Sunday, February 28, 2010

More Bulletin Bullets

The bulletin bestowed upon me at the church I attended a while back prompted me to fire off a few more bullets about bulletins. This one was 20 pages (including the front and back covers, and one inside page with church information), worthy of being called a booklet. Why was it so bulky when four pages (including front and back covers) usually suffices? The answers are found in the following bullets:

n Much of the copy that filled the pages was text to be read by the worship leader(s), prayers (including the Great Thanksgiving in full, a lengthy series of intercessory prayers with responses, and a several other shorter petitions) and other liturgical pieces. This created problems.

For one thing, it was totally unnecessary. People do not need to read along that which someone else is verbalizing. Save the space and save the paper. Leave it out. People can listen.

If they have the text in front of them, however, they will read along. I took a gander around at the congregation and, sure enough, every head was bowed and every face was buried in the bulletin/booklet. Most everyone but me was looking at pages of print instead of at God’s people, brothers and sisters. So much for community.

Furthermore, if everything the worship leader says is in print, and everyone is reading it, the worship leader is off the hook. He or she doesn’t need to work very hard to communicate orally what is in print to the hearers, because they aren’t listening anyway; they are reading what he/she is saying. So, the whole liturgy gets unbearably dull.

In the matter of prayers to which or within which there are responses (such as the Great Thanksgiving and intercessory series) print only the necessary cues to the congregational responses.

In the interests of good liturgy,* let’s cut down on the printed verbiage rather than waste paper and cut down more trees.

n Another several pages of the bulletin/booklet included the texts for the day, when only the Psalm needed to be there to be read responsively. In addition, each text had a brief introduction giving some background or highlight.

Unfortunately, there were no Bibles in the pew racks as I am convinced there ought to be in every church. If there are Bibles at arms’ reaches to the worshippers, then there is no need to print the lessons—anyone can simply look them up. If your church has no pew Bibles, a full complement makes a wonderful memorial gift.

The added benefit would be that over time worshippers will learn where things are in the Bible in case they ever want to find something. Also, looking up passages is a fun thing to do with the kids in church as a learning experience.

About the brief intro for each text: skip it. The Scripture text should be presented to speak for itself. Interpretation comes in the sermon. Readers’ Digest introductions often add very little and more often just get in the way of what is to come.

n The third large block of space in this bulletin/booklet was taken up with what is called service music, notes and words. I almost wrote “melody line,” but didn’t because some of the lines had no melody that I could find. They were difficult to sing, and I can read music. I wondered about those in the room who couldn’t, and when I looked around, I saw them silently staring straight ahead. The good thing was they didn’t have their noses buried in the pages like the rest of us did.

If the service music is singable by the average congregation, it needs only words for everyone to match up with the tune. If it isn’t singable, notes won’t help most people anyway. Leave out the notes and save the space.

How full of text is your bulletin? Do you have pew Bibles? What service music does your congregation know without the music in front of them?


* “Good liturgy” in my definition is worship of the people, by the people, to the glory of God. It involves the whole people together and whole people individually, body, mind and spirit. It reeks of joy and enthusiasm.

Sunday, February 21, 2010

The Other Corporate Worship

When you and I talk about “corporate worship,” it’s a safe bet that we are referring to what takes place in a church on Sunday morning. That in itself is a sign of how the other tradition of corporate worship—daily prayer—has been neglected, at least by the likes of us.

Sure, there are monks and nuns and a few others out there who gather morning, noon and night for prayer and a psalm or song. But they have time for such piety; their whole lives are devoted to it.

As for the rest of us, it isn’t so easy to find the hours, or even minutes, to give to the practice of prayerful disciplines. It’s difficult for us to carve prayer time out of our busy schedules individually, much less find a time to gather a group of people.

Nevertheless, the Book of Common Worship (1993) includes within its covers (and under separate cover as well) Daily Prayer, a full-blown book dedicated to day-by-day group worship. It is an all-out effort to reclaim what some of us Christians have lost, yet what others have retained, preserved and nourished over centuries.

While Lord’s Day worship follows the cycle of the Christian Year, Daily Prayer tracks the cycles of days and weeks. Occasionally the two converge in themes, but most of the time run on parallel tracks. For example, on any given Lord’s Day, there will also be worship according to the hours of the day. In any event, Lord’s Day worship and Daily Prayer are mutually supportive.

The “hours” observed in Daily Prayer are Morning Prayer, Midday Prayer, Evening Prayer and Prayer at the Close of Day. The traditions behind these services are rich. Here are just a few observations:

Morning and Evening Prayer, the principal hours, obviously follow the course of sunrise and sunset. The image of light is strong in the evening as darkness falls and candles are lighted alluding to the coming of Christ as Light for our darkness. Following natural rhythms of the day connects our prayers with the reality of our lives.

Midday Prayer arrives in the thick of the busy day, offering us a chance for prayerful reflection on the grace of God, as well as on the opportunities and challenges we face in discipleship. Prayer at the Close of Day comes just before we go to sleep. It is, in a way, a rehearsal of our funerals, as we give ourselves utterly to God’s care and keeping.

Daily prayer is established firmly on the Psalms, which are to be sung. Chanting is a lost Presbyterian art, one, it is hoped, to be resuscitated. Some psalms are set to be repeated often, as are the New Testament songs (Morning: Canticle of Zechariah; Evening: Canticle of Mary; and Close of Day: Canticle of Simeon). Repetition is valuable in that changing circumstances call forth new insights from the repeated texts and prayers.

The hours of daily prayer have different emphases on different days of the week. Fridays, for example, cannot come without remembrance of Good Friday. Saturday is a relatively low-key day, reflecting the “silence” of Holy Saturday. Sundays, of course, are celebrative.

The daily services are intended to be led not just by clergy, but by the participants as well. The services are also very flexible and adaptive to different groups in different settings, and can be lengthy or brief. Therefore, they lend themselves to use at family gatherings, governing body meetings, retreats, mealtimes, and other groups, large and small.

What is more, the Daily Prayer book is a valuable asset for one’s individual prayer times. Using it reminds us that even our prayers when we are alone are not private, but corporate, joined to the prayers of the whole church.

Even though the resource may be used individually, it is still a communal resource in that others are joining in the same prayers, praying the same psalms, on the same schedule as everyone else. The community may be scattered, but individuals are not isolated from one another. In fact, the use of daily prayer in concert has a cohesive effect for all who pray.

In one church near me, the session has provided the Book of Common Worship—Daily Prayer for the whole congregation, and presents a copy to each new member. It is their common resource for corporate daily worship, together or apart.

Still there is an issue of time—how do we find time for any of this?

Take a trip up into the mountains near Cambridge, NY, and you will find New Skete Monastery, part of the Orthodox Church of America. I’ve worshipped with the monks there not nearly as much as I’ve wanted, but often enough to learn from them an important insight. Prayer is not an item on your daily agenda for which you must find time—it is the frame for your daily life, into which everything else is inserted.

The Common Worship—Daily Prayer resource, as other similar resources published by other denominations and in other traditions, helps define that framework of the hours of the day. As I have come to understand the prayer times of morning and evening, midday and at going to sleep as circumscribing all I am and what I do, I have been surprised to find myself praying at all odd times during the day and night. “Praying without ceasing” is not the impossibility I once thought it was.

Do you use a particular resource such as Book of Common Worship—Daily Prayer? Do you observe hours of daily prayer in your church? Do you follow a personal prayer discipline? How do these enhance your Lord’s Day worship?

Sunday, February 14, 2010

User-Friendly Worship

Hospitality, as properly understood in the Christian sense, is a radical virtue. It’s not just welcoming friends into our homes. It’s the warm embrace for the stranger, the one who is different and therefore “strange,” the alien, foreigner, unbeliever, even sinner. It’s the hospitality Jesus showed to just about everybody.

When we gather in his name on his day, we aspire, it is hoped, to display something recognizable as being akin to Jesus’ hospitality. It will take some effort.

The idea is for us to make the Lord’s Day worship service as welcoming and user-friendly as possible to anyone who might wander in, not knowing a single member, but looking for something or someone to bring some meaning and purpose to life.

Here are a few thoughts:

Every church member should obey this absolute commandment: “Thou shalt not leave anyone standing alone before service or afterward.” Go introduce yourself and welcome the person. “But what if he or she is a member too? I’ll feel silly.” Then laugh and say, “It’s about time I met you.” Ignoring a visitor is a rejection unworthy of Jesus’ people. Ignoring a solitary fellow member is just as bad.

A couple of years ago, I was to participate in one of our grandchildren’s baptism. My wife and I arrived at the church, me with my robe and stole draped over my arm. We stood alone in the small vestibule as people walked back and forth past us without a word. It was an intolerable length of time before the pastor’s wife happened by and rescued us. It is not a good feeling.

And simply thrusting a paper order of service/bulletin into the visitor’s waiting hand with a cheery “Good morning” falls short. There’s more to be done.

Here’s a bit of good news. I visited a city church a while back solo, got my bulletin and took a seat in the middle of the room. I hadn’t been there a minute when a lady sat down next to me, introduced herself, said that I looked to be new to the congregation—which I acknowledged. Then she went one step further. She offered to sit with me to help me find what I needed to participate in the hymnal and worship book as the service went along. While I managed well enough on my own most of the time, there were a couple of places I’d have been lost without her tutelage. She made the experience user-friendly.

It’s a lot to ask, I know, to have a cadre of companions to guide newcomers through worship step-by-step. But it is possible, at least, to welcome the person, invite him or her to join you in a pew, and make introductions all around afterward.

It’s also a hospitable thing for instructions to be concisely and strategically placed in the bulletin so everyone knows when to stand or sit, when to sing and where to find the song, how communion will be served, names of worship leaders, and so forth. Without some basic information, the newcomer is left to the device of imitating some other worshipper.

Hospitality is particularly important at Communion time. The liturgy is broadly embracing:
“This is the Lord's table.
Our Savior invites those who trust him
to share the feast which he has prepared.”

Yet many assume that it is really only for folks in the church or denomination. They make that assumption because it so in many churches and denominations. So perhaps we should be more specific with a few words in the bulletin, stating that all are welcome regardless of church affiliation. It is the Lord’s Table, not the church’s, and it’s an open invitation.

The risk of neglecting hospitality is that the congregation ceases to be the community of God’s people and becomes a club. Christian hospitality is generous in the extreme. It must go beyond being merely polite and courteous. Anyone can do that. The disciple of Jesus knows without thinking to receive strangers as brothers or sisters and to rejoice in their presence.

This hospitality will be genuine—if it’s not, the stranger will spot it as fake right away. The Christian virtue of hospitality is uncalculating and without guile. But it can be learned. With constant practice, it becomes a natural talent, like riding a bike. You don’t have to think about it, you just do it.

How does hospitality play out at your church? What might you do to improve it?

Sunday, February 7, 2010

Lectionary Pros and Cons

When I was ordained, the process of preaching included searching out that passage of Scripture that had the Good News to be announced the following Sunday.

I was aware that the Book of Common Worship (1946) had a lectionary in the back, and I knew what it was to be used for if anyone wanted to use it. As far as I knew, there were few takers. It seemed that most preachers picked the text for the sermon and went from there.

I did that for years and remember agonizing over finding that choice passage that demanded to be preached. I was greatly relieved when along came the lectionary in The Worshipbook (1970). The Revised Common Lectionary, as it is now called, is currently widely used, although at the start there were serious reservations.

Some preachers back then found it objectionable that anyone else should dictate the text for their sermon. Of course, the list of readings was not required in any sense. For us Protestants, the sole responsibility for selecting Scripture continued with the preacher—that’s part of the “freedom of the pulpit.”

Others felt that the choice of passages for the lectionary was arbitrary, and traditionally well-known and beloved texts were missing. Still, any preacher always has the prerogative to amend the list at any point. A special congregational need or public crisis would certainly call forth appropriate passages.

I found those objections to be minor. The virtues of using the lectionary, for me, far outweighed the possible problems.

For one thing, I appreciated the discipline the lectionary involved. It set a schedule and, what is more, kept my eye on the ball of the Scripture. I’ve noticed that preachers who don’t use a lectionary may be inclined to set out a mere snippet of Scripture as a springboard from which to dive into their chosen subject. Sizeable passages keep such leaping into the shallow end from happening.

There are four passages set for each Sunday which give a slab of Scripture cut through both Old and New Testaments. I find value in seeing the uninterrupted connection between the Christian proclamation and the historical and prophetic message in our Jewish roots.

The use of the psalm in the lectionary has great appeal to me. It is set among the designated passages as a response to the Old Testament Lesson. That suggests to me that it should be sung as psalms were originally.

One of the most important advantages of the lectionary is in how it lays out the church year. From season to season, the progression of the Year of the Lord is mapped out in the lectionary. For the preacher this offers continuity—each sermon is not a stand-alone, but one in a series continuing through the year.

An added bonus to the use of the lectionary these days is that it is a common lectionary. It’s not just for any one denomination, but shared by many, with a few minor adjustments. Which means that preachers, Presbyterians Roman Catholics, Methodist, Episcopal, Lutheran or whatever, can share in study groups as part of their preparation.

The greatest asset of using the lectionary is that it makes the Scripture readings available to the whole congregation in advance. Classes, study groups, families at home are all possible groups of folks who might preview the lessons. Therefore, the people come to worship prepared to participate in the sermon. So they should, for they are not passive witnesses to the preacher’s performance. They are there to do the “work of the people” and take an active role in the drama of worship.

Finally, I offer a couple of caveats to the preacher, lessons learned out of my own experience.

First, if the temptation comes upon you to dig back in your files and read the sermon you preached three years before on the same date, at all costs resist it. It’s old stuff, dead as yesterday’s mashed potatoes. Even if you think it’s surprisingly good, it’s still old, and not worth using a second time. Someone may remember it, and notice that you did a re-run. Or worse, no one may remember it at all. Even just reading the old one over before you start working on the current one is a mistake—what was hot and relevant then may not be now. Stay in the present.

Second, beware relying too heavily on the lectionary. There are lots of good resources for preaching the lectionary, and it is easy to fall back on them and neglect doing your own thinking. Read the texts weeks early, over and over again, and live with them before you ever crack a book of commentary or homiletical insight. Let the Scripture speak to you, listen, and listen some more. The Spirit will speak to your heart for your time.

How do you see the challenges and blessings of using the lectionary in your preaching? If you are a lay person, do you follow the lectionary at home the week before? Are there Bible study classes or groups in your church using the lectionary?