Refrigerator Door Worship by Pastor Chris Neufeld-Erdman
What is “refrigerator door worship”?
A number of years ago, a man came to see me. He’d visited my congregation in central California several times. I figured he either had questions or wanted to get better acquainted with the pastor. I figured wrong. He’d come to complain. He seemed to have been keeping a list about what he didn’t like about our worship.
I can generally handle complaints from those who’ve been around awhile. Those complaints come from among us; they come out of relationship. And they can always help better the relationship and improve our life together. But as this man spilled out his laundry list of what was wrong with University Presbyterian Church, I struggled with my sense of defensiveness. “You don’t know these people,” I thought. “Don’t criticize what you don’t understand. And then, do so, only after you’ve come to appreciate us as a people—a community. Only then might you not only have the sensitivity, but also the credibility, to offer a critique that can lead to improvement.”
I didn’t say any of that. But I neither was I silent.
It was when he started to criticize the offertory that my defensiveness became protectiveness. Hal, a man who, only in his eighth decade of life had finally done what his mother had tried to get him to do in the first—learn to play the piano. It was Hal who played the offertory that day.
Our Minister of Music had spent the better part of the year teaching Hal to play the piano. Last Sunday, she’d helped him prepare his favorite piece of music to play before the congregation: Clair de Lune by Claude Debussy. Hal, dressed in a blue choir robe, short pants—with bare legs and sandals showing—had played to the glory of God and in honor of his mother. There was nothing professional or excellent about it. But it was real. It was a gesture of gratitude to God. It was a prayer. The congregation got it and loved it; this visitor did not.
And his criticism had raised my ire.
“In my kitchen there’s a refrigerator,” I said. “And on that refrigerator door are pictures of friends; there are finger paintings made by my two little boys; there’s a menu and schedule for the week. If you’re going to share a meal at my home, you’ll be fed from what’s behind that refrigerator door. And on that door are all kinds of things you won’t find elsewhere, things that symbolize what it means for us to be a family—stuff about our particular family of faith. Sir, worship at University Presbyterian Church is refrigerator door worship. What we do, while it may not meet your standards, meets us where we are and expresses, as best we can, our experience of God. Sure, it could be better. But if it met your standards, it probably wouldn’t meet ours. And being ours – fully ours – is what God wants our worship to be.”
The only kind of worship that really matters
What was true in that congregation then, is true at DCC now. Our worship is and ought to be refrigerator door worship. It’s the only kind of worship that matters. Anything less than what’s authentic to a particular people, any expression of worship that mimics someone else’s worship, isn’t worship, it’s a parody—artistic maybe, possibly even glorious, but it’s not Christian worship. Worship is, above all, an act of human prayer to God; it’s a collection of songs and silence, music and readings, prayers and sacred actions that represent the unique way this particular people relate to the Divine. Of course, it will always borrow from our rich and varied tradition, but it must always be that particular people’s improvisation on that tradition.
At DCC we welcome what’s excellent, but we avoid what’s inauthentic. We celebrate what’s real, we cherish what’s raw. And we also welcome words, lovingly spoken, and ideas generously tendered, about ways our worship can be a better refrigerator door—more faithfully expressing the fullness of who we are as a community right now, but always evolving, changing, growing, even while tethered to our sacred past.
Growing worship, making adjustments
We regularly make adjustments to our worship experiences. Those adjustments come from comments, suggestions, and hints that arise from those of you who are part of our life together. One of you once noted a syntax problem in the way some sentences in a communion liturgy were constructed. We changed the syntax. Others have pointed out when we’re not careful enough to avoid patriarchal language that too easily perpetuates the misogyny that is antithetical to the gospel. Two years ago, we dropped the candle lighting at the family-oriented Christmas Eve services thinking we’d keep people safer that way; you told us we were losing an important ritual for shaping the lives of our children. Last year we lit candles again. This doesn’t mean every suggestion, idea, or criticism brings about changes, but it does mean that we take them seriously.
In Advent, we’ll experiment with some changes specific to the holiday season. For example, we will offer Holy Communion at both services during Advent in order to intensify our worship experience. We may also shift the placing of our announcements to the beginning of worship in an effort to not break up the worship experience with too many words. We’ll also experiment with a modestly new way of sharing the Prayers of the People so that it’s even more inclusive than it is now; we may try to use prayer cards you can fill out prior to or during the first part of worship that are collected, then prayed during the Communion liturgy.
These are seasonal changes, but if they feel right we might hold on to them longer—always with the intention of helping us all find ourselves more engaged in the actual experience of God and an encounter with each other in community, which is why gather in the first place.