure it’s God that people are being moved by and are responding to, not the extra things. Striving to maintain a pastorally-minded, Scripturally-grounded flow of content in our worship services is vitally important.