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.

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