Sunday, April 25, 2010


The overriding principle of Christian liturgy, as far as I’m concerned, is that it is the people’s work. Some of the people have particular responsibilities for that liturgy, such as clergy and musicians and lay leaders and deacons and so forth. But they are worshippers too.

Therefore, those who are responsible in some form for leading or enabling the worship of the people have to do two things at once. First, they themselves have to worship. Second, they have to prepare and present a liturgy in a thoughtful and prayerful manner that will spark worship in everyone. In other words, worship leaders have to give and receive at the same time.

Another way to think of this is to see the experience of worship for the people in the pews as being both impressive and expressive.

Take “expressive” first. Good liturgy helps the people in the pews to express their faith, to sing and shout, if that’s what’s called for, or be still and quiet to listen to the Spirit’s whispers. Good hymns, for example, are singable and both physically and emotionally engaging. Hymns are either prayers or affirmations of faith—they give voice and song to inner convictions and longings.

The whole liturgy has the potential to be engaging in this way. Written or spoken prayers provide the language for the people’s expression of deep needs and hopes. Action, including posture and gesture, allows physical expression by the people of their joy, or love, or sorrow.

So the planners and leaders of liturgy need to be careful and conscious of providing the right equipment so the people can do their work of worship. To do this, planners and leaders must think first as worshippers themselves.

I’ve discovered, for example, that one of the secrets of preaching that connects with the pew-sitters is that I preach to myself first. Knowing my own humanness is a good starting point. If I can honestly listen to the text speaking to my life, I can usually wrestle with it to produce a sermon that stands a chance of hitting someone else’s target. In this way, the sermon helps the people work through their faith, and they are actively involved in listening and processing the scriptural message.

On the other hand, planners and leaders must recognize that worship is “impressive.”

Now, before we go any further, let’s get it straight that worship planners and leaders are not there to “impress” people in the normal use of that word. Preachers preach, not perform. Choirs sing to praise God, not for applause. Prayers are not to be clever or cute, but simple and profound. The people are the performers. Period.

Worship is “impressive,” however, in the sense that the music and words and actions of the liturgy, as well as the setting with its decors, leave an imprint on the worshipper. Everything that happens in worship is filed in the brains of the people. They remember and take with them what they experience. It’s all with them to be used perhaps another day.

Hymns, for example, are a repository of theology. It’s been said that most of us born before 1960 learned our theology from the hymns we sang in church as we were growing up. That’s probably still true, although fewer children are learning the great hymns of the church. The use of “praise songs” presents a problem here, because so many are theologically shallow. The upshot is that the hymnody of the church is not being duly appropriated by some church leaders to “impress” worshippers with sound understanding of their faith.

We also have to acknowledge that some hymns do promote ghastly theology: a me-first kind of give-me-what-I-want attitude devoid of self-giving love; they are also highly individualistic and ignore the community that God has assembled. Such hymns do not leave imprints, they leave dents, and the damage is often difficult to repair.

What I’ve said about hymns, I think is equally true of the prayers written and spoken. It takes considerable effort to produce a prayer that not only enables worshippers to express themselves, but leaves a message in them, the seed of a prayer they might nurture to blossom another time.

Where do you see liturgy as “expressive” and “impressive”? What are some ways you would suggest to improve the worship where you are?

1 comment:

  1. Thank you, Don, for this exposition. I have always stressed what I call the power of the "imprint." It occurred to me as I read this blog that your caution about "impressing people" could itself give a wrong impression! In fact, reading this I thought about inventing a new word, "imprintive."

    The words of hymns and prayers have the power to imprint themselves on the inner psyche. They do that without our thinking much about it. In fact, I get the feeling that the repetition of prayers until they become familiar leads to our increasing ability “to pray” the prayer, rather than simply to read it. The possibility of such an imprint would have been cultivated by the Mercersburg proposed liturgy of 1858 that suggests five prayers of the public confession of sin, to be used on the first, second, third, fourth, and fifth Sundays of the month. Thus, there would be four prayers that would be used twelve times a year that would become familiar to worshipers.

    Some years ago I asked our daughter when she learned the Lord’s Prayer. “I never learned it; I’ve always known it!” That is because she was always in church with us, and we prayed the Lord’s Prayer every Sunday. It was imprinted on her mind and memory.

    My question to worship leaders is, “What does your worship imprint on the worshipers, items such as words, gestures, music, physical surroundings (such as stained glass windows)? All of these leave an imprint and we hope that by being conscious of these issues, we can come more adequately to express faith in the eternal God, and in Jesus Christ our Lord.


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