“In the main, Christians do not have an abstract, philosophical concept of God; rather, they understand God primarily through the stories in
On a beautiful fall morning in my town, I went over to a local church that was hosting a worship workshop. I was only able to stay for awhile, because I wanted also to attend the Festival of New Music at our college.
At the worship workshop, Howard Vanderwell from the Calvin Institute of Christian Worship was talking about the relationship of theme and worship. He said, “Worship has a beginning, a central portion, and an end.” Ah ha-story structure-I said to myself. Norma de Waal Malefyt, his colleague, added, “If you want an image for the thematic shape of worship, think of worship more like a novel than a magazine.” There it is again, simple and sweet. Then I slipped out the door to the college.
At the college, the concert was already in progress. I picked up a program, concentrated on the music, and took the program home with me. Standing in my kitchen, I read that one piece of vocal music had been based entirely on brief stories. The composer wrote that he prefers working from prose rather than poetry. He uses stories gleaned from many sources. Reading through the stories, it seemed immediately clear to me that someone had pared the stories down to their bare essential actions. They have “a beginning, a central portion, and an end”-little else. Here’s one of the stories, taken directly from the program that I picked up at the concert:
Osip Mandelshtam, Russia’s great poet, wrote a poem, privately circulated, critical of Stalin. He was sentenced to forced labor. He died as a result, and his widow was forced to travel from one province to another, till her shoes got so worn they barely hung to her feet. She found a cobbler in one small city where she was hiding. She told him the story of her love, her fear and her sorrow. He looked at her and said, “You’ll never go without shoes again.”
Standing there in my kitchen, I started singing, “Lord, I want to be a Christian in my heart.” Then the worship leader in me imagined that sequence in a worship service: someone tells that story of Osip’s wife, and then we sing that song, “Lord I want to be….” There is no more comment than that. The sequence makes us ask, “Who is the Christian in that story? Is it Osip? His wife? The cobbler?” We don’t have to be told the answer. In fact, the story’s evocation of the question helps us apply the song to our own experience and our own longing toward Christ-likeness. Something inside us makes us say, “Yes, Lord, count me in!” in a way that is deeper and more long-lasting than singing the song by itself. This linking takes us one step toward the structure that Howard and Norma were talking about.
If the above sequence of a story followed by a worship song is simply dropped into a worship service, we still have “magazine worship.” But if it is dropped into a service in which the scripture text is Jesus sending his disciples from town to town, taking nothing with them, then we are getting closer to Norma’s image of “novel worship.” It all gets connected together, but in an evocative rather than explicit manner.
A story by itself is still good. A song by itself is still good. A scripture by itself is still good. But if a worship planner can choose to include a little story in support of a larger story that connects to the larger story, might that not be a beautiful thing?