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?

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