Letting Go: How blended-worship builds community

A few years ago I was visiting Holy Trinity Brompton in London for a conference. The worship that they do there on Sunday nights is one of the best experiences of worship I have known. I always look forward to attending those Sunday night services whenever I can when I am in London. They are contemporary and hip and cool and Spirit-filled, the praise songs are new and scripturally-based, the talk is also based on scripture but with applications for our life today. I have subscribed to HTB’s iTunes podcast so I can continue to listen to the talks from that great community in the heart of London. It is worth the plane trip just for one service.

I’ve always preferred since leaving Christian Science “contemporary” worship. It was through very laid back contemporary worship in a coffee house in San Diego that I became a Christian. It has always been my “preferred” worship “style” – it’s personal, it’s joyful, it’s collaborative, it’s fun, and I can take it home with me.

But of course, I’d become an Episcopalian – and that came with liturgy. In the early years as a college student attending my first Episcopal church, I didn’t know where the liturgy came from. I didn’t know about the Prayer Book, in fact, I thought John Howe, the rector of Truro then, wrote them as he prepared his sermons. It took several more years until I found out they were all in a book that was written centuries ago and I was so disappointed! How could old liturgy be fresh for today?

During that particular visit at HTB in London, I did not have the chance to go to the Sunday night services because I had to catch a plane home. So I decided I’d go to the early Eucharist service (yes, they had one then!) at 7:30 in the morning. It was a straightforward service, the organist was there and we sang traditional hymns and there was a short sermon, delivered by Nicky Gumbel in a blue suit. He’d dressed up, because normally we didn’t see him in a suit at all, but in a blue or white shirt and no tie. And certainly no collar.

However, when it came time to celebrate the Eucharist, he went behind the table in his blue suit and began the liturgy and I nearly jumped out of my chair – not in charismatic enthusiasm, mind you – but in outrage. Now wait just a doggone minute, I was shocked to find myself thinking. At least you could put on a stole, Nicky. Poor Nicky – I did realize he was wearing a suit – that was his liturgical vestments. But I had expectations that until that moment, I had no idea I now had. Something had apparently changed.

In that moment, as the Eucharist continued, I was dumbfounded. What had happened to me? Why should I care – when I had never cared – whether he put on a stole when he went behind the table? What was happening to me?

When did I become an Episcopalian?

That incident revealed that something indeed had happened – that through my exposure over the years to liturgy and excellence in traditional forms of worship, I had come to appreciate other forms of worship, that they had meaning. While I may still prefer the informality of a Sunday night service at HTB, I had come to respect the blended worship style we used at Truro, especially when it came to liturgy. In fact, blending worship styles together had become an artform in itself and to do it well was to see the liturgy come alive.

But something else happened along the way. In appreciating the different worship styles and discovering ways in which all the styles can work together in the same service, I also discovered that this opened up my life to all kinds of people that I never expected to care about so very much. By embracing the worships styles and blending them together – all founded and grounded in scripture and the historic understanding of the Book of Common Prayer – my whole world opened up.

Community was born.

So instead of catering worship services toward a particular style (and their enthusiasts), at Truro we aimed at excellence in worship that drew from all the styles – from the magnificent organ compositions of Bach, to the transcendent hymns of Charles Wesley, to the mission-minded songs by the Newsboys or Casting Crowns – it went on and on.

The first key was finding the finest scripturally-based compositions and offer them in worship with excellence, not as a performance, but as worship.

The second key was to discern how to blend it all together in one service. That took discernment and wisdom and the ability to risk.

All kinds of assumptions are made before we even begin – and we don’t know those assumptions until we begin. I had no idea that I’d freak out over a stole until it happened and I was stunned by my reaction. I had always been the one that wanted to get rid of vestments and pews as barriers to evangelism – what had happened?

I had come into relationship with those who had taught me the value in worship of some of those traditions. My world opened up. Through the guidance of the Holy Spirit – and through trial and error as well – we learned how to balance the informality of personal devotion with the grandeur of corporate celebration. Every week is an experiment – every week there is a possibility of failure. But that kind of risk produces an unexpected return.

I remember one time I was visiting Ascension and Saint Agnes on Massachusetts Avenue in Washington on a Sunday morning. It’s affectionately known as “Smokey Aggie.” It’s the “highest” worship I have ever known. At this particular service, the priest went to the Holy Table (fully vested – extremely vested) and then, with his back to the congregation, continued with the service.

Again, I nearly jumped out of my pew. Now wait just a doggone minute, I thought again. Haven’t we heard of the Reformation? What is he doing with his back to the congregation as though he is in Rome? Why doesn’t he turn around. We’re over here. What would the reformers say? I folded my arms.

So after the service I was complaining to a friend who knows a thing or two about high church worship. I was going on and on, how dare he, hadn’t he heard of the Reformation, how could he turn his back on the congregation, blah, blah blah.

My friend smiled and replied, “Ah, he was facing the East.”


The East?

The East is the place of Resurrection.

Churches are built to face the East.

We wait in expectation for His return.

When Christ returns He will come from the East.

I even remembered the line in Lord of the Rings, “Look to my coming, at first light, on the fifth day. At dawn, look to the East.

Come, Lord Jesus, Come – we pray at the close of the Book of Revelation.

And we live ready for His return, the focus of the Eucharist.

Again, I was dumbfounded. The priest was illustrating to us all that as a community we await with expectation for Christ’s return, when every knee shall bow, and every tongue confess that Jesus Christ is Lord. His act was totally centered on Jesus, which warmed the heart of this evangelical. I was repentant.

As I began to learn (sometimes the hard way) – that once we clear the hurdle of our expectations, our own presumptions – and lay those down (and that can take some time, often through worship and prayer) we begin not only to open our hearts and minds with new expectations toward the Lord and His transforming work in our lives, but also, perhaps surprisingly, to one another.

Now it’s not “my style” or “my service” or “my prayer book” or “my guitar” or “my pipe organ” or “my drums” – it’s asking how do we fit all those things together in a service of praise? How do we fit ourselves together as a Church?

And it can fit – you can blend the simplicity of an informal gathering of contemporary music with the expressive liturgy from the prayer book. Some parts lean toward certain types of music better than others – that takes discernment, wisdom, experience, and a willingness to fail.

As we do this week by week, it has an enormous impact on the congregation. I saw an illustration of this recently when I found some old video tapes from when Martyn Minns was installed as rector of Truro in 1992.

At his installation, his Sunday night worship team from his former parish, All Angels in Manhattan, came down from New York to Virginia to present some worship offerings. Truro at that time had a blend of a piano, a guitar, some classical instruments, the old organ, and a robed choir. We had come out of the renewal movement and so the songs were both hymns and praise music. We thought we were pretty cool.

Then the All Angels worship team came out to do the offertory.

The team was made up of a blend of Sunday morning young adults and members of the Sunday night homeless congregation. They sang gospel and completely brought down the service – or was that, bought it up. We had never had such a display of street-wise gospel in my memory. We were a nice suburban church, thank you very much. Between the stunned and the thrilled, the church nearly popped its roof off to Richmond. Even Bishop Lee got into it.

And something stuck. It wasn’t long before Horace Boyer came and retaught the choir how do excellent gospel – we had to learn and he patiently taught us over several years. We learned that there is a whole method to it and much of it meant letting go, singing well, but letting go. It was technically as complicated as any classical composition put in front of us, but it was as expressive as any contemporary praise song. It was an attitude. It came from the heart. It broke open the church.

Now gospel is a staple at this church on Main Street in Fairfax. It got us ready for the future in more ways than we could ever have imagined.

So now we blended traditional processional hymns with the organ and the robed choir, contemporary compositions that are focused on our evangelical mission and inner healing, and gospel that called us to radical transformation, not only of ourselves and our church, but of our world.

And what happened – the pews began to fill with people from all walks of life, and became not just racially diverse, but perhaps even more surprisingly – ethnically diverse. As more and more nationalities filled our pews, they brought their own worship styles with them that were often integrated into the worship of the church. When Truro members went on mission, they brought back the songs and styles of where they went and this was also often incorporated into the worship on Sunday morning.

The focus was not on performance – always a temptation – but as an offering of the most excellent worship possible, one that came from the heart and through practice and preparation assisted in enabling the entire congregation to worship. The foundation was orthodox Christianity as expressed in historic Anglicanism. We didn’t change the theology, we blended the styles. And our eyes were opened to a whole new world.

And through it all – as we let go of the glories of the past, we open our hearts not only to the Lord and all He has for us and all we have for Him, but we also open our hearts to one another. Our challenge is making room not only for God to work in our own lives, but perhaps most especially to make room for Him to work through one other as well. This happens in worship.

In order to sing, we need to blend. And in order to blend, we need to listen. And in order to listen, we need to care. And in order to care, we need to let go. That’s joy.