One of the catch phrases of the emerging church movement is experiential worship. The substance of experiential worship is to move from recipient to participant. An experiential worship service attempts to draw everyone in the congregation into some aspect of worship beyond just singing or reciting prayers. It may call participants to touch or smell something that connects the people's lives with the message of the Gospel. It may have them actively respond to the worship or prayer through movement or an activity. It may move worship away from a traditional setting by going to a different place or changing the environment of the a familiar place.
Last weekend I served as the worship leader for a confirmation retreat. A retreat setting always provides the opportunity to draw people into a more experiential service due to the unfamiliar or less familiar setting. But I was also asked to design more experiential services for two worship times. Since the retreat was for youth, I felt some freedom to explore services that were a little more outside of the boundaries of "normal".
I was given a suggestion for the message of each service. The first was the participation of each member in the body of Christ. The second was the active nature of faith. As I wondered about how to draw youth into the experiencing these messages. As I considered the image of the participation in the body of Christ, the image of a mosaic came to mind. Each piece in a mosaic is unique and individual. It also contributes to the overall beauty of the final image.
In order to bring this to a tangible experience, I discovered the fun and flexibility of tile mosaics. The youth were led through a worship serve and up to a sermon hearing about how they each have a part to play. As the response to the worship, the youth were invited to come forward and select tiles from a variety of colors then add them to the image of a cross. The youth responded very well to the tiles and worship service as a whole. But what they produced was a unique cross design.
The second worship service used the passage of scripture where Jesus sets out with the disciples in a boat. As Jesus slept, a storm blew up and began to toss the boat, causing fear in the disciples. Jesus is awoken and calms the storm. The preacher, Rev. Chuck Horton, had the participants arrange themselves on the floor in the outline of a boat with some folks sitting inside the boat. As the scripture was read, there were artwork images of the scripture projected on the screen. As a meditation to the scripture, the lights were turned off and the sounds of a boat on the water and a growing storm were played over the sound system. The sounds ended with the gentle calming of the storm and the return to the boat on the water. Worship ended with communion, the original experiential worship.
Worship is about everyone participating. Many of our worship services are spectator events. The congregation enters and then sits back to receive what they can from the service. Maybe they want the good feelings of the music or to get "fed" by the sermon. Then they get up and go back to their lives, having "worshipped".
But worship is a verb. It is an activity. The root of the Hebrew and Greek word for worship involved the activity of bowing before another. Worship is supposed to be an action and not a noun. Although that is how we use it today. We go to worship, meaning we to church. Praise has also be transformed in this manner. Praise and worship has become a genre of music instead of a lifestyle activity.
Experiential worship is the effort to restore the original meaning of worship: the deed of Christ's people. And it is the function of worship leaders to draw people into the experience. Whether the leader is the preacher or the liturgist or a named worship leader.