In my 20 years of worship consultation, I have found that many churches invite me to come help them navigate, negotiate and mediate the uncomfortable situations that occur when worship change unearths larger issues.
Did you notice how I just put that? I said, “uncomfortable situations that occur when worship change unearths larger issues.” I have found that conflict about worship is rarely just about worship. More likely, something “lies beneath,” such as fear, a power struggle, issues of identity, or grief over a bygone era. Those candlesticks endowed with the memorial plaque commemorating Aunt Betty (stalwart saint of the church) become much more than candlesticks. They become a symbol of “what was,” and changing them out for something else for a Sunday or season can all of a sudden create an intensity not anticipated. A change in the order of worship can take on more anxiety than an earthquake because it can feel like things are shifting out of control.
When I began this work of worship consultation, I never imagined I would do so much pastoral care and conflict mediation. I studied systems and trained in restorative justice practices so that I could have a better handle on the dynamics and effects of change on group bodies. Over the next few articles, I will explore what I call the “politics of change” from several angles. There are mighty powerful reasons why folks react to change in worship forms and expressions.
Let me start with the bottom line and then we’ll flesh it out over time. I believe difficult reactions to change in worship are an unarticulated fear of losing God. If I have been coming to this church for, lo this many decades, and I’ve had some of my most fragile and profound moments here in this place, and now you want to change the way we do things(?!), my gut reaction””often, my unarticulated feeling””is that I won’t have access to those deeply felt moments anymore. It is a fear of loss–which is one of our most dreaded emotions as humans. We can’t imagine life being different than we know it right now. And what we can’t imagine, we fear.
What can happen, actually, is that with good spiritual leadership, the experience of change itself can become a deeply meaningful opportunity for spiritual growth. We can ground the changes theologically, biblically, liturgically, traditionally. We can offer a reason why we are utilizing many candles on the table rather than Aunt Betty’s two candles because our thematic journey in this worship series affirms the light of Christ in each one of us. We can offer the idea that the order of worship this season will include a time of meditative lighting of candles at stations around the sanctuary to continue to underscore the prayers of all the people instead of the “usual” way we have a pastoral prayer.
Dealing with anxiety about change starts with good leadership. It starts with building trust that whatever you do will have been thought through with the spiritual journey of the people in mind. A deeply meaningful experience of something new will go a long way in opening the door to the next opportunity for creative expression.
The Latin root of the word “tradition” is traditio, which literally means “to hand on or to surrender”... not to “hang on!” What this means is that tradition is fluid, is always moving as it is handed on. Tradition is always changing, actually, because it is handed on!
Next week, I will continue the conversation of change by inviting you to consider the history of your church and your own faith journey. Understanding how our histories impact our current perceptions and feelings about worship can help us adapt to change much easier and be open to conversations about “what’s next.”