Tension and Thrill

By Reed Carlson
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Just over six months ago, St. Matthew’s launched our Sunday evening service “Night Prayer.” Our goal was to create an experimental atmosphere where our community could explore innovative yet familiar ways to worship and pray. Along the way we’ve made some mistakes, discovered our strengths and somehow stumbled into a surprisingly fresh expression of our shared spiritual life.

After one and a half semesters, I’ve discovered three “tensions” that all faithful communities must keep in balance. There are many answers to each category (and doubtless different communities will find different balances of their own) but this is exactly the point. Our calling is not to calculate the precise recipe but to seek it—like strangers who have decided to fall in love despite all the missteps and wrong turns that are sure to follow.

Tension #1
Ancient vs Contemporary
We are an ancient community rooted in over two-thousand years of history and inheritors of a deep, timeless faith. We are a contemporary community living in the twenty-first century and confronting challenges our ancestors could have never conceived of. Both of these statements are true.

How can our worship environment—particularly the physical space and the tools we use—balance this tension?

Tension #2
Contemplation vs Celebration
Sometimes the Holy Spirit moves us to silence. Sometimes the joy of our Lord is too loud to be contained. Does our worship reflect both the self-reflection and self-forgetfulness that our faith invites us to?

How can our song style and lyrical choices give both postures their proper place?

Tension #3
Flexibility vs Excellence
Worship is not reserved for professionals but neither is worship an after thought to be relegated to the amateurs. Humans are most fulfilled when we operate in the gifts that God has given us. Such efforts inevitably result in excellence, and it is an excellence that we can feel in our spirits. Yet, worship was never for the elite alone. Keeping our worship flexible opens us to new voices and the organic growth of change.

How can our preparations and arrangements for worship maintain a high standard of excellence while remaining flexible enough to include anyone who would worship with us?

This year the entire St. Matthew’s body has begun a discernment process for exploring our worship. Balancing these “tensions” is not a unique challenge to St. Matthew’s but the calling of any faithful community that would desire God’s presence. The reward is not the “right answer” or the “perfect service” but a far more powerful truth. It is the “thrill” of God’s presence, the embodiment of the Holy Spirit and the empowerment to participate in God’s mission in the world. This is worship as tension and thrill.

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3 Responses to Tension and Thrill

  1. Lisa Wiens Heinsohn says:

    I’m interested in the “celebration” piece of your post – the notion of being “too loud to be contained,” or self-forgetful. Having not had the chance to attend evening prayer much at all, I am curious if you are having that kind of experience, if you all are yearning to have that kind of experience, and what it would take to encourage that end of things. You raise the question of song style and lyrical choice, but I’m wondering whether something deeper might also be at play – what it would take for high church to meet gospel, for example. Culture, theology, assumptions about how and how much the Holy Spirit is active among us – all these come to mind, wondering about contemplation vs. celebration. I’d be very interested to hear an ongoing dialogue on this topic at St. Matthews.

    • Blair says:


      You’ve raised a number of interesting questions in response to Reed’s thoughtful and helpful post. I hope you and anyone else who is interested will come to the Wondering Conversation about worship on Sunday, April 10 at 9:15 in the Library (the Faith Forum). It’s so important to wonder about these tensions and questions in community — and to listen for God’s voice in the voices of fellow participants.


  2. Paul Brady says:

    Saint Matthews can be a fairly magical place… and sometimes we see the magic so often that we totally forget that it is there. One of our great magics is sitting down and breaking bread together. This is how the evening service begins. Old or new, borrowed or blue… the formal service is always preceded by this core Christian tradition of the communal meal. The formal service? I’ll happily live with whatever is created… my spirit comes upstairs already at peace 🙂 Were you to take the service of the bread and fishes, and intermingle it with the formal service… now, there would be an interesting experiment.

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