Alright, so it probably wasn’t as terrifying as that whole having your lips burned with a hot coal thing, or as overwhelming as actually seeing God, but I had gone out of my way to evoke a sense of wonder, mystery, and yes, a little nervousness. Instead of a sermon, we walked through Isaiah’s call story. I had carefully woven music and prayers into the narrative, incorporating movement, smell, and sight where we are so often bound to sound alone. If I had been able to give people a taste of burnt charcoal, I would have, but that seemed extreme even for me.
This is not how I have generally experienced worship services, with scent and darkness and the shouting of angel voices. But this is how I planned worship when it was my turn to lead our chapel worship in seminary. I can’t say it was normal even there, but I had the freedom in that environment to experiment with crafting a service around a text, using every tool at my disposal to help people not just hear but encounter the Word. I graduated with great confidence in my ability to plan provocative, engaging, multi-sensory worship. I was assured that I would always do it that way.
Fast forward eight years; let’s just say that those skills are not quite as active these days as they once were. Instead of open rooms with mobile seating, my current church has the standard fixed pews. The congregation has 331 years of history to tell them that their order of worship stands the test of time. I don’t get to be a maverick now; I have to consult with people. I have two colleagues with whom I share responsibility for planning, leading, and preaching, plus a worship committee that has considerable decision-making power over our services, plus a church board, plus a congregation full of people who all have opinions about what we do on Sunday mornings. Many of them are deeply invested in the tradition and stability of our usual liturgy. I have all kinds of freedom in other areas; it’s a progressive congregation that loves edgy theology and programming, but the traditional worship service is almost sacrosanct. Sunday morning is in many ways the anchor for a congregation that is constantly trying new things in other areas of our life together.
There is not a lot of room for creativity in worship planning here, as you might guess. We choose hymns and write prayers. We’ve tried a few visual displays for special seasons, and we’re discussing possibilities for doing more of that. I got to be a little more creative in my first church, but it was easier when the space was smaller and there were fewer people and logistical issues to deal with. I’ve become, God forbid, somewhat practical with experience: it’s just plain hard to create an effective visual display that can be seen by all and not be an obstruction in a sanctuary as large as ours with a choir, bell choir, three ministers, and other readers all trying to navigate the chancel.