Though stymied in my first attempts to integrate liturgy into my own prayer life and evangelical worship, I continued to journey toward the ever-expanding horizon of ancient Christian practice as we moved to Indiana and began our first foray into campus ministry. Many sources informed this expansion, but several moments – or really, locations – stand out clearly, the cumulative effect of these settings producing the peculiar flavor of my worship ministry. The next few posts will cover those experiences.
The first of these horizon-broadening moments occurred thanks to an intensive seminary course I took at Emmanuel School of Religion (now E. Christian Seminary). Nestled amidst the rolling, mysterious Smoky Mountains of east Tennessee, this small institution was the first of a couple attempts to pursue graduate school while also trying to continue my ministry, a feat which I never was able to accomplish.
Regardless, here I was a year out of Bible college, again learning about Church history, preaching, and pastoral ministry. The class time was generally a positive experience, but the seeds for life change were planted between those marathon days of learning, when my roommates shared with me their favorite authors (it’s their fault I’ve come to love David Bentley Hart and Hans Urs Von Balthasar), their whiskey (my first glass was Maker’s Mark), and most importantly to this story, their own personal worship practices, which seemed drawn from deeper wells of which I had heard no rumor.
After returning to Indiana, I began crafting a group study on Worship with the specific intent of one-upping my rather lackluster worship courses at college. Though my degree was supposedly for Music and Worship, the delineation between the two was rarely, and always poorly, made. Though my professors would strongly object, the actual content of their courses affirmed that worship was centered around musical expression, with other prayers and practices acting as mere additions. Through church and class attendance, as well as internship and ministry encounters, I had essentially been taught that my job as a “worship pastor” was to curate musical experiences adequately preparing the congregation to hear that most important moment in communal worship: the sermon. Also known as the time we all sit down and hear a 30-45 minute lecture from a middle-aged white male.
And we pay tithes for this privilege!
Through hundreds of services and classes, I had learned that the music must be graspable (i.e. theologically simple and repetitive), instrumentally interesting (but not too interesting, or it’ll distract!), and topical – centered on whatever the preacher had decided in his own wisdom the congregation needed to hear.
The result as I moved into my second year of ministry was a desperation for richer fare – for myself and those I led.
So, with only a vague suspicion that worship simply had to be about more than music I turned to those young men who seemed to have connected with something deeper than their favorite Chris Tomlin tune (they didn’t have any). After a brief email exchange, I was provided a list of books and other practical ideas for the liturgical-contemplative novice.
Chief among these were Phyllis Tickle’s The Divine Hours, a beautiful (and finally accessible!!) three volume cocktail of daily prayer liturgies, primarily drawing from the Book of Common Prayer. Also influential was Tony Jones’ book The Sacred Way: Spiritual Practices for Everyday Life, where I learned more about the daily office (fixed-hour prayer liturgies), the Jesus Prayer, labyrinth walking, the Stations of the Cross, centering prayer, apophatic meditation, and others. Thanks to Jones’ crash course on contemplative spirituality, I was able to try several practices, some of which have become staples in both my personal and communal devotion.
The cumulative result of the Indiana ministry on my life was decidedly negative for a myriad of reasons, but I at least owe them this: a generous “continuing education budget” that allowed me to purchase these and other similar works (not they would have likely approved!).
The effect of these works on my life and ministry were immediate and seismic. The flow of the liturgy began seeping into my worship planning, the practices made their way into my group study (I even had one of my art students create a prayer labyrinth out of tape), but most importantly, the slow saturation of the psalmists’ cries watered the long-neglected fields of my soul, “drenching its furrows and leveling its ridges; softening it with showers.” For the first time, my heart saw through the tangled undergrowth of my faith and glimpsed, like the fog-laden Tennessee mountains, a far green country, still mysterious, but finally visible.