Contemplative and Meditative Worship Styles

Calvin BrownRev. Calvin Brown is the Executive Director of the Renewal Fellowship Within the Presbyterian Church in Canada.

Worship Wars are said to be the most common cause of disruption in congregations and it seems that few seem to understand the reason for it. Much of the discontent centres around what is called "contemporary forms of worship." In truth, however, when the real cause of unhappiness is examined it is not usually the "new" music and new words that are the principal offenders but the form of certain types of contemporary worship.

Just as church buildings impose a shape on the action of the worshipping community so psychological and spiritual shapes in our hearts and minds impose a shape on the worship we are prepared to enter into as individuals and congregations. Church buildings can be renovated to open up worship, so also our hearts can be opened up to receive new shapes for worship but the renovation must be carefully done in both cases or the house will come tumbling down. There will always be a matter of taste to be dealt with. For example, different architectural styles (neo-Gothic, Georgian, Modern) are preferred by some and dismissed by others. Some would not readily enter a grand Gothic building with its impressive stained glass windows because they cannot imagine worshipping in a building that seems to them dark and dreary. They would look to a much brighter style of architecture that is full of sunshine open to the outside. So also in music there are different styles that reflect a different approach to spirituality. It is my conviction that just as architectural styles can be mixed to maximize the benefits of different forms so also music styles can be mixed to enhance the richness of worship through music. What results will never please the antiquarian "purists," but most people will experience a new richness that comes from growth and development.

In the process it is important to understand the styles and what they "do" so that the music is in fact integrated and not just a hodge podge of different styles glued together. We have all seen both architecture and music presentations that do not flow but are jarring. Part of the process is to understand not only the extent of what can be integrated but also the limitations.

What I want to deal with, however, is the basic underlying spirituality between two types of worship music characterized as hymns and "repetitive choruses." I need also to say that these are not exclusive of each other for the types of worship should be understood as on a continuum rather than as two isolated polarities.That is precisely why they can be integrated and the worship can flow, but it will not flow if you put together selections from the extremes of the continuum without using bridge songs. Hymns, ancient or contemporary, are usually of the meditative spiritual tradition. For example, whether they are hymns of Isaac Watt, Fanny Crosby, Brian Wren or Graham Kendrick, they all use Bible images and draw the singer into reflection on the words in the hope that they will lead to the worship of that which they meditate on. It is worship that moves through the brain, into the heart and will and focuses on the object of worship — God, made known in Jesus. It can also motivate the worshipper to other forms of Christian service such as evangelism and acts of compassion.

Repetitive choruses, on the other hand tend to be of the contemplative style. This style focuses on one particular, rather than on a theme that gets developed, and the worshipper enters into the richness of savouring that one in particular. The focus may be Jesus, or holiness and so on. By repeating the word or thought the worshipper enters a personal, and often physical, experience. I hesitate to use the word "thought" here because it could imply a meditative use whereas the process I refer to is not so much thought as a spiritual entering in with just the edge of a thought to focus the energy that leads to a deepening worship.

The differences of emphasis can often be observed externally. Presbyterians have tended to enter into meditative worship more than contemplative. Paradoxically, evangelical Presbyterians, as seen in the emotional Communion Season gatherings, and "high church" Presbyterians in their prayer and fasting exercises, have both "entered" into contemplative style worship. Meditation is usually an inner work focussing on brain activity and so outwardly is less expressive. This is no way implies a "shallow" one-dimensional worship — in truth, it deepens worship so that what can be known and understood of God is grasped. It then moves beyond to stand with low inward groaning or in silent awe of a God who is as high above us as the heavens are above the earth. This happens as a "leap beyond reason" but as the worship that moves past the exhaustion of reason. It is the "beyond" reason just as St. Paul speaks of the peace that passes understanding. I suspect, this is what the great French Christian philosopher Pascal meant when he said the heart has reasons that reason knows not of.

Contemplation hasn't the same desire or drive to understand. It desires simply to experience the divine. It enters in with the whole heart and body, sometimes raising hands towards heaven, or dancing in wild abandon, or calling out, or swooning, sometimes enraptured almost unable to move, sometimes convulsing with ecstasy, sometimes seeing visions or vivid images. All these experiences are recorded in both Old and New Testaments as well as in church history. It is the ecstasy of a lover and the beloved that moves well past mere passing emotion to a spiritual connection.

In planning worship then it is helpful to know the way of worship the congregation is normally used to. To thrust contemplation on a congregation un-used to entering into that will only cause confusion and resentment. It will take time and explanation and even experimentation so that they can learn a new way of entering into worship. To try to simply add repetitive (contemplative) songs that people attempt to deal with in a meditative way will trivialize worship. One person wrote me about a chorus projected on an overhead projector with the instructions; "Alleluia x 8, Second verse same as the first." To someone worshipping in a meditative way this is absurd. The whole experience is idiotic, boring and senseless. It will not edify. On the other hand, to someone drawn to contemplative worship the endless words and multiple images of the hymns will now bring to mind the wholeness of the story of God dealing with people but will only confuse and distract from worship. In an age when biblical illiteracy is high in our culture and in our churches, we need to realize that if we want to allow an entry point for deeper worship for newcomers, we had better learn how to share in contemplative worship. If we are truly spiritually mature, surely we need to be prepared to use both of these worship forms at different times in our worship so that all may come to encounter Jesus in a personal and profound way and we ourselves may learn to see the richness of encounter that God has prepared for hose who love him. By personality or experience we may never be able to enter as fully into one way as another — that is fine — but let us be gracious and unafraid to love God and one another by sharing in a variety of worship experiences.

Someone has said that North American Christianity is a mile wide and an inch deep. I suspect that is largely true. We do not "work" at worship with much seriousness to encounter God in either meditation or contemplation. In fact, our "consumer" religion is focussed on having our needs met in the easiest and most convenient way possible. That is why there are few "great saints" among us. We shirk from either the mental discipline of meditation or the loss of control of abandoning ourselves to enter God through contemplation and we never see God. Jesus said "Blessed are the pure in heart for they shall see God." We don't see God because our lives are cluttered by "many things when only one thing is needed." We need to learn to worship God with our whole heart and mind and soul, which is the first and greatest commandment. I suspect then whether we approach God through meditation or contemplation will be less important than that like the great saints, we have seen the face of God and lived. We have been to the mountain and worshiped God!