The role of personality in worship

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By Tom Holmes

Contributing Reporter / Religion Blogger

The role of personality in worship

 As I worked on the essay I wrote on the House of Worship Walk to be held in Oak Park on June 24, I noticed that the choir loft in St. Edmund Catholic Church was located in the rear of the worship area, while the architects who designed the First Baptist Church and First United Church buildings placed seating for the choirs up in front.


My suspicion is that this has to do partly with how non-liturgical and liturgical churches view the role of personality in worship.


In general, I have observed that the more liturgical a church is the less importance that church places on personality.  For example, most Catholic churches I've been in have the choir seated in a balcony in the back.  The same with many Episcopal and Lutheran church buildings.  Although music is important in those three denominations, the personality of the musicians is not.  Liturgical folks don't seem to care as much whether the soloist shows a lot of emotion.  The music, not the singer, is supposed to carry the spiritual freight.


My alma mater, St. Olaf College, has one of the best non-professional choirs in the United States, yet when I was a student there in the 1960s, during worship they sang in the choir loft in the rear of Boe Memorial Chapel.  The "St. Olaf sound" eschewed vibrato "warbling" and attempted to be heard as one voice.


Likewise, the clergy, especially in the Roman Catholic tradition, covered up any uniqueness by wearing a uniform clergy outfit while on the job and vestments while leading worship.  Doing the ritual correctly has been more important than even the faith of the one presiding.  In fact the Donatists—folks who said that the priest presiding at the Eucharist had to be without sin—were condemned by the Church during the middle of the first millennium A.D. on the grounds that the holiness of the ordained one did not affect the effect of the Sacrament.


Evangelicals and other non-liturgical Christians, in my experience, have a hard time with that view.  These folks insist that the faith of the preacher or the musician as well as that of the person in the pew is crucial.  Personality matters.  That's one reason why the choir and especially soloists are positioned where you can see them.  A song, no matter how pious and biblical, sung by a person who clearly doesn't care much about the faith just doesn't cut it.


Personality matters.  So does the expression of emotions.  In Pentecostal churches, the members will sit respectfully as the preacher starts the sermon in an unemotional way, but when the preacher starts shoutin' and dancin' and cryin', that's when the folks in the pews start doing the same. 


Style matters, too.  Lutherans, Catholics and Episcopalians have no idea what the worship leaders are wearing, because their street clothing is covered up by vestments.  In contrast, if you go to Living Word Christian Center, you can bet that Pastor Winston will be wearing a stylish suit with shined shoes and a classy tie.  Like Living Word's soloists, the worship leaders have style.  At its best, it's not showing off.  It's just that personality matters.


It's not all or nothing.  Liturgical congregations do want a pastor and music ministers with personality, and non-liturgical churches are aware that charismatic leaders can lead them places to which they don't want to go.  It's a matter of emphasis.

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