Monday, January 23, 2006

Will the real worship service please stand up?

I had a very interesting weekend. I attended two worship services. One was intentionally so and the other was not. The former was in a church, contained liturgy from a few prayer books, and had all the normal trappings of evening prayer, plus a jazz band. It was known as Jazz Vespers. The latter was in a club (called "Fancyland"), had an ordo, and was planned and mostly attended by non-Christians. It was called Subversion City. Let me tell you what happened at each.

Saturday night, we went to Subversion. We gathered in a space with couches, some instruments, a sound system, a big screen at the front. It was BYOB and people were drinking and chatting.

We were called to order for the first event: a film that was a collection of images from pre-war Iraq. While it played, a funk/jazz band accompanied. There were no words...and no need. We watched children laughing and playing and parents showing off family members' photos with great pride. We saw homes and workplaces, cafes and roads, buildings with giant murals of Saddam on them. Over and over the people smiled into the camera and held up two fingers in the "peace" sign. The majority of people in the film did this, and it didn't appear to be coached. Children, adults - people of peace and of joy. They seemed completely content. Obviously there was another Iraq, the one that Saddam was oppressing. But the film mostly showed people at their leisure and they seemed pretty OK. It went for at least 20 minutes.

The filmmaker got up and took questions. She told how she'd gone with Christian Peacemaker Teams (how is that for weird? I met her and we exchanged info and I'm all freaking out about how much CPT comes up...I'm going to apply) because she just wanted to see the people and the country before the inevitable war came (this was in fall 2002).

During the film I saw what could have been a sermon, really. It spoke so much louder than words about the people over there. Oh, and a great amount of it was shot in churches, and there were nuns and priests and statues and posters for environmentalism in the churches. They were our brothers and sisters in Christ. Yes, it was like a sermon or maybe the prayers of the people. It didn't let you watch and not be changed.

Then we had a break (passing the peace?) and got to know one another. Following this was a staged reading of a play with themes on mortality, loneliness, despair...and finding the hope to go on, finding community. Like prayers of the people or the preparation for Eucharist, it touched on the big themes of life and how we get through them together.

Following the play we had a communal song while candles were lit then blown out in a ritual known to most anyone. Cake was broken and shared, wine was drunk. Then more joyful singing.

I think you get where I'm going with this. It could easily have been an emergent church service. In fact, what was so cool about it was that I completely sensed God's presence there yet God was not put out there. Not that I think churches shouldn't talk about God, but sometimes God doesn't really need our help. Sometimes I think God may prefer quietly speaking inside people in the way they most need to hear. Just because we are up front doesn't mean we necessarily have God's word for everyone any particular day. God managed to show up and speak through this completely secular experience that happened to be fashioned in an extremely liturgical way.

(What's funny is the people there and the organizers surely didn't intend any of this. But when I brought it up with the host, he was very keen to know more why I thought so, and thought my analysis was great. His intention is to give people an experience of community and sharing and thinking about deep thoughts and even possibly connecting with something spiritual. This is largely what many people come to church for.)

So anyway, Sunday night we checked out jazz vespers, which was the A-1 weirdest service I've ever attended. And quite oddly, it was not nearly as worshipful as the club the night before. It had all the trappings of a service - they said the right words, did the right order - but then they plunked a jazz concert down in the middle of it. One minute we're praying and listening to scripture, then with no transition or prep we're told it's time for the jazz. The band starts up and plays for 30 minutes or so, and there is literally nothing tying it to the service or to God. It's just a show. They play, we clap - we may as well be in a club. It felt so random. I couldn't connect it. I tried to ponder the creativity of the performers or God's gift of music, but it didn't work. And it was obvious the people had come for this part of the show, and the other was tacked on but really should have been left aside. So weird!!

I'm sad because the jazz vespers is a great concept. I hope some jazz musicians will write some mass music, so we can do jazz evensong sometime. Maybe they already have. While I'm at it, I'd like to put in a request for Moby to write a techno-mass. Get on that, please.

So those were my services, although really only Saturday night was a worship service in the true sense. What a palpable difference between those gathered in community expecting transformation (or at least beauty and education) and those who were just looking for a show. I guess God preferred hanging out at a club with a bunch of sinners who geniunely sought experience - of the world, of each other, of learning - than in a pretty church with professional musicians and empty words. very like Jesus.


Caelius said...

Moby and Dj Tiesto should collaborate...

Dan McGowan said...

You have done an excellent job of describing visually and otherwise the difference between "going to church" and "being the church." I have worked for mainline churches (as music and worship leader) for more than 25 years and I've seen it all. But, like so many others, I have been sensing a need to honesty CONNECT with the Lord in ways that MOST typical churches really allow. I love your use of the word "trappings" because that is truly what so many churches continue to do - we TRAP people! When God wants us to be SET FREE! Still, we have to be careful not to look for "the magic elements" that will make "church" meaningful. In the end - NOTHING - no candles, no wine, no film clips, no comfy couches - none of these will MAKE people worship if they are not presupposed to it to begin with. We need to CHOOSE to encounter God regardless of the atmosphere... Thanks for sharing your heart in this post! Visit me sometime over at:

Anonymous said...

Check out Dave Brubeck's Mass and Chuck Mangione's Mass for St Bernard.

Brubeck became a Catholic when he tried to refuse the commission for the jazz mass. He had a dream, and the music came to him.

Brubeck also wrote a christmas cantata for mixed choir and orchestra called La Posada.

Good stuff, all of it. The problem is that the preparing the music for public performance is difficult. You need musicians who really understand jazz, and a few who really know how to improvise for it to come off.

I think it's one of those things that is a great concept, but very difficult to pull off.

Liam said...

My parish has a jazz mass, and it's well done. It's what originally got me to go, and my girlfriend and I stayed because of the priest & the community. I usually go to a different Mass because I do like the choir, incense, altar servers en masse, and the rest of the features of a high Mass, but occassionally we do return to the jazz Mass -- a very traditional liturgy with hymns, prayers and responses set to a different kind of music.

I will have to check out the Brubeck Mass.

Anonymous said...

Very interesting. Interesting indeed...