Sunday, February 22, 2015


This past fall, I spent time with colleagues in ministry exploring facets of leadership in a program called Foundations of Christian Leadership, hosted by Duke Divinity School. One of the leadership skills we explored was improvisation. At the time, the exercises seemed a little out of place -- at the very least uncomfortable or beyond my natural skill set -- but I find mysel returning to this idea of improvisation again and again, particularly as it relates to worship, and specifically the work of leading worship.

This past Sunday, worship had all the components of complication: first Sunday in Lent, disrupted worship schedule due to snow, lots of visitors and extra worship participants, last minute arrivals and complicated hymnal flipping liturgy. Oh, and baptisms and confirmation. Head spinning stuff. Truly. For a while we feared we would have to toss in the imposition of ashes too, but the weather cooperated and we side-stepped that.

Worship at its most authentic is spirit-led... Sure, It has choreography and order, but we invite the unpredictable Spirit into our offering of adoration and praise to a wily, creative and whimsical God. Yes, there is a timeline and everyone needs to have a sense of where we are headed. The bulletin has to be completed days in advance and liturgists and other participants must be apprised of their roles. But space for the Spirit necessarily opens us up to different movement, keeps us on our toes, makes space for the unexpected divine.

It is hard to let go of a very human need for order and control. I would suggest that most modern churches came to be out of some drive to contain and not free the Spirit. So there is work to be done.

Here are investments and awarenesses that I am experiencing that make improvisation possible and effective from the chancel. 

Leadership needs to be grounded in the Word and in solid theology - especially theology of worship. Worship is the work of the people to honor God. Why do we do certain things? What must happen? What scripture informs and shapes worship in this community and how do we revisit this in our planning and our decision making? How is our worship shaped by our denominational tradition? Our local tradition? This wisdom is not confined to seminary trained and ordination is a gift we have to all share. The more people aware, the deeper our community reach becomes in worship. The more who know, the more that will be able to be fully present to the work of worship.

There needs to be a deep trust in the other participants and within the gathered body. Think about the trust that needs built with the music director, the choir, the liturgists, the acolytes. Everybody needs to be able to trust that when the Spirit moves, we can stay true to the Spirit and back one another up. Sometimes watching my pastor lead worship is like watching people play frisbee. When it leaves the pasto's hand, he trusts someone will catch that flying disc. And we all have to be able to trust the next move. And the next. Think of how this grows and builds in a worshipping community...and of the diligent and intentional investment that makes this happen. Sone days it is like watching grass grow, but over time, what a lush lawn it could be!

Then we have to be risk-tolerant. Yes, I know that is not "the way we do" (communion, prayers of the people, passing of the peace, the offering, the procession, the benediction--you fill in he blank), but here's where the Spirit has taken us and we are still moving through this ing called worship. Will you trust me? Will you follow along?

In the hymn "The Summons" (TFWS 2130) we sing:
Will you come and follow me if I but call your name?
Will you go where you don't know and never be the same? 
Will you let my love be shown, 
Will you let my name be known, 
Will you let my life be grown in you and you in me?

In some ways, our willingness to invite the Spirit of the living God into our act of worship demands we answer this summons with a resounding YES!

The result means there is some unknown element, maybe a little chaos, lots of hard work...that shapes us, individually and communally, into something beautiful if we let it.

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