Recently, the state Department of Public Safety asked my church to host a highway death memorial service. This annual event provides a venue where the families and friends of those who died on state roads in the previous twelve months may commemorate their loved ones. I didn’t know exactly what to expect but was glad to make our church available.
Careful planning led up to the service. Invitations were mailed to the families of the almost eight hundred people who had died in accidents across our state. A media group developed a Powerpoint presentation including photographs of the victims. The Highway Patrol sent an advance team to my church to prepare for everything from how the various law enforcement personnel would march into the church to the construction of a memorial wall in the church’s front lobby.
Our Music ministry worked hard to put together a suitable program of music. Two pieces were finally chosen that we felt would minister most directly to those attending. The two also were written in a style well suited to our congregation’s capabilities and preferences. “The Anchor Holds,” an energetic gospel number re-written for choir, orchestra and soloist, points to God as the source of strength. The second selection, “Come to Jesus,” is a simple, modern hymn that perfectly expresses how Jesus heals a wounded spirit.
The service was held on a Saturday morning in April, just as azaleas began to bloom. A large crowd arrived early and spent a considerable time in the front lobby, talking quietly among themselves as they searched the memorial wall for their family and friends. One young mother in particular caught my attention as she pointed out to her two small children the name of their father, inscribed along with all the others.
We began with a formal processional of over one hundred law enforcement officers, led into the church by a bagpipe playing “Amazing Grace.” The special music was next, followed by brief messages from a couple of state officials. A Highway Patrol chaplain led a liturgical reading written especially for the occasion. The service’s centerpiece—the slideshow of those who died—came about halfway through the service. Our orchestra played classic Christian hymns as family members and friends were invited to stand in honor of their loved ones. Hundreds took their turn as images of lost husbands and wives, parents and children, brothers, sisters and friends appeared on the large screens in the front of the sanctuary.
Several extended families stood in large groups wearing t-shirts embossed with pictures of their loved ones. Smaller clusters of friends stood when their family member’s names were called, huddled together as though to keep warm. A few people stood alone. One family rose four separate times, in memory of what must have been so catastrophic an accident that everyone in the room caught their breath. African-Americans. Hispanics. Men and women. White suburban families. Singles. Farmers looking uncomfortable in new suits. Young and old. Gang members. Unemployed. Professionals. All bound together by a common yearning to find peace. The pictures continued for what seemed an eternity then it was my time to preach.
I began with my own story of grief. My mother died in a highway accident almost twenty years before, I explained. She lost control of her car one morning while driving on the Interstate, crashed into a bridge abutment and was instantly killed. She wasn’t impaired, sleepy or forced off the road by another driver. She simply suffered a tragic, inexplicable accident. An accident that forever changed my family, I told the people, just as one similarly changed theirs.
As I shared from my personal experience, I could tell how deeply the people connected not only with my sermon but with everything they were experiencing in the service. There were none of the background noises congregations make when they’re distracted in worship; instead, an intense, expectant silence filled the room. I was no longer a religious professional leading a state-sponsored occasion but one of the hundreds of grieving people there that day, trying to make sense of it all.
The biblical text for the message was Luke 8: 41-55, where a father’s heart is broken with the death of his little girl until Jesus comes and restores her life. A miracle story, to be sure; more importantly, though, the passage reveals Jesus as the Lord who calls us all to life, those who die as well as their loved ones left behind. Jesus’ words to the dead girl were my main point. As the father’s grieving family and friends look on, Jesus “took her by the hand and said, ‘My child, get up!’ Her spirit returned, and at once she stood up.” (Luke 8:54-55)
My encouragement to the people was how we all had to Get up! For all of us who grieve and struggle, God’s invitation to us is to Get up! For all who believe that death is the end, Get up! For all who are trying to figure out a way to continue to live when the person who made life worth living is taken away, Get Up! The resurrected Christ arrives at precisely the moment of our greatest fear, takes us by the hand and calls out to hearts deadened with loss and callused by the hardness of the world, Get up!
After my sermon I closed the service in prayer. The people left slowly, many of them weeping, others gathering in small groups. A few returned to the memorial wall for one last glance at a loved one’s name. But as they dispersed, I realized something was different; a shift had occurred while we worshipped. A keen sense of loss was still present, of course, because nothing in any of our circumstances had been altered in the previous ninety minutes. Yet there was a lightness, a tenderness, a sweetness in the room as we left that had not been present when we arrived.
I tried to account in my own mind for the remarkable effect but couldn’t find the right words. The closest I could come was simply to observe how several factors came together in a divinely ordered fashion. The people’s pain was acknowledged even while their faith was affirmed. The Word was preached to their specific circumstances. A personal and transparent connection between congregation and minister was established. The congregation’s hearts were touched, not by superficial appeals to pop-psychology or positive thinking but by the power of the risen Savior. Encouragement was offered and received. And in the middle of it all, the Spirit of God flowed down in a river of healing.
Authentic worship took place that day, to my surprise as well as to everyone else’s.
No other church could have hosted the memorial service in quite the same fashion. That’s not to say in terms of facilities’ comfort, musical talent or preacher’s eloquence we did better or worse than other churches might have done. It’s just that on this occasion, given the particular service’s circumstances, needs, personalities and environment, our corporate identity and history emerged in a way that honored God and met the people’s needs. We found our voice in the service.
Most worship services are a long ways from that one. The unusual combination of situation and need doesn’t come around too often. Still, I learned a couple of things that have helped me view worship in the local church in a new light.
First, the language we use in churches to categorize worship probably does more harm than good. We label the many different worship styles available today with words like traditional, contemporary, gospel, black gospel, Southern gospel, Spirit-filled, Christian rock, edgy, classic, blended, middle-of-the-road and a dozen others. We think we know what music belongs where; what music we like or don’t like and what kind of music in what kind of service best suits our personal preferences. We’re trapped inside our definitions
No one would think to sing the hymn “In the Garden,” for instance, in a contemporary mega-church. It’s suited to a rural, blue-collar setting. On the other hand, if a charismatic praise singer with big hair, tight pants and a keyboard showed up in a small-town First Church, she’d cause the minister to have a heart attack because he knew right away she didn’t belong there. That one or two of his elders might be sinfully attracted to her exotic appearance is beside the point.
At the state highway memorial service, the venue, music and style of worship didn’t fit into any specific category. There was gospel music. Liturgical readings. Bagpipe. Powerpoint. A hymn. A sermon. An orchestra. But it all worked together in an organic way. The need of the occasion in combination with our church’s experience determined the flow of the service, not some pre-conceived notion of what we should do or shouldn’t do. If we had tried to plan a “traditional” service or a “contemporary” service or something in between, we wouldn’t have connected with God or with one another in the way we did. The service would have come across as contrived because the label would have determined the content and flow of the service. We would have worshipped with an artificial voice and not our own.
The very categories that seem so convenient and tidy in giving congregations the capacity to describe worship are actually robbing them of the freedom to find their own identity. In reality, only two categories of music are relevant: authentic and artificial. Any other category falls short. Whatever we do in worship has to be real. If we’re going to find our church’s voice in worship, it doesn’t matter if our congregation’s preferred style is contemporary or traditional, charismatic or liturgical, modern, gospel or classic. What matters is authenticity.
Some of the best worship I ever experienced took place at a Bible conference where the praise team consisted of a fifty-year-old white guy playing an acoustic guitar and an African-American pianist with a classical jazz style. They led our group of middle-aged church folk in nineteenth-century Methodist hymns that spoke to my heart in ways few other songs ever have. Our worship that week didn’t fit into any category I ever heard of. I only know that it was so thoroughly real that I didn’t want it to end.