I remember reading the Neil Young biography Shakey. There was a reference to the sound that Neil and his bands would create. The aim was not perfection, the musicians were not chosen because they were the best guitarists, drummers, keyboardists, bassists, etc… Of course they weren’t, look who was doing the singing! Neil Young is not a pure singer. That is an understatement. But there is something about Young’s voice that holds your attention and draws you into his world of depth and discovery. Neil Young knows this and to aid this effort he finds musicians who can help create a sound that is both authentic and piercing. Moreover it is not just the way a specific musician makes his instrument sound, it is the way that musician also blends his instrument with the other musicians in the band. It is a collective sound that Young is experimenting with, his voice, his words, his guitar “Old black”, and his band, all mix together for an organic sound that is unique and memorable.
When I think about my approach to worship on Sunday mornings I am looking for the same kind of effort. I don’t really feel connected to offerings in worship that sound too perfect, too clean, too well rehearsed and too separate from my everyday life. At the same time I don’t like sloppy, poor preparation, last minute worship, it does not feel like the planners cared enough to think through how this experience would offer Good News, Spirit-talk and healing tones, to my life, to the life of the collective faith-community.
I spend two weeks working on the theme, the pieces and the tone for the Sunday morning worship. But I leave room for spontaneity, for the work of the Spirit to bubble to the surface, for interaction with the congregation. I have found that if I try to minimize these things the result is a service that feels too rehearsed and too “pretty”. I need some rough edges to rub up against to feel connected in the service. I preside best, preach best, offer pastoral care best, when I am working in a rough but well planned space. The planning, the scripture and theology research, knowing the context and the players, means that when I schedule a “pause”, a moment where I don’t exactly know how I am going to say something, the right word just comes. I cannot tell you why or how but I know if I have done the hard prep work and leave the space I will find my way to the right tone and words.
The right “sound” or “tone” that Young looks for is the same mindset I bring to worship preparation and how I evaluate the experience after church. I don’t care if the singing isn’t perfect, if the liturgy isn’t perfect, if the preaching isn’t perfect, but I do want it accessible, edgy, prophetic, healing and relevant to the lives of the people who are present. There is a tone or a sound to the worship that either vibrates throughout the hour or it doesn’t. For me the three angles I need to pay attention to are: 1) lots and lots of preparation, 2) a clear and consistent theme throughout, and 3) space for people to bring their unique voice and personality to the theme so others can hear how the Gospel speaks Good News to the people.