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What defines authentic worship?

By Rev Claire Dawe, Manningham Uniting Church

In a bid to explore creative ways of offering meaningful and authentic worship, I sometimes attend conferences and study different ideas looking at re-imagined forms of worship and being church.

Many are incredibly creative, but I wonder if they actually are forms of worship or if they are “just” engaging activities that point us towards God and help to form our faith.

I’m not trying to be provocative, I’m simply asking the question. Just because someone calls something “worship”, it doesn’t mean that’s the case – but then I wonder why isn’t it the case?

I wonder if you recognise this struggle.

I appreciated the Rev Rose Broadstock’s article in February’s Crosslight about the simplicity of worship at Heathcote UC.  Such authentic gathering and exploration of what they were seeing in the early church was an inspiration.

If we consider worship to be the gathering of people in order to praise God, to be formed in faith and to develop in discipleship, then it could be argued worship should incorporate the whole of the person’s life – every word, thought and deed to the glory of God.

But does worship need certain elements to be present in order to be worship?

During Uniting Church worship, we gather, share the word, take part in the sacrament of communion (once a month, perhaps), and are “sent out” beyond the gathered community. Worship is about everyone participating, it is not a consumer event where we are entertained by a performer. Neither is it about watering down the message to make it more “accessible”, whatever that actually means.

Participation doesn’t mean every single person present is given a role in the service, it means that everyone is encouraged to take part in what’s happening, whether it is praying as a community, singing, listening or taking part in an activity. The key point is that worship is not entertainment, it is for engagement and participation, but somehow that is not understood by all of those attending our services and I wonder how we reached this point of misunderstanding.

A former colleague used to lead a midweek worship in the form of a walk and meditation group. The worshippers walked through the local area for an hour and prayed as they walked – they gathered as a faith community, they shared the Scriptures as they walked, they shared table fellowship at a local café and then they were sent out.

To me, this was a form of worship because my colleague reflected the message of the texts and the places they visited along the way, contextualising the learning from the texts during the walk. They were the people of God gathering to praise God, to form in faith, develop in discipleship and participating fully.

Rev Dr Stephen Burns once said worship “should be an event to which people can bring their gifts, artistic and otherwise … so that what happens is authentically the people’s, and makes something good out of the diverse gifts of the community”.

This is a fully participatory model of worship where services perhaps evolve in order to be able to incorporate the diverse gifts of the worshippers.

A major building project at one of our churches has resulted in an evolution of worship in order to manage the limited available space. This has meant some people have discovered previously unknown gifts, something we don’t want to lose once the project is finished.

Perhaps churches, as they face new challenges, should hone their understanding of worship. They could be Rose’s rural congregations without ordained clergy placements, but led by faithful, hardworking lay people, or my suburban churches facing the physical and emotional demands of a building project.

They are different situations, but the necessity to think differently perhaps moves us out of our comfort zones. But how do we ensure what we are calling worship is actually worship? And I’m back at the beginning again.

I wonder if you recognise this struggle?

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