Sunday, September 16, 2012

Rip 'n' Read

The title of this post comes from the olden days of news broadcasting when the announcer would rip a page off the teletype and read it on air. There was no preparation in advance, so, as you might imagine, it sounded like the reader was not familiar with the story, and mispronunciations and other goofs were common. Rip-’n’-readers were not held in high esteem by their peers.

I was reminded of this term recently while having lunch with a friend. He was reporting on worship in a neighboring church where he had attended. According to him, the preacher stood up and announced that the morning’s homiletical offering was taken from the bountiful resources of the internet. It had been ripped bodily from one of the many sites offering packaged help for desperate preachers.

Unfortunately this kind of shenanigan was not news to me. More than once I’ve been witness to sermons lifted from some on-line pulpiteer or torn from the pages of a volume of preachments by some notable cleric.

In those cases also, the offender brazenly confessed and proceeded to commit the crime. Yet the candor of such confession does not absolve, much less forgive, the error of the so-called preacher’s ways.

Knowing about only a few situations where this effrontery was perpetrated upon an assembly of the faithful is small comfort. One begins to wonder and worry about others who may not be so shameless as to let the truth be known. Perhaps it’s best not to know how often this happens—it could be very depressing.

I’ve heard sermons where a paragraph sounds out of character or in a different voice from that of the proclaimer. I suspect a section has been filched without benefit of quotes or citation.

Well, the temptation is there, of course, when writing a sermon to see what someone else has come up with on that text. It’s a temptation to be sternly resisted. The preaching of the word comes from roots of prayer and study through the heart and soul of the preacher. There is absolutely no substitute for that.

Every sermon is one of a kind, a one-time-only event. Every sermon preached is out-of-date immediately.

If one uses the lectionary, the opportunity to preach on the same text comes up periodically, and the temptation is there to pilfer from oneself. I resist looking at old sermons, avoiding the temptation even to quote myself. I once, and only once, preached the same sermon twice—the second time around it was so stale that I learned my lesson.

At the same time, I think it’s healthy for aspiring preachers of whatever age to read and listen to other people’s sermons. There are some preachers in print who are worthy of reading and re-reading. I have my favorites to whom I return from time to time who are my prompters and examples.

(In case you’re interested in a couple of my choices, Frederick Buechner’s sermons are solid both in terms of content and style. His book, Telling the Truth: the Gospel as Tragedy, Comedy and Fairy Tale, should be required reading for sermonizers and listeners as well. Another is Paul Scherer, one of the great preachers of the twentieth century. The Word God Sent presents a combination of his sermons and guidance. Both Buechner and Scherer are worth frequent consults just to see how conversationally they write in plain English, yet manage to be poetic at the same time.)

Yet this reading of other preachers’ efforts is not for the purpose of finding quotes much less passages to incorporate in a sermon. What I was taught long, long ago holds today: “Avoid quoting anyone else, unless you absolutely cannot by any stretch of the imagination express the thought in your own words, and it is absolutely necessary to have that quote verbatim in your sermon.” Which is to say, don’t quote—period.

Having done the exegetical homework, practiced prayer and pondered God’s present activity and hopeful promises, the preacher can get the sermon underway. Background reading of masters in the field can help a preacher develop a personal style, and learn how to write and speak as ourselves. Stealing quotes or passages from someone else is not just cheating the congregation, it is discounting one’s own faith, one’s God-given ability, and the calling to preach the Gospel.

If you’re a preacher, whose work do you read and learn from? Do you use quotes in your sermons?

Monday, September 10, 2012

Club or Community of Faith?

A good friend and I were conferring over his cup of coffee and my mug of tea, pondering the current condition of the Church of Jesus Christ.

To make a long conversation short, the consensus was that, at least in terms of the Church evident in churches and congregations of which we have personal knowledge, there is a real problem: Christians seem to gather in clusters that look much more like clubs than churches.

This is to say that Christians these days tend to assemble around common interests and tastes. They look for a church where most everyone looks like they do. Some would prefer everyone to be registered in the same political party.

There are even those who select their church on the basis of whether their company higher-ups belong. They look for standing and status.

When it comes to church programs, they want the best care for their kids, a good social group for their age range, and someone to visit their elderly friends and relatives.

Worship, for these folks, should be, above all, entertaining. When the music is super, especially the children’s music, they will applaud. The prayers will hold up before the Almighty the needs of everyone in the room. And the sermon will at all times be short and sweetened with good humor. Worship was to be designed to make them feel good so they could go home happy.

Of course, who is pastor is critical. She or he must meet all criteria of every person, offend no one ever, especially not in a sermon, and be ready day or night to respond to any need. In short, as a friend of mine once said, “The pastor is really supposed to be a spiritual concierge.”

Okay, that’s an overstatement. Admittedly this does not apply to every congregation, even if it does come frighteningly close in some. Sure, there are in every local church at least a few who know better and are looking for a very different situation.

My friend and I remembered thankfully those people we’ve known who filled the bill. For them, the church was not a like-minded club, but a diverse community of faith. They did not seek recognition for their piety or purity, but were offering themselves with humility. They wanted education, faith-formation for themselves as well as their children—not just babysitting or socializing—and they’d visit anybody who was lonely.

These are the people who’d come to worship to receive the support of the community so they could be good Christians when they left. They’d seek forgiveness, renewal and refreshment for their souls. They’d be inspired and stirred in their hearts by the prayers music elicits for them, and they want to be challenged by the word proclaimed, and fed at the Lord’s Table.

In fact, worship has a great deal to do with whether someone sees their congregation as a club or a community of faith.

Some examples:

I was in a room with members of a congregation that had branded itself as “nondenominational, evangelical Christian church,” and the conversation was about worship. When I asked about their prayer of confession, I was told that they did not have one—and did not need it. They were secure in their salvation. Don’t we all need confession as the antidote to taking God’s grace for granted?

I visited a service in a congregation where the “prayers of the people” consisted almost entirely of petitions on behalf of people who were members or friends of members—almost nothing prayed about the ailments of the world and society around us. Prayers are the down-payment on actions, commitments to do something to alleviate the situation we pray for. We might reasonably assume we’d help friends and relatives who need it, but how about the poor and homeless and outcast and oppressed?

The Lord’s Supper is so often done with such efficiency that it seems everyone is in a rush to get out of the building. “Perfunctory” is the word that fits. Yet the Lord’s Table is the world’s table, and sharing the meal Christ set for us commits us to sharing what we have with those who have nothing to share. It is, or could be, a powerful experience.

Music, far from simple entertainment, has the capability to touch us at our depths. Music accompanies our prayers, it carries the liturgy, so that faith sings in our souls.

We come together to serve God in worship on Sundays, and go forth to worship God by our service to others the rest of the time. The Christian congregation is not a club—it is a community on a mission with Christ.

Do you have a prayer of confession in your Sunday service? What evidence do you see of “clubbishness” in your worship? What do you see that points to serving God in the world?

Monday, September 3, 2012

The Whole Thing

I’ve often been accused of being picky about details. Having served as a stated clerk for a substantial chunk of my life, paying attention to specifics goes with the job. Sometimes it’s easy to get lost in the trees and shrubs and forget all about the forest.

The same is true when one takes on the responsibility to plan and lead worship. Preachers tend to worry about preaching, choirs about singing, readers about reading, musicians about just the right music, presiders about multiple prayers, transitions, and spoken instructions. The various parts are often doled out. Nobody is concerned about the whole thing.

Well, that’s not quite true. The presider/preacher/pastor is paying attention to everything, one would hope. Even so, she or he in all likelihood would tackle each item one at a time. Given the fact that there are many parts to a worship service, this is not a quick process. And, as they say, “The Devil is in the details.” It’s really important to be careful and not careless.

Still, worship leaders can get bogged down in the swamp of details and not see the entire service as a whole.

Taking the viewpoint of our Orthodox Christian sisters and brothers might help bring our worship into focus as a single event, rather than as a series of smaller items pasted together.

An Orthodox friend of mine once described the divine service in his church where I was visiting as “one continuous prayer.” There was indeed a “flow” so the experience moved smoothly from one segment to the next. The effect was cumulative, and the service had a sense of wholeness to it, a full and complete experience.

It was a reminder that the Orthodox and others in the Eastern Church tradition are oriental in their thinking. They tend to see “the whole thing” while we Westerners see a list of items arranged in sequence.

When I think about the last Protestant service I attended, I have to admit it seemed fragmented. The individual parts stood out, lined up in proper order for sure, but still separated items that needed connecting.

What contributed to the fragmentation was some of the commentary that was inserted. For example, before the call to worship, the leader announced, “Let us worship God.” Well, those words anticipated the biblical call to worship, and also under-cut it—the scriptural text is sufficient.

There were several such spoken directions, vocal rubrics that were redundant and superfluous. At times the presider seemed more like an emcee and his words just heightened the separation between the different acts of worship.

I plead guilty on this one, because I’ve erred by verbally inviting people to join in a prayer of confession or silent prayer when it was totally unnecessary—there it was in print, no less, in the bulletin, and what was coming next was obvious to all anyway.

So I wonder what would happen if we eliminated such needless and excess commentary. Would the service more likely be experienced as a complete entity rather than as a series of agenda items?

That, however, is only one part of the problem. As we plan for worship, prepare the parts and assemble them, we need to be sure the parts all fit to make up one whole.

Take that prayer of confession, for example: not just any one will do. Arbitrary selection is, or should be, verboten, forbidden, not allowed, and avoided. The temptation to hastily pick prayer number 2 on page 53 of The Book of Common Worship should be resisted—unless it is an absolutely hand-in-glove fit.

Everything that is prepared for a particular service belongs to the whole. There are not separate parts, but pieces of the entirety. Worship is not like a jig-saw puzzle, where the different parts require great scrutiny and puzzlement for one to discover how they dovetail. To the people in the pews there should be no uncertainty about the complete picture of what’s happening and why. If each of the acts of worship is seen in the context of the whole service, the “fit” will be apparent to everyone.

This means, however, that planners will need to be talking with one another during the planning and preparation process. The focus, of course, will be on the Scripture readings for the day and the Calendar of the Christian Year—from these the theme and emphases are discovered and shared among the different members of the team as they work toward a service that is complete and whole.

Reducing unnecessary intrusions and making sure all the parts harmonize in terms of theme and emphasis will lead worshippers to a richer experience.

During the last worship service you attended, were there instructions given by the leader? Were they intrusive? How did the different acts of worship fit together?