Weakness in Worship

I don’t know if you’ve ever had the experience where you read a book that causes you to see things in a certain way and then you forget which book you read that was the source of your thinking. That happened to me this week so I went searching for the book. It’s by a theologian named Marva Dawn and it’s called Powers, Weakness, and the Tabernacling of God. My old pastor Larry Bowden at Resurrection UMC in Durham, NC loaned this book to me 5 or 6 years ago when I started talking about going to seminary. Basically Dawn wrote her book in response to the anxiety that a lot of (declining) churches have about being “successful” and “effective.” Her argument is that what we are most called to be is a place where it’s safe for people to be weak and vulnerable in contrast to the strength and success exuded in the world around us.

For a number of reasons, I bought into her view and it has shaped how I’ve approached the worship space I’m trying to create in the small, struggling contemporary worship service that I lead. To take this perspective has enormous implications for how you understand the appropriate atmosphere of a worship service. You are less interested in making worship crisp and comfortable and polished than you are in making worship a place where people feel comfortable crying and dancing (regardless of whether they have any rhythm). For example, rather than seeing it as a crisis when a long-winded, emotionally needy person rambles too long during your time of testimony or prayer requests, you celebrate the vulnerability and emotional intimacy that the Holy Spirit is using this socially awkward moment to create.

I remember at my old church Resurrection, one of the coolest things that happened was when a lady stood up during “joys and concerns” time and said, “I’ve got bipolar. I just got out of the hospital and I’m still not okay.” It was beautiful because it totally disrupted the sing-song-ish normal flow of joys and concerns which were usually “safe” prayer requests like relatives’ (non-mental-health-related) medical concerns or half-comical ones (my daughter just got her driver’s license — har har). Nobody knew what to say in response to such a raw outpouring of genuine need, so the woman ran out into the parking lot and I chased her. She was crying and I started to cry myself. I thanked her for helping the Holy Spirit to tear down the walls between us in our church. That was probably the moment when I started dreaming about leading a worship service in which people who don’t have their lives together can bring everything they’ve got bottled up inside to God’s altar and pour out their hearts in the presence of others who don’t judge or look at their watches but form a body of Christ around them. I really believe that if our worship experiences are supposed to instill us with the radical change of heart that the Greeks called metanoia, then one of the most important obstacles they need to smash is the imprisonment of our social propriety.

I want to believe despite the declining attendance at our Lifesign contemporary service that somehow God will bring the people there if we become a space where it’s safe to be vulnerable before God. I know there’s more to it than that. There’s marketing and branding and a whole lot of other considerations that I’m supposed to be concerned with. Are the songs too wordy? Are they not upbeat enough? Do the worship leaders have crisp, pithy sentences to introduce each song with the right kind of aw-shucks smile that exudes confidence and humility at the same time? What about audiovisual technology? Am I using enough movie clips in my sermons? Do I tell enough good jokes? Will people stick around if all these things aren’t in place? I hope so. I don’t think I’m crisp or clever enough to be a northern Virginia pastor. I’m horrible at time management for one thing. I don’t notice whether or not other people are singing the songs that I’m belting out. I hide behind my manuscript when I’m preaching.

The words from 1 Corinthians 2:1-3 describe how I feel right now: “When I came to you, I did not come with eloquence or human wisdom as I proclaimed to you the testimony about God.For I resolved to know nothing while I was with you except Jesus Christ and him crucified. I came to you in weakness with great fear and trembling.” Somehow it was good enough for Paul to “know nothing except Jesus Christ and him crucified.” I hope it’s good enough for me too. I really don’t know what I’m doing. I’m trying to trust that God’s got a plan. And so I worship on, hoping that God’s Word is true that “[His] power is made perfect in [my] weakness.”


6 thoughts on “Weakness in Worship

  1. I agree that worship spaces should enable us to be vulnerable before God and each other.

    I think that the Church has been historically effective at doing this by creating churches and Cathedrals which point to God by creating a sense of awe, by giving us some small sense of God’s majesty and enormity through architecture, art, music, and incense. By doing so, we realize how very small we are in comparison, and come to God with a sense of humility and vulnerability.

    • Cathedrals have a way of doing that because of their variety of spaces within the space. I still don’t think we should scorn the kids who want to rock out to Jesus as long as the lyrics are theologically sound (which they often aren’t).

      • Why can’t you rock out to Jesus in awe-inspiring churches? Some of the most rocking concerts ape the majesty of the mass as pageantry, including robes and smoke and bass and chanting.

        • I think an all-night Jesus rave in a ginormous cathedral with Eucharist celebrated at dawn would be a foretaste of heaven.

  2. I haven’t read that book, but I do love Marva Dawn. I’m not sure how a worship space can be that place of vulnerability, at least not among people who are still relative strangers. I would think that this kind of community is found in a small group akin more to a class meeting or covenant group.

    I feel your struggle though. “How do I get these people to keep coming without being Joel Osteen?” is how I put it to myself.

    • That’s a good point about whether we can have vulnerability that isn’t contrived in a large group where there’s anonymity. Our contemporary worship service at least at this point is so small that it’s practically a small group. I think I just want more of the Pentecostal spirit back in Methodism. And I’m tired of hearing people assess our worship service as though it’s a consumer product.

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