If you were to close your eyes and imagine the perfect ‘experience’ of worship, what would it be like? Where would it begin? With the first hymn? … as you walk into the building?… as you kneel to pray?
I have learned over the years that there are lots of moments that lead me into worship and help me engage fully. Everything from walking through the door (platonic ideal: summer in the States, pushing a large wooden door open and crossing from brightness and heat to the cool soft light of the church), to the almost imperceptible pause as I move into the centre aisle and look at the altar (breath in, walk forward…), to taking off my glasses as I settle to pray. These accidental rituals have become part of the pattern of worship that helps me to focus on God.
The patterns depend on location, of course. In a familiar church, there are ritual greetings with the person you meet outside, the woman who hands you the hymnal, the child running towards you up the aisle. Meeting them is part of preparing to worship too. But there is a fine balancing point — we gather together for worship; yet we can’t let the business of gathering get in the way of the worship.
We have to make space for stillness and recollection. Space for God. And we make that space not only for ourselves, but for other people. Churches talk a lot about how we welcome people. And certainly, it is important that a newcomer is met warmly and helped to find what they need. But I wonder if we wouldn’t help visitors more if our priority were to create a prayerful space for them to enter. If the first thing they encountered was the vibrant hush of a community gathering in God’s presence.
But that’s easier said than done. In most churches, there are a thousand things going on in the last few minutes before the service. And while I long for the ideal of a prayerful stillness filling the church by the time to organ prelude begins, I realise that there are often good-enough reasons why it is not so — especially in a congregation where up to half of those gathered may be actually doing something for the service (serving, reading, welcoming, making coffee…).
So how do we prepare, in the midst of all that? I wonder if we need to plan further ahead. Not only so that there are fewer last minute things to be done, but so that we can handle them differently — quietly, prayerfully; so as to make space for others.
And for that, I think our preparations for church need to start much sooner. Not as we walk through the door, but as we leave the house. How can we use the journey to church as a journey into the fullness of God?
At one point in my life, my drive to church was 75 miles in each direction (this was America. 75 miles took 90 minutes.) Now, that sounds like a huge inconvenience, but I came to love it. The rule was: no radio, no music. That gave me 90 minutes to pray — or to deal with the surface chatter that was going to get in the way of praying. Time to look back on the week, to get in touch with the reality of what I was feeling, so that by the time I got to church, I was ready to offer that reality to God.
In other places, a ten minute walk to church has functioned the same way. But there the rule is: no thinking (or rather, no discursive thought). In ninety minutes there is time enough to move through the surface chatter of our minds to enter into stillness. In ten minutes, there isn’t. With ten minutes, we need a different strategy: disengagement. For me, that means tuning in as quickly as possible to what is around me: paying attention to the play of light, the sounds, the weight of the air as a way of focusing attention for God.
Still not feasible? Another strategy, say for a ten minute drive to church, is to allow fifteen minutes and to find a place to stop along the way. A five minute stop to stare out at the water and gather your thoughts might make a huge difference to your ability to focus on the service. Or, if you travel with someone, it may be as simple as finding a new rule: ‘no talking’. There are a thousand perfectly obvious ways one could do it; the hard bit is to enforce the pattern that works.
And if you have managed to begin your preparations on the journey, the trick is then to figure out how to stay focused in church. How can you meet and greet people and do what needs to be done without being swamped by distractions? I fear this takes a certain ruthlessness.
In the Southern part of the United States, it is still the custom to greet people with a slight smile-and-bow. Very useful in church. If done properly, it can be both warm and gracious — but unlike most other greetings, it is quiet, quick, and does not open the floodgates of distraction. I wonder if it translates into Scots…
The danger, of course, is that preparedness itself becomes a sacred cow. We can become so attached to our rituals that anything that disrupts them causes us so much stress that we are back to square one. But I still think it is worth trying to find patterns that work for us so we can take our part in creating that vibrant hush that comes when people are gathered together, ready to worship God.