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There’s no secret sauce for cooking up Spirit-inspired worship

Vital Conversation panel looks at some of the necessary ingredients

by Mike Ferguson | Presbyterian News Service

Photo by Dev Benjamin via Unsplash

LOUISVILLE — Four Presbyterians took a crack Wednesday at defining what Spirit-inspired worship looks and feels like during a Vital Conversations webinar hosted by 1001 New Worshiping Communities and the Office of Vital Congregations. Watch the webinar here.

What too many Presbyterians are used to, said the Rev. Carlton Johnson, coordinator of Vital Congregations, are two worship extremes: worship “that’s ritualistic and often devoid of meaning, feeling and soul” and worship “that’s consumer entertainment.”

“Somewhere distant from all of that,” Johnson said, “is Spirit-inspired worship.”

Spirit-inspired worship is one of the Seven Marks of Vital Congregations. See Section 2 to learn more.

The first panelist, Phillip Morgan, director of music at Central Presbyterian Church in Louisville, Kentucky, said in his mind, Spirit-inspired worship is akin to unplanned worship, which is “not a terrible thing. But it requires a willingness to be free and improvisational, and I like to practice Mozart.”

Phillip Morgan

“I’ve moved to a tradition that often gets called uninspired by the Spirit,” Morgan said, “but in my adult years I have learned the Spirit can move on Monday just like it moves on Sunday.”

The Rev. Bethany Fox is pastor of the Beloved Everybody Church in Los Angeles, an ability-inclusive worshiping community where, as Fox said Wednesday, “some of the more formal ways of worshiping don’t work” and so “multi-sensory stuff is more helpful.”

Fox appreciates the dichotomy between “super-planned, minute by minute” worship and worship that’s “all over the place.”

The Rev. Bethany Fox

“What I’ve thought about,” Fox said, “is that while the Spirit moves all over the place, the Spirit is among us in a particular way. How do we tap into that? If the people [in worship] are just watching me, we aren’t drawing from the Spirit moving through the community.”

Fox thinks of the order of worship like one of those sectioned plates, where the peas are separated from the potatoes which in turn are apart from the salad. “That’s one way we can understand the Spirit’s moving and inspiration,” Fox said. “It’s not totally loose. People can put their peas and potatoes and whatever else they bring to the plate and let their voices be heard in different ways.”

The Rev. Gad Mpoyo, pastor of Shalom International Ministry, a worshiping community in Atlanta, said Shalom serves mainly immigrants and refugees.

The Rev. Gad Mpoyo

“One thing we emphasize in worship is it’s not limited to the 11 o’clock or 6 p.m. hour,” Mpoyo said. “Worship is a way of life. That philosophy is African, where there’s no separation between the secular and the sacred.”

When we gather,” Mpoyo said, “it’s the work of the people lifting up our voices and our prayers before God. When we do that, I think that’s where the Spirit moves — not on the side of the preacher, but when there is that force that moves back and forth between those leading and participating in worship.”

“And it’s not just for that hour,” Mpoyo said. “The Spirit is still moving” all week long.

The Rev. Marthame Sanders, also of Atlanta, joked that he’s worked in congregations “vital and not.” Sanders is currently leading aijcast, a New Worshiping Communities broadcast at the intersection of art, faith and justice. Sanders quoted the Palestinian pastor and theologian the Rev. Dr. Mitri Raheb, who has talked about worship being rooted in place but also global.

The Rev. Marthame Sanders

“If we aren’t reaching out around the world, we can become narrow-minded,” Sanders said. “If I become tunnel-visioned, I don’t participate in the fullness of Spirit-inspired worship and the gospel.”

While some worship leaders might elect to change hymn lyrics to, for example, make them more inclusive or expansive, worship can become the least-common denominator “that’s so vague that it’s no good to anybody,” Sanders said.

Podcast ministry has helped teach Sanders that “the more powerful art is, the more it can connect with people who have disparate experiences.”

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