choir at Cathedral church in the Welsh city of Brecon

The Heart of Worship

by Ken McIntosh

I’ve just returned from two weeks in the United Kingdom, where Christian faith has an ancient and storied history that contrasts with the lack of church attenders in the present day. According to a 2015 survey, Great Britain is among the least religious countries in the world.  In a global ranking of 65 countries, the UK came six places from last, with 30% of the population calling themselves religious. Some churches continue to thrive in the UK, but many rural congregations are only a handful of members.

On a Thursday evening my wife and I entered the Cathedral church in the Welsh city of Brecon and sat ourselves in the section of the building where the choir sings, in order to hear Evensong. There was one other person in attendance there—an older gentleman who greeted us briefly, apparently a local. The lector came, asked us to stand, and the choir processed in—a dozen people of mixed ages and gender, robed in scarlet. After the service began, a group of four German tourists walked into the Cathedral and decided to sit in the larger sanctuary space and listen.

The service was perfect—as I expected in a Cathedral church. The Welsh are famous for singing, and this choir was no exception. The voices, the enormous pipe organ, and the acoustics were out of this world. The readings were pronounced by a speaker whose voice certainly merited a career on the BBC. And I couldn’t help thinking…such a huge place of worship, such a meticulously rehearsed service, yet if the tourists hadn’t wandered in, and we hadn’t made that trip to hear the choir…they would have had one congregant.

Yet there was a sort of beauty to that. Now, please don’t misunderstand me. My life is all about the worship of God and I rejoice when I see communities of faith growing. My vocation is helping churches to increase, and I love it when I see churches at home or abroad flourishing. I dearly wish that the nave had been filled with worshipers that evening. And yet…there was something pure and delightful about that service.

I realized that choir would have sung just as beautifully, the organ sounded just as grand, and the Scriptures read with the same eloquence if only that one gentleman had been in attendance. Or, I strongly expect, it would be the same if there were no human audience.

“O sing unto the LORD a new song: sing unto the LORD,” says the Psalmist (96:1). Thankfully, the choirs and worship groups at our churches usually sound forth praise to the Lord and to a congregation. The participation of those gathered adds to the energy of the worship event. At my own church, the congregation usually claps and exclaims when the choir finishes singing—and rightly so; it’s a good feeling for the choir and for the rest of us to hear that appreciation. I’ve also been in churches where the worship vibe was similar to what used to be the experience at Grateful Dead shows—the crowd and the band sending pulses of energy back and forth, clapping and dancing with abandon.

And the blessing of an audience is also a subtle temptation, because performing in front of a human audience, who are responsive and appreciative, it’s easy to forget that our worship is “unto the Lord.” Hearing their congregation clap or smile, the musicians may not hear God silently applaud, or see the Creator’s smile. But when a choir and musicians faithfully execute their craft for an audience that are half their size—or for no audience—they are touching the very heart of true worship.

When I was ordained as a minister, I was given a charge by the Reverend Stanley Green, then my bishop in the Mennonite Church. In that sermon he kept urging me to discharge the various responsibilities of my calling “for an audience of one.” Over and over, in different ways, he urged me not to base my ministry on either the praise or the disparagement of the people in my future churches; to keep my focus undivided on what best serves God.

That’s never easy to do, because the clamor of yay-sayers and nay-sayers can drown out the still small voice of Jesus. That charge has pursued me for decades now, and it sometimes seems more difficult as I grow older, but I keep trying to focus on Christ despite all the words that press around me. I hope that our churches continue to be filled with active worshipers, adding to the energy of praise. Yet it would be good for all of us who serve God’s people, either as ministers or singers or in any other way, to remember that we are ultimately performing our skills for an audience of one—for The One.

image credit: Ken McIntosh

One thought on “The Heart of Worship”

  1. Thanks for this reminder, Ken! I will soon be taking on the role of worship leader at church. I have done it as a “substitute”, but will soon be doing it on a regular basis. It is always tempting to think of leading worship as a performance, rather than leading others into an experience of worship. We want to do play/sing as excellently as we can in order to honor God and not detract from the worship experience of the congregation, yet we do not want to think of it as performing for the congregation. I think the concept of performing for an audience of One strikes just the right balance!

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