Thursday, December 24, 2009

Sacrament Sequence

As everybody knows, we Protestants have only two sacraments, baptism and the Lord’s Supper. Those of us who are ordained to the “ministry of Word and Sacrament” are supposed to pay attention not only to what we say in proclaiming the word, but also to what we do in the sacraments.

I’ve been annoyed for some years by the necessity for taking the sacraments in a prescribed sequence: first, one must be baptized; then, and only then, may the person come to the Lord’s Table. It’s never to be the other way around. If it happens by accident or necessity that someone takes communion without having been previously baptized, then we’re supposed to put it in high gear and rush them to the font.

So the two sacraments ride in tandem, one in front and the other behind. I remember saying that in a meeting and getting chewed out by a theologian for suggesting that the two sacraments were unequal in any manner.

I guess if you say they are in tandem, that does mean that one comes first and the other second; therefore, one is primary and the other is secondary, and in that sense they are unequal. But I agree with the theologian, that they should not be unequal. Baptism and the Lord’s Supper are on a par in that each one, in a different mode, witnesses to the real presence of our Risen Lord and our unity with him by the Holy Spirit.

The policies and procedures, however, outlined in the Book of Order, require the one-two punch approach to the sacraments. As an antidote to that, I propose a different way of thinking about the sacraments from our current typical approaches.

It is common for us to think about baptism as the “entrance rite” of the church, modeled as we believe, after Jewish circumcision. For a child or adult to become part of the “people of God” we call the church, baptism is required.

It is equally common for us to think of the Lord’s Supper as the “sending rite” of the church, the “bread for the journey,” the nourishment to carry us in strength as we follow our Lord into the world.

Baptism is the “welcoming sacrament”; the Eucharist is the “sending sacrament.” I have no dispute with either of those concepts. Except that, by themselves, they are inadequate to interpret both sacraments and their mutual relationship.

To my way of thinking, baptism is just as much a “sending sacrament” as the Lord’s Supper. Consider baptism, if you will, as the “basic ordination” for Christians. It is our dying to the old life so we may live the new life in Jesus Christ. It is our gift of the Spirit sending us into the world on the mission of Christian service.

In short, to consider baptism only as the means by which we become part of the Christian family, and not that which shoves us out the door into ministry, makes baptism merely an initiation into a self-serving club. In which case, baptism is likely to do not much more than make the church ingrown.

On the other hand, I also think that the Lord’s Supper is every bit as much of a “welcoming sacrament” as baptism. Sharing a meal is fundamental to human society. Hospitality is a central virtue of God’s people. Jesus himself displayed generous hospitality in hosting others at meals, as well as in being a gracious guest. He was indiscriminate about those with whom he would break bread.

In short, to consider the Lord’s Supper as merely something to perk us up as we go back to the real world, is to turn the experience into something akin to the roadside diner at the gas station—a good place to get filled up.

Put the two together as both “welcoming” and “sending” sacraments and the sequence problem evaporates. The baptismal font can be placed at the door as a visual reminder that baptism welcomes us in and sends us out each Sunday. The Lord’s Supper is celebrated with radical hospitality that invites the world to the Lord’s Table to receive the body of Christ, and sends us into the world to be the body of Christ.

How do you celebrate baptism as a “sending sacrament?” How do you celebrate the Lord’s Supper as a “welcoming sacrament?”

Friday, December 18, 2009

Party Crashers Welcome

In 1977, at the General Assembly of the United Presbyterian Church in the U.S.A. in Philadelphia, the Special Committee on the Lord’s Supper was to make its final report. As chair of the Committee, I presented the report, backed up by several members of the committee, at 2:00 AM. The major recommendation was to the effect that our denomination go on record as practicing “open communion.”

The recommendation was met with hoots and howls, and a debate more nasty than nice. After a quick consultation, the committee asked to withdraw its recommendation. That was granted, and we left. Obviously the mood of those commissioners was to preserve the status quo—the Lord’s Supper is to be only for the baptized.

That position was not unanimous. Ironically, Jürgen Moltmann’s book, The Church in the Power of the Holy Spirit, had just appeared in English that year, and fresh copies were available in the General Assembly Book Store. In two places Moltman proposes that Jesus’ invitation is a completely open one (pp.242-246), and that therefore the Lord’s Supper should be an “open feast” (pp.258-260).

In my own ministry, in spite of the requirements of the Book of Order, I have long practiced “open communion.” Before my work on that committee, I was having difficulty “fencing the Table”* by announcing that only baptized Christians were welcome to partake. It seemed to me that, as the surrogate of the Host, Jesus Christ, I was speaking words contrary to his will.

When I started my ministry, The Invitation I used (from the Book of Common Worship, 1946) began: “Beloved in the Lord, hear what gracious words our Saviour Christ saith unto all who truly turn to Him:…” and then went on to cite Matthew 11:28-29; John 6:35, 37b and Matthew 5:6. There were not even hints of limiting the guest list. Such an invitation welcomed anybody and everybody who was hungry and thirsty enough to want to come.

Therefore, “open communion” for me is the norm. When I retired and looked for a church home, that was one of the criteria by which I made my selection—that there were no restrictions on who was welcome at the Table of the Lord.

That, for me, is the precise issue: it is the Lord’s Table, not the church’s. Because it is the Lord’s Supper, the church has no right to limit the guest list. Yet the church in its many manifestations has chosen to identify certain people as party crashers. Curiously, however, it has rarely done this in the liturgy. Rather the “fencing” of the Table is done by the governance of the church, by the establishment of rules and regulations, policies and procedures. You will find the requirements of attendance at the Lord’s Supper in the Book of Order, but not in the Book of Common Worship.

The Invitation in the Book of Common Worship, 1993 reads:
"This is the Lord's table.
Our Savior invites those who trust him
to share the feast which he has prepared."
I suppose one might say, “Aha! The invitation is only for those who trust Jesus—which means they should be baptized because that’s how people show they trust Jesus.” It is naïve to assume that baptism, of adult or child, guarantees a trust in Jesus. Baptism confers no virtue or piety. Baptism is the beginning of a faith journey, not its culmination.

An unbaptized athiest has the same claim on a place at the Table as the most trustful baptized Christian. What is required is what the Reformers called “self-examination.” (They took their cue from Paul—see I Cor. 11:28.) Should such an unbeliever “hunger and thirst after righteousness,” and feel life’s burdens weighing them down, and the person, hearing the invitation, responds by coming to eat and drink and find rest, then I’m convinced that the Lord welcomes that person without qualification.

The same self-examination, of course, is due of the most trusting Christian who is still a sinner and “hungers and thirsts after righteousness,” and may well be among those who “labor and are heavy-laden” with life.

What is missing in the efforts to “fence” the Table is an awareness of the Holy Spirit. The Spirit is not confined by actions of judicatories or bishops. The Spirit is not limited by ecclesiastical directives.

I believe that the Spirit is at work within and among each of us when we gather for worship, when we put ourselves in God’s way, and leave our souls vulnerable to change. I believe that the Spirit brings us together and binds us to Christ in that banquet. I believe the Spirit can and does accomplish more in human hearts than any of us can imagine—including capturing the faith of the least likely diner at the Lord’s Table.

I approach the Table trusting the Risen Christ to welcome me along with all the other sinners gathered there, without restriction.

Do you practice “open communion” in your church? If not, has the issue been considered by your governing body and clergy? How would you have participation in communion restricted?

* “Fencing the Table” is a common term meaning that some people are kept away by a “fence,” such as the requirement of baptism. Some Protestant churches still allow only members of a particular congregation or denomination to participate; Roman Catholic and Orthodox churches require participants to be baptized in that particular tradition.

Saturday, December 12, 2009

What's the Good Word?

I think I’ve heard more different preachers since I retired than during all the years I was pastor of a church. It’s been very interesting and even instructive to have the view from the pew for a change. I still preach from time to time filling in for vacationing friends, but being among the congregation has its particular blessings.

Someone once said in my hearing, “Sermons are intimate conversations with people you love.” I’m sure that isn’t an exhaustive description of preaching, but it’s not a bad starting point.

Sitting out in front of the preacher I’ve noticed that some sermons do not live up to that saying.

Sometimes the sermon is not a conversation at all, but a monologue, a lecture, a lengthy exegesis. I tend to tune out when the preacher is talking to the air, floating on abstractions, and hardly looking at me or anyone else around me. I’d welcome a conversation, and like most conversations that are worth having, it should have something to do with me, with the state of my soul, with my relationship to God, with the purpose of my life. The sermon should, in a word, be relevant—not only to current events, but to my life and my struggle to make it a Christian life.

I’d just as soon the preacher wouldn’t load the sermon with quotes either. Bringing in a direct quote from some theologian or devotional writer, or even the next door neighbor, is bringing a third party into the conversation. It can be a real distraction. Preachers are supposed to be able to work with words—they should translate the quote into their own words, make it their own. We all need to remember that most quotations don’t mean nearly as much to the listener as they do to the quoter.

A friend told me that he attended Riverside Church in New York when Harry Emerson Fosdick was pastor there. It’s a cavernous room, and it was jammed with people spilling out into the aisles. When Fosdick mounted the pulpit and began to preach, my friend felt that he and Fosdick were the only two people in the room. Now, that’s preaching.

If the sermon is about real life, and about the Good News of God’s love, it will be both tender and firm. That’s where the intimacy comes in. The Word preached reaches out to touch us where we hurt, to soothe the sore spots. The Word preached also pokes and prods to move us where we’d just as soon not be bothered to go. The old saw is right: “Good preaching comforts the afflicted and afflicts the comfortable.” All of this preaching is dared because there is a love relationship between preacher and preachee, a love that is bestowed not by either, but by God.

Some have said that preaching should be recognized as the Third Sacrament, and there’s something to that. In the act of preaching, both speaking and listening, Christ becomes present. That’s why, in the old days, we were told to wear black robes, in order to keep ourselves unobtrusive, in the background, so the Christ present could be out front for all to recognize.

Not all preachers I’ve come across, I’m sad to report, do this well. A few—I like to think just a few—play the part of being a preacher. The sermon is a performance. It’s designed to impress the “audience.” One of the worst sermons I’ve ever heard was from a handsome, eloquent, 8x10 glossy preacher who put on a great show. There just wasn’t anything there.

At the same time one of the worst “performers” I’ve seen as far as presentation goes, was a preacher who spoke from his heart to the hearts of everyone in the room. It was almost like Jesus was there with us. It was what he said, not how well he said it, that counted.

I’ve become more critical of my own preaching as a result of my post-retirement church-going. Surely that’s not a bad thing.

If you’re a preacher, how often do you get to hear others? What do you learn about your craft when you do? If you’re on the other side of the pulpit, what do you look and listen for in a sermon? Do you ever talk with your minister about it?

Friday, December 4, 2009

Children's Sermons

I do not like children’s sermons! And that’s an understatement of mammoth proportions.

They go under various aliases: “children’s moment,” “time for the children,” “children’s story,” “pastor’s time with the children,” and so forth.

By whatever name, I don’t like them. And it’s not just personal taste. It’s not that I don’t know how to do them. I’ve done them with some success, I think, but my heart was never in it. I don’t like them because I’m convinced the so-called “children’s sermon” is a big liturgical mistake.

First of all, children’s sermons are entertaining for the congregation. Actually, the children are doing the entertaining. For that reason, the children are exploited to sit up front and look darling. Entertainment is not worship. This approach is very condescending and it is simply not right to use children in that way.

Second, children’s sermons or their kin are interruptions to the flow of the service. Adults are invited to take time out while a side show goes on with the little ones. When that bit of business is taken care of, the rest of us can start our worship again.

Third, if you think it’s good education for the children, I beg to differ with you. Most often the “sermons” for children are moralistic object lessons, but they do not enlighten children about the scriptural message. They are a poor way to teach what the young Christian needs to learn. They’re definitely not a substitute for strong Christian education.

Fourth, having a “special” something for the children sets them apart from the rest of the worshipping community. Usually they are bid to depart immediately after so the rest of us can do real worship. Such liturgical segregation should be verboten.

Well, then, what do we do with children in worship? Should we abandon “children’s sermons”?
Yes, I’d say, but I concede it’s not a realistic possibility. The late David Ng, Presbyterian educator par excellence, used to say, “Children’s sermons are like crabgrass—once you’ve got them, it’s hard to get rid of them.”

Well, if we can’t lick them, then let’s join them. Marva Dawn, in her book Reaching Out without Dumbing Down, suggests using the time to teach the children (and everyone else in the room) about the historic liturgy of the church.

I’ve tried it this way: Invite the children to climb up into the pulpit (which is more fun if you have a pulpit to climb up into). Let them see what it looks like from the preacher’s point of view. If there’s a big open Bible on the pulpit or at the lectern, let them open it with the ribbons marking the texts for the day. Point out the different readings, Old Testament and Psalter, the Epistle and Gospel. Talk about why we read them all, and how the sermon comes from those texts.

The very best thing I think we can do for children in worship is let them stay for the whole experience. Children learn by doing, and doing with mom and dad is one of the best ways. When dad sings the hymn with his child, pointing out the notes and words as they go along, there is education. When mom helps her child find the text in the pew Bible, that’s education too. And when the children look around at all the other adults and see how important worship is to them, that’s the example that will leave the most lasting impression.

I still wish we could get the crabgrass of children’s sermons out of the liturgy. If not, then let’s see if we can make it nice looking, greener crabgrass. Maybe at least we can keep it better under control.

How do you handle children’s sermons in your church? Do you have any better ideas about how to involve children in worship?

Thursday, November 26, 2009

Calendar Crunch

It’s crunch time again, when two calendars slam into each other at the intersection of seasons.

The one calendar is the Christian Year: starting with Advent, on to Christmas, Epiphany, Ordinary Time, Lent, Easter, Pentecost, and more Ordinary Time until we return to Advent—and numerous special days along the way.

The other calendar is the one on your desk or hanging on the wall, starting with New Years Day, Valentine’s Day, President’s Day, Mothers Day, July Fourth, Halloween, Thanksgiving, Christmas Day, New Year’s Eve—and numerous special days along the way.

It’s easy to see where they bump into each other. One of those times is hard upon us; actually it’s already begun.

Step into a mall today and you’ll see all the sales hawking potential Christmas presents. If you listen carefully, you’ll hear the familiar tunes of Christmas carols serenading the shoppers. Drive around the neighborhood, and Christmas lights and decorations are popping up. It began this year around Halloween, and will continue with increased intensity up until December 24 at midnight—when all will stop abruptly (except for the lights which will twinkle on). This is the season of preparation for Christmas (a.k.a. ‘The Holiday Season”) in the secular world.

In the Christian Year, the season of preparation for Christmas is Advent. So far so good—the two calendars seem to be running in parallel lanes. But one swerves. In the church, people want to sing Christmas carols during the four weeks of Advent—after all, they hear them at the mall, why not at church? They also want to do other Christmassy things like pageants and parties, visits from Santa, and so forth. What happens is that we’re celebrating Christmas before Christmas. The two calendars crunch, and the church’s calendar gets the dents.

Then we arrive at a big day in the Christian Year, Christmas. Services of worship, prayer, celebration of gifts of love, ours, Gods, and singing praise to God for the miracle. And then. . . nothing. Crunch! We still have eleven more days of Christmas—it’s a season, remember? Yet it feels like we’ve already finished with Christmas.

What happens is that the secular calendar smashes into the Christian Year changing its contours. It happens not only at this season. Two other dangerous times, for example, are July Fourth on a Sunday when parishioners expect if not demand high patriotic themes and songs in the service. Then there’s Mother’s Day when Mom is to be idolized. (Note: I was invited to be a guest preacher last Mother’s Day. I took the occasion to preach on the radical, subversive text of Mary’s Song (Luke 1:46-55). It wasn’t what they expected.)

The point is that it’s a struggle to be faithful to the Christian Year, to follow that calendar closely as we track the life of Christ from birth to life and ministry to death and resurrection, and then experience the life of the church in the power of the Holy Spirit. It is a life-changing, faith-building journey, and we should not allow ourselves to be caught in the crunch or run off the road when the secular calendar swerves into our territory.

How do you educate your congregation about the Christian Year? Do you use the liturgical colors for the seasons? What other means do you use to make the Christian Year prominent?

Friday, November 20, 2009

Guest Post - On Baptism

Arlo Duba, Presbyterian minister and former professor of liturgy, submitted this response to my post on "The Incomplete Sacrament" (November 8). It was too long for a comment, so I'm posting it here.

There is only one baptism. The BCW (1993) got rid of "Confirmation" just as Calvin did. The BCW now has the "Reaffirmation of the Baptismal Covenant" that is applicable at any age. It is repeatable. And it SHOULD be often repeated in the Christian life. Confirmation, as commonly understood, happens only once. Like a graduation. (That statement about the bats in the blog is misquoted. To get rid of bats, have them “confirmed,” and you will never see them again. They have completed the course) Reaffirmation is repeated as an individual becomes more and more immersed in the living of the baptismal life (pun intended). That reaffirmation is repeatable at age 5, 15, 25, 55, until death, when baptism is complete.

(We had a Baptist friend whose daughter became a believer at age 5, when she repented of a “sin” pointed out by her parents. She said she was sorry and said that she believed that Christ forgave her sin. She was immersed at five in a “believer’s baptism.” Her parents and their pastor agreed that she was a believer by that time. At first I laughed, but then I realized that there is more truth in that than is apparent. That should have been a “reaffirmation” that she had been living in a covenant family from birth. We can only hope that that necessarily immature “understanding” of God’s loving forgiveness developed and matured in coming years. It appears that in many persons such development stops at some point along the line.)

The early church had it correct. Baptism must be surrounded by catecheses. They spoke of "pre-baptismal" and "post-baptismal" catechesis. The blog is correct that the problem is this lacuna in the modern church's teaching. We need a focus on catechesis in the seminary, in the pulpit, in the Christian Education program of the denomination, in the local congregation, and as the blog says, in the home.

Just look at the vows the parents were asked to make at the baptism of their child at the Reformation of the sixteenth century. Not much sentimentality here. Note: 1. the stringency of the training of the parents before their child is baptized: Are you living out YOUR baptism? Are you living out the creed, praying regularly for expected (and with your other children)? etc. That was pre-baptismal. Then: 2. The gravity of the vows those parents made at the actual baptism of the child (just imagine insisting on those promises by parents in our congregations today: Do you promise to bring up your child in the nurture and admonition of the Lord, that is, to pray with your child/children daily, pray with them the great prayers of Christians, pray at your meals and teach them to pray throughout the day as you do? Pray with them the Lord’s Prayer. In all this, you are teaching them how to pray. Read the Bible with them and sing the Psalms with them until they are memorized. Interpret the creed for them. Govern them through your example, and by pointing out the Christian interpretation of life situations and life decisions. Add to that Luther’s admonition to remember and re-live your baptism every day and you are requesting of the parents some pretty heavy public affirmations. Third, Do you promise to be faithful in your attendance, with your children, in the post baptismal catechesis provided by the parish? Post baptismal catechesis was expressed by weekly catechetical teaching in the church, such as the continued Sunday evening services with sermons on the Heidelberg Catechism that was still followed in many Reformed churches until the middle of the Twentieth century. (For an introduction to this entire regimen, see H. S. Old's The Shaping of the Reformed Baptismal Rite in the Sixteenth Century, 1992, Chapter 8, “The; Baptismal Vows,” especially pp. 203-207).

The Zwingli quote in Old’s book, p. 205, should be reaffirmed again and again throughout life, not only at some indefinable “age of discretion,” a supposedly understandable concept apparently invented by Zwingli. However, the parameters of that phrase have never been agreed upon. As illustrated above with the five year old child, it is a moveable concept. A study by Baptists pointed out that the “age of discretion” and thus of baptism in their churches, varied by congregation. In some it was as early as nine or ten years, in others as late as eighteen or nineteen, and in most individual congregations there was little variation from this local societal norm.

That variance seems to confirm the validity of the present Presbyterian position that the growth of faith should be according to the capability of the child, the teenager, the young adult, etc. It is constantly to be deepened and reaffirmed. That is what the “Reaffirmation of the Baptismal Covenant” is about as it is so beautifully set out in the Book of Common Worship (1993). Faith and perception are to grow, throughout life; understanding is to grow throughout life. Living “the Baptized Life’ should always be advancing. We are constantly to give up our “childish” (not fully mature) understandings, even in our most senior years. Put away childish things constantly. Let all things constantly be becoming new. We will not come to “maturity” until we die. Only then will our baptism be complete. Baptism is a Resurrection event, a looking forward to death transformed. In Baptism we die with Christ so that we may also rise with Christ, when we will know even as we are known.

In the spirit of this blog, I would ask: How are you doing personally with the living of the Baptized Life? How are you teaching this developmental concept in your congregation? How do you think your congregation would do with the demands laid upon the congregations in the sixteenth century churches of the Reformation? How can we improve the adoption of the serious demands of Baptism within our congregation? How familiar are we with the “Invitation to Christ” of the Presbyterian Church (USA)? See

Sunday, November 15, 2009

The Collect Prayer

When called upon to pray ad lib, especially without warning, it is sometimes difficult to keep from wandering far afield with a rambling prayer.

Not that it makes much difference to God, who knows our needs before we can cobble together words to express them. But it does make a difference to those who are praying with us. It helps to have a reasonable, understandable prayer that everyone can claim.

The first rule of leading prayer is, of course, to pray the prayer for yourself. Let it be real, authentic.

But there is a kind of prayer, a particular structure, which is easily learned, remembered and used. It’s called the “collect.” (Pronounce it coll-ect.)

Nobody seems to know where the term originated, but it appears to have something to do with the collecting of various petitions into one short prayer by the worship leader.

The pattern followed by collects is simple and straightforward:
1) Address to God—naming the One to whom we pray;
2) divine attributes—what we know about God pertinent to our request;
3) the petition—the heart of the prayer claiming the promises of God;
4) the result desired—how God’s granting the petition will translate into the lives of the people; and
5) a doxology—praise for Christ as the mediator of prayers to God.

I find this form helpful when I get volunteered to say the blessing at a meal. It might go something like this:
1) Gracious God,
2) you bring forth food for all to eat,
3) strengthen our bodies with this food and our souls with your spirit,
4) that we may always be your faithful people,
5) in Jesus Christ, our Lord and Savior. Amen.

The collect is also used in more formal settings like Sunday worship. The classic Prayer of the Day (Book of Common Worship, p. 50) follows this pattern:
1) Almighty God,
2) to whom all hearts are open,
all desires, known,
and from whom no secrets are hid:
3) Cleanse the thoughts of our hearts
by the inspiration of your Holy Spirit,
4) that we may perfectly love you
and worthily magnify your holy name;
5) through Christ our Lord.

The collect pattern can be a helpful guide in many prayers. In what other ways might you make use of it?

Sunday, November 8, 2009

The Incomplete Sacrament

The sacrament of infant baptism is fraught with problems.

For one thing, it is incomplete. Because the baptized child does not testify on his or her own, but relies on parental promises, the fullness of the sacrament is deferred until the infant matures to adulthood.

Because infant baptism is incomplete, we effectively have two baptisms, in spite of the affirmation of the Book of Order (W2-3008): “Baptism, whether administered to those who profess their faith or to those presented for Baptism as children, is one and the same Sacrament.” Saying so does not make it so. There are clearly two distinct approaches: infant baptism which awaits confirmation years down the road; and adult baptism which is completed by confirmation on the spot. (This raises further questions about “confirmation,” “commissioning,” or whatever part two is called.)

Sometimes the sacrament remains forever uncompleted. Parents and guardians make empty promises and the nurturing of the child in the faith is forgotten. The result of an uncompleted baptism is an incomplete Christian.

“Incomplete Christians,” by my definition, are those whose baptisms served as inoculations against the “disease” of faith. It was all they needed to be Christians—with baptism they were free and clear.

You know the old joke about the minister who advised the pastor of the neighboring church about how to get rid of the bats infesting the sanctuary ceiling: “Baptize them and you’ll never see them in church again.” It’s not as funny as it used to be—there’s too much truth in it.

Church leaders and pastors are as responsible for the problem as anyone. A more rigorous preparation is needed for parents presenting children for baptism. Responsibilities and expectations for the Christian nurture of their children should be made clearly and firmly. I shudder to think of the number of uncompleted Christians loose in the world, because I and the elders made it too easy for parents and sponsors.

Often, the sacrament of infant baptism is awash in sentimentality. I don’t advocate removing all sentiment, but it gets to be a bit much when the cuteness of the baby (and all babies are cute) overwhelms the congregation’s attention. The event becomes more a social occasion than a rite of faith.

What is more, infant baptism often trivializes the sacrament. There are those parents who simply want to “get Johnny done.” There is no great awe or wonder that a child (or any person for that matter) could die with Christ and be born again. The notion that in baptism the child is being committed to a life of giving and even sacrifice escapes most everyone. The lasting formidable consequences of baptism simply slip by unnoticed.

The Book of Order (W-2.3012) also says that the session is responsible to encourage parents to present their children for baptism “without undue haste, but without undue delay.” This asserts a prime emphasis on infant baptism. Yet in the Reformed tradition we have always acknowledged the alternative to baptizing infants, nurturing them toward believer baptism. It’s a reasonable option. Except, pity the poor child in that situation, restrained from a place at the Communion Table, forbidden the taste of bread and wine. It’s an alternative, it’s true, but one with an inherent penalty.

Baptism is the church’s witness to God’s claim on a life. It’s the basic Christian ordination, the commissioning to the specific responsibility of the Christian life. The awe of it is terrible. The promise of it is exhilarating. The sacrament deserves more than the neglect of incompleteness it has received in recent generations, more than the abuse it has suffered by sentimentality and trivial treatment.

If we are going to continue baptizing children, then we must be more clear about parental responsibilities, and more stern in our insistence they be fulfilled. And if there is any doubt or waffling, we must learn to say no.

Or, we should seriously consider a policy of nurturing all children toward baptism on their own affirmations of faith. As children they would be welcomed in a service of dedication as they are presented to the congregation.

One way or the other, we need to restore the integrity of the sacrament of baptism and not hop about with two uneven forms of baptism, one for children, and the other for grown-ups.

How do you counsel parents who want baptism for their children? How often do you baptize adults?

Sunday, November 1, 2009

"Traditional" and "Contemporary"

I worshiped at a church last Sunday at the first of two services. It was the one they called “traditional”; the later one was branded “contemporary.”

At the in-between refreshment and coffee hour, the pastor told me that serving food and drink was the way they created the possibility that the two congregations could interact, at least a little bit. Otherwise folks went to one or the other, and never the twain shall meet.

Which is one of the problems with such dual arrangements. Having separate and different “traditional” and “contemporary” services tends to bring forth two distinct breeds of worship, and separate congregations for each. So much for unity.

Yet that’s not the biggest problem, at least to my way of thinking. There are more difficulties with the terms “traditional” and “contemporary” when applied to Christian worship.

First, they are both inaccurate if meant to be exclusive.

All Christian worship is, in a real sense, traditional; we’ve been at it for nigh on to two thousand years now, so how could we forget the tradition behind us? When we deny tradition or reject it outright, we demonstrate an arrogant chauvinism suggesting that only newly fashioned worship can be good. It also pretends that history has nothing to offer and we are all liturgical orphans left to fend for ourselves, and thus we are doomed to reinventing what was already our inheritance.

What is more, all Christian worship is contemporary. It’s what’s happening now. Whatever it is, good bad or indifferent, it is current.

Second, the terms “traditional” and “contemporary” applied to Christian worship are often stereotypical. “Traditional” worship is old-fashioned for old fogeys; to imagine a twenty-something could be spiritually inspired by Bach’s organ preludes would boggle the mind. “Contemporary” worship is for twenty-somethings; certainly no old fogey like me could ever worship with rock or Gospel music (but I have, and do).

“Traditional” worship is often centered around the music supplied by the versatile organ, while “contemporary” invites participation of a keyboard, drums, strings and other instruments. And the instruments find their limitations within the stereotypes.

As labels, then, the two words just cause more problems than they solve. They should be abolished, never to be mentioned in the context of worship for at least one generation.

Yet there is another even more insidious way that “traditional” and “contemporary” promote mischief. If indeed it is true that each is designed to appeal to particular populations marked by generation or interests, then that “appeal” begins to dominate the worship itself. Satisfying likes and dislikes of potential worshippers creeps into the reason for worship’s being. From that step worship takes a slide down the slippery slope of performance for the audience, rather than the expression of the people’s praise to God in response to God’s Word spoken in Jesus Christ.

In human conversation, an answer needs to be consistent with the question asked or statement made. In the dialogue of worship, our expressions of faith must also be consistent with the Good News we hear.

What makes your worship traditional and contemporary at the same time? What possibilities does so-called “blended worship” have?

Sunday, October 25, 2009

"The Auxiliary Choir"

It took a while, but I finally figured out that Calvin and the other Reformers were right in emphasizing congregational singing. The reason why I didn’t get it immediately is that I was overwhelmed by the professional and amateur musicians, and not a few clergy, who campaign and compete in churches for people to sing in their choirs.

In some parishes, choirs take on a life of their own. A particular choir’s reputation for beautiful singing will make the rounds and draw worshippers. Regular Sunday worship may be displaced by special concert-like services. The calendar of the Christian Year may be subject to minor adjustment in order to accommodate a choral event. The church choir can just get too prominent.

The Reformed tradition says that essentially the true choir is the congregation. In order to assist and encourage congregational singing, there may be an auxiliary choir.

Don’t get me wrong. No one likes good, robust choral music more than I do, especially that which proclaims the faith. Everything from rip-snorting Gospel music to Handel’s “Hallelujah Chorus” brings inspiration and excitement. And a congregation can get fired up when major efforts produce such concerts—especially if they are done on an ecumenical basis where different traditions are given exposure.

The problem for me is when the “concert” creeps into the Lord’s Day worship service and becomes more of a distraction than an inspiration, more performance than prayer. When that happens, the church musicians forget the proper role of the choir: to assist the congregation in its singing.

One way the auxiliary choir can help bolster and improve congregational singing is to use the “anthem” slot to introduce new music. Perhaps a new, contemporary hymn would benefit from such an introduction. Even more, they might well introduce fresh settings of service music: the Gloria, the Holy, Holy, Holy, the Sanctus, Simeon’s Song, Mary’s Song, and so forth.

Placement of the auxiliary choir in the room can effect how the auxiliary choir performs its function. The “choir loft” may be in the back or in a rear balcony to reinforce congregational singing, but really doesn’t work well for “anthems.” Other churches have the auxiliary choir behind the pulpit platform (in a central pulpit/table arrangement), making it difficult to avoid the impression that they are placed there to perform. Still others compromise by having the auxiliary choir toward the front, but off to one side. The “split chancel” arrangement is, of course, commonly used in many churches.

We all have to do with what we’ve got. Few have the luxury of placing the auxiliary choir in the “perfect” spot, even if they could figure out what that spot is. What we need to do is remember that the people in the pews are the true choir; they are the laos in the liturgy, the people who do the work of worship. It is the business of the church musicians to support and encourage them.

In what ways do the musicians (including the auxiliary choir) in your church bolster the singing of the true choir?

Sunday, October 18, 2009

The Pastor as Liturgical Theologian

When I was serving as pastor, I sometimes liked to bill myself as “the resident liturgical theologian.” Not that I was looking for a highfalutin title; I was just aiming for accuracy. As “Minister of Word and Sacrament” (which is the official title), liturgical responsibilities are high priority, so the “liturgical theologian” designation seemed on target.

What I realized very quickly is that this “liturgical” function is intertwined with what is called the “pastoral” role of the clergy. In many ways they are exactly the same: the pastor who shepherds and cares for the people is the presider who leads them as a gathered community in worship.

And the liturgy itself takes on a pastoral tone.

The people arrive from different places to be gathered into one community. Aloneness is met with a common worship of one God. Unison song rings out to celebrate the gathering by the grace of God.

Some will come with regret and remorse if not outright guilt, and need the opportunity for confession and repentance, and the assurance of God’s forgiveness.

Undoubtedly there will be some, perhaps many who are confused, bewildered about moral issues, needing direction for their lives. Words of Scripture give wisdom of the ages; the proclamation from the pastor brings it all home to that gathering.

The Word proclaimed is comforting, to be sure, but always challenging as well. The old saw that “good preaching comforts the afflicted and afflicts the comfortable” has much truth in it.

Others will bring a viable faith with them to worship, but even they will welcome the opportunity to reaffirm, to hear their own voices say and sing out loud, “I believe….”

Certainly there are prayers of and from and for all the people. Mostly intercessions are offered: for loved ones and even enemies; for the powerful and the powerless; for those near at hand and those far away; for folks we know and ones only God remembers; for brother and sister Christians and for Jews, Muslims, Buddhists, even unbelievers; and so forth.

There are thanksgivings, too, and commitments that accompany them: for the earth that gives us life, that we will protect the life of the earth; for the country and community in which we live and our responsibilities as citizens; for the blessings of the church, and our opportunities to serve God in and through it; and so forth.

Of course, there are petitions too: for wisdom and strength and courage to follow where Christ leads, to care with his caring, to speak out for his justice, to serve with his humility, and so forth.

Then there is that exquisite moment of communion, when all our senses combine to receive Christ himself, as his body is broken again for us and his cup is lifted once more in celebration of his covenant with us. And our union with him, while mystical, is so real to the point that we become, all of us together with all others at his table, the Body of Christ ready to go into the world.

So we go, blessed and sent out to be Christ’s presence in the power of the Holy Spirit.

The liturgy each Sunday is a pastoral journey. At what points does your Sunday liturgy touch pastoral concerns?

Monday, October 12, 2009

Guest Post by Rev. David Moore on "Worship Committee"

My friend David Moore, pastor of the First Presbyterian Church in Greenbush, Rensselaer, NY, and the West End Presbyterian Church in Albany, NY, has produced a set of basic guidelines for the "Worship Committee" in the small churches he serves. The guidelines are very much worth sharing.

Session Team Guidelines - Worship

A. Purpose
The Worship team is to nurture the corporate worship life of the congregation through resourcing, education and planning. The Worship team is accountable to the Session and guided by the Directory for Worship of the Presbyterian Church (USA).
B. Membership and Term
The Worship team shall be made up of an elder serving on Session, the pastor, music director and other members and friends as available.
Worship team members covenant together to openly communicate, maintain confidentiality, accept assignments, meet deadlines, and indicate absences.
The term shall be for one year.
C. Meetings
The Worship team shall meet in January, March, May, September, and November or as necessary. The team will distribute a copy of its minutes to the next meeting of the Session.
D. Responsibilities
1. Resourcing
a. The Worship team will provide for the preaching of the Word, the sharing of the Sacraments, for music and special services.
b. The Worship team will arrange for the celebration of the Lord's Supper.
c. The Worship team will provide devotional material for worshipers.
d. The Worship team will review the Music Director's position description and evaluate performance, and review with the Music Director choral support for congregational singing, selection of hymns and choral pieces.
e. The Worship team will ensure the arrangement, ordering and maintenance of the worship space including the PA system and lighting.
2. Education
a. The Worship team will regularly study the nature of worship and provide an adult study annually on the subject of Christian worship.
b. The Worship team will provide, monthly, a Minute for Mission of some aspect of personal or corporate worship.
c. The Worship team will provide material on worship for the church newsletter.
d. The Worship team and pastor will provide training for those who serve in some liturgical capacity, i.e. lay readers, greeters, servers, etc.
3. Planning
a. The Worship team will recommend the Liturgical Calendar and communion schedule, and change worship paraments (clothes)
b. The Worship team will make arrangements for special services: Ordination and Installation, Ash Wednesday, Easter, All Saint's Day, Thanksgiving and Christmas.
c. The Worship team will assist with other services; baptism, commissioning, weddings, funerals and will propose policies regarding each to session (e.g. baptize infants of members only; age of commissioning; music at weddings; weddings for non-members; funerals for non-members; church fees for non-members; etc.)
d. The Worship team, in consultation with the Pastor, will make arrangements for pulpit supply when needed.
e. The Worship team will make budgetary recommendations.

Friday, October 9, 2009

"Where, Font, Art Thou?"

Sometimes I find when I visit a church, locating the baptismal font is like playing “I Spy,” or “Where’s Waldo.” Many times, of course, it’s plain to see in front of the congregation. But just as often at first glance, it seems to be missing.

When not in use, baptismal fonts used for immersion are often covered over entirely. Others are stowed away in a corner behind the piano. Some are relegated to a separate room. Seasonal decorations can also camouflage a font.

It seems to me that furtive fonts are symptomatic of the broad neglect of the Sacrament of Baptism in our churches. Being infrequently celebrated, baptism is forgotten the rest of the time.

Yet baptism is the “basic ordination” of all Christians. It proclaims the essential calling to each of us and sets us on the road to discipleship. Therefore, baptism, like preaching the Word and celebrating the Lord’s Supper, deserves to be before us each Lord’s Day—if in no other way, by the visibility of the baptismal font.

The baptismal font, to my way of thinking, should ideally be immediately inside the main entrance to the worship space, reminding people that they enter the fellowship of faith by their baptism, and they go forth to serve Christ in the world by their baptism.

Plunk in the center of the congregation, is also a good place to have the font. The congregation, then, can easily surround it to participate in a baptism, and they can’t miss it at other times.

Or, on the platform, the baptismal furniture should be compatible in size with the pulpit and table, so that it is seen as an essential piece of equipment for the church’s worship.

The font should always be filled with water so it is obvious what it is for. People can be encouraged to touch the water as they pass it, in a moment of personal recollection and reflection.

Not only should the baptismal font be obviously placed, the sacrament can be highlighted when it’s a locus for leading worship. For instance, my friend Arlo Duba advocates presiding at the font for the prayer of confession. While saying the assurance of pardon, the presider should “lift water from the font, letting it fall back visibly and audibly.”

He also suggests leading the Apostles’ Creed from the font, since it was originally a baptismal creed.

One might preside at the font for the call to worship and opening prayer, and for the charge and benediction at the sending.

Of course there are many opportunities for other worship acts to be led from the font: reaffirmation of baptism, and ordinations and installation services are explicitly based on baptism. (See Book of Occasional Services, p.1)

We neglect baptism to our peril, for we risk forgetting our summons to follow our risen Lord into the world. With reawakened consciousness of the centrality of baptism in our liturgical life, we are encouraged to follow more faithfully and really be the church.

Where’s your baptismal font? Do you lead any part of the service from the font?

Friday, October 2, 2009

Baptism: Coming and Going

John Calvin defines baptism as "the sign of the initiation by which we are received into the society of the church, in order that, engrafted in Christ, we may be reckoned among God's children"(Inst.4, 15, 1).

Far be it from me to argue with that emphasis. Baptism is indeed a welcoming act by which certain of God’s children are numbered among the people of the church of Jesus Christ. Words like “initiation,” “received,” “engrafted,” and “reckoned among,” reinforce such an idea.

The problem, as I see it, is that we have too often and too easily left it at that. More than a “welcoming” act, however, baptism is also a “sending” act.

As a welcoming act, the baptized is brought into the koinonia of God’s people to be nurtured and instructed and brought to the maturity of faith. This is true for any adult baptized as well as for children. At the same time, the baptized dies and is raised to new life in Christ, called to live that life now with Christ in the world. Here the person is called to diakonia, the serving ministry of the church. And this should begin for children at baptism as well as for adults.

Baptism starts the pulse beat of the church: koinonia and diakonia, coming and going, welcomed and sent. Baptism is not just a pleasant diversion. It is not sweet and pastel. It’s a matter of life and death, the life and death of the church and all of us in it. It’s all about taking risks, living dangerously, following Christ. Baptism is a cross-grabbing, fearful undertaking, and no one, no one should be allowed to take it lightly. We forget our baptisms to our peril.

When our task group on Daily Prayer and the Psalter met at St. Meinrad’s Seminary many years ago, we prayed with the monks morning and evening. Just inside each door to the massive church was a water-holder, each one a stone replica of the wooden baptismal font in the church I served, a font where infants had been brought and adults came to stand with heads bowed to be bathed in Christ’s presence. The connection was obvious.

As the monks entered, each one reached to the water-holder and dipped their fingers to moisten their foreheads as they began the sign of the cross. At the end of the prayer time, on their way out, they did exactly the same thing.

Being in a Roman Catholic monastery, some of us Protestant types decided to do as the Romans were doing. Coming in each time, morning and night, I dipped my hand in the font’s water and, with the sign of the cross, reminded myself of my baptism, how I was welcomed into the Body of Christ called the church. Going out each time I remembered my baptism, how I died and was born again to become the Body of Christ in the world. Maybe, just maybe, the monks were on to something.

The cumulative effect was—and is—that I became much more conscious of the power of baptism, the powerful place of baptism in my own life. I also realized how we need to do much more to make our congregations more aware of both aspects of baptism in the course of Lord’s Day worship.

How does baptism show in the Lord’s Day worship of your congregation as koinonia and diakonia? What more could you do?

Friday, September 25, 2009

The Key Play of the Game

You probably know the story (maybe apocryphal) of Reinhold Niebuhr taking Paul Tillich to his first baseball game. It was bottom of the ninth in a tie game, with the home team’s best batter stepping to the plate. Not having a clue why all the fans were standing and shouting, Tillich tugged inquisitively at Niebuhr’s sleeve: “What’s happening?” Niebuhr answered, “It’s the kairos, Paulus. It’s the kairos!” Whereupon Tillich leapt to his feet and cheered with the rest.*

This sports report reveals the two kinds of time found in the Bible, and in the liturgy of God’s people who follow Jesus. On the one hand there is chronos, that time that is marked off by the squares on the scorecard, batter by batter, inning by inning. On the other hand there is kairos, the time, the moment, the instant that gives meaning to all the rest of what’s been happening, the key play of the game.

In theological language, kairos is God’s time, where God finds it opportune to break in to human chronology and act in a way that will transform or infuse chronos with meaning. Christians see a kairos, “the Christ-event,” intersecting the chronos of history. This took place “in the fullness of time,” just at the opportune moment, to change everything, bringing light into the darkness, hope to counteract despair, love to triumph over self-interest.

Because of the Christ-event, Christians have learned to look for other, smaller versions of kairos when they happen. Even if we still think chronologically, we keep alert for kairos. We anticipate kairos, we even long for God breaking through to us.

For example, we Christians order the year according to the life of Christ. The Christ-event kairos is spelled out in considerable detail. Yet there are times in that chronology when we expect kairos more than others: Easter, Christmas, their preparatory seasons, Lent and Advent, and other special days. Anticipation of God’s breaking through to us is high.

The liturgical question, however, is whether or not we recognize kairos breaking into the chronology of Sunday worship. It is easy to see worship as just one thing after another and miss the spiritual potential in each act. We come to worship on the Lord’s Day expecting the promise to be fulfilled: “For where two or three are gathered in my name, I am there among them.” (Matthew 18:20) God is already there for us, ready to transform our worship from a duty to a joy, from boring to exciting, from something to run through quickly as possible to an event that is profound and one to be savored.

We need to anticipate and expect such kairos to interrupt our sequence of liturgy. For each one of us it may be, and in all likelihood will be, something different. The kairos we await is that life-changing touch by the Spirit that makes us new, renewed and refreshed. It could turn out to be God’s “key play” of our whole life. Surely that’s worth standing up and shouting about with enthusiasm.

Where do you anticipate kairos in your life. Looking back, where have you seen God breaking through even though you may have missed it the first time? Where do you look for kairos at Lord’s Day worship?
* Another version of this story appeared in From Season to Season: Sports as American Religion, by Joseph L. Price, Mercer University Press, 2001, p. 73.

Friday, September 18, 2009


Time was when Presbyterians and other Reformed types were noted for their psalm-singing in worship. Not so much these days, even though the ecumenically accepted lectionary includes a schedule of psalms. Four lessons are prescribed; well, actually three with a psalm following the Old Testament reading.

In this arrangement, the psalm can be used as the source of a text for the sermon, but more often serves as a response to the Old Testament lesson. As such, the psalm is an act of praising God or a prayer of penitence—in either case an occasion for congregational singing.

The problem I have with the psalms in Sunday worship is that we speak them rather than sing them. (That is making a rather rash assumption that the psalm is even included—too often it is simply dropped, skipped over, ignored.) The psalm may be a “responsive reading” alternating back and forth from leader to congregation. The question persists, Why aren’t we singing the psalms on Sunday?

One answer is that it is good enough to just speak the psalms responsively—it gets the meaning across. My reply is that speaking isn’t as good as singing, and besides it isn’t usually done very well. Those who lead such antiphonal readings need to practice their presentation as much as they would in reading any passage of Scripture. Too often it’s done with flat intonations and empty of enthusiasm or meaning.

I’m not happy either with the practice of assigning the parts by whole verses, when the Hebrew half-verses are clearly visible (usually noted by the asterisks). Using half-verses makes the dialogue much stronger, as the people reply by affirming and elaborating on the lines of the leader.

Singing is much, much better, however, and our forebears have left us a treasure of metrical hymnody based on the psalms. I gained a new appreciation for our Presbyterian legacy of metrical psalms in an unusual way. The task force on Daily Prayer and the Psalter of the Presbyterian Church (USA), on which I served, was meeting at St. Meinrad’s Seminary and Monastery to sample their practice of singing the Psalter. We also had time with Brother Samuel F. Webber, a preeminent Roman Catholic scholar, who spoke at length with us about the use of psalms in worship.

The task force had already discussed metrical psalmody among ourselves, and had come to the conclusion that we’d omit them from the new Presbyterian Psalter. After all, plenty were in the current hymnal, and they were old hat anyway, not very exciting any more because of long usage.

After Brother Samuel had finished his lecture, one of our group asked him what he thought of metrical psalms. To which he replied with great excitement and zeal about what a great contribution our Presbyterian tradition had brought to psalmody, finishing with this exclamation: “Metrical psalmody is a jewel in the crown of the Psalter!” Needless to say, we changed our minds and metrical psalms were included.

Another resource is available too. The psalms in the Book of Common Worship are “pointed” for chanting, with singable congregational refrains and chant tone. Now, these will take some work on the part of the church musicians, the choir and the congregation, no question of it. Church musicians will have to teach them to the choir and use a bit of extra rehearsal time. In turn, the choir will function as the auxiliary to the congregation, and be the mentors and teachers of the people in the pews. Maybe even some pre-worship rehearsals as people gather will be desirable.

Chanting allows the congregation to have the benefits of both the speaking and singing referred to above, without the limitations of each. The whole psalm text is used in chanting as in speaking, not a paraphrase as in metrical versions. Singing the psalms is a significant part of our liturgical tradition, one which we share with Christians in many denominations, to the enrichment of our common faith.

How does your congregation employ the psalms in Lord’s Day worship?

Friday, September 11, 2009

Music, Music, Music

It’s been said (by whom I don’t remember) that most Christians form their personal theology based on the hymns they sing while growing up and into maturity. That may be something of an exaggeration, but only a slight one. Surely the hymnody of the church through the centuries contains a rich treasure of religious wisdom and insight in format designed to teach and be remembered.

Selecting what is to be rendered musically in a service is a critical matter. Yet I suspect for many ministers it is something only a tad more than casually done. It’s easy to neglect if not ignore the power of hymns to enhance and uplift worship.

I remember going to a service some time ago when the total hymnody amounted to one verse of one hymn. The rest of the music offered was pseudo pop tunes to which were set what someone has called “seven-eleven” lyrics—seven words repeated eleven times over. It was easy enough to sing, and everyone seemed to have a grand time doing it. Yet it didn’t cut it—not for me, anyway.

The problem was that the songs were paper thin theologically, and had a memory life of about ten minutes out the door. My wife and I tried to remember the tunes as we drove out of the parking lot, and, aside from the single verse of the standard hymn (which we already knew), we struck out.

The upshot of that kind of service is that children and adults have nothing to stash away into their faith memories--no images, no poetry that sings along with a melody that won’t go away. Music isn’t everything in a worship service, but musical shallowness can be deadly over the long haul.

So, here are a few ideas.

Once a year, at least, the minister(s) should sit down with the primary musician and run through the entire hymnal to unearth the pearls that are there. Sing them happily and heartily. You’ll be surprised at old friends you’d forgotten and new ones you never knew were there.

Notice that a number of hymn tunes are from folk sources. I’ve been told on good authority that most all folk tunes from whatever country and time were originally dance tunes. They should be played to dance to, and then they will be fun to sing—and memorable.

For example: “The Lone, Wild Bird” (#320 in the Presbyterian Hymnal), so often is sung drearily—it’s ¾ time, a waltz, and will soar when so treated. Even that old stand-by, “Amazing Grace” (also in ¾ time) benefits from a dance beat.

For an example of a rousing hymn from an unlikely source, turn in your hymnal to (#194 in the Presbyterian Hymnal) “Peoples, Clap Your Hands!” from the Genevan Psalter of 1551. When done aright (and it takes some practice, but is well worth it), this syncopated tune will set your toes to tapping and stand the hair up on the back of your neck. In the process of discovering they can sing exciting music, people will find their faith deepened as well.

What hymns do you know that can perk up worship, teach the faith, and actually be fun to sing?

Thursday, September 3, 2009

Text and Context

A seminary professor of mine once admonished us saying, “A text out of context is no text.” He was decrying the practice of using a single biblical verse (or maybe two) as the springboard from which to jump into the sermon.

The danger, as true now as he saw it then, is that the text becomes a place to depart from, and is too often left behind as the preacher wanders far afield.

The Reformers had their own slogan: scriptura scripturam interpretatur, scripture interprets scripture, affirming the overarching unity of biblical witness. But it is not only the larger context that is important. Certainly the near context counts as well.

Given all of this, it has been a wonder to me that so many Christians today are worshipping in churches where they hear only snippets of Scripture. Even so-called “Bible-believing” congregations may hear only that handful of verses dispensed by the preacher in the course of the sermon. How often those sermons go adrift because they have no biblical anchor. For the preaching to be biblical, the connection between text and context should be immediate and fairly obvious to the listeners.

Well, maybe it isn’t so big a problem, if you’ll assume the congregation is geared up for Lord’s Day worship by regular weekday reading and study of the Bible. I suspect, however, that’s an oversize assumption. Ah, would that it were so! Certainly such preparation should be enthusiastically encouraged.

What I’m leading up to is celebrating the return of a full set of lessons each Sunday morning: Old Testament*, Psalm, Epistle and Gospel. The new Revised Common Lectionary is an invaluable resource at this point. It provides something of context, wide and near, for the sermonic text.

That doesn’t mean, of course, that those are the only passages one can use. Always the preacher has the sole responsibility to determine text and topic of the sermon. Still, the Lectionary offers a range of passages covering major biblical themes and emphases of the Christian Year. Over a period of time, an annual cycle, for example, we begin to develop in our common worship a sense of the larger context of Scripture that supports and helps interpret individual passages. We come to recognize the unity in Scripture because the same unity is audible and visible in our worship.

Of course one should be wary of making precise connections between or among the various lessons. Sometimes themes are found to be in common between two or more; but just as often commonality is forced and strained because it really isn’t there. There is also the context of texts fore and aft of the lectionary text that should be consulted by the preacher.

I’m an old-fashioned sort, and like the idea of preaching the sermon from the pulpit with an open Bible. It’s a good symbol, a helpful reminder to anchor the sermon on that rock of God’s Word.

How central and full is the biblical witness where you worship?
* Some, in an effort to be religiously correct, refer to the Old Testament as the "Hebrew Scriptures." I asked a rabbi friend about this. He said that for Christians it is the Old Testament, and that’s what we should call it. To use the term “Hebrew Scriptures” in Christian worship is disingenuous and inaccurate. I agree. Do you?

Wednesday, August 26, 2009

Coming and Going

Worship, for Christians, begins when, in answer to God’s call, we come together. It’s as simple as that: God calls, we gather. And we become the church. Remember that the New Testament word for church means “called out”—we are called out from the general population to be God’s special people in the world.

The nature of that newly-formed community of God’s people is described by the Greek word, “koinonia.” It is one of those exasperating Greek words that defies translation by any one word in English. “Community” works, but has other connotations as well. “Fellowship” is okay, but has sexist overtones, so it’s not used very often these days. “Brother-Sister-hood,” is close, but terribly cumbersome. “Congregation” is accurate, but has no feeling to it. “Religious association” has even less pizzazz and sounds like it could be clubby. And so forth.

So we fall back on the Greek word. Koinonia describes that unique community, a fellowship of men and women (and children too) gathered by God as a family of faith in a congregation to worship and serve God, associated by virtue of their common call and mission.

Of course, Christians are not just gathered. We are also sent. God calls us out from the world to be the church, and in a short while we are sent out again into the world to be the church still.

Now the worshipping Christian is facing out, going forth into the world on a mission, and this mission is captured in another Greek word, “diakonia.” You recognize the word “deacon,” so there’s a clue. In New Testament Greek a “deacon” was one who waited on tables—the humble servant of other people. So we are sent into the world to be deacon-servants, waiting on the needs of others. Here is the evangelical thrust of the Gospel, welcoming others with a Christ-like example.

Koinonia and diakonia are, in a way, opposites, or at least at opposite ends of the same polarity. We are gathered into a kononia and sent out to participate in diakonia. The first is exclusive—we are not like other people, there is something that makes us different from everyone else in the world, our call to be God’s people. The other word is, by definition, inclusive—as servants of God we are servants of everyone.

We are gathered by God into the church, into this worshipping fellowship to serve God, and then thrust out to worship God still by serving others. It’s an agreeable turn of phrase, a happy ambiguity of the words “worship” and “service.”

There is also a good tension between kononia and diakonia. I’m convinced that we Christians are healthiest when we recognize and appreciate that tension. When we are gathered, we are looking forward to being sent. The worship we experience challenges us and shoves us out the door to follow our risen Lord. When engaged in worldly work with our spiritual sleeves rolled up, we remember the songs and prayers and words that empower and strengthen our service, and recognize our need to go back and worship more.

It has been described as the “heartbeat of the church,” this back-and-forth pumping of the Spirit, so like the diastole and systole of our hearts that brings the blood in and sends it out. Without this “pulse-beat,” the church cannot survive. It takes both coming and going to be a Christian.

Where in your gathered worship do you find nudges to send you out on God’s mission?

Sunday, August 23, 2009

Guest Post - Arlo D. Duba

The following is a "guest post" from my good friend of long-standing, Presbyterian minister Dr. Arlo D. Duba, former professor of worship, which he shares in response to my August 2 post on the question of when we started to use Communion cups.

There is a rather humorous and interestingly long episode in the history of the Presbyterian Churches on the matter of Communion cups, Communion wine and Communion etiquette. First of all, there is the original injunction in the Westminster Directory as used in the Kirk of Scotland that “communicants are to receive seated at the Table, not remaining in the pews.” Even as the transition came, two elders would stretch a “housling cloth” from one end of the pew to the other, to simulate a table cloth while the bread and the chalice were passed over it! However, at least two General Assemblies of the Kirk of Scotland, 1825 and 1829, inveighed against the “lounging indifference” practice of “seated communion.”

Even so, the single chalice that was passed contained wine, not grape juice among American Presbyterians until shortly after the beginning of the 1900s. And the plates held broken (not cut up) pieces of bread. Before 1875 – 1900 Presbyterian congregations always used wine, not grape juice. The use of grape juice was advocated for the first time in 1869 by Dr. Thomas B. Welch, and dentist in Vineland, NJ, and a devout Methodist. He developed a process of pasteurization which would stop fermentation, and keep grape juice fresh (you may recall Welch’s Grape Juice).
The Digest of the Acts and Proceedings of the General Assembly in the southern Presbyterian Church (PCUS), for example, shows that in 1892 the Assembly affirmed that “The Scriptural element to be used in the Lord’s Supper is the fermented grape-juice,” but added that “the use of the unfermented grape-juice would not necessarily vitiate the validity of the ordinance.” In 1893, having received objections, the Assembly rescinded the second part of that interpretation! I assume that means that it was the opinion that unfermented grape juice did vitiate its validity!

Northern “liberals” moved more quickly to grape juice. The 1895 PCUSA Assembly declared, “Unfermented fruit of the vine fulfills every condition in the celebration of the sacrament.”
However, in the PCUS in 1914 a Savannah, GA church was still asking for an opinion. Does the session have the right to decide between fermented and unfermented grape juice, and if so, are both equally valid? The Assembly responded “yes” to the first part, and did not respond to the second part. That did not satisfy some, and it came to the Assembly again in 1916. That Assembly responded that “Previous Assemblies had answered all needs, giving ample liberty for any session to be guided by its own interpretation of the Scripture.” That settled that! But interestingly, the record shows that wine continued to be used at the PCUS General Assembly communion services.

A similar humorous situation repeated itself with reference to the “Chalice – communion cups” debate. Although the northern PCUSA church affirmed as early as 1882 that the Session may determine what is bread and what is wine, and in 1895 confirmed that “unfermented fruit of the vine fulfils every condition in the celebration of the sacrament,” that same assembly said that it “sees no sufficient reason to change the primitive and historic method of administering the Lord’s supper, by the introduction of what is known as ‘the individual Communion cup,’ and urges upon its church not to make the change. Thus they endorsed the “one chalice” option.

This endorsement raised a firestorm! Objections cited biblical references, such as 1 Cor 8:14-17. People said that in the Bible, “cup” is always in the singular, etc. But there was a hygiene group that stressed the newly developing understanding of virology. They spoke equally loudly about the possibility of the transmission if disease. And there were objections from larger churches. They had long ago found it necessary to use two or more chalices to pass through the congregation.

In response, the General Assembly of 1896 concluded that it “leaves the matter of the number of cups to be used in the celebration of the Lord’s Supper to the Sessions of our churches, where it constitutionally belongs.”

There is an interesting postscript. The Presbyterian Church in Floyd, Virginia continued to use chalices and wine on into the 1920s. They moved to individual cups and grape juice when several men were received into the church who had “an alcohol problem.”

Maybe at another time I will talk about the “Pouring-lip Chalice” possibility. It is my favorite communion distribution method.
Arlo D. Duba

Friday, August 21, 2009

Silence, Please

Recently I worshipped in two churches of different denominations and came away feeling something was missing. After mentally rehearsing the experiences, I realized that the absent quality was silence. In each service, from stem to stern, there was not one moment of silence.

Well, there was a situation in which one worship leader forgot it was his turn, resulting in an awkward silence while the congregation held its corporate breath and he woke up to his responsibility. That in itself was the exception that proved the point—when there was silence in the service, it was of the awkward kind, born of an error, and everyone was antsy to get it over with. It was “dead time” that made everyone nervous.

There need to be times of silence in Sunday worship when there is nothing being said, sung or played on an instrument. Not “dead time” however—on the contrary, quality time bearing meaning and substance. Without such times, worship is likely to become agenda-oriented, focused on what has to happen, item after item, and gotten through. That kind of objectivity, centering on the external acts of liturgy, neglects the subjective dimension of worship, what goes on among the people and within each individual. Silence allows time for inner reflection, and opens the worshippers to the movement of the Holy Spirit.

There are several kinds of quality silence that are useful in worship—quite apart from the awkward type which is a distraction.

Relational Silence – This is the very brief pause (just a “beat” or two) before each time a pastor or reader actually launches into a prayer or reading, that few seconds when a long breath is taken and eye contact is made. This is an intimate moment, when silence allows the connection between the worshippers in the pews and those on the platform to be made. Such a moment of silence, fleeting though it may seem, affirms the unity of the worshipping community. It’s a small thing, perhaps, but in the course of a service it can add up to a great deal.

Contemplative Silence – Certain parts of the service call for a moment of private inner thought and personal reflection. Certainly after each reading from Scripture, it is appropriate to keep silent, to let what has been read and heard to soak in. God speaks personally to each of us, and we do well to listen carefully in our own hearts for God’s personal message. Similarly, silence for reflection may follow the sermon, as the proclamation is appropriated by each person. (Note: How long should these silences last? Don’t put a clock on them. The leader should consider him- or herself average, do his or her own reflection—after all he or she is worshipping too—and then bring it to a close.)

Prayerful Silence – Silence is more commonly found in the context of prayer. After the corporate prayer of confession, for example, there should be occasion for silent prayers of personal confession. Or within “prayers of the people” there are opportunities for silent personal prayers, especially if “bidding” prayers are used on various subjects. Here we can silently communicate with God in intimate terms with our own petitions and praise. Silent prayer fills the unison or group prayers with special and specific meaning from our lives in a way more real than any prayer written or composed by any leader ever could. (For duration, see the note above.)

At what other points in the worship service would a time of silence improve the quality of worship?

Friday, August 14, 2009

Hub of the Wheel

Many people look at worship as just one thing among many that the church does. Worship is but a single item on the list, they say, and not even the most important one at that. I suppose that’s one way to look at it. The only thing is, it’s seriously mistaken. If you buy that approach, worship really doesn’t amount to much and is in the take-it-or-leave-it category.

On the contrary, worship is supremely what the church does, and points profoundly to who the church is. The people of God are most visibly revealed to be the Body of Christ when gathered for worship in his name, when, as he promised, he is present. Then also it is made clear what the church is to do in the world as she follows her Lord.

A more helpful way of looking at the church’s liturgy is to see it as the hub of the wheel, from which radiate the spokes of education, mission, stewardship, and other aspects of congregational life. Here are a few of the more obvious relationships.

Worship and Education. All education in the church is rooted in the Sacrament of Baptism, and this is true whether you think of infant or adult baptism. The “Great Commission” (Matt. 28:18-20) makes it clear that we are charged to “go…and make disciples…baptizing them in the name…and teaching them to obey….” The charge to the church is to “baptize” and “teach” for this is how we “make disciples” [literally “learners”]. As a part of the congregation’s baptismal commitment is the resolution to provide the means of faith formation and nurture to each baptized person—so the congregation’s educational program is linked directly to worship. If we fail to see that link, the promises made by the congregation at baptisms are empty ones; if we keep the connection strong, the saints will be equipped and the church strengthened.

Worship and Stewardship. Any understanding of stewardship in the church finds its roots in the Sacrament of the Lord’s Supper. Here we encounter the risen Christ and receive at his table his very life, a life given in sacrificial love. Sacrificial giving on our part is the only suitable response. The sacrament is also known as “Eucharist,” which means Thanksgiving. Thankful giving is generous giving. Keeping this connection between stewardship and worship strong will empower the people and enhance the virtue of generosity.

Worship and Mission. Christian mission will always be anchored in the prophetic proclamation of the Word. Reading and preaching the Word of God is, by the power of the Holy Spirit, an encounter with the Word-become-flesh, our living Lord. Out of this experience flows the mission of the church which is at heart “evangelistic.” The good news of God’s love in Jesus Christ is told in deeds of compassion and justice. Proclamation of the Word impels the people out from the safety of the sanctuary into the wilderness of the world to assure that all will hear and see the good news.

What other church activities are there which find a direct connection with worship? Where do in worship do they link up?

Saturday, August 8, 2009


There are plenty of Christians out there, in case you hadn’t noticed, who say that they have no need or use for going to church on Sundays. They explain their position something like this: “I’m a religious (or spiritual) person, and I believe in God, but I don’t need to go to a building somewhere with other people to pray. I can read the Bible and say my prayers just about anywhere.”

On the other hand, there is another group of the faithful who will state their case in almost the reverse. They sound something like this: “I get myself to church every week…well, when I can. And I really get a lot out of it, so I don’t have to do much in the way of piety or prayer during the week.”

We tend to set these two approaches in opposition to one another. It’s “private” versus “public” worship; or “solitary” rather than “with others”; or “personal” and not “general.” When we do that, we make a serious mistake.

Rather than see them as separate, we should look at them as two parts of the whole worship experience. Our personal devotions, our quiet times contemplating a passage of Scripture, the privacy of our most personal prayers have a direct relationship to our worship with the gathered community on the Lord’s Day. What we do on our own, apart from the fellowship of believers, is our “homework” to prepare ourselves for involvement in the church’s common worship. Both parts are essential.

This is not a new idea. John Calvin (and he probably wasn’t the first) wrote about it nearly five centuries ago: “…we must hold that he who declines to pray in the public meeting of the saints knows not what it is to pray apart, in retirement, or at home. On the other hand, he who neglects to pray alone and in private, however sedulously he frequents public meetings, there gives his prayers to the wind, because he defers more to the opinion of man than to the secret judgment of God.” (See Institutes, Book 3, Chapter 20, Section 29.)

There are many different ways of doing our “homework,” a variety of disciplines, numerous spiritual exercises. Reading Scripture and meditating on the text is a good way. So is just finding time to be quiet and listen to the breath of life, in one’s own body, in the world around. Many find scheduled prayer does the trick. Prayerful reading of the newspaper can even be good preparation, as is remembering family, friends and strangers and their particular needs.

When we do this kind of homework, we come to church on Sunday equipped to make the most general prayers personal, filling them with content from our own lives and experiences.

What are other ways to do “homework” that prepares one to worship with the community and celebrate God’s grace given in Jesus Christ in the most personal way?

Sunday, August 2, 2009

Q&A #1 - Communion Cup(s)

From time to time I’ll post a question asked of me, my answer, and some related questions for further discussion.

QUESTION: When did Protestants start using individual communion cups?

This was posed a while back at a gathering of clergy. We muddled around a bit and guessed at an answer, and, as it turns out, we were fairly good guessers.

Nancy Tomes, a historian, has written a book called The Gospel of Germs: Men, Women, and the Microbe in American Life (Harvard University Press, 1998), wherein she writes about “The Debate over the Common Communion Cup” (pp. 132-134).

The rise of tuberculosis at the turn of the twentieth century, she says, presented a dilemma for Protestants (not, however, for Roman Catholics, since only the priest drank the wine) that began the great debate.

Starting in 1887 physicians in Rochester, N.Y., brought pressure on churches to use separate cups since the common cup had been named the culprit in passing around TB and other “loathsome diseases.”

Tomes says, “The proposal to abolish the common communion cup initially met with deep resistance. For many Protestants, the fact that Jesus and his disciples used one vessel at the Last Supper was sufficient reason to forbid any change in practice…. When the General Assembly of the Presbyterian Church was first queried on the issue in 1895, it agreed that the hygiene issue was insufficient reason to alter ‘the primitive and historic method of administering the Lord’s Supper.’”

We all know how it finally came out. Mini-shot-glass-sized cups became the usual means of delivery of the wine—or often grape-juice, since there was also at this time the rise of the Temperance Movement. Diced bread, rather than a whole loaf to be handled and broken, also became the norm for hygienic reasons.

With that answer, some other questions are raised for all of us, such as:

As a liturgical rite, which is most appropriate—common cup or individual glasses?
Does the common cup work better when people come forward, or can it be passed hand-to-hand in the pews?
Which is preferable, people served in pews or coming to the Table?
Is it better to serve wine, grape juice or both? Why?
How much do the floor plan, furnishings and architecture of your worship space contribute to or inhibit the serving of Communion? What could you do to make it better?
And, finally, what theology is communicated to the worshippers by the different methods of serving and forms of the elements?

Sunday, July 26, 2009

Lex Orandi, Lex Credendi

Although the ancient axiom appears in several different forms, lex orandi, lex credendi is the prevailing short-hand version. It means something like, “the law (or rule) of prayer is the law (or rule) of belief.” My simpler version is, “Our worship shapes our faith.”

There are those who say the phrase is so ambiguous that you could argue it just as well from the other end: “What we believe shapes our worship.” One would hope there is truth in that as well. Nevertheless, seeing worship as the starting-point for faith formation makes good sense to me.

Historically, the followers of the Risen Christ relied on common worship for some three centuries before a creed was ever crafted. The arena of liturgy was where they met the Risen Christ. Out of that experience they shaped their belief system. So it is, and must be for us.

Also, while theological instruction in educational institutions and church schools provides “faith formation,” it does only for a small minority. It is when gathered for worship that a much larger proportion of the people of God are in touch with the substance of faith.

Furthermore, it is my own experience that my early years spent at the side of my parents in congregational worship, listening to and speaking the prayers, having the words of the hymns pointed out before I could read them, watching the faith of my parents acted out, experiencing Christ present—all of this and more was significant in the development of my own faith.

So lex orandi, lex credendi has important implications for the responsibilities ministers and lay leaders have for the worship of the church. The big questions we need to be asking are, “What is ‘taught’ to the congregation by what we say, what we do, and how we say and do it? And how do we enable them to meet Christ?”

Once a solid member of the congregation was talking to me about the worship service and he made reference to “that thing you do at the Communion Table.” “What thing?” I asked. When he explained further I realized he was talking about the Eucharistic Prayer. What did I ever do to let anyone think that it was just a thing? How could I do it differently to include my friend as a pray-er?

Here are a few “things” to think about where we might be communicating something other than what we should:
Call to Worship – Is it really a summons to praise God, or a “howdy, folks?”
Confession – Does it help to open worshippers to God’s forgiveness? Does it speak of God’s grace or just judgment?
Scripture – Do you read from Old and New Testaments? Is it read well, or just gotten through? Does the manner of reading reflect the authority of Scripture?
Sermon – Is it prophetic? A corporate activity, or a solo? Comforting and challenging, or just entertaining?
Eucharist – Is it central to Sunday worship, or occasional? Is Christ recognized?
Charge and Benediction – Are people sent on a mission, or just to coffee hour?

Keep asking the questions, because how well we do things on Sunday morning will determine the strength of our faith.

Sunday, July 19, 2009

I'm Confessing....

A little book that has been on my shelf and in my hands many times the last fifty years is He Sent Leanness—A book of prayers for the natural man, by David Head (MacMillan Company, New York 1959). It is a book filled with wisdom, humor, irony and lots more. It must be out of print, but copies are available on line from various sellers.

One of the standard prayers of confession widely used is The General Prayer of Confession. (See The Book of Common Worship (1993) on pp.87-88.) In contrast, David Head (on pages 18-19) offers two somewhat sarcastic and greatly exaggerated versions that he says might be in the hearts, if not in the mouths, of “natural” men and women. Here they are for comparison with the well-known original:

“Benevolent and easy-going Father: we have occasionally been guilty of errors of judgement. We have lived under the deprivations of heredity and the disadvantages of environment. We have sometimes failed to act in accordance with common sense. We have done the best we could in the circumstances; And have been careful not to ignore the common standards of decency; And we are glad to think that we are fairly normal. Do thou, O Lord, deal lightly with our infrequent lapses. Be thy own sweet Self with those who admit they are not perfect; According to the unlimited tolerance which we have a right to expect from thee. And grant as an indulgent Parent that we may hereafter continue to live a harmless and happy life and keep our self-respect.”

“Almighty Judge: we have lived far from thy ways like wild goats. We have on all occasions rebelliously followed our own inclinations. We have deliberately and shamelessly broken thy holy laws. We have never done anything we ought to have done; And we are utterly depraved. We desperately miserable offenders can only expect thy harsh judgement. We live obsessed with the unrelieved knowledge of our guilt. The thought of Jesus Christ does nothing except increase the depth of our shame. We have no right to expect anything hereafter except the intolerable burden of our unrighteousness, and the hell of our eternal disgrace.”

David Head’s exaggerating, of course, to make his point. At the same time, he comes all too close to what some expect the prayer of confession to be. I know folks who’d scrap confession altogether since, as they put it, “I’m not that bad.” Then there are others who enjoy groveling and wallowing in their guilt. Maybe, if we’re honest, we all are like them from time to time.

How do you strike a balance in the prayer of confession so you move from awareness of sin to acceptance of forgiveness? Where do you find helpful models for prayers of confession?

Wednesday, July 15, 2009

Biblical Roots

It is no surprise that Christian worship finds its roots in Scripture. Biblical scholars have long noted many passages that reflect the ancient pattern and practices we see acted out each Sunday.

Two passages commonly held up as models for Christian worship are the Call of Isaiah (Isaiah 6) and the Road to Emmaus Story (Luke 24:13-35).

The pattern for the Service of the Word is laid out in Isaiah 6.

  • Glorious adoration of Almighty God starts the proceedings, and Isaiah is overwhelmed by the power of the praise.
  • All the celebration of the greatness of God serves to remind him of his own smallness, and he moves from adoration to confession. Not only does he blurt out his own personal shortcomings, but those of his society and culture as well.
  • Forgiveness comes in the form of a glowing hot coal on his unclean lips, taking away guilt and blotting out sin. Isaiah is now ready to hear the word of the Lord.
  • God’s word is spoken—with an appeal for a messenger to speak forth for God. Isaiah volunteers. And he receives the message to carry—a word people will not want to hear. It’s going to be a tough job.

The story of the disciples on the Road to Emmaus provides another pattern, bringing together the Service of the Word and the Service of the Sacrament.

  • While on the road, a Stranger preaches to the forlorn disciples, interpreting the Scriptures about himself as the messiah.
  • Stopping for respite and a meal, the Stranger becomes the host and “took bread, blessed and broke it, and gave it to them.
  • As he broke bread, they instantly recognize Jesus present with them, and reflect on how he opened the Scriptures to them.

Overlay the two passages, and you have a fair outline of basic Christian worship.

Too many people fail to realize the biblical basis of what happens on Sunday morning. When we lose that anchor, the order of worship drifts and turns into an agenda of items to be accomplished, or, even worse, a hodge-podge of random activities.

If we will keep worship’s biblical roots in mind as we plan and lead worship, we have a chance of keeping our liturgical theology in line with the biblical message.

Have you ever thought of having a Bible Study on these two passages as an introduction to understanding worship in your church? How about other biblical passages that inform our liturgy? It’d be worth a try.

Tuesday, July 7, 2009


I worshipped recently in a church in Albany which showed near the top of its order of service the rubric, “Invocation.” Now worship leaders may think they know what that means, but I’m more concerned about how the pew-sitters perceive it.

The most common definition is “a form of prayer invoking God’s presence, esp. one said at the beginning of a religious service or public ceremony.” What’s implied by such an invocatory prayer at the start is that God has to be invited or won’t show up. What’s more, it assumes that we’ve come together on our own, that the party is ours, and we’re the ones to extend the invitation heavenward.

All in one fell swoop, this brand of invocation turns the notion of grace around so that we become the gracious hosts with God the guest in our church home, making the gathering more of a club than the fellowship of God’s people. Furthermore, it ignores the fact that God takes the initiative in calling us to worship (hence the use of biblical texts for the “Call to Worship”). It is God’s grace that summons and welcomes us, not the other way around.

There are other uses of invocations where God is summoned to appear which are easier to understand, even approve. The invocation at the beginning of the service club meeting may not be so bad because one would not likely assume that God would appear uninvited. Congress and other government bodies often have an opening invocation, and the considerable need for God’s presence in such venues certainly justifies it.

But not starting off the worship service. God has long since invited God’s own children and has been waiting for us all along, longing for our appearance. So our prayers at the beginning of the service acknowledge our relationship to God, and express the praise of “the creature before the Creator, the redeemed before the Redeemer” (BCW, p.35). Better, then, to call it “Prayer of Adoration,” or even “Opening Prayer.”

I don’t think this is mere semantics or liturgical finickiness. Let’s keep our sequence straight. God’s grace is prevenient. We worship in response.

What does the “Gathering” part of your worship service look like? What impression does it leave with the worshippers? It’s worth checking.