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?


  1. Really? Are you this uptight about the way your congregation worships and engages each other? While I would agree that order and consistency are key in worship services, to bemoan many of the details you cite makes me wonder if you're not concerning yourself a little too much over the wrong things... I think you've said before something to the effect of "let the people worship" or "don't get so hung up on the rules that you forget what you're actually doing". I paraphrase, but I've sensed that feeling more than once. We Christians are already often held as being uptight and methodical in our worship. I don't expect a free-for-all, but I also don't expect the clergy to frustrate over such trivial details. Lighten up!

  2. Thanks, Anonymous, for the candor of your comment. Your point is noted, and, in fact helps underscore my point which I made in an earlier post titled “Worship Lite”. We agree that “order and consistency are key in worship services”, as you said. We also both don’t like “free-for-alls”. You quote me, but somewhat out of context, as I affirm that worship is the people’s work and we need to help them be about it, not do it for them. I also have said that rules or rubrics can become tyrannical. Yet at the same time we need to remember that we, the worshippers, much less the planners and leaders of worship, do not determine the terms on which worship takes place. It is not our idea to do this, but God’s. God summons us to gather as the People of God in the power of the Spirit to present ourselves as disciples of the risen Christ. Worship is, therefore, expected to be appropriate to the One to whom it is directed. So it is rooted in Scripture and history, and built on centuries of growth and expression of faith in the worshipping community. We are not free to make it up willy-nilly on our own, in any old or new style pleasing to us. To do that is to indulge ourselves, and, yes, perhaps we “lighten up”, but what we have is so light it’s not much more than faithless fluff.
    Thanks again, Anonymous for sharing your thoughts, and continuing the conversation. It’s an important one to keep having.


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