This week, I am attending my first meeting of the Reform Movement's Joint Commission on Worship, Music and Religious Living, and these are some of the questions we are asking. It is a great group of lay leaders, rabbis, cantors, composers and other synagogue musicians, all committed to creating superb Jewish experiences for the people who walk into our houses of worship. For me, the meeting has been stimulating and challenging.
Last night I had a conversation with other Commission members—friends old and new—trying to answer these tough questions about defining superb worship. We talked about the way people feel when they are part of a service that is really working well and what makes them come back for more. What is distinct about those services?
This is how I framed it:
Superb worship happens when a person feels that something personally important and transforming has happened in the service—something that has allowed him or her to see life with new eyes. Superb worship happens when members of a community feel that they have, as a group, been transformed together. Superb worship happens when people feel that they have been through an experience that has had cosmic consequences—something existentially meaningful has happened to transform the soul of the universe.
Now, I recognize that this is a very high standard to set for any congregation seeking to create superb worship. Yet, I know that it does happen. There are times—maybe not every time, and not for every person—when praying together touches us deeply in a way that feels like being touched by God. There are times when we feel ourselves to be part of something much larger than any one individual, and that experience has ripples that go beyond the walls of the synagogue and into the universe and beyond. When that happens, worship feels indescribably wonderful.
Take a moment to think about when this has happened for you. What were the elements that made it special? What is your recipe for making worship superb?
There is no one-size-fits-all model of what such worship experiences look like. For some, it can happen when beautiful music is performed beautifully. For others, it comes from hearing a sermon that speaks clearly and powerfully to the mind. For most people, the experience comes from being part of a service in which each person feels like a participant, not just a spectator.
There are some specific things that I think service leaders can do to help create superb worship experiences. Here's a list for starters:
1) Collaborate. When worship leaders truly build partnerships with each other based on trust, and when they generously share their talents and ideas with each other, amazing things can happen. The positive energy of prayer leaders who work together with open hearts can infect an entire congregation.
2) Invite Participation. By broadening the circle of collaboration to include the entire congregation, prayer leaders form communities of inclusion and meaning. By inviting people to participate in the service—through music, discussion, call-and-response prayers, individual honors, dancing, and so on—we make the service theirs.
3) Be Willing to Experiment. Old models for worship can grow stale quickly. By trying new ideas and being willing to take risks, prayer leaders can keep the worship experience fresh and exciting, both for their communities and for themselves. Even when experiments do not work, they send the message that the community is alive with creativity and thought.
4) Allow Silence. Much of what can make worship superb happens within the mind and heart of each worshipper. People need time to process their overt experience and to consider internally how it applies to their own life. People need to discover themselves in the service, and that takes time and space. By allowing for moments of quiet reflection, we allow people to create their own superb experience.
That is just a beginning. What else belongs on this list? What are the experiences you hope for in worship that makes it superb?