Saturday, November 24, 2012

Thermometer or Thermostat?

The discussion the other day was about the church. A metaphorical question was raised: Is the Church a thermometer or thermostat?

One could explore that thought in a variety of ways, but let’s ask that question about how we worship currently. Is what we do on a Sunday morning a mere reflection of the cultural temperature of the world around us? Or, could it possibly be that the celebrations of little bands of God’s people on the Lord’s Day might affect the worldly culture with needed changes?

The temptation, of course, is to set our liturgical thermostat so that it corresponds to the desires and values of potential pew-sitters. If we want the younger generation, then we might do well, we think, to re-set the liturgy to look and sound like what they like.

That approach is doomed to failure, because sooner than later the culture shifts. The latest and greatest quickly becomes old hat, and the worship planners scramble to keep up with the curve.

The direction for our worship, then, comes from outside, from unreliable sources if you’re looking for lasting values and eternal truths.

This is not to say that twenty-first century worship should avoid everything new. Surely new liturgy is being created week-in-and-week-out in congregations around the world. Hymns are composed, prayers crafted, sermons delivered, believers and their children bathed, and people share a meal of bread and wine, all fresh and relevant to a particular time and place. At the same time, the content and message of today’s worship comes from another source.

Christian liturgy carries content designed to affect the people of God, and through them to change the world’s culture. In a very real sense, the substance of Christian worship is subversive, seeking to undermine prevailing unholy values. Yet sometimes the way we prepare and present worship serves to edit the message so it is less radical and more acceptable to the people in the pews.

For example, I always wonder why it is that a pastor or session or perhaps someone else in authority decides to omit a Prayer of Confession. Is it perhaps because there is an underlying conviction that no one there really has much if anything to confess, either to admit in front of everyone else in the room or, much less, to disclose to the Almighty?

Even if a prayer of confession is in the order of service, it can also be edited in such fashion as to be a spoonful of sugar rather than a bitter pill to swallow. Consider this familiar prayer that begins, “Merciful God, we confess that we have sinned against you in thought, word, and deed, by what we have done, and by what we have left undone. We have not loved you with our whole heart and mind and strength. We have not loved our neighbors as ourselves. . . .” That may be more honesty than some can tolerate. I remember one parishioner who regularly confronted me after church asserting, “I’m not as bad as it said in that prayer of confession.” He wanted a thermometer to read him as he thought he was, rather than a thermostat to point to how he ought to be, as indicated in the balance of that prayer: “In your mercy forgive what we have been, help us amend what we are, and direct what we shall be, so that we may delight in your will and walk in your ways, to the glory of your holy name.”

In the same fashion, the Confession of Faith can be left out altogether because the quaint concepts in the Nicene or Apostles’ Creeds are deemed irrelevant to our modern needs. I think it may have been the same parishioner I mentioned above who complained about the historic creeds as being “words put in his mouth.” Of course, a home-made creedal affirmation can be assembled that is more satisfactory to the general populace, but it will likely be theologically thin.

And sermons are at particular risk here. I always thought I was fairly straightforward in proclaiming the Gospel as both good news of God’s grace and a call for repentance and renewal. On retiring I found, however, that I felt much freer to preach the Gospel in full when the people listening were not paying my salary. We like to think there is not such pressure, but there really is.

At any rate, the purpose of worship is not to make us cozy and comfortable in the fact that God loves us. We come together to be renewed and resurrected to a life with the risen Christ. Sometimes this sounds more like bad news than good. That’s when we should start to see liturgy not as a thermometer that tells us where we are, but as a thermostat to regulate the temperature of our passion for Christian service and witness.

Do you ever take the opportunity to review a worship service with others? Have you ever noticed adjustments or softening of the Gospel’s demands and requirements?

Sunday, November 18, 2012

Attitude and Aptitude

I’ve been out on the “Sermon Circuit” again, and come up against a problem that should never happen. I’m not even sure why it does, but it does. Here’s my story.

I got myself on the road bright and early, well, early enough to make a quick pass at Dunkin’ Donuts and still arrive early at my destination. I was greeted at the door by the kind lady with the key who informed me that she was the musician of the morning. At least she was prepared to play the electronic keyboard—although she was quick to admit that she hadn’t played in a decade and a half and might be reduced to one finger at a time.

A few folks arrived to scramble around and put the place in order for the service. With about ten minutes left on the clock, someone glanced at the empty Communion Table and realized that the set-up team had not arrived. A hasty sortie to a nearby convenience store netted three sandwich buns, two of which were broken in pieces, the third left for breaking in the service.

More fussing was required to arrange furniture, get out the table cloth, set the table, find a place for the offering plates, and hang the pulpit cloth.

By the time the hour struck, all was ready, more or less. It was a breathless beginning, yet the service proceeded well and we all praised God. However….

What struck me was how unfortunate it was that the lay leaders of the church were not better prepared, and that they apparently did not take it seriously enough to have everything set up well in advance. Frankly, the set-up for the service revealed a slipshod manner and a casual attitude toward worship. Everyone improvised well, including me, but improvising should not be standard operating procedure on Sundays.

I don’t mean to be harsh in criticizing these people. I’ve been under pressure myself and had to scramble at times. Dealing with unexpected crises, minor and major, can throw everything out of balance. Nevertheless, there are two things that occur to me that might have helped in this situation.

First the attitude of the people about worship needed improvement. Somehow folks in our churches need to learn by experience, teaching, and mutual support that worship is at the heart and soul of being Christian. Without that faith basis, the church is built on sand, on sinking sand, all of which may be exactly the problem in so many of our churches with dwindling membership. If members don’t believe that worship is central to their lives, and act like it, it’s not likely they will attract anyone else.

How does one change the attitude of church people? It requires a culture change. That takes time, a lot of conversation, strong education, and clear expectations of members expressed by the church leadership. It’s a never-ending process, because people get comfy and soft and forgetful, and treat congregational life all too casually.

The other improvement needed was in the people’s aptitude regarding worship. They needed to be trained on best practices about worship, why it’s important to have the scene set before most people arrive, and what different responsibilities need to be filled. Simply, the people—all the people—need training in what’s involved in a worship service and how it gets prepared.

Musicians need to sit down regularly with the pastor to go over plans for congregational singing, and the congregation will benefit from instruction in new hymns and service music. Deacons and those responsible for hospitality and ushering need to understand how important their roles can be to the worshipping community. People who care for the cleaning and arrangement of the worship space also have essential responsibilities.

Worship, when done well, is never a simple casual affair. What we offer God should be the best we’ve got to give—the best music, the best setting, the best sermon, the best prayers. Planning should also be our very best. When we come to worship, well prepared, we offer it all up to God, and if there are glitches and mistakes we chalk it off to our humanity. Sometimes the unexpected malfunction or mishap can be the opening for the Spirit to give us a humility lesson. But we don’t need to create those opportunities—they just happen often enough.

What’s the attitude of folks in your congregation about worship? Do they have sufficient aptitude to prepare for and participate in worship?

Sunday, November 11, 2012

Sacramental Absence

A while back I attended a church service in a majestic nineteenth century structure, with an arching, spacious sanctuary.

Immediately my eye was attracted to a table located in the focal center of the worship space. I had to assume it was the Communion Table, because it was resting incognito under a brightly colored, patterned cloth which had no liturgical meaning as far as I could tell. Since there was nothing on it resembling dinner ware or even a modest plate and chalice, there was no hint that the table had any use whatsoever.

After several minutes of visual searching, I sighted the baptismal font stowed off in a corner. Obviously wherever this piece of furniture had been before, it was in the way, so it was safely transported virtually out of sight, thus out of mind.

The service itself was well thought out and well led; musicians, lay readers and clergy prompted worship by the congregation for the most part. As you might guess, however, neither Baptism nor Communion was celebrated, nor even mentioned. They were absent, completely.

As I pondered this experience for the rest of the day, another memory popped to the surface, of a local gathering of Roman Catholic and Protestant clergy to reflect on the recently concluded Second Vatican Council and its pronouncements.

The priests wanted to know how we Protestants managed to come up with a sermon week after week. From what they said, this part of their worship was minimal, a few devotional words, something supplied by a homily service maybe, or just some ad lib remarks. But, for them, a full-fledged sermon was a scary new concept.

On the minds of the Protestants was why and how did the Catholics celebrate the Eucharist week after week. Not that we were particularly eager to do so in our churches, but it was an intriguing thought. We got by with only four Communions a year, maybe fine.

Swapping stories and theological rationales was the beginning of both groups discovering the dangers of minimalizing major parts of worship. Suppress preaching and the sacramental rite gets more and more complicated and cumbersome, and the principal, maybe sole, bearer of theology. On the other hand, push the sacraments off in a corner, and the proclamation of Scripture dominates worship to the point of making everything else in the service of minor importance.

Going back to the top of the page, in the Victorian church where I was that morning, it was clearly a preaching-centered service. While the offering appeared after the sermon and prayers of the people, there was no indication that it had any distant connection with Communion or represented a vestige of the Eucharistic liturgy. The Scripture-sermon section was the heart and soul of the service.

I want to be clear that in no sense did I perceive that the preacher was deliberately managing any of this. The sermon was thoughtful, timely and relevant for that congregation, and well presented.

The problem came from the absence of the sacraments. When they are not present, everything else expands to fill their space. Liturgy, like nature, abhors a vacuum, and where one is created, other things get amplified, whether they like it or not.

For one thing, minus weekly Eucharist, the service becomes word dominant. Listening is the main occupation of the people in the pews. The senses of touch, taste and smell are minimized.

What is more, worship becomes mainly a mental activity. Not that thinking during worship is a bad thing, but sermons might tend to lean in the direction of being polemical or argumentative rather than prophetic and evangelical. Giving a theology lesson from the pulpit is different from preaching the Good News the preacher-sinner needs to share with the sinners in the pews.

Also, preaching from a pulpit three steps up from everyone else is not the same as sharing food and drink across a table. The intimacy of the sacraments is needed to balance the authoritarian atmosphere of the pulpit.

That’s what it’s all about, I decided. Balance. Word and Sacrament. Not “just Word, and when we get around to it maybe we’ll have a Sacrament.” Both sacraments need to be present every Sunday. If there are no actual baptisms to take place, the font, with water, should be placed where everyone can at least see it, even better walk past it on the way in. Every Sunday, Communion or not, the table should be set, with bread on the plate and wine in the chalice.

The absence of the sacraments from regular Lord’s Day worship can create imbalance not only to the order of service, but to the meaning of worship.

Where you worship, is sacramental furniture set for use and visible even when the sacraments are not observed? How often does your church have the Lord’s Supper? Why?

Friday, November 2, 2012

On Becoming (and Being) the Church

It never ceases to amaze me that so many church people can have a take-it-or-leave-it attitude when it comes to Lord’s Day worship.

I know that many (if not most) members consider the hour on Sunday morning to be one among many activities on the congregational smorgasbord, and not necessarily the most important.

Expectation of church leaders is too often low as well. One would think elders and deacons would be exemplary in their attendance. Were any one of them to be absent it would be certain that the reason would illness or necessary travel. That’s not always so, however. Elected leaders are subject to the same frailties as other mortals.

I recall the time in my own ministry when a few elders felt it was time to crank up expectations about members’ participation in the life of the church. They recommended, among other things, that the session should announce to the members that all are expected to attend at least two Sundays each month. The elders balked at that—“too much” they said to expect of others, not to mention themselves. So how about once a month? Nope, that’s too dictatorial. So the idea was abandoned for want of enthusiasm.

Clergy, I know all too well from first-hand experience, are besieged from all sides by other tasks, chores and responsibilities that distract from making Sunday worship top priority. It’s easy to let things slip and slide so that the planning and preparing is not the best. That’s an explanation sometimes perhaps, but never an excuse.

Other worship leaders, lay readers and musicians, for example, and those who prepared the space, need beware slacking off, taking shortcuts, giving less than the very best. Nonchalant and perfunctory preparation can sneak up and take charge.

If this attitude of neglect begins to dominate the Sunday morning worship event, before anyone knows what’s happening, worship is casual to the point that many people could care less about what’s happening. Slipshod leadership and passive participation easily become the order of the day.

All of this is reason for some folks, like myself, to get riled up about the need to renew worship in our churches. We suspect that there might just possibly be a connection between the decline in worship attendance in recent years and our lackadaisical approach to the Almighty.

What is more, we have a deeper suspicion that the renewal of our worship would contribute greatly to the renewal of the Church. Making the connection between healthier worship in congregations to a healthier local church, and from there to a more robust and vital Church of Jesus Christ is not too great a stretch.

We need to recapture the notion that the most important thing that happens for Christians is that Lord’s Day worship experience. Therein stands the core of the faith: the Word proclaimed, the Sacraments observed. To treat this sacred event with indifference borders on heresy.

It is in this assembly of God’s people that the Spirit goes to work to accomplish resurrection of the Body of Christ anew. We are drawn together by God to get our marching orders from our Risen Lord present among us in the Word read and proclaimed. We are gathered around the Table to be fed and nourished by the Risen Lord who will live within us. In this way we are no longer just a local congregation--rather we become an expression of the whole Church of Jesus Christ.

Not only do we become the church in this sacred event week in and week out, but we go forth to be the Church in our lives, in our world. From these few moments of worship of Almighty God flow hours and days, even lifetimes of service to Almighty God, by disciples of Jesus Christ empowered by the Spirit.

Weekly worship is the rhythm of church life, and by God’s grace it becomes the pulse beat of the Church of Jesus Christ. The renewal, even reform, of worship opens the possibilities of resurrection and new life for the Body of Christ.

What changes would you suggest for worship in your church that would involve people more actively? How would you improve worship planning and preparation?