Familiarity is a double-edged sword, especially in churches. Particular practices and language can be an important part of a denomination or congregation’s identity and heritage. They can also become dead practices that lead to people tuning out or become idols that cause conflict when changed or removed.
It is true, though, that familiarity also leads to a different type of memory and experience. It is almost as if our brain stores the familiar stuff in a different compartment than the spontaneous. It is the reason we can pray the Lord’s Prayer out loud without missing a word while also running down our grocery list in our mind. But it is also the reason that Scripture we have memorized can be brought to mind in the midst of a busy day or a trying situation.
There is a phenomenon known as the mere-exposure effect, which states that we develop a preference for something the more we are exposed to it. This theory is one of the underpinnings of advertising campaigns based on sheer quantity. Chances are good that each time you watch TV, you are going to see a Coca-Cola commercial or a McDonald’s commercial.
There are two primary ways that we can take advantage of familiar rhythms in worship:
- Repeated elements, such as the offertory prayer or benediction: If you can craft a short and simple yet theologically effective statement, prayer, call and response, or other element that can be repeated weekly, you have the opportunity to shape how your congregation thinks about that issue or element. Sure, some people will probably tune out from time-to-time, but I would also guess that if you asked them, they could repeat the element back to you after a couple months. This could be particularly effective when utilized in areas like the prayer before the offering or the benediction. Sure, you might not be able to tailor them to the day’s theme or special offering, but if you can cover those topics in other parts of the service, you allow these key elements to guide how your congregation thinks about money, stewardship, God’s blessings, and how and why we are sent forth into the world.
- Repeated rhythms of speech and/or breath: Have you ever noticed that when the Lord’s Prayer is prayed corporately most people don’t join in until “who art in heaven”? They miss out on saying “Our Father” because it is really hard to start together. Now, does that mean people’s memory of the prayer won’t include the “Our Father” because they didn’t say it? No. But if we really truly believe there is value in every word of the prayer, that there is meaning behind the corporate prayer of our congregation, and that the act of actually saying it out loud is a different experience than hearing or thinking it, why not find a simple way to ensure everyone says it together? I have made it a practice to lead into the Lord’s Prayer the exact same way, no matter which service or setting I am in, with both my words and my rhythm. I usually say something like, “Let us pray the prayer you taught us to pray, saying <breath>” But the key is just the word ‘saying’ and the breath, which I use no matter what comes before. I have made the conscious and intentional effort to always use the same rhythm leading into the prayer, and it has led to everyone praying the full prayer out loud. One Sunday, on the breath, I had something catch in my throat, and I wasn’t able to start the prayer, but everyone else did perfectly in unison.
How about you? What familiar rhythms are a part of your service? Are they intentionally built in or have they evolved over time? Are they a help or hindrance? How can we better use these in our services? Feel free to post your experiences in the comments below!
Image by Flickr user zeze57. Used under Creative Commons License. Cropped from Original.