Graham Cray on worship

Monday, 10 October, 2011

Graham Cray discusses worship - stop starting with worship, so how do you start?, tradition and freedom, the shape of worship, habits for life, ancient and contemporary, culturally appropriate, avoid imported worship, sharing communion and starting in the right place.

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Graham Cray: Perhaps the most common mistake that people make when they first hear about fresh expressions, is that what you do is you put down a worship service somewhere else or at a different time in a different style. And that actually isn't right. It may be ok if you already know the context, you know the people, in effect you've listened to God and found ways to engage with them and it's time for an act of worship, but we're quite clear that public worship, rather than the team meeting to worship and pray, comes after a lot of listening to God, comes after finding ways to serve those you're trying to reach, and after community beginning to gather and discipleship being explored and at some point that exploring of discipleship goes public. So in most cases, please don't start with a worship service, but we do want to offer all the advice we can about how to create it when it is the right time to start it.

It occurred to me only recently that because we make such an emphasis of the fact that you don't start a fresh expression with a worship service, or that if you do you might be making a mistake because you're putting on something you hope people whom you don't yet really know will like, and we always say you start by listening and serving and forming community and engaging with the context and then with the people who are being gathered you can shape the worship service appropriately. But because we spend so much time saying don't start with a worship service, I don't think we've said enough about how you form a worship service when it's the right time to do it. The first thing I'd want to say is that it's a combination of a gift of tradition and a gift of freedom. This isn't an 'either-or' about those who like the traditional shape to worship and those who don't, this is people who've been shaped by a tradition helping to create a new worshipping community and helping it to worship in a way that's appropriate locally and yet which is recognisably the worship of the Christian church. And that in practice will mean whether you're Methodist or Anglican or United Reformed or Congregational or Church of Scotland or whatever, there will be some characteristics of your worship that you recognise, even if in a culturally different style.

Tradition is a friend and freedom isn't a threat. Tradition is a friend because, for instance, the shape of an act of worship as exercised traditionally by Anglicans and Methodist and United Reformed and all the others, has got some sense about it. If the service is a different shape every single time you come, you don't know what's going to expect, you don't know where you are, it doesn't form certain habits in you. And worship is meant to be able to do all of those things as we offer it to God. So shape and tradition is the friend, but we need to learn how to re-imagine it - what would it look like here. How can we bring the things that have shaped us, because we have been shaped by our traditions - or our reactions against them - and how can we let them take shape with some appropriate freedom. And freedom isn't an enemy, freedom is a friend. It's responsible freedom, it's not do anything you like, pick and mix anything and call it worship, it's from all we know of the traditions of Christian worship, how might they best take shape in a consistent way here. It's a gift of responsible freedom that's inspired by, but not bound by, the traditions that we come from.

Those of us who are used to worship from a book, and some of us still struggling with the words of the book on a screen instead, sometimes find it very difficult if the words are words we're not used to or the prayers are differently or it's more informal than we're used to or everybody prays out loud at the same time and people say isn't that confusing and you have to say who to because they're all praying for God and he hears us all at the same time anyway, but the really important thing isn't that we all use the same words at the same time and the same stage of the service, the really important thing is the shape of the act of worship. The liturgies that lots of us have been trained in in more traditional church give a good idea about that shape and in my view you only depart from the overall shape if you've got really good local reasons to do so, but they're simply a framework within which there is freedom. I remember a high church bishop saying to me as he want to a very charismatic parish, we don't have to say this stuff and sing it as well. If you've said broadly the content of these prayers to songs in your style, that's fine, we'll sing them. We don't have to say them as well. So sometimes it's a matter about translation.

One of the things that people often don't think about is the relationship between worship and the forming of our characters as Christians. If you think about it, Christian character is formed through habits. It's formed through habits of daily life. Eugene Peterson used to call it the long obedience in the same direction, continually saying yes to the way of Jesus and building up Godly positive habits rather than negative ones. So we ought to ask what are the habits we're forming when people gather to worship. The balance of the content matters for instance - do we never have a habit of a corporate acknowledgement to God that we've done wrong. Do we never have prayers that are for other people rather than ourselves and our community. Do we pray for our local community, do we pray for the world, do we pray for the crises we've seen on the news. If you do it together you form habits which will help people to learn how to do it alone. So worship is meant to have shape as well as freedom, because it's meant to be habit-forming of habits that equip you for the rest of your life. And you do together what you then, separated through the week, do separately.

Some fresh expressions, particularly those more in an alternative worship tradition who've got a real history with this, are remarkably good at blending the ancient with the contemporary. Now I don't think you should ever do that just for the sake of it, and I've seen it done really badly, but I remember for instance helping to lead the worship at Transcendence in York Minster once and there was a psalm set to an ancient chant, built in to a sample from a Coldplay song. And when I was told at the beginning that's what they were going to do I thought it was totally naff. And it was done so skilfully it worked beautifully. One of the things we're trying to do in worship is be contemporary and engage with the present, but another thing we're trying to do is say hey, this wasn't dreamed up yesterday, there's been a long living tradition of people worshipping and we have a treasure chest of things that we bring from that tradition. You don't bring them from the tradition because that's what the tradition always uses, but you draw from the tradition - like the scribe Jesus talked about who brings out of his treasure things old and things new - you draw from it some of those ancient things because of their appropriateness to be transforming here and now.

If a fresh expression has in many ways formed as a community before it's become an event, it will have a certain character, a certain culture and quality about it. And it really matters that we don't forget that when shaping shared worship. So if the heart of a fresh expression is a meal, and you're going to have communion, put it in the setting of the meal, don't tack it on afterwards. If it's in informal café-style, don't suddenly think you've got to set in rows. If the way of learning is very interactive, then keep the ministry of the word interactive. Partly it's about sensitivity to the local context, levels of education, what people are familiar to, how much of a homogeneous group is it and how much a diverse group that's going to need different approaches, but partly it's recognising the culture that under the Holy Spirit you've been helped to grow, and making sure that the worship is integral to it and not something tacked on to it or strange.

Don't import things that don't fit. You may love Taizé, you may love Iona, you may love contemporary worship songs. But find out first of all, do these people sing anywhere other than karaoke? If they've come from different cultures, how is worship and celebration and community shared in their culture? Draw out of people the right style and approach and don't just assume that there's a right way, called 'use all the words in the book', or a right way called '15 minutes of charismatic songs' or a right way called 'contemplative prayer', when you haven't done the engagement with the community or drawn out its gifts.

If a fresh expression is going to develop into a mature expression of church, then the sacraments - baptism and holy communion - are going to part of it and the heart of it. And it's first of all really important, normally a fresh expression will begin sacramental life not with communion but with Christian initiation, with baptism or renewal of baptismal vows or confirmation or some combination of all of those. And the first principle is this: please please whatever you do, carry that out in the fresh expression, when it normally meets, where it normally meets. Don't cart them off to the parish church, 'proper church' or something like that, to do that, because you're actually undermining the long-term ministry. It's this expression of the body of Christ that they are joining. Now if it's the tradition that everybody comes together for a bigger event, that's fine, but let the characteristics of the fresh expression have some place to be offered to the whole gathering, don't withdraw sacraments that introduce people to the Christian faith or restore them to it, from the daily and weekly life of the fresh expression. And when it comes to communion, each denomination has its disciplines and we need to stay within those disciplines, but there are various ways in which those disciplines can help. One thought that's occurred to me recently is that traditionally an ordained minister presides at holy communion because they are at the same time the leader of the worshipping community. Those two things don't necessarily go together, it may well be that there is an appropriate lay leader and team of the fresh expression, that the minister who's authorised acts as a chaplain, as a friend - isn't a stranger parachuted in - but actually his leading the worship is a connecting the fresh expression to the rest of the church, not a day to day leadership of that fresh expression even if the leaders of the fresh expression are accountable to him in other ways. Soul Survivor Watford for instance, a huge great youth and young adult congregation in St Albans Diocese, the overall leader is Mike Pilavachi and he's not ordained. The Associate Minister, Bob, is ordained and he's the one who presides. So leadership and presidency aren't necessarily the same thing.

Worship lies at the heart of Christian discipleship, but in our culture I'm not convinced that everybody knows how to worship. One of my friends says an awful lot of people who are created by God with an ability to relate to him and worship him, know so little about faith and so little of the biblical story that they just suppress that ability and it's as though it's never been taken out the box. And therefore just to assume that people who are beginning to be interested in Jesus know how to worship just because they're interested, doesn't actually follow. I think we may have to start much further back with something that's liturgy or worship sometimes without people realising it. When folk leave flowers at the site of a tragedy or an accident, they're using a symbol to express what they're feeling and their search for some sort of meaning at that tragedy that's happened. And that's a worship instinct, that's a prayer instinct, that's a cry out to God instinct. But we might have to start with the everyday life circumstances where people somehow want to raise questions of meaning or reach out to pray or ask for mercy or ask why, and build on those and develop those rather than just giving people prayers of confession, prayers of intercession and assume that they feel comfortable with them or know what to do with them.


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