Highlights

Architecture of worship

Feb 2014    

Worship architects are wise to truly understand what takes place in worship and who the participants are.

“There’s a method to my madness!” Have you ever heard anyone use this little idiom? It’s usually said with a smile when someone is trying to convince someone else that their crazy approach to doing something isn’t so crazy after all. It may look like madness at the time, but in the end the skeptic will surely see that it all makes sense.

John Wesley was one of those methodical individuals. Some skeptics of the Methodist movement in 18th century England accused him of being overly methodical; hence the term “Methodism” was derogatory at first. Perhaps Wesley responded more than once, “There’s a method to my madness!” His careful attention to detail and highly organised approach to promoting the spiritual values of the movement were features needed for its success. There was always a method to his madness. The results speak for themselves.

When worship leaders approach the holy task of preparing for corporate worship, there must be a method to their madness. Various methods to worship planning are commonly used today.

Unfortunately, many of them lead to what I call “programme worship” – worship that results in an agenda of inspirational, presentational items but fails to conceive of the worship event as a true dialogue between God and people. While the average worshipper will likely be unaware of the method that has been used to create an order of service, they will likely be aware when they have experienced a dynamic encounter with the triune God in community.

I would like to suggest the metaphor of “worship architect” as an approach to worship planning. The duties of an architect and a worship designer are very similar. The Scriptures employ the architect motif in several places (see Heb. 3:3-4 and Heb. 11:10). Let’s consider, then, how thinking like an architect might give us insight into building services that honour God.

First, an architect considers the purpose of the building. What activity will go on within its walls? Who will participate and how will the building support the primary actions of those involved?

For instance, when designing a school building, an architect must think about the ages of the learners, the educational method that will be used, and co-curricular activities offered.

Worship architects are wise to truly understand what takes place in worship and who the participants are. When designing worship, one of the first things needed is the answer to some key questions: What is the purpose of worship? What is the nature of the event? Who are the participants? How do the participants carry out the actions of worship?

An architect will lay foundations for the building so that the structure is solid and resistant to destructive forces. Certain materials and procedures must be used to ensure stability.

While visiting Singapore last June, I marvelled at the architectural feat of reclaiming the coastline to make way for skyscrapers. It was astounding to think that structures as magnificent as the Gardens by the Bay could be built on reclaimed coastlines. The right materials and procedures in the hands of brilliant architects and engineers make for sure foundations in what was once shifting sand.

Worship architects likewise lay solid biblical foundations for worship. They consider those features of worship that must be in place to give the service solid grounding. They ask this question: “What must be true of all Christian worship – in all times and places?” Worship architects make sure that acts of worship are grounded in the Trinitarian God, are Christ-centred, are truly corporate, are dialogical between God and people, and are aware of the eternal, unceasing reality of worship.

Next, the architect creates rooms by erecting load-bearing and inner walls. The building is framed to facilitate the activities that will take place there. Worship also has a structure to it – an order of service. Just as a building has outer walls and inner walls, I think public worship has a large order of service and a more detailed order within the larger framework.

Think of worship as having four “rooms” – a room for gathering in God’s presence, a room for hearing a word from the Lord, a room for responding to God’s message, and a room for being sent back into the world. Gathering, Word, Response, Sending. This is the model we see so often in scripture whenever there is a God-with-person(s) encounter. God initiates the encounter, God speaks a message, the recipient responds, and is ultimately sent to do the will of God.

As a worship architect, begin to think conceptually about your worship service. Can you develop it into four primary sections that follow this four-fold order? If so, you are well on your way to helping people enter into God’s presence, hear from God, speak in turn to Him, and receive the power needed to accomplish the mission God has in mind.

The acts of worship that occur from room to room will vary greatly from place to place due to many factors. That is natural and healthy. Think about your context and your people. Then help them carry on a “worship conversation” with God by leading them through a well-structured service of worship.

After the walls are up, a building architect activates another set of drawings that includes adding doors and windows. Doors and windows, in particular, allow for light, access, movement, and more. Worship architects employ such things as prayers, music and the arts, the sacraments, and the Christian calendar to shed light on what is happening in worship. These things become a means through which we are enlightened in our relationship with God and one another. They help facilitate the conversation of Christian worship.

Last, architects add stylistic features to the rooms that express the culture of the occupants. Décor adds flair to the building and helps identify it with a certain clientele. Worship architects get to know their people and help them express their worship in ways that are intuitive to their culture. In recent decades, many churches have made the mistake of borrowing styles from other people and places, lured by the promise of “success” (growth) or hoping to achieve “cutting-edge worship” (the latest fad).

But if worship is a conversation between God and people, think of worship style as the language of the dialogue. We don’t borrow languages; we speak in our own language. There is no such thing as a universal worship style. Styles shouldn’t be imposed upon congregations; instead, worship architects help the community find their natural means of expressing doxology and then assist them in refining their means for conversing with God.

Worship architects have a method to their madness. They prayerfully consider the purpose of worship, the necessary biblical foundations for worship, the ordering of the conversation (structure), the various means for enlightening the encounter with God, and the style (language) that best expresses a community’s worship in any given locale. The method will yield as many different, creative worship services as there are buildings in Singapore! And each service will bring glory to God.

Picture by bloomua, stvan4245, Joss, mizina and nikkytok, Bigstock.com

Dr Constance Cherry is Professor of Worship and Christian Ministries at Indiana Wesleyan University, and has served on the faculty of the Robert E. Webber Institute for Worship Studies since 2000. She speaks and teaches internationally in the areas of worship and church music.

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