Sunday, August 26, 2012

Why People Go to Worship

The question came up in a recent conversation, as so many pertinent questions often do. Why do people go to worship? Why do they really go to worship?

There is a plethora of answers, probably almost as many as there are people who show up in the pews on a Sunday morning. Everyone has an agenda of some sort that they bring with them, or an agenda that prompts them to attend church.

I know for a fact, that there are those who go just to be with people they know and like. They jump at the opportunity to be with folks who share their values, not to mention their opinions and biases. For them, it’s a good place to be. There may be other attractions, but this one seems to dominate in their thinking.

Others don’t go the church as “church” in the usual sense, but to a particular church. In a way, this is an extension of the previous category, just more precise and calculated. For instance, there was a woman who informed me that she and her family were transferring their membership to another church because that’s where her husband’s boss belonged. Enough said.

Still others go to Sunday worship to be entertained. They wouldn’t use that word, of course, but that’s what it boils down to. A good choir and musicians providing stirring music, a preacher orating inspiring sermons, along with a lovely setting, conspire to present a theatrical experience which they like.

There are still some who go to church services in order to “feel good”. Comfort is what they seek, confirmation that they are doing okay and God is happy with them. Any challenging word breaks the mood and is difficult to appropriate.

The list may be lengthened as you wish, but there is one group of people, maybe even including a few of those mentioned above, who deep inside have a different answer to the question of why go to worship. They go with an expectation of another kind of experience.

First of all, people go to worship because they expect to meet God there.

God is not confined, of course, to the churches’ worship spaces, nor limited to Sunday mornings. God can be, and often is, encountered in the unlikeliest of places at the most unusual times. Nevertheless, when the community of faith is summoned and gathered for the announced purpose of encountering their God, it is reasonable that the people will expect it to happen.

The other side of this is the assumption that the worshipper will be changed by the encounter. The person who leaves worship will not be the same as the one who entered. Transformation, major or minor, can and should be anticipated by all.

This attitude of expectancy makes a great difference in how people experience the liturgy, and what their participation in it means.

For example, the Confession, acknowledgement of sin and acceptance of God’s forgiveness, becomes a rite of release. The baggage of guilt and shame that people often drag around, that also drags them down, is removed. In God’s forgiveness, they know release from that bondage. It can be like being born all over again, or like a new baptism.

The Greeting of Peace also changes from a howdy time for friends greeting friends to a sacred time of acknowledging the peace of Christ that heals us and makes us one. It is an “aha moment” of recognizing that this is not a random collection of individuals, but a gathered people who belong to Christ, sealed in the Spirit, dedicated to God.

The Word, proclaimed in the reading of Scripture and preaching, becomes a conversation, not between the preacher and people, but between God and the people, preacher included. Attentiveness is high, because this is intensely personal. The worshippers expect words to nudge their lives into new directions. They assume that some change is the order of the day.

Prayers become not so much requests for Divine activity, but commitments by the worshippers to be active. We may celebrate and give thanks for families in our prayers, and that becomes a promise to treasure those gifts of life. Praying for the poor and outcast and others in need becomes a pledge to act out ministry to the ones prayed for. All prayers give a fresh focus on doing the faith that we pray and proclaim.

Coming to the Lord’s Table is not considered merely a pious ritual, but is a mystery of grace to be shared. Here the worshipper’s expectation is based on the promise of Jesus himself to be present. It is a reality to be experienced even if it defies explanation. And the bite of bread and sip of wine are food for the journey of discipleship with the Risen Lord.

Why do people go to church? One would hope this anticipation describes the primary rationale propelling men, women and children to church each Sunday. One would hope….

How would you answer the question? What do you think people in your church would answer?

Monday, August 20, 2012

Outdoor Worship

It was a distraction to driving, the sign I saw by a local church indicating they’d be having outdoor worship from May through September. It sure slowed me down to make sure I read it right.

I did. For five months this congregation was to abandon a very welcoming structure for the joys of the summer environment. A well-appointed interior would serve only as a retreat on a rainy day.

This is only one of many churches offering such an option at least for one service on summer Sundays. It seems to be a somewhat popular, if not trendy way to worship in the warmer times.

Having attended, and even led, outdoor services from time to time, I’ve come to wonder what the real attraction is—and what benefits such communing with nature offers to the people’s work of worship.

What I’ve been told is that outdoor worship invites parishioners to dress informally. From what I’ve seen in recent years, not many people have needed any encouragement for casual attire inside the Lord’s House, at any season.

Maybe a congregation likes to go out front or back or on the side, just for a change of locale, a refreshing occasional alternative. That way, worshipping in the familiar space inside will be more appreciated.

Others have suggested that worship in plain sight of the roadway or other public paths may entice non-church-goers to stop and share a prayer or two. This has always smacked of something Jesus was slapping down, as quoted in Matthew Chapter Six, Verse Five. At least it seems somehow to be showing off.

Here and there a congregation will advertise its worship-in-the-yard experience as an introduction to a larger social feast—like the church service that was to be a prelude to a Barbeque, “so come on down!” This is so perverse I’m sorry I mentioned it.

I suppose there are other reasons and rationales given for praise and prayers among the tamed wilderness of church properties, I just don’t know what they might be.

On the other hand, by experience, I can list several reasons why this is, generally speaking, a poor idea.

I remember clearly attending a wedding held in the formal garden of a nearby college, on a beautiful early summer day, under the warm sun with a cool breeze. Idyllic though it was, the zephyr blew toward the officiating clergyperson, and carried the sound away from the congregation. It was like watching a silent color movie.

Out of doors, sound is always an issue. It’s not only the breaths of wind that distort speech, but the sounds of traffic, emergency vehicles, the neighbor who decides to mow the lawn, and who knows what else will compete for attention.

So, the next thing is to provide an adequate amplification system, haul it out, set it up, drag wires from interior power sources, tune it up, and blare away. Even then, it’s no guarantee that everyone will hear clearly. And if the speakers woof and tweet too much, irate phone calls from neighbors can be expected.

One could go on about the bugs and bees that want to share the space with worshipping humans, especially if there are flowers around, or the other discomforts of unseasonal heat or cold that distract from liturgical focus. Yet there are other more important issues.

Evacuating the normal worship space for the pastoral scene pulls the congregation away from the continuing visual accents supporting worship. The centrality of Font and Table along with Pulpit is usually neglected in such circumstances. The art and architecture of the building are not there to help center thoughts and prayers.

The quick response to this last remark, of course, is that God’s creation as viewed in the great outdoors does what art and architecture cannot. This kind of worship experience places us in the venue of God’s garden, it’s claimed, bringing us closer than ever to the Divine.

This is, however, a sentimental reply. It sounds nice, with emotional content, but totally out of sync with reality. Were it true, we could tear down all our places of worship and spend Sundays communing with God on the golf course. But, as the old joke has it, “In spite of the theological language one hears on the fairway and green, it’s not really the same as being in church.”

Does your church ever hold services outdoors? If so why? What are the benefits? What are the problems?

Sunday, August 12, 2012

Milling Around

One of the more humorous radio broadcasters of my college years was Jean Shepherd who held forth on WOR in New York. He was a gabber. Jean was a swell story-teller with a highly creative imagination. He had a way of involving his listeners in “comedic stunts”.

One that I remember is when he told his listeners to go to a particular store in Manhattan at a particular time the next day and simply “mill around”, I suppose as a way of testing the size of his audience—which was considerable. The next day the targeted store was swamped with people, milling around, saying hi to one another and having a delightful time. All to the consternation of the store owners, who were being deprived of doing their regular business.

Fun as this was at the time, the image comes back to me these days in a less than cheerful way. For example, at a recent guest presider/preacher gig, I introduced the Greeting of Peace. After I greeted maybe a dozen folks with the Peace of Christ, I started back to my place. A member headed me off and informed me solemnly, “They like to do this—once they get going, it’s hard to stop them.” I turned around and saw that the Greeting of Peace had turned into a reasonable facsimile of the result of Jean Shepherd’s exploit.

The lady who intercepted me was right. The milling about was lingering on, and people were lallygagging in a kind of liturgical loitering. Like the New York storekeepers victimized by Shepherd’s stunt, the business of worship was being interrupted and brought to a screeching halt.

My efforts at restoring order were apparently too modest, so rather than be totally overwhelmed, I entered the fray and passed Christ’s Peace to everyone personally. I admit that was an act of frustration. At least everyone got one-on-one attention and the special delivery of the ritual act and words. That was not, however, a satisfactory solution. No matter what I accomplished, the hiatus proved to be a hindrance to the flow and force of the service. I still wound up summoning everyone to attention, and basically we started worshipping all over again.

I suppose this milling around is not all that uncommon. And, it’s a lot like crabgrass—once you get it, it’s almost impossible to get rid of.

When the Greeting of Peace became part of our worship, it was the result of the 1970 restoration of the “kiss of peace” to the Roman Catholic Mass. It looked like a good idea, so we Protestants bought it. The problem is that we’ve never really insisted that it be a formal ritual act, and allowed it to be misinterpreted by the people in the pews.

A large part of protestant worship gatherings is what we refer to as “fellowship”—the horizontal relationships between and among members and strangers gathered for worship. This is not incidental or insignificant, but has a prominent place in the life of any congregation. It has to do with pastoral and mutual care of members and hospitality to visitors. The Greeting of Peace, however, is the wrong place in the worship service to meet the congregation’s need for camaraderie. So what’s to be done? How to get some orderliness to the Greeting of Peace without forcing it? And how are the needs for congregational social communion to be met?

First, worship planners and leaders should recognize, and tell everyone else by education, that these are two very different needs, to be met in two different ways on a Sunday morning.

The “ritual” of gathering as a social community should be met immediately prior to the beginning of the service. After people are settled in, the gathering is established by a greeting from the pastor or presider—this salutation can easily morph into a mutual stand-and-greet-one-another festival of hand-shaking, hugging, kissing and mutual welcoming. Then follow the announcements, prelude, call to worship, hymn, etc.

The Greeting of Peace requires more strategic efforts.

Some congregational education needs to take place about the biblical roots of this act, and the history of its usage.

Then some theological discussion needs to take place about it in a variety of venues: choir rehearsals, session meetings, interest, service and social groups. What does it mean to share in the Peace of Jesus Christ? Why is it an act of worship?

Finally, instructions should be clear to worshippers, strangers as well as frequent attenders. Bulletin rubrics should spell it out even more than is found in the Book of Common Worship (1993). For example, after the exchange, “The peace of our Lord Jesus Christ be with you all. And also with you,” the presider might continue: “Let us greet those near us with the words, ‘May the Peace of Christ be with you.’” It gives the people a script, and puts limits on the range of the gesture.

Framed in the liturgy properly, the Greeting of Peace is a powerful spiritual force of unity and healing in the congregation.

How is the Greeting of Peace accomplished in your worship service? Are there welcoming greetings? When are announcements made?

Sunday, August 5, 2012

More Plural, Please

We all know that Christian worship is a group activity. Even on a desert island, a Christian does not praise and pray to God in solitude. Always there is a spiritual connection, not only with other Christians somewhere on the mainland, but with the church through the ages, saints and sinners who have gone before us.

As much as this is obvious, it is still easy to forget. .

Look at the Prayer of Confession for example. We all approach that part of the liturgy with some fear and trembling—if we don’t, then we’re not taking it seriously. We bring baggage full of personal stuff that we hope will be sorted out in the process of the prayer, and the junk discarded by the Assurance of Pardon..

But it’s never just “my” prayer. It’s not “all about me”. The Prayer of Confession is all about us, all of us, humans that we are, tripping and stumbling through life with bumps and bruises to show for our sinfulness. God knows all about us before we even find the words or read the ones in the bulletin to ask for help—and God is at the ready to do what needs to be done for us with grace and tenderness.

There is always solidarity in this kind of confession, as long as we remember that the folks around us are in the same boat as we are, leaky as it surely is. The company of other sinners similar to ourselves bolsters our courage for candor.

So the Prayer of Confession has this universal human quality to it. But even more than that, the prayer would not even exist in the order of worship if we all did not know already that God is waiting for us to lift it up. There is a common expectation that Confession is good for the soul, and God’s Grace is available for the asking. We wouldn’t be brazen enough to admit our weakness and failures if it didn’t fit our understanding of who God is.

Another example would be the Prayers of the People. No matter how these are done, a lot of individual and personal requests pop out, as well they should. Sometimes names and situations are verbalized out loud, other times silently—nevertheless, “my” specific concerns are offered by me, as everyone else does.

Unique and singular as the prayers may be, however, we offer them in the midst of the rest of the congregation—my prayers become our prayers, everyone else’s prayers become mine. Prayer is a mutual enterprise, the act of the church more than it is only the act of individual Christians. Therein lies the church’s strength, for the Spirit moves among us and binds us in a community of care and concern.

Nowhere is this truer than in the making of commitments to follow Christ. In reaffirming our baptisms or coming to the Table, we are reminded that we are to be part of the Body of Christ. Baptism marks us as members of that Body, Eucharist nourishes us in that Body—both lead us to discipleship.

Certainly and surely, these involve deeply personal commitments, life-changing decisions to be made and renewed constantly. Yet they are never entirely solo acts. Always they are made in the context of the whole people of God. Motivation to follow Christ faithfully is always enhanced and strengthened by the support of those around us who are daring to go on the same journey.

Unfortunately, I’ve been in a few churches where it seems that some of the pew sitters are there only to do their private devotions. To be undisturbed by others in the room, they find a safe corner, and scoot out just before the last liturgical word.

I’ve also participated in a service or two where the hymns are all first person singular—the “Me and God” songs—as though each worshipper had a single line to the Divine to transact their singular spiritual business.

The Greeting of Peace is one of the best antidotes to stark individualism. Passing from one to the other the gracious healing spirit of Christ, overcomes animosity and bridges gaps to unify the people as the Church, the Body of Christ.

So, remember in planning worship that liturgy and hymnody need more plural, please.

What hymns do you sing in church that are for the whole church? Which ones are first person singular? How about unison prayers: singular or plural?