Sunday, July 29, 2012

"Why We Do What We Do"

When applied to the church at worship, this title is my humble offering for a working definition of liturgical theology.

What happens on a Sunday morning, or at many other times for that matter, makes sense. When God’s people are gathered to give praise and make commitments, there are reasons and rationales to the rites and rituals involved. There is a logic to it all—and a theo-logic as well.

Now that doesn’t mean that there is only one correct explanation for every act carried out or word spoken. If that were true, Christian worship would have stalled centuries ago and would be a museum piece now.

On the contrary, Christian worship is an activity of the Spirit in the Body of Christ, and it is living, breathing and constantly growing. There’s always something new, refreshing and surprising taking place.

At the same time, Christian worship is not an orphan discovered on the church’s doorstep. It has a history and heritage, lessons learned in the past to be rehearsed in preparing for the future.

When we worship, there’s always something new or old needing an explanation. The basic question is always, “Why do we do what we do?”

The problem with all this is simply that the question is rarely asked. Pew-sitters, assuming they actually show up to sit in the pew, are usually not interested enough to ask. Too few people pause to reflect on their worship experience, and its meaning in their lives.

Perhaps this is why so many worshippers mumble the creed into their waist-high-held order of service or whisper the words of hymns. They simply do not know what they’re doing, much less why. Their participation is without purpose, lackadaisical and even lazy.

At the same time, it has been my experience that there are always some who do care, who want to worship with understanding. Explanations are helpful to them in making their praise of God intentional and their commitments deliberate. They really want to know “why we do what we do” in worship, so that they can do it better.

I wonder how many congregations have programs that include continuing liturgical education. Not just for children, but for adults as well—maybe particularly for adults.

In most Sunday school programs, I speculate, worship education is a sometime kind of thing. Once or twice a year, perhaps. That’s strange, isn’t it, when worship is the central and formative activity of any congregation. Yet worship is so frequently allowed to be shaped, not by belief and sacred tradition, but by sentimentality and faddish novelty. Education of all ages about Christian worship, old and new, should be a core part of every congregation’s annual program.

In order to accomplish this, of course, we have to have teachers. It’s logical to turn to the theologically trained clergy and professional musicians to provide such a resource in every congregation. Reasonable as that seems, it isn’t as reliable as we’d expect.

For some reason, so many clergy I know have a low level of motivation themselves to understand “why we do what we do” on Sunday mornings. In spite of the fact that they have to preside over such events, it seems not to be a priority. Other things clamor to be first in line in the daily routine, I’m sure, so that even those responsible for the service of worship let preparation slide. Nevertheless, what’s central and fundamental in the life of the church deserves to be at the top of the professional’s agenda.

Another reason for slow reaction time on the part of professional ministers and musicians to understand “why we do what we do,” so I’m told, is that they have not been well-prepared by their seminary training. Musicians rarely get theological foundation for the music they present. Ministers get courses on liturgy and worship, but they are few and often optional. “Liturgical theology”, if it is recognized at all, is considered by seminary professors a “secondary” subject—students should learn biblical, historical, systematic theology, and what they need for worship will trickle down.

One of the forces for renewal in worship life of our churches is for the people in the pews to rise up and demand to know “why we do what we do.” Then, maybe ministers and musicians will bang urgently on the doors of seminaries, pressing for continuing education in liturgical theology. One can only hope.

If you’re a minister or musician, how comfortable are you in explaining to lay people theological background and meaning of Sunday worship? If you are a church member, what questions do you have about worship to ask your pastor/presider or musician?

Monday, July 16, 2012


What goes on in worship after the Confession of Sin? The Declaration of Forgiveness. That’s according to the Book of Common Worship (1993)(BCW)—at least that’s what it says in the order of service.

If you look at that part of the same book that lays out the “Basic Movement of the Service for the Lord’s Day,” you’ll find that it’s clear whose forgiveness is being conveyed:

"The people gather in response to God's call, offering praise in words of scripture, prayer, and song. The people acknowledge their sinfulness and receive the declaration of God's forgiveness." (Emphasis mine.)

In still another part of the BCW, “The Service for the Lord’s Day: A Description of Its Movement and Elements,” you’ll read this paragraph:

"Having confessed our sin, we remember the promises of God's redemption, and the claims God has on all human life. The assurance of God's forgiving grace is declared in the name of Jesus Christ. We accept God's forgiveness, confident that in dying to sin, God raises us to new life." (Emphases mine.)

It seems that other Christians flaunt similarly diverse terms for this act of worship: Assurance/Declaration/Affirmation of Pardon, Declaration of Divine Grace, and Absolution. I suppose there are probably more.

I bring this up, not to point out the imprecise nature of our liturgical language, but to raise the question of the liturgical role played by the person pronouncing these assurances, declarations, affirmations and absolutions.

In the liturgy of the BCW, these statements are aimed directly at the people in the pews by the speaker, presumably the pastor or presider:

"I declare to you in the name of Jesus Christ, you are forgiven."

In this, the speaker appears to carry out a priestly function. We don’t have priests, of course, but sometimes the liturgy calls upon presiders to be priest-LY, to be the communicator from God to people, and this is one of them.

The Reformation understanding of the Priesthood of Every Believer squelched any thought that any one person must be the mediator of our relationship with God. By virtue of the New Covenant, Jesus became the sole Mediator for all God’s people.

Nevertheless, the Declaration of Forgiveness runs the risk of looking like what we don’t believe in. Yes, that’s not a priest doing that, but it looks “priest-ly”. It’s a temptation to arrogance, suggesting that the pronouncer of pardon is above the sinners who need it.

So, what to do?

Looking back in history to the 1946 version of the Book of Common Worship, we find that the “Assurance of Pardon” to be said by the minister, in the first order, reads:

"Almighty God, who doth freely pardon all who repent and turn to Him, now fulfill in every contrite heart the promise of redeeming grace; remitting all our sins, and cleansing us from an evil conscience; through the perfect sacrifice of Christ Jesus our Lord."

The declaration or assurance includes the speaker! Pardon is assured for the minister as well as the people. He or she is in the same leaky boat of sin as everyone else, and personally affirms for him- herself the much-needed bailing out from God.

To be sure, one thing it would require is that the pastor/presider would have to pray the confession of sin personally and not just lead others in its recitation. If that is genuinely done, then the declaration or assurance including the speaker would be heartfelt as well.

What would happen if we pluralized those assurances and declarations of pardon and forgiveness so that the pastor/presider is one of the people? Perhaps this would narrow the lay-clergy gap in some churches. This small change would move the Declaration of Forgiveness from looking and sounding priestly to being more pastoral, less condescending and more compassionate.

Not a bad shift in tone for our liturgy.

How is the Declaration of Forgiveness conveyed to the people in your church?

Sunday, July 8, 2012

Integrated Preaching

Every once in a while I come across a Lord’s Day service in which the sermon is subjected to some kind of segregation from the rest of the liturgy.

For example, when the sermon is the only part of the service done by the preacher, it leads one to believe that it’s qualitatively different and distinct from everything else. This is probably more common where there are multiple pastors, when one preaches while the other serves as liturgist.

The distinction, made by some, that preaching is God’s Word addressed to the people, while the remainder is the people’s praise and prayers aimed God-ward, is faulty if not foolish. The entire liturgy is a dialogue between God and the people, including the sermon. The word “homiletics” comes from the Greek word, homilÄ“tikos, from the verb homilÄ“o meaning “to converse with.” Sermons are always conversations, engaging the people in the pews as they mentally offer their prayerful and thoughtful responses.

Bad enough that the sermon is treated as a solo performance, one step away from entertainment, even worse is that the congregation is tacitly invited to sit back and relax and watch the preacher preach. If the people are not working during the sermon, then it ceases to be “liturgy” (= “the work of the people”) in any realistic form.

Too often it’s forgotten that every sermon has a unique context—or, better, many contexts. Preaching does not take place in a vacuum. Sermons arise out of Scripture, and travel the journey of the Dominical Year, supported by songs and hymns and anthems and other music that awakens the soul. These, one would hope, are fairly well accepted points of integration of preaching with the rest of the liturgy. There are two others, however, that are flagrantly neglected.

First of all, when preaching is separated from the prayers of the people, as well as other major prayers of the service, the sermon is cast adrift in the sea of abstraction. How this often happens is that lay liturgists or other staff pastors will fill these responsibilities by way of freeing the preacher to preach.

Long-time pastors who know their congregations well may get away with this—for a while. Sooner or later, however, the sermon will lose its pastoral sensitivity and go stale.

Pastoral prayer and preaching are closely linked. In this regard I always think of Harry Emerson Fosdick of Riverside Church in New York, who was not only a preacher of note, but one who had the spiritual capacity to envelop others in his prayers.* A friend of mine, who worshipped at Riverside back then, told me that when Fosdick led in prayer, he had the sense that the two of them were alone in the room, so intimate and powerful was the connection—and that this personal relationship continued in the sermon.

Preachers should always lead the congregation in prayer before stepping into the pulpit. It makes for better sermons.

The other notoriously neglected liturgical connection with preaching is the Eucharist. When there is no Supper to follow, the Word has not been fully presented, and the sermon has been diminished.

There are those who think that omitting the Sacrament gives more emphasis to the proclamation of the Word. That is true, but only in the sense that more time is allotted. Actually, ending the service without the Sacrament leaves the proclamation incomplete, and the worshipper’s experience of the Word only partial.

All the more reason, then, to return to celebrating Holy Communion every week. Not only is the Sacrament diminished by infrequent observance, but the proclamation of the Word in Scripture and sermon is also undermined. When they are separated in this way, neither is fulfilling its liturgical purpose. Word and Sacrament are unbreakably theologically linked and therefore both should be constantly integrated with the liturgy of the people.

Even though, regrettably, we so often do not celebrate the Sacrament on the Lord’s Day, when it is observed it would be appropriate to have the preacher preside at the Table. This would be a reasonable visual demonstration of the linking of Word and Sacrament.

Who leads the Prayers of the People where you worship? When you have Communion, does the preacher always preside? How often do you celebrate the Eucharist? Why?


*For some outstanding examples of “pastoral prayers” (even if the language is somewhat outdated), see if you can find a copy of Fosdick’s A Book of Public Prayers, Harper and Brothers, New York 1959.