It was high church at its best; the clergy came in full attire processing in with the cross, the flame, the Word of God, and the Eucharist. The organist pounded the keys through the processional, and the postlude was not exit music – worshipers were instructed to sit and listen as the postlude was the conclusion to the service. The hymns were those that required an organ, like “Lift High the Cross” and “A Mighty Fortress is Our God”, or “Are We Yet Alive.” Even the grandest of grand pianos tend to coward at the first note of those hymns and Garrett’s specially-designed-just-for-that-sanctuary-elevated-organ seemed to mock the other instruments in the room.
We always sang the Psalter following the lead of the cantor who could make sense of those little red dots above the lines in the Psalms at the back of the hymnal singing un-rhyming verses to melodies that only made sense to the trained ear. The communion liturgy was always the longest and most elevated moment of the service. The professors worked harder, I am convinced, at crafting The Great Thanksgiving each week than they did writing their sermons. And they always used the Word and Table I outline from The United Methodist Hymnal making use of the even more complicated musical responses. It was an impressive and sometimes otherworldly experience boldly labeled: The Traditional Service.
The funny thing is, back home in Edwardsburg I grew up worshiping in what I assumed to be a traditional worship service. The Adamsville United Methodist Sanctuary played host to the same amount of ritual and tradition as that of the Garrett Sanctuary to be sure; it just looked different – very different. We sang from two hymnals. The first being of course The United Methodist Hymnal. The second was a small wire-bound book of praise choruses. If my memory serves me right it was more or less a pre-cursor to today’s Faith We Sing Hymnal. The worship order included selected hymns for the week but it wasn’t unusual for a worshiper to shout up to the organist (my mom) “Hey Sandie, let’s do #405!”
There was also a children’s message every week during which I would sit uncomfortably aware that I was the focal point of 50 pair of eyes waiting anxiously for whatever “cute” thing would come out of our mouths. The minister was a tuba player; a really bad tuba player who at any given moment might start playing along with the hymn or even worse play a solo-hymn to fill in that “special music” vacancy. He followed his special music with an equally dreadful sermon. (Here’s a tangential secret about my own call – I might just be serving the church today in effort to undo the damage that minister may have caused). There was also a weekly offering following the sermon during which the ushers, who had been standing in the narthex chatting during the first half of the service, would make their grand entrance into the sanctuary, offering plates in hand, and then promptly head to the office to count the cash during the closing of worship. I am confident that they never at any time other than the offering came into worship. Finally, worship always, and to this day still does, conclude with the worshipers joining hands to sing “Let us depart to serve him…” to the tune of “O come let us adore him…” That was traditional worship, and any variance thereof was simply, something else.
During college worship happened on Tuesday mornings with the Southern Baptist version of Garrett’s traditional service but my “voluntary” worship came from two places. The first was University Christian Fellowship located in an auditorium-like sanctuary in one of the richest neighborhoods in American. The service consisted of four parts.
- Part One: 45 minutes of pure rock-n-roll praise music.
- Part Two: Prayers.
- Part Three: 45 minutes of Biblical instruction working out of the assumption that college students are bound
for hell without this message.
- Part Four: two highly emotional praise choruses.
My second worship experience took place in a storefront sanctuary in a rundown part of downtown Birmingham, Alabama. The ceiling leaked, and the floors were stained with cigarette burns and spilt coffee. The air was a mixed fragrance of southern home-cooking for the weekly lunch and the stench of unwashed homeless bodies and alcohol breath. We took prayer requests for 20 minutes every week. We also sang a tune called “Victory is Mine” every week during which 85 year old Mildred would dance in front of the congregation while hunched over in her back brace with her arms held as high as possible praising God. Pastor Higgs would preach every week but inevitably would be interrupted by the occasional side conversation, or tussle in the back of the sanctuary as hungry men and women lined up outside the doors waiting for the post-worship meal to be served. At The United Methodist Church of the Reconciler that was traditional worship.
I am who I am today largely because of these varying experiences of worship. At Garrett, professionally trained organists with degrees in sacred music unfortunately gave me a strong disliking for the organ. Conversely in that same space I came to love, even long for, the rich texts of the spoken liturgy. My home congregation taught me that church is defined by the faith of the people, not by the minister. It also taught me that hymns sung in repetition come through for us in times of need, when we can pull them from our memory banks and sing them when the world is trying to convince us not to sing. University Christian Fellowship taught me that when I drop my guard and lift my hands in the air to sing it can be an incredibly liberating experience. It also taught me that some, not all, but some contemporary praise choruses have terrible theology. Finally, the Church of the Reconciler taught me that worship is meant to be an authentic expression of those who show up. If Miss Mildred wants to dance in the aisle then let her dance. If the only musician who shows up that day is the drummer then drums it is. And if Willie wants to stand up every week and announce that he’s a whole week sober, again, then praise God.
When I reflect on those past worship experiences I realize that they had two things in common. The first being that in all of the services I left each week having had a meaningful experience of God that shaped my Christianity, and consequently my whole life. Secondly, every worship experience contained some elements that either made me uncomfortable, that I did not enjoy, that I didn’t find to be particularly meaningful, or even felt unsafe. And in reflection, it might just be the case that the latter of the two commonalities have had the greatest impact on my Christianity today. The jury is still out on that one.
I also realize in reflection that the worship we experience at Sunnyside is an eclectic expression of each of my past experiences. It is also an authentic expression of the community of people who call Sunnyside “home.” The United Methodist Hymnal plays a prominent role. Sometimes the tunes are reimagined but Charles Wesley’s words still teach us about our faith. New music is inserted every week. The spoken liturgy tries hard to tell the story of our faith through scripture, and prayers, and the Eucharist. And every week the congregation is invited to tell our stories and sometimes those stories come in bunches through prayer requests, and other times they come from the testimony of individuals who want to share a story of God’s new found presence in their lives.
There are moments in our worship when I feel breathtakingly close to God, and then there are those moments when I want to hide and remove my name from the credits. There are Sunday’s when I am convinced I just preached the worse sermon in the history of preaching. And then there are great victories like the wedding of Todd and Michele Yeurgens right in the middle of worship. Every Sunday we gather around the bread and cup in a place called Sunnyside United Methodist Church. We participate in the joyous celebration of God’s love for us and we call it worship. Sometimes it is beautiful and sometimes it is a downright mess. Sometimes it strikes me to the core and sometimes I walk away empty only to learn that someone else had a life changing experience. That is what happens when a community of people come together week after week for the purpose of worship; for the purpose of allowing God to shape and form us to be the People of God in the world.
And some day, ten, twenty, thirty years down the road someone is going to share their memory of a little church called Sunnyside and they’ll begin their story with, “Let me tell you what traditional worship is….”