Monday, March 21, 2011

What We Do, and Why

One of the more important responsibilities of the “resident liturgical theologian” (a.k.a. the pastor) in any congregation is to teach the people about Christian worship. Of course, it goes without saying that the pastor will have done some liturgical learning in advance—well, actually, that needs to be said, and I just did.

There are a variety of ways of accomplishing this: adult classes, retreats, newsletter articles, sermons, discussions by the session, deacons and other church groups, special programs around special days and seasons, and more. All these efforts need to be pursued persistently.

A more foundational means of bringing a congregation up to speed about worship is the creation of what some churches have called “A Guide to the Worship Service.”

This is usually done by a group, or several groups of people—the more groups the better. The first group in line would be the congregation’s “worship committee.” This would include representative elders, deacons, musicians, and church members at large, along with the clergy.

The first task is for the worship committee to take the current order of service from a Sunday bulletin when the Lord’s Supper is included—better yet, when Baptism is also included. From that order the various headings are listed, omitting details like specific hymns and Scripture readings. All that’s needed is the bare bones. If there are headings for sections or segments of the service, those should be included as well.

Don’t reach yet for the Book of Common Worship (1993), or The Companion to the Book of Common Worship. You’ll want to look at them later, but there’s hard work to do first.

With the list of worship acts before you, the idea is to state briefly, for the benefit of strangers, what is being done and why in each instance.

What, for example, is the “Call to Worship”? Where does it come from? Why do we do it? Why at that point in the service?

What comes next? If it’s a hymn, what kind of hymn? If a prayer, then who is praying it and why?

And on down the list.

One thing you will note during this initial process is whether your service has a smooth flow, or, perhaps there are bumps. It gets bumpy when there is no rationale for the sequence. Worship has to make sense. If it doesn’t, then it’s not likely to be meaningful to the worshippers. Thoughtless liturgy breeds blind rote.

Once this first draft is completed by the worship committee, it should be a travelling road show. Committee representatives can present it for discussion by the session, board of deacons, choir, women’s group, men’s group, adult, youth and children classes, and anyone else that would sit still for it. Each time there may be changes, or at least suggestions.

Now it’s time for the worship committee to take it back, and compare it with those two reference books mentioned above. Where does your order vary from the orders in the Book of Common Worship? How do you explain the variations? What changes might you want to make in your draft? What suggestions have you gotten from the different groups that prompt you to modify your draft?

Now you finish your “Guide to the Worship Service,” or whatever you choose to call it, and have it printed for distribution. This piece will be a 5 ½ by 8 ½ bulletin-sized folder with brief “program notes” to give worshippers information about what they’re doing. While ostensibly aimed at new folks coming to church, it should be informative to the old timers as well.

As a way of thanking everyone who had a hand in it, take copies of the Guide to all the groups, and some member of the committee can walk them through it.

Obviously, throughout this whole process, the pastor is going to be the motivator and resource person. So he or she will have some homework to do before and during the development of the guide—and, one would hope, afterward as well.

Because the next project to be taken on is to do much the same thing, though on a larger scale. Now it’s not simply a “guide” but a “manual”—a theologically articulate explanation of the congregation’s worship, complete with some history and background. This process lends itself to the study of various aspects of worship, starting with the Sacraments, place of the Bible, preaching, prayer, praise, music, hymnody, and so forth, each one worthy of a class or series.

In the church I served, the process of doing both the Guide and the Manual was a rich one, for me as well as for those who participated in it. We didn’t get the broad participation of church groups I had hoped for, but both were useful documents for years afterward.

Does your church have a “guide to the worship service,” or a “manual of Christian worship?”

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