July 4, 2014

The Mechanics of Awkward

I interned for a summer with a worship arts pastor when I was in college. At the time, it had nothing to do with my major, and I did it for free. But it was an awesome summer for me - I learned a ton, and I also met this amazing girl who later agreed to marry me. The church was fairly large by most standards - average weekend attendance was around 1500 at three services - and so it seemed a fitting place to learn the ropes of leading and planning worship. 

I remember that first few weeks of this strange new world I’d entered were awkward, as starting any new routine usually are. There were lots of things I wasn't used to, especially the planning meetings, but I remember noticing that my mentor had an attention to detail that I’d never seen in a pastor before. She was a bit of a nazi for transitions in particular, and it’s taken me a long time of doing this myself to realize why it was so important to her.

People can tell when things happen on purpose, or when they are simply mistakes or badly planned. When telling a story, awkward pauses in the flow - someone who doesn’t come up to the stage fast enough, someone who can’t remember their line in a sketch, a capo change that lasts forever, a mic still muted when a speaker starts - those awkward pauses interrupt our attention to the story and instead draw our attention to the mechanics of what’s happening. Instead of pondering what God just revealed in the midst of a piece of music or scripture or drama, our eyes and ears are instantly drawn to whatever interrupted the experience. Planning our transitions - and bring prepared for what to do in the eventuality that something will go differently than planned - helps us to tell the story in a way that makes sense to those we’ve been entrusted to lead. Far from manipulating an audience, it’s about creating space free of distractions from what’s most important. Instead of drawing our attention to the mundane - walking, people putting down instruments, fumbling for a mute button - it allows the elements we’ve spent so much time planning draw attention to God.

But there’s one more reason I've discovered, and to me, this is the most important one.

When there's that extra space that lasts just a bit too long between things, and you're left wondering if these people actually care enough about what they’re doing to know their own plan, there's always an uncomfortable silence. The thing is, the silence was not on purpose. In our culture, people are already suspicious of silence or pause; it doesn't fit into our "self-made people" image very well, and doesn't fit into our cultural narrative of constant productivity. We work hard, we play hard - we don't like to slow down for sabbath. Yet silence is an important spiritual discipline and thus a counter-cultural element of the Christian spiritual life. So when it happens unintentionally, say in an awkward transition, it reinforces our hostility towards it.

Awkward transitions give silence a bad name.

Planning your transitions effectively not only helps tell the story of God in a better way, it also helps curate space for purposeful silence. It helps us learn to sabbath.

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