Sunday, March 14, 2010

Don't Just Adopt--Adapt!

I had the opportunity a while back to take a seminar with the Disney Institute. The folks from Orlando shared what they learned at Disney World that we might put to work in the variety of businesses and groups represented among those attending, everything from fire departments to colleges, from hospices to manufacturing companies.

They told us how they provide top-of-the-line customer service, for example, and suggested that we could do it too. But we could not just adopt what they do at their theme parks lock, stock and barrel. No, we shouldn’t adopt—instead we should adapt, take the concept, the idea, and recreate it so it would work in our very different settings.

Not long after, as I was using the Book of Common Worship (1993), it flipped open to a section in the Preface with the heading “Form and Freedom.” One paragraph from that section reads:

"Local pastoral concerns will determine the appropriate way to use the texts and services. Some will find strength and a sense of unity in the prayers shared in common with the whole church and so will use the liturgical texts as they appear in this book. Others will find it more appropriate to adapt the prayers for use in a particular setting. Others will be prompted to follow the structure of the services as they are outlined and use the texts as models for a free and more spontaneous style of prayer. Each of these styles is appropriate within the provisions of the directories for worship, and it is the intent of the Book of Common Worship to provide the necessary resources." (Pages 6-7, emphases mine.)

I suspect that many pastors and worship leaders who have the book follow the first alternative, at least most of the time. The material is of such high quality, it hardly seems worth the effort to try to do better.

Pastors are busy people, as we all know, and fulfilling the responsibilities of preaching every week occupies not only lots of time but energy as well. A liturgical resource as complete and of high quality as the Book of Common Worship is a boon and a blessing worthy of using with enthusiasm and joy. It is readily adoptable just as is.

So I became only one of many who learned how to “cut and paste” from the book to construct the liturgy Sunday after Sunday. Ready-made prayers and responses worked so very well from the beginning that their use became habitual rather quickly.

Having been part of the process of the book’s development, however, I knew full well that this was not the only way to use it—maybe not even the best way.

It seems to me that the time has come, and perhaps is long gone, when we should move beyond primarily adopting texts from the Book of Common Worship (1993) unchanged. Rather we should at least sometimes adapt them to our own particular situation, and this for several reasons.

First of all, every liturgical circumstance is different: different settings, people, times, locations, expectations, etc. Even if all the different factors appeared to be repeated another time, they would not be exact duplicates. Liturgy requires a certain amount of fine-tuning and finesse at the least. We can hardly expect the same prayer to satisfy every disparate need time after time.

If there are exceptions to this, they would be the durable prayers that have stood the text of time and hold up well through repeated use. Yet even these require some adapting over the years—witness the Lord’s Prayer re-worked in an “ecumenical version,” and hymns with alternate wording for some lines or even new entire verses. Even Holy Scripture appears regularly in new translations.

Furthermore, pastors and worship leaders need to learn how to create and construct liturgy, and the best way—maybe the only way—is to do it. Adapting, not adopting, is the method. The Book of Common Worship (1993) is, among other things, an educational resource. The prayers and other liturgical forms are models of structure and style from which pastors and others can learn to craft their own quality versions of corporate worship.

It’s only when we do this kind of work that we begin, for example, to learn how a Eucharistic prayer is constructed, or what the Psalm Prayers contribute to the Psalter, or what all is involved in the Prayers of the People, and so forth. It’s work that pays off in more thoughtful and sensitive worship leadership, and richer participation of those in the pews.

How much of your Sunday liturgy is entirely original to you and your congregation? How do you modify prayers of confession, for illumination, of the people, week to week?


  1. The structure of Reformed Worship (which parallels accepted ecumenical structure or ordo) should be the "given." But the content surely should evolve and develop, in light of particular context and needs. In this way we remain faithful to our Reformed (and ecumenical) tradition, while also being faithful to time, place, and need.

    There is nothing wrong with occasional verbatim usage from BCW -- we all have those pressing weeks that push us in that direction. Yet, the unique ministerial tradition among Reformed churches calls for scholar-pastors. So Reformed pastors probably have the training/education to create and write -- and should use that gift for the good of the church. It is a "plus" that we ought not ignore. The BCW can be an excellent "starting point" that helps insure the quality of what we do.

  2. I guess my answer is : it depends. I appreciate the flexibility of the Reformed tradition in that we CAN change the liturgy, adapt the prayers or write them from scratch. Most of us have probably done all of the above.
    I don't feel the need to re-write Eucharistic prayers. I appreciate how they rehearse the Biblical story from Creation to Flood- to Exodus, prophets, to Jesus (not unlike the Easter Vigil).
    Our service is enriched if we use a variety of worship resources, including our own.

    There is an increasing trend, though, that I think will stretch pastors too thin for the forseeable future. Many of us work at other ministries. I serve an ecumenical organization full time. I was asked to consider and felt called to serve a small congregation as well, because quite frankly, some of our congregations who can only afford 1/4 time or 1/2 time need pastors who have experience and can work at something else. All of our congregations deserve the best, most thoughtful worship preparation we can provide. But that may not include writing the liturgy most of the time, especially given the energy and care sermon writing requires.


Thanks for joining in the conversation!