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Aaron Niequist on Practicing the Unforced Rhythms of Grace

The Practice, a Sunday evening service at Willow Creek Community Church, is finding that weekly confession, communion and silence help Christians live faithfully in an interfaith world.

Aaron Niequist is worship leader, songwriter and self-described curator of a Sunday evening service called The Practice at Willow Creek Community Church in South Barrington, Illinois. In this edited conversation, he talks about reshaping worship to form fully devoted followers of Christ.

You said at the 2015 Calvin Symposium on Worship that worship is meant to be a well-balanced meal. What do you mean by that?

I was trying to explain to my wife, Shauna Niequist, why I was interested in liturgy. I realized it was like I’d been serving chicken, french fries and iced tea every week, and wondering why I wasn’t seeing more health. I wanted to bring in more food groups, like confession, lament, contemplative prayer and practices from many traditions. Shauna said, “So, basically, you want to serve a well-balanced meal at worship.”

What would you like to lift up or de-emphasize in contemporary worship?

Modern contemporary worship is wonderful at forming people in a certain way. It’s joyful; it helps people celebrate and personalize their faith and intimacy with God. It can bring them into being active in the world. But modern contemporary worship culture avoids the dark and misses out on the complexity of life, so it doesn’t have much to say in seasons of pain, loss and doubt.

We live in an interfaith world, but modern contemporary worship forms us to be most warm to people like ourselves. It doesn’t help us engage the “other.” It doesn’t “tenderize” us to see others’ humanity and divinity. Songs like Chris Tomlin’s “Our God” come out of scripture, but singing “Our God is greater, our God is stronger” can accidentally form us into one-sided people. I’m not saying everything about current worship culture is bad, just that it’s only a part of the whole. The problem is when it becomes synonymous with worship.

I’ve been surprised by how interested people are in adding contemplative elements. In The Practice we are interested not just in contemplation or silence, but in how to organize the whole gathering.

How do you describe The Practice to people who’ve never experienced it?

We’re a community that’s trying to not only believe things about Jesus but to also rearrange our lives so that we put his words into practice. We’re a practice-based, neo-liturgical gathering that culminates every Sunday night with the Eucharist. We more or less use the gloriously rich words of the Anglican communion liturgy, because it brilliantly tells the whole story of God with us. I sometimes quietly play the piano during the communion readings.

Our music is sometimes more modern than in a historically liturgical church. I haven’t introduced an exorbitant amount of new music. I’m doing more short refrains rather than whole pop songs. I grew up in a traditional church, so we do a lot of hymns. The way we do them probably feels a little pop, but we’re not trying to make them cool. We sing our hearts out.

A friend who’s an Anglican priest says that The Practice feels like an Anglican liturgy with evangelical sensibilities. At its best, we hope it has all the deep-rootedness and grounding of the historical church but also the immediacy of fully connecting with emotions and actual lives. This marriage offers beautiful possibilities, though we don’t always do it well.

How does The Practice fit within Willow’s overall approach to worship and discipleship?

We don’t actually use the word “worship” because it’s come to mean “stand and sing” instead of the idea of worship as a bigger whole. We call our whole service “the order of practice,” with an opening liturgy and singing part of the liturgy and so on.

The Practice is discipleship-focused, which is the same intention as Willow Creek. Willow has said very publically that it’s great on the front end of helping people find faith, but hasn’t created fully devoted followers of Christ in the way we’d hoped. I really admired Willow’s courage in going public with results of its three-year Reveal study. Willow learned that it does some things really well but needs to grow in other ways. The Practice is one way to help people move deeper into discipleship.

Every single Sunday, we remind people that Sunday night is not the main event. Our actual Monday-through-Saturday lives are the main event. We talk about The Practice as a gymnasium where we practice the skills, like centering prayer, so we keep coming back to God all week long.

About three times a quarter, we have communal listening nights. After an opening liturgy, we do guided groups of six to ten people, each with a facilitator. It’s surprising how many introverts come.

 Who attends The Practice?

About two-thirds are already part of Willow, and one third are from outside. Our demographics range from college-age students to empty nesters to people in their 70s. We don’t have a lot of families with young kids, though, because The Practice doesn’t have childcare or family formation. It’s a resource issue, and it breaks my heart. The legal complexity at Willow means people have to go through so many background checks to care for or teach children.

How and why do you use silence in The Practice?

We include silence in every service. Most evangelical services have no silence at all. In fact, they do everything to avoid it. We always have a confession, followed by one or two minutes of silence, followed by assurance. Sometimes a whole night is a lectio divina experience, like the night we built the whole service around Psalm 34. We’ve learned to do breath prayers. For centering prayer, we did a full ten minutes of silent sitting, no music—but we built up to that with teaching and practice.

How has The Practice shaped your own life?

I’ve been working at churches since I graduated from college in 1998, but these last two years have been the most “ministry alive” season of my life. We made a conscious decision after the second service of The Practice to live out the unforced rhythms of grace [Matthew 11:30, The Message] and invite the community to do the same.

When our staff of seven meets on Tuesday and Wednesday mornings, we don’t just open with prayer and start the agenda. Instead we begin by practicing together, maybe silence or sharing or a way of experiencing scripture. We decided together that we’ll only do as much as we can while actually living the unforced rhythms of grace. After our first six months, we said it was too hard to prepare every Sunday of every month. We added two part time positions and now have a rhythm of four or five Sundays on, one off.

Christianity Today gave the backstory on why The Practice began. Aaron Niequist blogs about The Practice and shared drafts for two worship services. At the 2015 Calvin Symposium on Worship, he spoke on panels about songwriting and the turn toward the formative in contemporary worship