Sunday, March 6, 2011

No Shortcuts

One of my seminary professors used to challenge us regularly with an admonition to the effect that we ought to spend as much or more time and energy in writing our prayers addressed to God as we do preparing a sermon addressed to mere humans.

At the time, I thought that made eminent good sense and was worthy of sincere effort. When in the throes of being a pastor, however, before long I was looking for shortcuts.

Even using the Book of Common Worship (1993), or other printed resources, and doing it exclusively, without adapting them or rewriting to fit the immediate situation, can prevent growth in one’s own liturgical development.

It’s a slippery slope, for it is oh so easy to make a habit of cutting corners. It can even become an addiction.

Pastors are busy people, if they are any good at what they do. For openers, pastors are “ministers of Word and Sacrament.” This means that their two major responsibilities are proclaiming the Word (by which we usually mean study and preparation for preaching) and administering the sacraments (in which we usually include planning and preparation for worship in all its expressions).

Pastors, however get other assignments as well. Parishioners do not always see “Word and Sacrament” as primary, and foist off on the pastor many other tasks and responsibilities that do not require a seminary education. A friend of mine said that many church members view the pastor as their “spiritual concierge.” I remember, for example, getting a phone call one evening from a church member seeking the phone number of another member. As I reached for my directory, I asked the caller if she needed one, to which she replied, “Oh, no, I have one, but it’s downstairs and I thought you’d know the number.”

So the first thing pastors need to do is make it clear as plate glass that liturgical responsibilities are at the top of their list. Lots of tasks are put on the pastors list that anyone else could (and should) do. Such chores just steal from preparation for worship, and make shortcuts all the more tempting.

Musicians who work in our churches are also busy people. Often they are primarily employed elsewhere with other demands on their time. So there may also be pressures applied to musicians to do things the easy way.

Pastors and musicians, in this regard are in the same boat. So, in order to avoid being seduced by shortcuts, high on the list of “To Do” items should be time for pastor and musician to meet each week.

Here’s a quick list for their joint agenda:

1. The Christian Year. Constant reference to the progress of the church year is important, especially as the Gospel of Jesus Christ is revealed through the days and seasons. Where the coming Sunday stands in that annual progression is worthy of note.

2. The Scripture. Reading together the lectionary texts is a good preamble to planning for worship—not only for the next Sunday, but previous ones and especially those coming up next.

3. Themes. Seasonal themes and those that surface in the Scripture are identified. It’s helpful to note those to be celebrated this week and in the next weeks.

4. Music. The meeting should move to the piano or organ, so pastor and musician can sample potential hymns, service music, and anthems that amplify themes and messages of the Scripture.

5. The Order. Finally, the pastor and musician should talk through the order of service, looking at the flow of the service, the integrity of music and message.

Always pastor and musician must be aware that every worship service is unique. Each week the world changes, parishioners present last week are absent, and vice versa, and they have changed in conviction or circumstance. One-size-fits-all liturgy does not work. Yet that’s the most common shortcut taken—exclusively using printed prayer texts, for example, written by someone else in a different time and place for a different assembly of people.

That brings me back to my seminary professor’s challenge—to create the liturgy anew, and afresh, each week, for this congregation in this time and place. Praising God demands the very best of us, our best sermon, our most beautiful music, our most authentic liturgy. Please, no shortcuts.

How do your church musician and pastor plan for Sunday worship? Are others involved in planning with them? What other matters should they be worrying about?


  1. It sounds like you were hiding in the closet during last week's choir rehearsal.
    I finished rehearsing the first two anthems for Lent and one of the members mentioned that we should sing something more "upbeat." I reminded the choir that as minister of music-- not just the organist/choir director-- I don't work in a vacuum, that the pastor and I meet regularly to go over the elements of the service, the music selections, the lectionary. "Upbeat" doesn't really fit the season of Lent.
    Yes, there are times I'd like to take one of those shortcuts, because it can sometimes seem (after 35 years) like a chore; but that's what I've chosen to do.

  2. I believe good liturgy is a balance between the framework which repeats or has flow, such as the movement from gathering to the Word to thanksgiving to sending and that which is fresh and new. I'm intrigued by the concept of "shortcuts," because some repetition in responses and even prayers become resources upon which those who are gathered can draw. For example, I think of some Psalm responses, like "God is our refuge, God is our strength." And yet as you say, each worship service presents an opportunity to worship the One who makes all things new, even us, even our diligent preparation and sometimes our fumbling.

    It is critical that the church musician and pastor meet regularly to plan the liturgy and music- and that they work well together- we do so, even though we are both very part time. When the musician and pastor have a similar vision and deep commitment for serving the church, then their work becomes more like a transparent lens and the service points to worship of God.


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