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 décor, 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?

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