Sunday, April 11, 2010

Liturgical Orphans

A good friend and colleague of mine and I were commiserating, as we are sometimes wont to do, on the subject of how so many church members don’t know, or never knew, anything much about church history or the heritage that informs our worship.

He called the ailment a form of historical and liturgical amnesia afflicting the body of the church. We’ve plumb forgot what went before us. It was like we woke up one year and had to start over to figure out how we might worship God.

My image was similar. I pictured church members as thinking of themselves as liturgical orphans, living without any information about their past, where they came from, even who they are or might be. Impoverished creatures, these church members are, without the wherewithal to do their worship.

Okay, we’re overstating the case, perhaps, but the problem is a real one. Let’s face it, most people in the pews, and maybe some pastors too, for that matter, do what they do in worship with a modicum if not a minimum of background and theological information. Most worshippers have trouble expressing why we do what we do on Sunday mornings. If they ever knew, it seems that they forgot.

There is an increasing number of voices these days leaning heavily on the seminaries for their failure in training clergy to fulfill their responsibilities as “resident liturgical theologians” in parishes. In my day, I came out of seminary with minimal historical or theological understanding of Christian liturgy. I understand from those who know, that the situation has improved only slightly, if at all.

Sure enough, budding clergy are taught at length how to preach. The mysteries of biblical exegesis, writing and delivering sermons are explored and revealed so the clergy can develop through the years to be competent and maybe outstanding preachers.

What the seminaries forget, however, that preaching is not enough. In fact, if preaching is the major emphasis in the training of a minister, it misses the point that the sermon is to be proclaimed in the context of a larger liturgy. If the liturgy is not informed in its preparation, if the people don’t know what they are doing, if the rites are empty rote, then the sermon stands naked, unsupported, left to fend for itself solo.

Now it follows as night follows the day that if ministers are not adequately equipped with history and theology of Christian liturgy, they won’t have a chance of being able to prepare their congregations. The congregations in turn are deprived of heritage and tradition that gives foundation to their worship experience.

I wonder if this is a reason that so many people aren’t in the pews on Sunday. If worship doesn’t make sense, if it has no traditions behind it, perhaps it’s just boring and folks don’t bother. Would people find it more interesting and even exciting if they realized that there is not only wisdom but genius in the rites and rituals, in the words and music of worship?

Now, we can wait around to see if the seminaries will catch on and do something to correct this inadequacy. Or, ministers and elders and musicians can rise up and deal with the situation ourselves. How? Here are a few suggestions:

Get hold of a copy of Introduction to Christian Worship by James White (Abingdon Press, 1990). Get the elders on your worship committee and your musicians together with the pastor once a week to discuss it chapter by chapter. (If your church can afford it, buy everyone a book--or better yet, have everyone buy their own.) When you've finished that book, start another on the same subject.

Ask your musicians to teach hymnody to the congregation. Maybe they could tell the background or story of one hymn before the service each week and call attention to the theological content. Or have a congregational hymn-sing (with a dinner) to sing some of the hymnal’s “golden oldies.” There’s history there, plus memorable theology.

You might use time at each session meeting for education about the session’s responsibility regarding worship. Some may be surprised that they have responsibility—doesn’t the minister just take care of all that?

From time to time expound briefly in the service about specific rites, their history, their meaning—or at least put notes in the bulletin.

Most of all, clergy and musicians should take professional pride to educate themselves, to learn about their craft as leaders of worship, as stewards of the mysteries of faith.

What other ways can we educate congregations about worship?

1 comment:

  1. I have attended conferences at which the theologians and pastors questioned the moral uprightness of the substitionary significance of the Cross in Christian Theology. This is hardly the kind of thinking that can lead any school towards teaching a theology of the sacraments with any real impact upon people and their worlds.

    Jack McKenna


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