Sunday, December 12, 2010


One of the more important and most often neglected parts of a service of Christian worship is what is called the “Gathering.” The assembling of the faithful on the Lord’s Day doesn’t just happen willy-nilly—there is considerable thoughtful ritual associated with it.

Shifting gears from every-day life to the focused worship of Almighty God is not always easy; maybe it’s more accurate to say it’s never easy. So there’s a process laid out that moves us from here to there, nudging us into the spiritual place where the “work of the people” happens, celebrating God’s love in Jesus Christ.

I always thought that the “Gathering” began at the door of the church, but I’ve come to realize that it begins earlier. For some the process begins when feet hit the floor on Sunday morning. Right away thoughts and the meditations of hearts begin to tilt toward church and all to be experienced there: friends to meet, Scripture to hear, hymns to sing, forgiveness to find, enthusiasm to absorb, peace to receive—all of these start their holy work on worshippers early in the day.

We’ve already heard God’s call in our own lives, and it’s in response to God’s call that we make the effort, even when it’s at odds with our personal preference at the moment. We who have been the church in the world are then on the way to becoming the church at worship. Already as we arrive in the parking lot and make our way into the building, we are starting to be “gathered.”

The first thing that happens is that we see our friends, maybe meet someone new or a visitor, and casual greetings are exchanged all around. This is a time of hospitality, practicing that essential Christian virtue of welcoming others as human beings, if nothing else.

Sometimes we are inclined to discount these greetings because they tend to be superficial, and are often related to something other than our brother-sister Christian family relationships. Hospitality, however, is always to be taken seriously, for the welcoming of one person by another is always a sign of grace.

I was the guest preacher in a church a few weeks ago where the custom is to do the Greeting of Peace right at the beginning of the service. It was a small enough congregation that I got to shake hands and share a holy greeting with everyone in the place. That was nice for me as the guest preacher because I worshipped with and preached to people whom I now had met.

Whatever else happens when we greet one another at the Gathering, however, we should be clear that our congregation is not a country club or some other assembly of like-minded people assembled because of common tastes and interests, but a church of diverse people called by God to love each other and the world as God does. The liturgical pieces flow from the awareness that God has called us (and that’s the only reason we’re there).

The prelude, obviously, is part of our preparation. A friend of mine said the prelude is the accompaniment to the “entrance dance of the people.” At least part of the prelude might be lively enough to fill that bill, and music also can lead into a time of quiet preparatory meditation.

I’ve always found that a time of silence serves me well also. Quiet helps me to collect my own thoughts and prayers that up till now had been fairly scattered.

The Call to Worship in words of Scripture is another reminder of God’s call, an authoritative summons for us to pray and praise before the Almighty, to give thanks for the gift of Jesus Christ, and to renew our commitment to new life. Sometimes the call to worship is also sung in the form of an “introit,” a musical introduction to the service.

A Hymn of Praise lets us all join in with full voice to praise God with words and music that provide not only delight and uplifting of spirit, but theological substance. The great hymns of church tradition shouldn’t be left on a shelf somewhere in favor of pop songs or so-called contemporary music that is theologically thin. Praise of God deserves our very best.

The Prayer of the Day may be used to introduce a theme emphasized throughout the service, and set our hearts and minds to be receptive. The Lord’s Prayer, offered here, also sets forth the pattern for prayer content as instructed by Jesus to his disciples.

More singing of God’s praise in special music by choir or soloists brightens the Gathering, and also can do much in setting the mood for what comes next. The Prayer of Confession (in unison, please) and the Declaration of Forgiveness are essential in clearing away the guilt that so often prevents us from hearing the fullness of God’s Word.

All of this is offered as preparation for the sections of Word and Eucharist. The arrangement may vary, and not every item is necessarily included. Yet it is clear that from Sunday morning rising to attentive hearing of the Word of God, there’s much to be done.

What do you find most helpful in gathering yourself, with others, in the church? What does not help you prepare for hearing God’s Word personally?

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