Discovering Transforming Worship: Our Journey in Community

Rory and I go way back. We met when we were both on staff at Willow Creek in the late 90s, early 2000s, but it was on a trip to Israel with fellow staff members that we first connected meaningfully around our shared interest in spiritual formation. I was serving as Associate Director of Spiritual Formation at the time, and he was serving as Music Director, and our first conversations had to do with sharing our own “longing for more” in the spiritual life as well as a shared desire to care for the souls of team members engaged in the relentless week in, week out schedule of producing excellent, culturally relevant church services and ministries.

After we returned home, our conversations continued and even as my journey led me out of that context to found the Transforming Center and Rory’s journey led him to found Heart of the Artist Ministries, we stayed connected in our search for the more in our spiritual lives. Eventually, Rory joined our two-year Transforming Community experience that proved to be the beginning of a fifteen-year journey of collaboration around transforming worship—one of the great privileges of my vocational life.

A nonnegotiable

From the Transforming Center’s earliest days one of the basic, nonnegotiable elements of our shared practice has been fixed-hour prayer and worship. The first time a few of us gathered on retreat over twenty years ago, we began with an evening prayer service. We prepared a simple sacred space with a cross, a candle, and an open Bible placed on a simple altar. We entered that space quietly and lit the candle to signify Christ’s presence with us through the Holy Spirit. Then, guided by a simple liturgy, we prayed the prayers provided for us beginning with these words:

From the rising of the sun to its setting,
Let the name of the Lord be praised.
YOU, O LORD, ARE MY LAMP.
MY GOD, YOU MAKE MY DARKNESS BRIGHT.
Light and peace in Jesus Christ our Lord.
THANKS BE TO GOD.

We read a Psalm responsively followed by a Psalm prayer that gave us a way to affirm and respond to its message. There was a Gospel reading followed by silence to create space for God to speak to us personally through the chosen Scripture. We prayed some of the oldest prayers of the church—including the Lord’s Prayer, written prayers of intercession that helped us offer our shared concerns to God, and spontaneous prayers as well. Some of the prayers were prayed responsively, others in unison, and I remember losing myself in the beauty and simplicity of it all. No bells and whistles needed.

Coming home to a place I have never been

Instead of having to think really, really hard about what to pray, those of us who gathered simply gave ourselves to the beauty and substance of words that expressed deep longings and powerful praises we might never have been able to find words to say. Instead of getting caught in the ego’s attempts to say something profound to God (and to the people around us!), we rested from all of that and actually prayed. Instead of listening to someone else’s interpretation or application of Scripture, the Gospel was read without comment so that we could actually listen for what God was saying personally to us. Rather than being “led” by the up-front gyrations of an overly enthusiastic worship band, there was a sense that we all participated and did it together, having been relieved of the need for a lot of fanfare. After the Scripture reading, this small group of us settled into a silence that was so rich and satisfying that I remember losing all track of time until someone finally nudged me to remind me that it was time to go on!

That simple service lasted all of twenty minutes, and yet we emerged awake and alert to God in the depths of our beings, having given him our whole selves in worship as much as we were able. Even though I had been in church all my life (I am a pastor’s kid, after all), it felt like my soul had finally come home to a way of praying and worshiping where there was space for a transforming encounter with God in the depths of my being.

An unexpected partnership

That was over twenty years ago now, and we have been praying and worshiping that way ever since—with one notable difference. Until Rory joined us in our second Transforming Community, we had not had anyone to lead us in the musical elements of our worship, so our prayer services were made up of words and silence. Even though several of us knew Rory to be an amazing musician, composer, and worship leader, we refrained from asking him to serve with these gifts until he had completed his Transforming Community experience. But as soon as he had completed his two-year experience we asked whether he had any vision at all to add some additional worship elements to our fixed-hour prayers.

To our delight, he had already been thinking about this possibility and said yes. And what emerged was a wonderful partnership in which he and I had the opportunity to work together in continuing to develop what we now call Transforming Worship—a way of worshiping that has emerged organically from our life together in community. Partnering with Rory in developing and leading worship services has been one of the most unexpected joys and privileges of my life in ministry.

The work of the people

Over the years, as we have planned worship and then reflected on our worship, Rory and I have had countless conversations in which we have attempted to identify characteristics of transforming worship we believe transcend style and can be applied in any worship setting. For us, transforming worship has always been highly participatory, leaning into our understanding of the term liturgy, which literally means “the work of the people.” What a liturgical approach means for us is that our worship is not focused so much on the up-front presence and performance of a few but rather invites everyone to participate in reading and responding to Scripture, to pray and be formed by the prayers of the church, to listen to God in the silent spaces, and to join their voices with others in songs that are simple and yet substantive. In this way we experience transforming worship to be “work” that satisfies and delights us.

We have consistently experienced the truth that transforming worship is highly experiential, designed to lead folks into encounters with God that produce some sort of inner shift or change as they respond to that Presence. Transforming prayer and worship is characterized by simplicity and includes times of silence created specifically for allowing God to speak to us personally and for us to respond. Because we believe transforming worship engages the whole person, we are very intentional about incorporating icons, Christian symbols, art, beauty, and guided experiences in our bodies as temples of the Holy Spirit. This is one aspect of bringing all aspects of ourselves into relationship with God in our worship, opening us to a life-transforming encounter. At the same time, we are careful to avoid being emotionally manipulative, overly sentimental or melodramatic—which can be a very fine line to find. 

It goes without saying (and yet it needs to be said) that transforming worship is Christ-centered in that it creates all sorts of opportunities to open to the transforming presence of Christ together—in community. Transforming worship guides us in surrendering—that is, finding ways to offer ourselves as a living sacrifice, holy and acceptable to God, which is our spiritual worship.

Beyond nominal Christianity

In this deeply collaborative journey, God has bestowed significant gifts to us through Rory’s leadership. Through his gifts as a composer, God gave us many original compositions written specifically for key moments in our worship services—compositions that to this day help us surrender ourselves to God in very concrete ways so God can do his transforming work. Rory has given us the invaluable experience of being guided by a humble lead worshiper—not a performer drawing attention to himself. Rory has led us, but he has never distracted us. Over and over again young worship leaders have commented about how instructive it has been for them to be led in worship by someone who knew how to call out worship from others rather than drawing attention to himself. And we have benefitted greatly from Rory’s teaching and spiritual leadership that is grounded in biblical, theological, and historical reflections on worship.

And that leads me to my excitement about his latest book, Transforming Worship. I am excited that what we have experienced with Rory as our teacher and worship leader in the Transforming Center is being made available more broadly. I am excited about the intended audience— those who are responsible for making Sunday services happen. What a sacred privilege and responsibility this is and one that should be approached with serious preparation and intentionality. I am excited that Rory casts a clear vision for transforming worship as a vital spiritual discipline that can move us beyond nominal Christianity. I am stirred by his unpacking of the biblical, theological, and historical underpinnings of transforming worship that locate this conversation in the context of historic Christianity and not just the last three hundred years.

I am thrilled with how practical this book is in offering real, workable ideas for incorporating historic Christian practices into our worship services—practices that have been tested by time and have proven themselves to open us to God’s transforming work as we come together. And I just love the Checklist for Transforming Worship Services Rory includes as an appendix. 

The questions we are willing to ask ourselves

Most of all, I am thrilled with the questions this book will raise for you and your team:

  • What is transforming worship?
  • What would it look like to plan worship services as if spiritual transformation matters and we are seeking it as a real outcome?
  • How can transforming worship play a pivotal role in stemming the tide of nominal Christianity in our church?
  • What are the biblical origins of transforming worship and what does that mean to us in our setting?
  • Who should be the priority on Sunday morning—believers or unbelievers?
  • How should Protestants view sacred symbols and sacramental rituals?
  • What are the significant elements of a transforming worship service? How is such a service put together?

If these questions excite you as much as they excite me, you are in for a treat! And not just a treat but a substantive meal that will nourish you as you set the table for others.

The questions above are questions to love and to nurture as we refuse to give in to the seduction of easy answers and forced solutions brought too quickly and before their time. Instead, I pray there is a group of you that can be patient and take time to live with these questions, seeing how God might use them to lead you. If pastors and elders, worship leaders and teams engage this book together and begin incorporating even a fraction of the wealth contained here, your worship experience will be changed and your people will be changed. Transformed, even! May it be so.

©Ruth Haley Barton, 2021. Adapted from Ruth Haley Barton’s foreword found in Transforming Worship by Rory Noland (InterVarsity Press, Downers Grove, IL. www.ivpress.com)

New Transforming Resource Transforming Worship: Planning and Leading Sunday Services as If Spiritual Formation Mattered by Rory Noland. Button: Order the bookClose up of photo of wooden church doors and antique door handles. Text reads: And join author, Rory Noland at the next Becoming a Transforming Church retreat. Click to learn more.

 

Ruth Haley Barton

(Doctor of Divinity, Northern Seminary) is founding president/CEO of the Transforming Center. A teacher, seasoned spiritual director (Shalem Institute), and retreat leader, she is the author of numerous books and resources on the spiritual life including Life Together in Christ, Pursuing God’s Will Together, Strengthening the Soul of Your Leadership, Sacred Rhythms, and Invitation to Solitude and Silence.
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Ruth
Thank you for your thoughts on transforming worship. Every time I read about the experiences of people at the Transforming Centre my heart feels drawn to be a part of one of your transforming communities. I am near the end of my formal ministry so not sure if the timing is right for me.
Your books and writings have greatly assisted me in my journey of spiritual transformation.

When the time is right…. 🙂

Ruth,
Just reading your words brings me back to TC13 and makes me long to be there again. What a gift it was to my soul. This book I am sure will be a wonderful gift to every worship leader. Blessings and love, Donna Hart

Thank you, Donna. It is really exciting to have this Transforming Resource to offer….after all these years of experiencing transforming worship together. 🙂

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