Sunday, June 26, 2011

"Sensible" Worship - Now Hear This

This is the second installment in a series on worship that is sensible, which, according to the dictionary means “perceptible to the senses or to reason or understanding.” When applied to worship, both meanings work.

Not only should worship make sense, be logical in order to be theological, it is also sensible in the other meaning: “perceptible to the senses.”


When we enter the place of worship, assuming no audial disability to the contrary, our sense of hearing is alert and in play, and what and how we hear is of great importance.

The primary audial impact on worship comes in the form of music. Nothing establishes or maintains the quality of worship more than the instrumental and vocal music. It is not an overstatement to suggest that the one directing the music in a given service, organist and/or choir director, is “presiding” when music is sounding.

There’s nothing like music to set the mood for any occasion, and it’s as true as can be for a service of worship. The prelude communicates at an emotional level, sometimes very subtly, but it always establishes the tone for the service. What people hear on first entering the worship space has a considerable effect on how they embrace what is to come.

All the more reason for leaders and planners to give a close listen to “praise music” so often used as a preamble to worship. Thin theological content and simplistic tune of music in this category do not compare to the content and memorable melodies of hymns of the church which have stood the test of time. If a “sing-along” prelude is required, rehearsing new hymns works much better.

A major purpose of the instrumental and vocal music presented by organist, other instrumentalists and choir, is to support the music created by the congregation. There have been those times, however, when I’ve known organists to get carried away with the power of their instruments and overwhelm the people in the pews. Bands with drums can be just as aurally dominating. The folks in the congregation ought to be able to hear their own voices singing, and those of their immediate neighbors, at the very least. Best of all, they should be conscious of being parts of a singing assembly.

The matter of electronic amplification systems prompts a similar concern. Folks in the pews have a wide range of hearing ability, and care should be given to keep tone and volume within acceptable ranges. Those who have difficulty hearing should be provided with special seating or some electronic system to reinforce spoken and musical sound.

Many of our churches, especially the older ones, were designed and built in the days before electronic amplification was a possibility. It was expected, for example, that the preacher would bellow sufficiently to be heard by everyone. The architecture of the room was shaped to accentuate the volume. I have preached in a number of churches where someone failed to flip on the PA system, or it crackled and was turned off, and I felt relieved that I didn’t have to adjust myself to the amplifier, but could give the sermon in full voice. If you’re ever in Boston, make a visit to the Trinity Episcopal Church on Copley Square—the great preacher Phillips Brooks held forth there without benefit of microphone, and, according to church records, was heard by those standing out on the front steps. Difficult to imagine, but it was done. It can still be done in many places.

Worship services come with other unintended sounds: the rustle of people settling in their places, whispered conversations, the fidgeting of children, the crinkling of worship aids, and so forth. They may be unintended, but they are unavoidable, and are accepted and recognized as signs of the gathering of God’s people.

What is important for you to hear in worship? Does your church have a PA system that enhances and supports sound? Do you ever worship without electronic sound enhancement?

Sunday, June 19, 2011

"Sensible" Worship--a Sight to See

It’s a delightfully ambiguous word: Sensible. The dictionary suggests it means “perceptible to the senses or to reason or understanding.” When applied to worship, both meanings work.

It’s always a good idea for what we do in worship to make sense, otherwise it’s hard to explain and interpret. It has to be logical in order to be theological. There’s nothing worse than theology that is made up of nonsense. For worship to have integrity, there must be a thoughtful as well as prayerful foundation to its planning and experience. That’s “sensible” worship that is “perceptible to reason or understanding.”

We should not forget, however, the other meaning of “sensible”: “perceptible to the senses.”

When we walk in to the place of worship, assuming no disability to the contrary, all five of our senses are alert and in play. The range of perception is impressive, to say the least. Consider what one might sensibly experience at worship that is of major importance.

This week, let’s confer with one another about worship’s “sight to see”— coming up next, the other four senses.


The primary visual image a worshipper confronts on entering the worship space is architectural. The design of the room should bring almost immediate focus on the central furniture, font, pulpit and table. So it is that even when no sacrament is celebrated, the font should be filled (or flowing), the table should be set with chalice and plate, and the pulpit should be supporting an open Bible. The essential ingredients of worship are visually front and center.

Color, of course, is critical to communicating season, and also mood. The liturgical colors are codes for places in the Year of the Lord calendar, but other colors of room d├ęcor, banners, windows, carpets, art work, graphics on the worship aid, not to mention vestments of clergy and choir, all contribute to the visual sense of the particular worship experience.

It is in vogue these days to have audiovisual equipment in the worship room. While it seems to be au currant (that’s French for cool) to have a bank of electronic controls and projectors among the pews and screens confronting the people, it is easy to see how these can get in the way. Screens should not be obvious when not in use—and they don’t need to be used throughout an entire service. Display of monitoring or other equipment in view of worshippers as they enter approaches dangerously near the sin of pride.

Lighting, as well, has considerable impact on worship. Natural light through windows (stained or clear glass) can be countered or enhanced by artificial light. Candles provide soft even symbolic light for the worship setting. Always an issue is sufficient light for worshippers to read by. Changes in lighting at different points in the service can be helpful or a hindrance to corporate devotion.

Movement during the service, procession and exit of choir and clergy for example, are visual messages catching the worshipper’s attention. The lector going to read Scripture, the pastor climbing into the pulpit, collection and presentation of the offering, the entrance of the Communion elements and the presider setting them on the Table, the serving of the people and their processing to the Table, the blessing and benediction—all are significant movements to be observed.

There are many more meaningful sights to see—expressions on the faces of clergy and choir, faces of other worshippers, people standing and sitting and kneeling, gestures such as the sign of the cross, and liturgical movement or dance.

All of these, and many more, visual images conspire to provide the setting for worship, and need to have the thoughtful attention of those planning the liturgy and preparing the space. Before a word is said, worship begins with the sight we see as we are summoned and gathered as God’s own people.

How is your sanctuary arranged? Is the furniture for “Word and Sacrament” –both sacraments—visible as the focal center of the room? How about art or banners—are they well done and well cared for? What is most important visibly in your place of worship?

Monday, June 13, 2011


It was the Third Sunday of Easter that I was scheduled to be the “guest preacher” filling in for a vacationing friend. I knew well that the Gospel for that day would be about the experience of the two disciples on their way to Emmaus, and I looked forward to developing yet another sermon on that wondrous story.

All of a sudden I had the chilling recollection that at the church where I’d be preaching this Emmaus-based sermon Communion was celebrated only on the first Sunday of every month—and this would be the second Sunday—so no Eucharist that day. Uh-oh! That’s going to be a problem.

How could I preach a sermon about an event that was so obviously related to the Sacrament of the Lord’s Supper without celebrating it? Some scholars even suggest that the language of the biblical text has some liturgical flavor to it, and may have reflected early Christian practice of the sacrament. So how could there be a sermon about the Emmaus event without communion?

To put it another way, When the Gospel is about Christ being recognized in the breaking of bread, how could we not have Communion?

I fussed about it for a while, and then picked up the phone to call the pastor for whom I was substituting that day. He and I have long agreed about weekly communion, and have been equally frustrated in not convincing elders, so he was more than amenable to my suggestion. “Put your request and the reasons in an email to me,” he suggested, “and I’ll send it to my Worship Committee chair. They’ll take care of it.” I did, he did, and they did. Communion was served on the Third Sunday in Easter, and the connection was made between the Gospel story and the sacrament.

It caused me to think back on the times I’ve preached on “Communion Sundays” and the text was not so obviously related to the sacrament. Even so, there always was a connection, and I’d point to it somewhere in the course of the sermon. The proclamation of the Gospel is not simply in the reading and exposition of Scripture, but also takes place in the rituals of the Lord’s Supper (and Baptism, too, but that’s another discussion). Word and Sacrament are simply two different ways of presenting, proclaiming, announcing and declaring the presence of the risen Lord in our midst, one in words, the other in actions.

The connection was easy to see on those Sundays designated for celebrating the Lord’s Supper, but the truth be known, it is also there on every Lord’s Day, no matter what the text or topic. The reason is that the Gospel proclamation is always that Christ Crucified is Christ Risen, and we are invited to meet him at the Table he has set for us.

When I was fussing in my own thoughts about what to do if the folks at the church where I would guest-preach refused to have Communion, I conspired with myself to shape the sermon to show how empty worship is without it. I’d make is clear that, at least on this occasion, not coming to the Table was a huge mistake.

Perhaps that’s what we should be doing every Sunday—making the connection between Word and Sacrament, even when there is nothing there to connect with. Maybe then the people in the pews would wake up to the fact that something critical is missing, that we are shutting down the worship service before we’ve finished worshipping.

Certainly when the Eucharist is scheduled, the preacher ought to use at least a paragraph’s worth of words to link up biblical text with sacramental experience, what is said with what is done.

How often does your church celebrate Communion? Is the sacrament referenced in the sermon? Is the Lord’s Supper ever interpreted in the course of a sermon?

Sunday, June 5, 2011

Explaining Worship

One thing we don’t get around to very often, or at least not often enough, is explaining worship. Why we do what we do on a Sunday morning—not to mention various other times and occasions of the week—is a sorely neglected activity.

For the most part, leaders and planners of worship follow the usual pattern and forms without much scrutiny or analysis to determine whether they are appropriate or not.

One of the key criteria in understanding Christian worship is logic. “Does what we are doing make sense—is it logical?” When we ask that question, we usually get shoved on to the next question, “Is what we are doing connect us with God—is it theological?”

For example, is it a good idea to have the greeting of peace immediately preceding the prayer of confession? It would surely be more logical to be forgiven one’s own sin and be at some peace with oneself before sharing the kiss, embrace or handshake of peace with a neighbor.

Applying such logic leads almost instantly into theological considerations, “What is God doing in the encounter with us in the prayer of confession? What’s the Spirit up to in the greeting of peace?” Thus we begin to craft our liturgical theology.

But this doesn’t just pop off the top of our heads. To explain worship logically and theologically requires some background. Since the church did not begin yesterday but has roots going back millennia in history, and cherished traditions in various cultures, we are not liturgical orphans. On the contrary, we have vital and vibrant resources to draw upon, but only if we are aware of what they are.

Worship leaders and planners, clergy, musicians, and anyone else responsible for the conduct of worship in the congregation, have the responsibility to be knowledgeable about the history and traditions of worship. In addition to their own tradition, they should have at least an acquaintance with that of their neighbors.

This, of course, is easy to say, and much more difficult to accomplish. Some real commitments need to be made, most of all by the officers and people of the congregation. Without their support not much will happen. With their encouragement, perhaps even insistence, clergy and musicians will find the time and learning opportunities. Probably most important of all, is the congregation’s financial commitment to see that such continuing education is possible.

Nevertheless, we launch out into the venture of explaining worship even as we begin to learn more about liturgical history and traditions. The two efforts go hand-in-hand forever.

How does explaining worship take place? Numerous possibilities present themselves, and probably all of them should be put into practice at once. Here are but a few possibilities.

Note in the Worship Aid (Bulletin) - Each week, a “program note” might be included about a particular act of worship, hymn, prayer, anthem, gesture, art work, furniture arrangement, etc. Why it is the way it is and what we learn theologically from it.

Children’s Message - This is a great opportunity to highlight some part of the service for younger worshippers and teach everybody at the same time. Pointing ahead to something that will take place or appear later in the service will heighten the children’s interest.

Adult Education - The pastor should probably do at least one adult class or seminar or workshop each year in Christian liturgy in general and how it’s lived out in the particular congregation. Musicians, similarly, should hold at least one all-church event each year interpreting and teaching hymns, Psalms, anthems, chants, etc.

Church School - Somewhere in the curriculum there ought to be education for children about the Christian Year, the seasons and special days that are observed as the church rehearses the life and ministry of Jesus Christ. Inherent in such a program is education about the church’s worship.

Session or Governing Board - The people who have control of the church’s activities and money are a prime target for liturgical education. As stated above, a serious commitment is necessary by these folks in order to make such education happen at all.

Choir - Not only the church musicians, but the clergy as well, should spend time with the choir on a regular basis, having conversations about the dynamics of worship and their various contributions to the corporate worship of the people of God.

What other ways are there to explain worship, logically and theologically?