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?