Sometimes, even worship leaders need to choose the lesser of two evils. The greater of two evils, in this case, is when parishioners’ subconscious minds forget that they’re not in junior high school anymore.
Be the first to raise your hand when asked a question by the teacher, and you risked being branded a ‘keener’, and maybe even getting a wedgie by the bike racks after school. So no matter how we actually felt about the teacher, the subject matter or school in general, it was usually safest to appear a little blasé about the whole education experience.
And that habit has become so ingrained in us that in some spaces, it’s become our default. Only the keenest of keeners will speak up at a workplace townhall, I’ve found. And I’ve even heard of pastors-in-training snickering behind the backs of their classmates who are always eager to pipe up with the right answer during classes at seminary.
I’ve also picked up on a subtle, but unmistakable, strain of this phenomenon in my church. Specifically, when I, as music leader on a given Sunday, invite people to stand and join us in worship, most of them do both – they stand and they join us in worship. When I give them permission (by all of the power vested in me) to stand, sit, kneel or prostrate themselves as they feel comfortable, a lot of them sit.
Not because they need to sit for health reasons, or think the worship is better in their seats, but because they don’t want to stand out in the crowd – literally (or so it appears from my vantage point, at least).
And unlike most neuroses, KeenerPhobia is quite contagious. If 10 people out of 120 don’t stand for the opening set, 20 might not choose to stay seated for the offertory song. More opt out at communion time. And by the recessional song, we have maybe a third of our congregation still seated.
In and of itself, that’s not a problem. We worship with our souls – not our soles – after all. But from where I’m standing, it looks a lot like a seated worshipper’s reluctance to appear too eager with their feet carries over, without them even realizing it, to their hearts. They’re less engaged with the service and, therefore, potentially, with God.
That’s why, a year or more ago, I consciously stopped overtly giving people the option to stay seated during worship music. My blah-blah-blahing between Songs 1 and 2 (AKA the Call to Worship) almost always ends with the phrase, ‘We invite you to stand and join us as we continue in worship.’ I think the word ‘invite’ makes it clear that standing isn’t compulsory (as if the volunteer music leader has any authority to make anything compulsory in the first place).
And the fact that our church’s preschoolers regularly gather in the mini-mosh pit near the stage for some freestyle liturgical dance during our songs ought to send the signal that we’re all free to worship in our own way at our church, shouldn’t it? People can be trusted to pick up on that vibe, can’t they?
Mmm, maybe not.
A friend pointed out to me recently that many longtime Anglicans feel obligated to stand when someone with a mic says ‘stand’ and stay that way until someone with a microphone says ‘Please be seated’. Unfortunately, these veteran Anglicans are often pretty elderly and therefore might have a hard time staying on their feet for three consecutive songs. When they do it anyway, they’re so uncomfortable by the end that worship is nowhere near the top of their minds.
Ouch. Sorry about that, folks. Not at all my intention.
If anyone in that camp – whether you’re elderly or have any other health-related reason to stay seated during the music – is reading these words, you have my perpetual permission to sit during any and all church services in any denomination anywhere in the world. (The same goes for people for whom the worship is genuinely better seated than standing, for whatever reason.) And if anyone gives you grief, send ’em Baldy’s way and I’ll set ’em straight.
But I’m not in a hurry to change the way I call people to worship. I’m not slamming the door on that idea, but I’m not walking through it right now, either.
As my pastor, Stephen Hambidge, has said several times over the years, Jesus is much more interested in our character than our comfort. Similarly, I don’t want you to worship in the way you feel comfortable (After all, sitting is always more comfortable than standing, and for that matter, listening to a sermon on your iPod while sitting on your couch is always more comfortable than actually attending a church service. Comfort, in some contexts, is overrated.), I want you to worship in the way you feel called.
So when I’m entrusted with the responsibility to do the calling, I’m going to challenge, encourage and invite parishioners to go a little further than their default.
As I said, KeenerPhobia is contagious, and so is its opposite: KeenerMania. The more people stand up for worship, the more people stand up for worship. Five people raise their hands this week, maybe 10 will do it next week. If a dozen parishioners applaud (for God, not us musicians) after the music wraps up today, maybe a hundred will put their hands together next Sunday.
As St. Huey of Lewis put it, ‘I can see what’s going on: it’s hip to be a square.’
There ain’t nobody here but us Christians, and it’s been months since an adult got a wedgie in a Calgary Anglican church. So who, exactly, are we trying to impress?
Peace be with you.