In Defense of Celebration

It says a lot about the ethos of my religious tradition that I often find myself needing to defend the efficacy of fun. It’s not that my upbringing was devoid of laughter, feasts, or simple enjoyment of many things—quite the contrary! But I found that outside my home, carefree celebration was frequently met with the kind of mild suspicion one might have if offered a decadent cake while being assured it was “healthy”—you want to believe it’s good for you, but you can’t quite get there. If you’re like most people, you eat the cake anyway with a side of subtle guilt.

I’d like allay your fear of fun, not only to assuage your guilt but also to commend the tremendous value of celebration—both in general and in the practices of Christian worship.

I recognize that there are few things one can do to more swiftly kill the vibe of a good party than announcing how important all this festivity is going to be for our well-being. But too many of us need more than just permission to party; we need a prescription. So here you go! I trust you’ll recover before Sabbath. 

Here are three ways to celebrate in worship (and why they matter):

First, choose at least one congregational song for each worship gathering that is fun to sing. Fun songs are not necessarily fast. They come in many tempos and styles. Fun songs are often associated with dance (or rhythmic, non-linear marching, if you prefer).  In case you have no confidence in the calibration of your fun-o-meter, just ask a child for feedback. Children have good intuition about such things, they tend to be honest, and they’ll be glad you care what they think. 

I recently participated in a memorial service celebrating the life of my incredible aunt, Linda Pervier. The gathering ended with a recording of her singing a bluegrass-infused, uptempo love song. Everyone danced in the pews. There were tears and laughter. The service was poignant from beginning to end, yet this simple post-benediction practice was perhaps the most appropriate thing that happened. Celebration creates a space where all our thoughts and emotions can be interwoven into the most spiritual of our senses: gratitude and awe. Celebration is matched only by silence in it’s capacity to let us experience grateful awe. But celebration is more embodied, holistic, and social; and it’s an essential dimension of any gathering that acknowledges the divine transcendence that connects us all.

Second, when evaluating a worship gathering, always include the following question: Were there any moments in which we laughed at ourselves? I’ve often heard that we must take God seriously in worship. If a fraction of the claims Christians make are true, taking God seriously seems like a more than reasonable idea. The problem is that while we get the “serious” part right, the one person we take most seriously is usually ourselves. Self-consciousness is the least expansive type of consciousness. It limits the horizon of our awareness. And we waste our best efforts worrying about inevitable imperfections, miscommunications, and misperceptions that don’t truly matter. A willingness to laugh at ourselves distracts our uptight, guarded egos just long enough to let us catch a clearer glimpse of the beauty in others, in ourselves, and in the loving God we worship.

Third, treat everyone like guests at a feast. Worship as a festive feast is a recurring paradigm in the biblical narratives. And all worship participants benefit from approaching current gatherings with such a mindset. A birthday party and a worship service are not, of course, identical rituals. But liturgical practices could benefit from the wisdom embodied in birthday parties. Most importantly, birthday celebrations are characterized by decidedly unconditional affirmation, gratitude, and love. Before cutting a cake, no one offers a toast by saying, “I wish you a year of continued joy and success—provided, of course, that you measure up to all our expectations and avoid making any serious mistakes. Happy birthday!” The host similarly does not tell any guest, “I’m somewhat glad you’re here because you are a reasonably well liked acquaintance; and although you have your flaws, you’re pretty pleasant when on your best behavior. Have fun!” We don’t explicitly say those things at worship gatherings either. But far too often, words of welcome and affirmation are at least subtlety qualified. No one undersells love at a party. And there is no reason to undersell it in worship either. In fact, we have every reason to take a break from taking ourselves so seriously and celebrate the only reason any of us would want to get together to pray and sing in the first place: God’s love is contingent on absolutely nothing. We are all loved and accepted and affirmed not despite but because of who we are. Full stop. If we can learn by grace to accept that simple truth, we’ll never again need to be persuaded to party.