No matter what denomination, age group or style of worship, one common human trait is to gravitate toward the familiar. We like to stick with what’s comfortable and what’s been working for years. Change inevitably comes along in some form or another: perhaps music, presentation of sacraments, order of worship, or even someone else sitting in “our spot” in the sanctuary! We tend to resist change that does not resonate with what we have already come to understand as our experience of the divine.
Our reactions to worship are often theological. What I mean by this, however, is not necessarily well-thought-out systematic theologies the explicate the nature of God in cognitive terms. More often, it is simply a “gut feeling” that we’ve established over time of what the holy “feels” like.
In the example of sitting in the same place in the sanctuary, the “feel” of the holy is connected in our brains to the snapshot memories of our particular perspective and angle on the action from the places where we sit. Over time, our brains have associated not only the content of the message and experience, but also these snapshots, with God. And sitting somewhere else in the sanctuary will cause a “what the heck?” reaction in our brains. It just doesn’t feel right.
If we can understand the power and depth of this seemingly simple example of how disorienting a change in seating can be, perhaps we can imagine why other changes may set off some folks into a tizzy. Repeated patterns are powerful. If we alter those patterns, it is important to frame them carefully, offer meaningful reasons for them and ground them theologically, biblically and symbolically. Then repeat them. The brain is facile and elastic and new patterns can quickly become familiar.
This is one of the reasons why I love to design worship in series. We get the “oh yeah!” factor (“that feels familiar”) because we repeat what I call “thread items” over the course of several weeks. A new sung refrain that bookends our prayer time might be new on the first Sunday, but by the 3rd and 4th Sunday, that new refrain is sinking comfortably into the “that feels holy” part of our brains and hearts. Then, at the beginning of the next series, we get some fresh things particular to a new series. This is the “a-ha!” factor (or “Wow, I never thought of it that way!”) that the science of memory says is equally important to making something memorable.
If we follow this practice of both “oh yeah!” and “a-ha!”, our congregations start to trust change more, knowing that their worship designers hold the familiar and the new as equally important partners in our spiritual formation.