Sunday, January 29, 2012

Bad Habits

There are a number of liturgical activities that were started once upon a time because someone thought they were good ideas. As it’s turned out, they’ve been recognized as not-so-good or worse, but they seem to linger on, just like bad habits. Such habitual sins are like crabgrass—almost impossible to get rid of—unless first you recognize them for what they are.

So, in the interest of improving the liturgical landscape, here is my count-down of the ten worst bad habits perpetuated in Christian worship.

No. 10. Chatter in the Sanctuary – Some folks just insist in clamoring over pews to say howdy to friends and enemies (but usually not to strangers), even as the prelude is musically urging everyone to meditate and focus. Better to confine greeting chatter to the narthex than bluster into the place of worship.

No. 9. Congregation Mumbling Unison Parts – Noisy as people like to be in the worship space when quiet is desired, they’ll perversely mumble when they’re supposed to speak out, as in Confession of Sin or Confession of Faith. Speak up, people—use full conversational voice.

No. 8. Stage Directions – There’s really no need for the worship leader to constantly tell people to stand for every hymn, or sit down for something else, or give out other vocal rubrics. Such frequent cues are little intrusions to the flow of the service, like cracks in the pavement that make the journey bumpy. Regular attenders know when to do what and will lead newcomers. Never interrupt a service for directions that could be given in the pre-service announcements.

No. 7. Scripture Introductions – Some lectors take special delight in informing the congregation what is in the up-coming text, when they’ll hear it in the text seconds later. Such introductions often skew the emphasis of the text. Let the Scripture speak for itself and the Word will be spoken more clearly.

No. 6. No Psalms – This is one of the grossest sins of omission. Once Presbyterians were called Psalm-singers; most of the time nowadays we’re not even Psalm-sayers. The richness of the Psalter, especially when chanted or sung, is part of our heritage—its neglect is a tragedy.

No. 5. Greeting of Chaos – What is supposed to be a serious exchange of spiritual blessings of peace too often collapses into a free-for-all handshaking hug-fest. It often slips into a chaotic ado that requires some attention-getting sound to get folks back to the worshipful business at hand. It’s the Peace of Christ to be shared, peacefully, reverently.

No. 4. Lack of Silence
– One of the necessary ingredients to corporate worship is quiet, absolute silence, so people can internally particularize their prayers. Leaders, clergy and musicians, are often uncomfortable, and try to paper over the silences with words or noodling on the organ. Let silences be. We need them sometimes.

No. 3. Abbreviated Hymns – “The hymn is five verses—let’s do only the first three,” someone said in hopes of moving things along. Of course they wind up eviscerating the hymn. Writers of good hymns carry their message throughout all stanzas, and expect those who sing them to run the course and get the entire meaning.

No. 2. Children’s Time or Sermon – This is one of the hardest bad habits to get rid of because so many moms and dads think their children are getting a quick dose of Christian education. This in spite of the fact that educators have seen through the moralizing cutesy displays as being poor education. Children are better educated during the church service by informed participation in the full worship service guided by their worshipping parents. Real Christian education takes place elsewhere.

No. 1. Infrequent Communion – This bad habit, born of laziness, verges on heresy. From the beginning the Lord’s Supper has been the core of Christian worship—and for most Christians still is. But Presbyterians have found it just too much trouble to set the table every Sunday. They have other excuses, of course, like “It’s too Catholic.” Or “It loses its meaning if you have it every week.” Or some other nonsense. This neglect is a bad habit that needs desperately to be reversed and turned into a good habit—it would change the church enormously.

So, the question is, how do we overcome these bad habits? Diligence and discipline—the same as one needs to break any bad habits.

Diligence means you don’t let up on calling and correcting the bad habits. The burden is on the leaders of the congregation—not just the clergy and musicians, although them for sure—but the governing board and other organization leaders as well. Everyone needs to be educated, and they should become educators of one another as well.

Discipline means that everyone is held accountable. Periodically it pays to step back and ask, “How are we doing?” Applaud when you see progress. Buckle down when you don’t.

This is my list of bad habits displayed in Christian worship—I’ll bet you’ve found some too. What are they?

Sunday, January 22, 2012

Getting Started

When I was just getting started in my calling over half a century ago, I realized that I was not very well prepared to assume responsibilities of planning and leading worship.

The education I had about worship was sketchy. Seminary supplied a few slim books to read, and practical advice on how to hold the baby for baptism, the gesture to make in pronouncing the benediction and other liturgical signals, and a copy of the current Book of Common Worship for the liturgical texts. Yes, there was reference to the Directory for Worship as well.

It wasn’t long into the course of my pastoral ministry before I realized I needed—and wanted—more. So now, from the other end of my adventures in worship, I look back and think about what I wish I’d had when I was just getting started. I understand that there may be others, even today, who would like more to get them going in the department of the ministry of Word and Sacrament.

Here are some things I wished I’d had earlier rather than later:

1. History of Christian Worship
The stress in seminary was on Reformed worship to the point that if you weren’t paying attention in other classes, you’d think Christians invented worship in the 16th century. Christian worship has its roots in the Old Testament and ancient Israel, and a long history from then to Luther and Calvin and their colleagues. All of that is our liturgical heritage too. It informs a lot of what we do in worship today. There are plenty of rich resources available today that provide this kind of education if you want it.

2. Comparative Liturgy
It’s also informative to share in worship with other, different brands of Christians. Go to worship with Roman Catholics, Episcopalians, Orthodox, Lutherans, Pentecostals, Baptists, and others. Visit a synagogue too. And when you go to worship with people of a different tradition, worship—don’t just sit there—follow their tradition. Speak with their clergy about the worship, what it means, why they do whatever they do. Write a paper about where they differ from our brand, and why.

3. A Worship Manual
Early in one’s ministry it’s a good idea to sit down with musicians and other worship leaders in the congregation and prepare a manual on worship in your church—the theology behind what you do. You will find out whether or not you have a logical and theological structure. You will discover what is important and what is less so—maybe even what is trivial. Pass it around for comments and editing by others. Then publish it for the edification of all.

4. Music
Form a bond with the musicians in your church, professional church musicians and others. Get them to teach you about good music and how to recognize it. Not just church music—all good music. Learn to tell the good from the mediocre. Then apply what you learn to church music. God deserves the best music, not the so-so. Have your choir director play through the music library with you so you can hear what it has to offer, and do some sorting. Ask your church musicians to spend time with you “playing through the hymnal”, a hymn at a time—what makes a hymn good, what is the theology there, when should we sing it? Even if you are not a musician, become a knowledgeable critic by listening and learning.

5. The Psalter
Discover the beauty of singing the Psalms in worship. It is a highly neglected part of our tradition, and desperately needs resurrection. The range of emotions in the Psalms makes them powerful components of a service of worship. Yet they can come out flat if they are only read. The “responsive reading” style is better than no Psalms at all, but only marginally. Even congregations can learn to read pointed texts and sing with gusto—if they are led kindly and enthusiastically. There was a time when Presbyterians were accused of being “Psalm-singers”—if only that were true now.

6. Daily Prayer
Fifty years ago the daily lectionary that was available was often assumed to be for the pastor’s devotions. Booklets of meditations were published for the private prayers of lay people. We have rediscovered, however, that worship outside of Sunday is still a corporate matter—“common” prayer means what we do in common with other people. Daily prayer also has its long and wondrous history worthy of discovery and study. The Psalter is at the heart of daily prayer, and makes a strong connection with Lord’s Day worship. Family gatherings, prayer groups, church meetings, and a host of other occasions make the use of the daily prayer pattern logical.

It took me a while to pull all these things together in my calling. I wish I’d started first thing. Maybe you have. Maybe you’ve found other important lessons to be learned when you were just getting started. It’d be great if you’d share them.

Sunday, January 15, 2012


I was talking with a couple over lunch at a day-long event held at a local monastery of the Orthodox Church of America. We were discussing the paths we’d travelled that led us to an interest in the Eastern Orthodox experience of worship.

This couple had travelled some distance across several state lines to reach the monastery for this event, and had come a long way on their common spiritual journey as well. As I recall, they had started out as Presbyterians, growing up as such, but as adults moved to become Lutherans; next stop was the Episcopal Church, and from there to Roman Catholicism; finally, at long last, they found their home in the Orthodox Church of America.

“What was it you were looking for,” I asked, “that you found in the liturgy of the Orthodox Church?”

“We can answer that in one word,” the man said, and his wife chimed in, “Transcendence.”

It was the beginning of a long conversation to explore the landscape of that word. Transcendence has to do with apprehending reality beyond what we can grasp and see. In worship, we look for the presence of God in the risen Christ and the movement of the Spirit.

I understood what they were saying, for I also have found that experience of “transcendence” in Orthodox worship. Yet I’ve found that it’s also possible to experience transcendence in Presbyterian worship, even if sometimes we make it difficult to do so.

I pondered for a long time the sequence of denominational traditions my friends had followed: Presbyterian to Lutheran to Episcopal to Roman Catholic and finally to Orthodox. So what changes from one to the other that leads to a greater experience of “transcendence”, a greater perception of the real presence of the Divine in our midst?

Here’s a sweeping generalization: The change from one to the next that opens the doors to “transcendence” comes from heightened expectation.

Presbyterians, generally speaking, have low expectations about what’s going to take place in worship. The idea that they will have a significant encounter with God in the proclamation of the Word is a fleeting notion. That the Living Lord will become a part of them in the Eucharist is for many beyond comprehension. Not expecting much in the way of transcendence, Presbyterians don’t experience much.

Folks haul themselves to church on a Sunday morning more to stay in touch with friends than to be touched by God. The earthly relationships are more urgent than the transcendent one. They expect and look forward to the one, while the other doesn’t get much of a thought.

Too many come to church without any notion that they might be touched by God and become very different people on the way out than they were when they came in. Change is not on their personal church-going agenda. Not only do many not expect such an encounter, there are those who don’t want it.

The same is true for leaders and planners of worship. For them the questions are, Do we expect to encounter God in the process of selecting hymns, rehearsing the choral pieces, writing prayers, crafting sermons, setting the décor, printing the order of service, etc.? Is all this just dull routine work, or is it exciting for what it offers to us who are doing it? How seriously do we consider that what we are preparing is really making way for God to be present? Is the worship order merely an agenda of items to be checked off? Are the anthems merely performances? Is the sermon only a religious essay?

If what is anticipated in the worship service is a personal and corporate meeting with the Risen Lord, then a bit of “fear and trembling” is in order. This is not a casual event, and yet it is so often treated casually in a folksy manner, and planning and preparation is too often incidental and even fluky.

Climbing up the rungs in the denominational ladder, you’ll find that the Lutherans, Episcopalians, Roman Catholics and Orthodox take this transcendence business more seriously that most Presbyterians do. Perhaps they express more clearly that it is God who is the object of worship, and that standing in God’s presence in worship requires reverence. Quiet humility is the worshipper’s approach; gratitude and praise is the joyous response. The reverent and dignified view of worship tends to encourage expectations of God’s present and saving grace.

What is more, we should be excited about the possibilities for ourselves and for everyone who comes to worship with us, the possibilities of this radical grace touching lives, hope for new life, love chasing out bitterness.

Then, perhaps, everyone would come to church with the same kind of anticipation of transcendence, expecting to be in touch with God, to be touched at the depths by the Spirit, and to be sent into the world to follow a living Lord.

How do you anticipate encountering God in worship?

Sunday, January 8, 2012

Worship Lite

The following is an advertisement for worship services with indisputable and universal appeal.

Join us any Sunday you happen to feel like it.(1) We have services that are calculated to make you feel good and send you forth with a smile on your lips and a cozy feeling in your heart.(2)
Gather with others who look and dress like you do,(3) to give personal thanks for the success you enjoy(4) and rejoice in the prospects of more of the same and even better.(5)
Listen to swinging music sung by attractive choristers(6) broadcast on surround-sound and watch it all in state-of-the-art videos on television screens on each wall.(7)
Hear inspiration conveyed with humor and jocularity by a congenial and heartily friendly fellow.(8) We only use a snippet of Scripture and almost never have Communion, so the service is guaranteed to end in time for you to make it home before the football/baseball/basketball/hockey game.(9)
Nothing is required of you to belong to our fellowship.(10) As the saying goes, “See you in church…maybe.”

1. One of the biggest problems for the church of Jesus Christ today is that it has become the “church of convenience.” Roman Catholics benefit from a more efficient form of intimidation than Protestants—it’s too easy for us to beg off attending. It’s not the atheists and agnostics that are the issue here—it’s the self-proclaimed followers of Jesus who just sleep in. What is missing is any sense of discipline among too many Christians.
2. Feel-good worship is running rampant on the religious scene these days. It crowds out any prophetic challenge or call to discipleship. It’s very difficult to view the suffering of others as a summons to sacrificial action. A gospel that is only good news of comfort and not Good News of empowerment from God is plainly not The Gospel.
3. The church is an exclusive gathering, in one sense, but in one sense only—that God has called the People of God to be God’s own representatives in the world. Otherwise, the church is to be inclusive, welcoming, hospitable, embracing people of all colors and socio-economic backgrounds. Shame on us when we aren’t.
4. Whatever else you do, don’t forget to confess and await the awareness that you haven’t earned or likely deserved anything you claim as yours. Sorry, it’s all God’s—you have it all on loan. A great deal hangs on whether God has made a good investment in you or not.
5. The future does not come with any absolute guarantees. But, with God, there is Hope—not the same as wishful thinking. The trick is learning to live keeping your eye on God’s promises.
6. Deliver us, O Lord, from the entertainers—and their totally forgettable music. Let’s sing the Psalter and the Hymnal and create new songs with tunes that stay with us and carry theology of God’s grace and glory. And let’s all sing—even if we don’t sing so well, only a “joyful noise” is required.
7. Just because we have the technology doesn’t mean we have to use it. Let’s share the worship space with each other, and stay alert for the presence of our Lord who promises to be in our midst. Cut out the techy distractions.
8. The hail-fellow-well-met (or the hail-lady-well-met) can be the biggest obstacle to communicating the Gospel. Never will the comfortable be afflicted by such, and the afflicted probably won’t hang around to listen. What’s needed is authenticity and enthusiasm (from the Greek éntheos meaning “having God within”).
9. When there’s minimal use of Scripture and rare Eucharist, worship is eviscerated. Furthermore, putting the clock on the worship of God is the surest way of making it a production or something other than worship. Worship of God happens on God’s clock, in God’s own time, quite beyond our calculation—eternal time, sometimes called kairos.
10. What agent of the devil convinced so many people that being Christian in this world is easy and has no demands or requirements? Not only do we make commitments to follow God’s directions, but also commitments to support the rest of the people in the church, those next to us in the pews and those around the world, as they try to follow God’s directions.

I like to think this advertisement is pure fiction, but I know that one or more parts are tempting at least in some situations. Like most advertisements, this one won’t deliver all that it promises anyway. As it turns out, “Worship Lite” is far from the Real Thing.

What parts of the above advertisement have you encountered in churches you’ve visited? In your own church? What would you do to “beef up” worship in those instances?