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.


  1. I agree heartily that a bulletin should be "minimalist." It is more user-friendly -- both to those who always attend and to those who seldom attend especially.

    But I make an exception for music. I want to see more than the words. Even if I think I know a tune, I feel more confident singing it, if the music is there for me to read. And I don't "pick up" on new tunes easily, without music. At least some others may feel the same way; so for their (our) sakes, please print the music -- not just the words.

  2. Ok, this all works for me EXCEPT the music issue. I HATE when all that is printed are the words. Worse yet, if the words are on a movie screen with a cheezy graphic!

    If I don't know the song (and how presumptuous is it to assume visitors will know your songs) then I have no idea what to sing. I'm uncomfortable and un-engaged.

    If we need to have Bibles in the pews, don't we also need to have songbooks? I learned to read music from a hymnal and the hymnal is our collective music repository. I appreciate the desire to include music not found in the hymnal (which might indicate a hymnal update is in order) and in that case I think providing scores to the congregation is in order.

    Rather than printing them again and again though, it seems that creating an addendum to the hymnal and putting that in the pews would be a more cost-effective solution. If we aren't using songs more than once, then we are losing the opportunity to engage the congregation with the music, as it requires repetition to fully engage with and embrace a piece.

    So, give me a score please! Not just words. And put it where it belongs - if a song is worth worship time, then it's worth being in the hymnal. If it's not worth that effort, should we really be using it?

  3. Remember that to do it properly, a "booklet/bulletin" is usually made up in pages which are multiples of four, even though one may be blank. A letter-size folded bulletin is actually four or eight 8-1/2 X 5-1/2 pages.
    There is a tendency to fill up blank space with something (kind of amateurish--white space is OK).
    Printed songs to substitute for a hymnal is OK; not for the Bible though except for, as you say, responsive Psalms.

  4. I tend to agree with you, that shorter is preferable for the bulletin. However, the acoustics need to be good, as does the hearing of the listeners. A person has to balance what's helpful with how much is excessive. Sometimes I think it's helpful to have the words to the choir anthem printed too. Also, I know some congregations who put a great deal of (bulletin) effort into promoting ecumenical and peace and justice events. I do appreiate that. It's there for the worshipper, but not announced.

    I also agree with you about pew Bibles. I think that's true not strictly for the lessons being read, but to get a bit of context for the lections. While I prefer that people listen rather than read, I can understand that for some, it's helpful to have the reading in front of them, and to be able to look up what's before and after it.

  5. Charlotte KroekerMarch 3, 2010 at 8:34 AM

    A liturgy, when well planned, is a work of art. A work of art has varied levels of meaning and can be re-visited again. I often take the bulletin home and re-read parts of the liturgy that have gone by too quickly to allow their meaning to become a part of me. The same thing happens with the music. If the words and the music are printed or are otherwise available to me (hymnal, Bible, Book of Common Worship) then I can go back to the experience again and remember the timbre of the voice that first spoke the words, the beauty of the music of the sung congregational offering, the sound of the choir offering the text printed in the bulletin. The printed text becomes a prompt to recall the worship in community. It also serves as a little textbook in worship if constructed carefully, as the order of the service, the Scriptures, service music, hymns, choral or other music, when planned well, will unveil a coherent whole upon reflection. The printed document also gives opportunity for short explanations as to why a particular piece of music or prayer might be appropriate for the day which can be read prior to or after worship. And as a musician, I agree with the writers who say "please print the music" if a piece is not from the hymnal. Even for non-music readers, having the visual cue of when the notes move up and down can be helpful in achieving fuller participation. Thanks for listening!

  6. Lots of good comments. You make good arguments for keeping the notes. I was probably over zealous because the music I saw in the bulletin at hand was unsingable in the first place. I think service music ought to be readily singable by the congregation at large--not childishly simple, necessarily, but learnable. What we had in that bulletin was esoteric at best. If the service music is indeed serviceable, then I agree, keep text and music before the congregation. If it's accessable in the hymnal, then probably leave it out of the bulletin and reference it.

    Charlotte makes an excellent point about the bulletin having usefulness before and after the service. Now, everything I said about having a minimal bulletin goes out the window when you can design it to be useful as she describes. On Ash Wednesday we went to a church where they had a folder/bulletin of eight type-written 8 1/2 x 11 pages filled with scripture, hymns, prayers and items for meditation throughout the season. It was clearly a take-home document and had lots to offer through the next forty days. It can be done if you plan ahead wisely.


Thanks for joining in the conversation!