I spent much of my energy in seminary in historical studies and in the theology of worship. So, I feel like I have something to offer in this conversation. Yet, I do feel somewhat on the sidelines as I watch my peers offer their leadership on the denominational level. I am sure that part of my feelings are because I do not often actively seek to include myself and make my voice heard. I certainly should not pass on the invitation to offer my thoughts on worship and authority.
It strikes me how central worship is to the stream of traditions that has emerged from the Schwarzenau Brethren of 1708. It was through radical acts of worship that this movement started. There were secret Bible studies, Love Feasts in people’s homes, and believer’s baptism (a capital offense). Anabaptists had already been around for nearly 200 years, enduring the full brunt of religious persecution for defying the state church authority. But even in 1708, the theological implication of believer’s baptism was to claim allegiance to the authority of Jesus Christ over and separate from the authority of the state.
Baptism does not quite have the same gravity today, but it is important to keep in mind that, traditionally speaking, Jesus is to be understood as the primary source of authority. Yet, authority is not a one way street. The community must understand and interpret the teachings and example of Jesus in light of its own relationships and experience. This can be a very messy thing and there are sources of authority that influence us whether we like it or not, or even if we are aware of them.
I have reflected on authority in isolation in another post: Authority and Receptivity.
For me, worship is a part of becoming more receptive to Divine authority. There is a distinctly prophetic function to the activity of worship that is very important in my thinking. Sunday worship can often be more about encountering one another than about encountering God. Yes, a basic tenant of Brethren theology is that God is encountered through our relationships with one another, but worship is a time to be more intentional about expressing this belief. Our work and service can certainly be worshipful, as we strive to be doers of the Word, but we also need to set apart time and space to hear and be grounded in that Word.
There is a much deeper conversation about the role of Scripture in this process. I find the COB’s 1979 statement on Biblical Inspiration and Authority to be a very helpful and more or less complete discussion on the topic. Its breadth and complexity may be problematic for some, but I appreciate that we continue to affirm the document.
In my recent experience, I am given a voice within worship at the Beacon Heights congregation as a participant in the worship planning team. Part of this is planning and coordinating a worship service every 6-8 weeks. There is a collaborative part of this, where other members of the team suggest hymns, songs, and other possible elements to fit within the service. The preacher also gives a synopsis of the upcoming sermon. Most of the time, I end up not being overly creative and stick to the basic pattern that the congregation tends to follow. I almost always compose my own gathering liturgy, such as a call to worship and/or an invocation prayer. This is an important place to set a prophetic tone for the time of worship. My final project in MDiv review was specifically on the call to worship and its prophetic function in “free church” worship.
I cannot really say where specifically the authority in worship is located, or where it should be located. God’s authority can be present and experienced in worship in any number of different ways in various contexts, through various different sources that may be given a certain level of authority, consciously or unconsciously. I acknowledge that I have some worship authority in my own context, but I am far from being the authority, even on the Sundays when I put together the worship service. I probably have more freedom than I take, but I like to keep the expectations of the community in mind as I work. Honestly, it is much easier to follow an established pattern than it is to reinvent the worship wheel every week.
In closing, my thoughts return to my sideline feeling. I wonder how many others are in a similar position, whether it is because of age, personality, lack of connections, or any other reason. It is very relevant to the question about who we call out as a community to provide leadership and how we develop their skills. The prophetic voice often comes from places that are not looked for and even unexpected. It is quite a challenge to invite the unexpected into worship, which often demands some type of adherence to an established pattern. What are some ways we can do this?