A seminarian learns that she needs to experience worship without wearing academic goggles -- and that the church can grow from the presence of an inquisitive worshipper.
This year, my home church started its first contemplative service on Thursday nights. Going to seminary, working at a church and maintaining regular hours at my weekday job makes it difficult to back, but my ministers talked all semester about how great the service was and how much they wished I could come be a part of it. So once my classes were over and I had some extra time, I decided to make the trek home for the contemplative service and extended visiting with friends.
Apparently I picked the wrong week. Out of the two ministers who normally planned the service, one was at a meeting and the other (who normally played piano for the service) was recovering from wrist surgery. Instead of the tranquil lilt of piano music guiding our thoughts and prayers, we were serenaded with recordings of contemporary music I have been taught to scrutinize for lacking theological depth. We were asked to sing with piano accompaniment recordings but could not find our place because the melody was indistinguishable.
The contemplative service was meant to be a time of rest and reflection after a busy week, but the many distractions impeded my worship.
As a seminary student, it is often difficult to sit through any worship service without critiquing every little detail. I just spent a semester in worship class, engaging every element of a good worship service and noting those moments that fall below our incredibly high standards. I learned to think about the subliminal messages we, as ministers, send our congregation when we do not approach worship planning with intentionality and care.
Sitting in my church's contemplative service, all my worship class instincts infected my mind. By the end, I had a list of things I thought could have been done better, should have been done differently or should have been left out altogether. I had criticized the service but missed out on the worship.
Afterward, I went out to dinner with one of the ministers, who admitted that the service was not the best and wished I had come on a different night. I refrained from recounting my list of faux pas with her, and simply said, "I wish I were still here so I could help out!"
And I meant it without a hint of irony. I need a place where I can share my perspective, a place where I can question and engage, a place where I can try new things and see what happens. My church needs me, too. The church needs someone eager with fresh views, someone who will question and prod in ways that helps worship become deeper and more meaningful. I can only imagine what I could bring to the table if I were invited!
But I wish I could be there for one more important reason: so my church could remind me how to worship.
Perhaps more than I need a space to engage what I've learned, I need my ministers to help me see church and worship through spiritual eyes, rather than academic goggles. I need their wisdom to help me worship, instead of criticizing. I need this because I am not sure how long it will take to unlearn my classroom instincts once I am serving in a ministry position post-seminary.
I am not unique. I don't know a seminary student who doesn't struggle to sit through worship or a sermon without running through the checklist of things they learned in class to judge how good it was. And it's hard to find God on a checklist.
Churches and students could benefit from a mentoring model that allows students to critically engage worship, while receiving wisdom on how to simply be in worship. In the end, churches would be stronger, and the students would be more well-rounded and prepared for their own church ministry.
Emily Holladay is entering her third year at Mercer University’s McAfee School of Theology. A graduate of Samford University, Emily has worked at Christian camping organization, Passport Inc., and the Cooperative Baptist Fellowship.