To worship, mindfully
What does mindful worship look like? Baptist minister Shaun Lambert, one of the organisers of the first ever National Mindfulness Day for Christians, reflects
I am organising with others the first ever National Mindfulness Day for Christians in May. I thought it would be good if the whole day reflected mindful theology and practice – and wondered what mindful worship might look like?
I spoke to a few people who know something about worship, and they referred me to contemplative worship and Taize. This is a particular style that could be construed as mindful. However, my sense was that mindful worship was wider than a particular style, and would be applicable to all.
My journey with contemporary worship
As I’ve reflected on the idea of mindful worship I want to draw on my own experience of leading worship services for 20 years as well as drawing on psychology and contemplative theology. I was converted in an evangelical-charismatic Baptist church with a contemporary band and extended times of singing, as well as space for the prophetic and speaking in tongues. This became, if you like, my automatic script for worship: I had nothing to compare it with.
And I want to use another psychological term: I became cognitively fused to that style. What is cognitive fusion? I suffer from anxiety and I used to say that I was an anxious person. From the perspective of Acceptance and Commitment Therapy (ACT) I was cognitively fused to my thoughts, hooked to them, looking at life from the perspective of my anxious thoughts. When I had a shift in perspective and recognised that I was having anxious thoughts, I learnt to defuse from those thoughts.
In the same way I believe we become cognitively and emotionally fused to a particular style of worship – it is hard to appreciate other styles. In order for us to appreciate other styles we have to learn to defuse from our own preferred style. This is not to be confused with the fusion or blending of different worship styles.
As I had become a Christian in my early 20s I had nothing to compare to my preferred style. This changed when I started my Baptist ministerial training at Spurgeon’s College. I spoke and led in about 30 different Baptist churches and was exposed to other styles.
However none of this shifted my preference for contemporary charismatic worship. I was cognitively fused to that style.
So when I was first called to Stanmore Baptist some 20 years ago, my aim was to make the worship more contemporary and charismatic. As well as it being my preferred style, there was also a pragmatic element in that I believed it worked!
Seeking experience - rather than the person of God
At the time most of the congregation were probably fused to a more traditional style of worship, although there had been some shift to adapt to a more contemporary style. As I got to know and love the congregation, I started to appreciate why they might like a different style. I began to develop a more relational approach to our corporate worship, blending in elements of a more traditional style, including hymns.
I also began to defuse from the charismatic style and recognised that it can just become a consumer-oriented style. As I’ve observed and examined charismatic worship, with its extended singing and the repetition of songs, my critique would be that it has a sub-culture where those within that form of worship are seeking experience rather than the person of God – and also become fused to that experience and consider that heightened, ecstatic or emotional response ‘worship.’ This can then become the preferred consumer version that is sought out – although consumer mentality is true of all worship styles.
It is also possible to prefer some styles as a way of avoiding emotional experience. They can help us keep God at a distance and merely cerebral and ‘safe’ in that sense.
Our distracted attention spans...
In response to this mindful worship is about enabling worshippers to focus their attention on the person and presence of God. This is harder than ever before with our capacity for attention and awareness fragmented and held captive by the virtual world in which we live. Philosopher Bernard Stiegler’s own vivid phrase for this is that we are the victims of ‘psychotechnical attention capture’.
The reality is that in worship the congregants come as they are, cognitively, emotionally fused to their own concerns and worries, their attentional capacities captured by self-focus and family concerns. I don’t say this judgementally, merely to recognise the reality that most people come into times of worship distracted and inattentive.
... and how mindful worship can help
It is here I think that further defining mindful worship can help this state of affairs. Mindful worship acknowledges the cognitive and emotional fusion we come in with, our own self-focus and ruminations as well as our preferred style of worship. Mindful worship intentionally seeks to defuse us from our self-focus and everyday ruminations and our preferred style. It seeks to free up our attentional capacities from their self-focus and enable our attention, our hearts and minds to be fixed on things above where Christ is (Colossians 3:1-2).
It is there that contemplative theology would argue that in Christ we are being contemplated by Father, Son and Holy Spirit – gazed at in love and truth, and that in return we are to gaze back attentively.
In mindful contemplative worship the aim would be not to arrive at a particular experience but to meet a person – the person of Christ. We fix our eyes on Him. As we do that Christ can move the focus of our attention to our neighbour, to our witness, to strangers, to service, to sacrificial giving, to adoration, to praise, to insight, to revelation, to not just knowing about God, but in that sacred moment to know God and his love for us.
This is a continual process of learning to focus our attention, noticing our minds wandering and directing our attention back to Christ. This is enabled to be a graced response by God’s Holy Spirit. We can enable this process by encouraging mindful preparation before people come to worship. We can also cultivate mindful worship by enabling participation in worship and having a clear process within worship (1 Corinthians 14:26).
The underlying movement that needs to be acknowledged intentionally and worked with is to recognise the following intentions. In our call to worship we invite the congregation to focus their attention on God. We offer ways to do this through sung worship, reading of Scripture, prayers, sermon etc. However, the reality is that people’s minds will wander – almost immediately. We need to help them notice that their mind has wandered, what it has wandered too, and direct it back to God. This can be done liturgically and prophetically by bringing their concerns into the light of God’s presence. As part of our corporate self-examination we recognise our fused state of being, our fragmented and captive attentional capacities. In corporate worship we undergo attentional training.
'In mindful contemplative worship the aim would be not to arrive at a particular experience but to meet a person – the person of Christ'
The other key element that mindful worship would emphasise is that as we worship God, we need to move from just thinking into a place of embodied awareness – where we begin to notice whatever enters our consciousness, including the person and presence of God.
Awareness is a larger capacity than thoughts and feelings and indeed holds our thoughts and feelings. In some forms of worship I think we are moved into a place of awareness, although this might not have been done intentionally and it might not be recognised as such. I think that forms of worship where there is a lot of repetition can enable this shift from thinking into awareness, like Taize or charismatic worship.
All our senses
In worship we are also called to bring all our senses into play, and recognize these are relational senses. That by these relational senses enhanced and transformed by God we can become aware of the pain and joy that others around us might be feeling in the moment. These can be noticed prophetically and brought into the contemplative embrace of God. For example, God might touch our feelings and we begin to experience wonder, awe and reverence. We might be moved to tears or to lift our hands – none of these things should become learned behaviours; they should be a freely given response. As we respond there is a sense of God-given play where creative gifts are released in the congregation and given space to be expressed in worship.
Immersed in the presence of God
In mindful worship we are, therefore, paying attention to reality, as somebody put it - to the real and the Real. Within all the elements of worship including reading, meditation and prayer, the goal would be to arrive at a place of silence – where in awe and wonder we are simply aware of the person of God and immersed in the presence of God.
It's a presence always directs into a larger space, love of God and love of neighbour, witness and social action where we walk in the kingdom.
Image | Brandon Johnson | Creationswap
Shaun Lambert is the minister of Stanmore Baptist Church
The National Mindfulness Day for Christians takes place on 12 May at St Paul's Church in Ealing, London, and 19 May at Bridge Community Church, Leeds
For more information and to book visit www.nationalmindfulnessday.co.uk.
 See John T. Blackledge and Jason Lillis, “Having a Thought versus Buying a Thought,” in Steven C. Hayes, Get Out of Your Mind & Into Your Life: The New Acceptance and Commitment Therapy (New Harbinger Publications Inc, 2005), 69-86.
 Bernard Stiegler, Taking Care of Youth and the Generations, 58, quoted by Hayles, How We Think, 251.
 Kyle Strobel, “IN YOUR LIGHT THEY SHALL SEE LIGHT: A THEOLOGICAL PROLEGOMENA FOR CONTEMPLATION," Journal of Spiritual Formation & Soul Care 7, no. 1 (2014), 95.
 J. Mark G. Williams & Jon Kabat-Zinn, “Mindfulness: Diverse Perspectives on its Meaning, Origins, and Multiple Applications at the Intersection of Science and Dharma,” in Mindfulness: Diverse Perspectives on its Meaning, Origins, and Applications, eds. J. Mark G. Williams & Jon Kabat-Zinn (London: Routledge, 2013), 15.