At the Heart of Worship – Survey Series #11
Corresponds to Question 27 and 28 of the survey.
Worship is often at the center of our conversation with family, friends, and co-workers when we discuss spiritual and religious practices. Sociological and psychological studies and recent polls indicate that most people accept the existence of God. However, difficulties arise when talking about ways to relate to God, experience God, know God, or follow God’s call. This is precisely where the topic of worship makes a grand entrance, and how it occupies center place in our musings.
Considering what is at the heart of worship will help us to deepen our conversations on this matter. My personal journey, as someone who was raised in the Catholic faith and who worshiped for many years without a full understanding of the meaning of worship, has influenced my realization that we often miss what is at the heart of worship:
Communion with God is what is at the heart of worship!
Worship is about a personal and intimate communion which transforms and empowers us to be missionary in the community. We worship personally, but publicly, and so worship is about communion at a personal and communal level. Scripture helps us discern the centrality of this communion. We have been created in God’s image (Gen 1:26-27), in the image of a God who is communion and desires communion; thus we are created in communion and for communion.
Furthermore, we are liberated for communion. God liberated the Hebrew people who cried out to him. They were given freedom so that they could worship God and thus be in communion with him (Ex 4:23, 7:16; 8:1; 9:1; 10:3 – ‘serve’ instead of ‘worship’ used in some translations). Scripture reveals God inviting people to be in relationship with Him, and it is in worship that people are able to restore the broken communion with God, to experience renewed communion and also to express the communion present in their hearts. The experience of communion with God guides the disciples towards communion with neighbor, for the sake of the kingdom.
My intention in using a Scriptural lens is dual. Because I teach Scripture, it might appear that I have a bias. Although there is some truth to that statement, there is another factor influencing my reflection. Archbishop Lori’s Pastoral Letter, “A Light Brightly Visible” has inspired me also. Speaking about his own journey, the Archbishop states, “Have I allowed the Risen Lord in the power of the Holy Spirit to open my mind “to the understanding of Scripture? (Lk 24:45)” (A Light Brightly Visible, p 6).
With a scriptural lens, I offer some reflections on the survey. Five of the issues addressed in question #28 are directly connected to the experience of worship at the parish, namely (1) engaging homilies, (2) holy, reverent worship experience, (3) dynamic, lively worship experience, (4) outstanding music, (5) beautiful architecture. The other issues are indirectly connected to worship; they are catalysts for a ‘positive’ worship experience or would be the result of transformative worship.
- Engaging homilies – 60 % of the respondents across the archdiocese indicated that homilies were important, and of those, 45% of them were satisfied. This finding proposes two possible scenarios, either lack of awareness of the relevance of a homily in worship, or recognition of its place, but low expectations for good homilies, and thus diminished importance. Neither scenario is good. The homily has a privileged place of explaining Scripture and opening the hearts of the disciples for encounter and communion, as it was with the disciples on the road to Emmaus.
- Holy, reverent and
- Dynamic/lively worship experience – 44% of the respondents reported that holy and reverent worship was important, with only 1/3 (36%) satisfaction – almost half (48%) indicated that a dynamic, lively worship was important, yet only 1/3 (36%) were satisfied. These two markers might appear at first contradictory… how can worship be reverent and dynamic, or holy and lively? Not only can it be both, but it should be both. Holy and reverent does not negate dynamic and lively. The reverence comes from our interior disposition; holiness comes from the Spirit who can transform our ordinary lives into holy lives engaged in a dynamic and lively communion with God and neighbor.
- Outstanding music – was important for a 1/3 (35%) of the respondents, but of those only 1/3 were satisfied with the music. Considering the arguments that are usually voiced about the style of music during liturgies, I am surprised at this finding. Since liturgical music is inspired by Scripture and aims at communicating the biblical message in song, it is also surprising that more people did not consider it important.
- Beautiful architecture was important for about 1/4 of the respondents and 1/3 (33%) were satisfied.
Question #27 also provides information pertaining to worship. The primary reasons for not attending Mass at the main parish included: sports (37%), work/school (34%); health related issues (30%), no perceived need to attend weekly (29%). Interestingly, only 9% reported poor preaching as a reason; this is consistent with the low importance given to homilies in question #28.
In conclusion, music, architecture and homilies are relevant to the experience of worship. However worship will truly be the holy, reverent, dynamic and lively experience that we are looking for when we realize that at its heart we find communion with God. For example, being conscious of this reality would enable us to prioritize worship over sports.
Although we are nurtured during worship in many ways, Eucharist, God’s Word, homilies, music, and even environment, it is important to be mindful that the assembly –the people God calls to communion- also has a role beyond passive recipients. Communion is about relationship, and relationships are not one-sided, they are reciprocal. This demands that we come to worship prepared to be transformed and knowing what is central to worship.
Realizing that COMMUNION WITH GOD is at the heart of worship can truly transform our experience of worship:
How can your parish transform your parishioner’s experience of worship?
As director of music at St Elizabeth Ann Seton I was also surprised and somewhat dismayed by the “how important is outstanding music” results of our survey: to 22% of us it’s important but only 12% are satisfied with it, or perhaps because of the ambiguous way the question was crafted, satisfied that our music is actually outstanding. Neither possible answers give comfort and I have decided to elicit the help of parishioners to tease out what the question means, and what our response should be. Does anyone on this site know?
Thanks very much for the comment and important question. The intention of the question is to ask two totally separate questions: the first is meant to find out how important it is to parishioners to have outstanding music at Mass. So you have the 22% there. The second question refers to how satisfied parishioners are with the music that is currently offered at the parish. The hope is that it would shine light on how closely we are meeting our people’s needs, hopes, expectations, etc. It’s great that you’ve had this insight, and I hope it proves fruitful in your discussions at St. Elizabeth Ann Seton. And i hope you’ll hear more from other colleagues on the site as well.