Being the church is more than just “gathering on the Sabbath.” It’s more than “mission projects that have a start and end date.” It’s more than “just having a title, but it is a way of being that you cannot turn on and off,” says Dr. Tony McNeill, worship music leader for Big Tent, set for Aug. 1-3 in Baltimore.
For McNeill, being the church and attending Sunday services are inseparable from the quest for justice. He said those attending the Big Tent celebration can expect to experience this first- hand.
“To authentically worship is to actually be the embodiment of that worship in the world, away from the corporate setting,” says McNeill, who also hopes that worship will be the catalyst that compels Big Tent attendees to “seek justice in the world as a way of being and not just as a project that has a start date and an end date.”
Grounded in this year’s theme, “Movement Beyond Institution,” part of the goal for McNeill and for the Big Tent worship team is to demonstrate the intersections of justice and worship.
“In my way of thinking and in my understanding of justice as an attribute of God, being just in the world is a continuation of worship, it is an embodiment of the worship. It is a manifestation of your worship and not this separate event detached from the mandate to pursue worship. It is interconnected. I would venture to say that our worship is incomplete without the pursuit of justice as a way of life,” says McNeill.
McNeill is currently serving on the staff of Johnson C. Smith Theological Seminary, where he coordinates the Worship Leadership Certificate Program. He’s also the part-time choir director and accompanist for the Sanctuary Mass Choir at Oakhurst Presbyterian Church in Decatur, Ga. (where Big Tent’s Friday plenary speaker Rev. Amantha Barbee is the pastor).
At his side will be the Rev. Kimberly Bracken Long, editor of the quarterly journal “Call to Worship: Liturgy, Music, Preaching, and the Arts” and co-editor of the “2018 Book of Common Worship” of the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.).
Like McNeill, Long, along with others on the worship team, will bring worship to life for Big Tent attendees. In an email, Long said she hopes that worship at Big Tent will help attendees “encounter the living God, who will enlarge our hearts, renew our hope, and inflame our passion to follow wherever Christ leads, relying on the power of the Holy Spirit.”
A minister of Word and Sacrament in the PC(USA) and former professor of worship at Columbia Theological Seminary in Decatur, Ga., Long works to turn planning worship into an art form.
“The longer I live, the more convinced I am that worship is about envisioning, enacting, and rehearsing for the reign of God,” she said. “In worship, we keep alive the vision of God’s intended and promised realm, so that we do not lose hope. In worship we enact the coming reign of God (or at least we should!) through the songs we sing, the prayers we pray, the proclamation of the Word and the way we enact the sacraments. … Whenever we gather around the Lord’s table, we proclaim that in the kingdom of God there is room for everyone and plenty for all.”
Beyond the excitement of planning worship, Long is also looking forward to hearing “excellent preaching from Rev. Dr. Amaury Tanon-Santos and Rev. Dr. Renita Weems. I’m excited about the musical leadership under the direction of Dr. Tony McNeill, members of the Presbyterian Association of Musicians, and Baltimore musicians. I’m delighted that this Big Tent will enable us to engage with what God is doing in the city of Baltimore, and really pleased at the number of excellent learning opportunities being offered.”
Engaging with Baltimore artists and musicians from around the country is another opportunity that McNeill and his team are pursuing.
“There will be opportunities for folks to participate in smaller learning opportunities,” he said, such as a 45-minute presentation he’s planning with Phillip Morgan, Director of Music at Central Presbyterian Church in Louisville, Ky. That presentation is on the use of African American congregational singing “as a vehicle for pushing people out and onto the pavement of justice,” McNeill said.
McNeill identified the benediction as one of the most overlooked and most important components of any worship service.
“The benediction is the final reminder to the gathering community that you have a responsibility to be just in the world,” he said, “that you have a responsibility, as a result of being in the presence of God, to take God’s presence and God’s love into the world and redeposit it into other people.”
McNeill ultimately hopes that those who attend Big Tent worship will “come ready to be vulnerable and to encounter the divine in new and fresh ways.”
Big Tent will be held Aug. 1-3. The theme is “Called to a Movement Beyond Institution.” Other speakers include the Rev. Dr. Amaury Tañón-Santos, Rev. Dr. Soong-Chan Rah, Rev. Amantha Barbee, Dr. William P. Brown, the Rev. Dr. Renita J. Weems and the Co-Moderators of the 223rd General Assembly (2018), the Rev. Cindy Kohlmann and Ruling Elder Vilmarie Cintrón-Olivieri.
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