Sunday, December 4, 2011

God's People at Work = Liturgy

The man came up to me on his way out of church after the service and said, “I didn’t like that thing you made us do this morning!”

I had no idea what he was talking about. “What thing was that?” I asked.

“You know,” he grumped, “that series of prayers when we had to think of all kinds of people and make commitments to help them. That was a lot of work.”

The man had experienced the true meaning of “liturgy”—the work of the people.

My wife says that “liturgy” is a scary word, by which she means that the use of the word tends to turn people off. It sounds technical and scholarly and foreboding to the ordinary people in the congregation on a Sunday morning. Maybe, she says, we need to learn what it really means and use it correctly.

For many clergy and musicians and worship planners, liturgy equals all the words and notes that are assembled to create a worship service. There are prayers and songs and instrumental music and sermons and more prayers, silent and spoken, and creeds and Scripture readings, and so forth—and all these pieces are put together to shape what the people do when they worship God.

Sometimes, however, ministers and musicians focus only on those visible parts of worship: the words, music and rubrics (instructions printed in red in the worship books). But the real “work of the people” takes place elsewhere. The grumpy man who spoke to me had it right—liturgy happens in the hearts and minds of the people in the pews.

The liturgy is not simply in the words spoken by leaders and said or sung aloud by the people, but maybe especially in the thoughts and feelings expressed silently by each person. The work the people do is more than what happens outside—it is also what they experience internally.

Consider this:

When they enter the room, worshippers are conscious of this being a special place. The architecture, arrangement of the furniture, décor, sounds of people chatting and music playing, the smells of flowers and candles, symbols and colors, and so forth—all contribute to establishing a climate in which the people will do their work.

The Prayer of Confession, for example, is usually a broad, generic prayer that will be filled with personal meaning by each individual. Even while speaking aloud, the people are thinking what those words mean for them, and perhaps feeling emotions of regret or release.

As hymns and songs of praise are lifted up by the congregation, strong memories are evoked of previous experiences and growth in faith. The lyrics and tunes being sung give expression to deeply felt convictions otherwise silently held.

The words of Scripture bring forth an encounter with the Word Jesus Christ. Listening to these words is not to be a passive experience. Worshippers bring their own thoughts and current emotions to engage with the biblical text in a conversational way. They listen, and if they hear, they respond in their minds and hearts.

This conversation continues in the proclamation of the Word in the sermon. There are those who consider preaching a one-way communication, a prophetic utterance that does not require, doesn’t even want a response. On rare occasions this may be true. Yet the proclamation by pastor to people is clearly conversational. Obviously, the people’s response is silent and internal. They agree with this point, challenge that one, and find a full range of emotions stirred up along the way.

It’s an interesting experience, to say the least, for a preacher to have a “back-talk” session with pew-sitters after the service—certainly worth doing every once in a while. This gives the preacher some reality check of what his partners in the sermon-conversation are thinking and feeling while he or she is holding forth from the pulpit.

The Eucharist presents other opportunities for the people to do their work. This too is not a passive exercise of receiving. Taking the bit of bread and sip of wine the worshippers in various ways are making a commitment, and in the silence of their hearts are expressing dedication to discipleship. They will be thinking about what this commitment means specifically in their lives, in the life of the church.

The Sending reminds people that their worship and service to God does not end when they leave the building, but continues through life. They will depart with their own thoughts about how they will accomplish that and the feelings of excitement and anxiety that may be with them. Their liturgical work, interior and exterior, will continue.

Everything that takes place in the Sunday service is matched by what is going on inside each worshipper, thoughts and feelings silently registered internally. This is the true liturgy, the true work of the people.

It is vitally important, then, for those who plan and lead worship to be aware of what the people are doing, what the visible and audible elements of the service are prompting and provoking in them.

How do you worship “with head and heart”? Do you ever give the preacher meaningful feedback on the sermon?

1 comment:

  1. I find your post particularly timely. An elderly retired clergyman and his wife have been worshipping with us. He remarked to one of our members that he's more accustomed to low church, not high church (which is how he was describing our worship service). Though he and I share the same denomination, I believe he comes from an era when Presbyterians relied heavily upon the clergy to voice most of the liturgy. I think liturgy that takes seriously the work of people by increasing their participation is more egalitarian. I also believe it models more fully that God is the audience and that all of us are worshipping the Holy One together.


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