Lately we’ve been engaging in some self-evaluation at our church, raising questions about what would be required for our congregation to grow. At a recent meeting we discussed the experience of people in our worship service on Sunday morning. Generally speaking, there is a lot of interpersonal warmth in our congregation during the service. Early on in the service we have a “passing of the peace” that is distinctive in regards to its energy and the amount of time it lasts (a couple of minutes.) Personally, I enjoy our passing of the peace. It begins with my declaring the good news: that in Christ we are forgiven and claimed as God’s children, and now, delivered from the powers of darkness that have held us bondage in the past week, we are free to joyfully greet one another in Christ’s peace. By nature a shy person, empowered by my pastoral role I enjoy getting past my innate shyness, and losing myself in the sharing of the warmth.
There are, of course, people who do not appreciate the passing of the peace as I do. It can come across as somewhat overwhelming –perhaps invasive. If I was a relative newcomer, adorned in my usual shyness, the passing of the peace might significantly raise my anxiety level. On the hand, people don’t get ignored here, which unfortunately sometimes happens elsewhere. Newcomers encounter a lot of smiling faces with hands extended in greeting.
In our discussion, someone made a comment about how perhaps we put too much emphasis on friendliness. The comment didn’t register real well among the people present, but the valid point that I understood him to be making was this: yes, we come to church hoping to find friendliness, but there is something else that we can lose track of in our focus on friendliness, which is an encounter with God.
In my mind, friendliness and an encounter with God go hand in hand, in so far as a true encounter with God leads to a renewed capacity to care for other people, and “an encounter with God” that doesn’t lead to a deepened capacity for loving the neighbor is, in my mind, very suspect indeed.
But as I thought about this, I realized that I do have strong feelings about what I expect to happen when people gather together for worship that goes beyond simple friendliness. In the course of worship I hope to enter a deep place in my soul — a place of reverence where I can contemplate what truly matters in life in the awareness of the fact that we are mortal and all too soon our lives in this world will be over. So much of life in this world is lived on a very shallow, superficial level; when I come to worship, I hope that I will be led in the course of the service to that place of depth where God can speak to me at the core of my being. If that doesn’t happen, I am disappointed.
When it comes to preferences in worship styles, I learned long ago you can’t please everybody. It seems, however, that in evaluating worship experiences, it is important to hold these two concerns together: Is the experience leading people from the surface of life to the depths, where they can encounter God? And, is the experience creating the kind of community where love is tangible and real?