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Marcia McFee Dr. Marcia McFee
Dr. Marcia McFee is an author, Key Voice Blogger, worship designer and leader, professor, preacher and artist.

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United Methodist Church


The Pace of Worship

February 25, 2016
“To be boring is to bear false witness.” Wow… love that quote. Tom Driver is a ritual scholar who included this as part of the “ten maxims for ritual” in his book, “Liberating Rites: Understanding the Transformative Power of Ritual.” I’ve used that quote in my teaching for a long time, but I always follow it up with this statement: “Boring is not about a particular ‘style’ of worship because I’ve seen ‘boring’ in every style!”

Boring is more about monotony, and monotony comes in many forms. If we choose just one relentless pace (no matter how “cool” that pace is), and that pace persists with no attention to whether it syncs with the message, worship will hit a point of monotony...guaranteed. Monotony happens when the dynamic energy of worship lacks diversity. Steven Spielberg says that as he is editing a movie, he knows that every 6 minutes there needs to be some sort of dynamic change—too much of a good thing is still too much. While I think that’s interesting information, I also think there is an even better reason to consider the dynamics of worship: our very spiritual formation.

Worship is a place where our bodies are learning the behaviors and rhythms and patterns of energetic witness that we need as the Body of Christ in the world. The ways that we sing with each other, speak to each other, and move in concert with each other in worship create rhythmic patterns that imprint themselves upon us. We come to associate these rhythms with “the holy”—with what God “feels” like to us—and to how the Spirit is stirring in us. Who we are as the people of God is formed through our worship into those who “go and do likewise” as disciples in the world. We practice what we are becoming. One of the most powerful formative elements of worship is the pace, rhythm, or dynamic of how we do what we do.

This line of inquiry pulled on me a few years ago, and so I began to research what kinesiologists (those who study humans in motion) could tell us about the formative aspects of the rhythms of our rituals. What I found was a vocabulary that has helped me understand the importance of the pace of worship. The “primal patterns” of energy in their research pared down to four categories regarding human rhythms: Thrust, Shape, Swing, and Hang. We all are more at home in one kind of pattern than others (what I call our “ritual resonance”), although we all have to engage all of the patterns in our lives and, I believe, in our worship. 

Because our worship is made up of forms we humans create, our rhythms will naturally shape our worship and our theologies—you know, that thing called the “body/mind/spirit connection.” Here’s a tour of the patterns:

Thrust energy in worship is concerned with transformation, has as its goal overturning the tables of injustice, catalyzing and energizing us for that work in the world. Think driving musical rhythms, accelerating energy, strong and passionate speaking, intense color.

Shape energy evokes the God of eternity, the one foundation, the “blessed assurance” of a steadfast God. For this one, think repeated elements that evoke deep traditions, clean visual lines and music that feels familiar to the community.

Swing energy celebrates the joy of life that overcomes adversity and draws us closer into community, seeking to connect us to each other. Interaction between worshipers, laughter, engagement with creative processes, and openness to emotion characterizes this pattern.

Hang energy in worship reminds us to go inward to discover the “still, small voice” of God, suspending the clock-watching oppression of our North American society and affirming that right here, right now, in the presence of the Holy, is exactly where we need to reside for a while. For this pattern, imagine time to meander, sustained and meditative singing, introspection and dimmed lighting evoking mystery.

As you can see, each of these rhythms (kinesthetic images of the action of God) is essential for our spiritual formation. Worship that denies any one of these will lack a kind of holistic approach to our journey as disciples.

Warning: Designing for worship is not about creating a “smorgasbord” in every experience.

There will be particular messages that evoke a leaning more toward one rhythmic “feel” over another. There will be times of the year, perhaps based on the ethos of a season of the liturgical year, that will invite us to “steep” more in one rhythm than another. And yet, within each worship experience, we will find times when the pace quickens and excites, and other times when we spiral deeper and deeper into more meditative space—not simply for the sake of changing it up (or heeding Spielberg’s 6-minute warning), but for the sake of a varied purpose in our spiritual exploration in that moment.

As we seek to become better leaders, our ability to notice the power of the rhythms of worship will enhance our ability to facilitate a provocative experience of a message, will train our sensitivities to transitions and segues within worship, and will move us powerfully toward a richer experience of the “polyrhythmic Holy One.”

For more excellent and original resources for meaningful and memorable worship, visit me in the Worship Design Studio at www.worshipdesignstudio.com.


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