A key requirement for good worship, according to Trey Hall, is honesty about our lives. When worship planners and leaders are too focused on “getting it right,” we easily overlook what needs to be said and shown––in language and ritual––for the sake of honesty in worship. The rubrics and orchestration of movement help to eliminate distractions from prayer, but willingness to fail leads to worship that has life.
Although the congregation Hall founded and serves has Methodist roots, he seems to be saying, with Martin Luther, that a Christian––and, by extension, Christian worship––ought to “sin boldly.”
If Jesus’ “let go of your life” guidance is true, then one mark of good worship, at least for an American context, is the capacity of the Christian community to be deliberately honest about our individual and collective failure: in a sustained and integrated fashion, to tell the truth, both liturgically and homiletically, about what has gone down, and to continue to risk failure for the sake of the Gospel.
Good worship displays narratively and ritually the difficult truth that part of Jesus’ persistent medicine in all stages of the salvation journey is to push us again and again toward the edges of both minor pitfalls and epic failures into a subterranean grace that is finally beyond what we can predict or manage. Good worship stops resisting (or at least confesses our tendency to resist) the good news that, according to Jesus and Paul, failure is part of living a true story and therefore can be a sacrament of freedom.
Pastors, worship planners, and worship leaders working hard to avoid mistakes and ritual failure, tend to make the mistake of employing three failure avoidance strategies. They seek to:
1) Create worship that is always “excellent” because God always desires our best offering. This sounds theologically right on, but often results in hyperpolished and overproduced liturgies that leave no space for mess. . . [with] flawlessly blocked processions; perfectly timed light cues; always seamless transitions; band or organ or soloist-focused music whose preciousness or precision actually diminishes congregational singing. . .
2) Use the denominationally sanctioned rubrics for Confession and Assurance, Prayers of the People, Great Thanksgiving, and so forth, but do not dive too deeply into the subjects they refer to. For example, it was reported that on Sunday, July 14, 2013, only twelve hours after the announcement of the Zimmerman not-guilty verdict pointed painfully to the personal and structural racism that still plagues America, 85 percent of churches failed to mention the verdict in any way in worship.
3) Evaluate others’ failures instead of mining your own. This classic strategy appears in innumerable guises, but one small contemporary example is how fashionable it has become of late, in some mainline and evangelical Christian circles, to critique “spiritual but not religious” people.
What makes worship good is the consistent and creatively reframed invitation—ritualized and extemporaneous, scripted and improvised—for the gathered community to intentionally trip over the stumbling block, to experience the scandal of the cross that gathers in and interprets, crucible-like, all of our mess, and to fall into the foolishness of grace.
- Trey Hall is one of the lead pastors of Urban Village Church, Chicago, Illinois.
Trey Hall, “Failure Makes Worship Good,” Liturgy 29, no. 2 (31 Jan 2014): 20-26.