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?

1 comment:

  1. ..."making sure the parts fit" can be a challenge when the "part" is the choir's anthem.
    Problem 1) is obviously finding something that fits with the lectionary, problem 2) is when nothing is prepared or available and the choir wants to sing anyway (they don't like just singing a hymn, even though there are parts. Probably a bigger problem can be the tradition, where the anthem is always sung at a certain point whether or not it fits with what's going on.
    Singing an anthem based on the psalm of the day, sung at the place where the psalm would normally be recited is no problem, but singing a communion-related anthem at communion time gets more difficult when some of the choir members may also involved with Sunday School. We have changed things a bit in my church so that the kids spend alternate Sundays with the congregation as part of their educational time and that has even freed up more of the kids to sing, including with the adult choir on Christmas and Palm Sunday and Pentecost.


Thanks for joining in the conversation!