The Big Worship Word We’ve Forgotten

Dear Ones:

Earlier blogs have introduced an advantage of small congregation worship–participation. It’s that ability of small settings to include the co-creating contributions of worshipers. It’s a deeply-forming gift. And it’s not generally available in big settings.

Now it’s time for an important, rarely-discussed worship concept–aesthetics. Aesthetics are the way we summon that participation advantage.

But let’s back up. Aesthetics is an old term rooted in philosophy. It’s a discipline that explores how we perceive things. How we are affected by our senses. How we decide what is beautiful or fitting.

Maybe you’ve seen a designer on Project Runway with an elegant aesthetic. Or heard someone explain that Dubstep is their musical aesthetic. Or maybe you’ve watched a television kitchen remodel in Joanna Gaines’ Magnolia aesthetic

That word aesthetic gets used as shorthand for a pattern that we like. But it’s so much more. 

Aesthetics are complex sets of shared signals. They don’t just express something beautiful. Or capture what is fitting. They also shape our expectations and behavior. They are powerful communal meaning-makers.

If you’re human, you are unavoidably sensitive to how aesthetics work. Without ever reading a single aesthetics rule book, you know how to respond to aesthetic signals. Or cringe when others don’t. 

So stay with me. There’s helpful stuff ahead. Especially for small congregations. That old philosophy term gives us new tools for understanding small-congregation differences. And for crafting worship for these God-loved differences. 

The helpful stuff starts with this simple contrast. Between a Performance Aesthetic and a Participation Aesthetic. Each is a set of signals that stakes out and shares something beautiful. And each shapes our expectations and behavior. 

But they also have different consequences.

Large congregations depend on a Performance Aesthetic. Because they offer something beautiful for large groups, they need teams of experts, a predictable script, and high production values. The result is a kind of performative excellence. But it comes at a cost: turning worshipers into passive observers. 

Small congregations can invoke a Participation Aesthetic. Without concerns for efficiency and big-group management, they can offer a different kind of excellence–something beautiful created from the contributions of ordinary folks. Not experts. They can follow a flexible, up-for-grabs order that invites local gifts. This treats worshipers as active co-creators. And co-creating is powerfully forming stuff—the stuff of the participation advantage.

But let’s dig into how these different aesthetics work outside of sanctuaries.

Here’s an example. Imagine a big, formal wedding reception for 300 guests. Think about the feeling of walking into a grand hotel ballroom. The big entryway is thrilling and makes you feel like a  small part of something big. There’s a carefully planned seating arrangement. Beautiful decorations on each guest table. And a different arrangement that distinguishes the long head table in the front of the room. You know not to sit there. Those seats are for the honorees and the authorities who will lead this event. You’re just an observer. And the evening will occur about the same way whether you’re there or not. So you quietly take your seat.

And with these big-setting signals, you know better than to amble through the hotel kitchen before supper. Or stand up and announce your opinion about last night’s game to everyone. The rules are clear without ever being discussed. Minimize participation. Receive rather than create. Stick to the script.

Now imagine a birthday potluck for a dear friend. Imagine walking through a neighbor’s front door. There are tables and chairs set up in the backyard. No fancy decorations, but casseroles, cards, and awkwardly-wrapped gag gifts accumulate on the kitchen table. The signals have changed from the wedding reception. So your behavior changes, too.

In this smaller setting, each guest has the ability to affect the event for everyone–adding a dish, choosing a seat, introducing a conversation topic, getting seconds, moving between kitchen and living room. The event changes with you and with each person stepping into the room. It’s all organized around a flexible schedule of eventually-we’ll-get-to-the-cake. No one expects a paid, outside soloist to perform happy birthday. And no one regrets that the group singing is . . . a little less than professional.

The aesthetics of this small gathering change the rules, roles, and expectations. Active participation. Even co-creators. With opportunities for unscripted contributions. And there’s a high-alert, something-up-for-grabs feeling that goes with it. 

Even outside the Church, we recognize this truth. Big crowds in large spaces trigger something very different from small groups in intimate spaces. The options for beauty and fit are different. What works in one doesn’t necessarily translate to the other. The setting size alone can change the possibilities and limitations. 

And this explains some of the small-setting challenges with resources that have been developed by-in-for big settings. Worship that is vibrant in big spaces with lots of people can feel awkward, ill-fitted, or worse–pretentious–in small settings. The sermon that soars in an auditorium may not work among pews with fifty folks. Big setting resources–even excellent ones–can’t simply be dragged and dropped into small settings. 

The challenge isn’t a failure of small congregations. It’s the mismatch of aesthetic cues. Like ambling through a hotel kitchen at a wedding reception. Or handing out bulletins with a formal order-of-events at a potluck birthday celebration. They get the aesthetics wrong. So they get the beauty and meaning-making wrong. 

Small congregations have been sent off to quietly chase a mismatched Performance Aesthetic. Like it’s the goal, the ideal, the one-right way. And this chase has stunted their exploration of a Participation Aesthetic that could unleash local gifts in unexpected, beautiful, fitting, powerful ways. 

The result of this wrong-goal-mismatch isn’t just bad aesthetics. It’s bad theology. God longs to draw near to all the people. In all of their particular languages, cultures, places, and setting sizes. Our incarnational truth means God is willing to take on our great variety of aesthetics. 

No single set of practices can contain the Good News. It sounds gloriously different in catacombs and upper rooms, around kitchen tables, in sanctuaries with leaky roofs, on mounts, in city parks. Even in auditoriums.

But here’s the question for your prayerful reflection: What is your worship aesthetic? Are you signaling sit-still-and-watch-the-experts? Or are you imagining worship like a potluck celebration–capable of being changed by each precious person walking through the door? 

The participation model worked for the Early Church–long before there were praise bands and count-down clocks. And it’s an aesthetic we need to explore again. So you’re not imitating a meet-up with God-somewhere-else. But with Emmanuel, God-with-us, right here.

Let me know what you recognize with this old-new word.

Thank you for your ministry,