Sunday, December 29, 2013


During the heady days of the 1960s following Vatican II, Presbyterian clergy were urged by higher authorities to initiate conversations with Roman Catholic priests. When we did so locally, our newly discovered colleagues were more than willing to discuss anything with us, but especially worship.

The concern we Protestants had was to understand the liturgical elegance of the Romans. What did all that mean? How do you do it? In the years that followed we learned a great deal from our colleagues, locally and world-wide.

On the priests’ minds, however, was a question for us about a different aspect of worship: “How do you manage preaching week after week?” Actually, the issue was larger than that. For it also raised the issue of defining preaching for them, and for us. What is it that we do when we go to the pulpit and speak forth?

I like to think that fifty-plus years out of seminary I’ve learned how to preach, but every sermon is a challenge and an opportunity to do it better. It is during my retirement, however, that I’ve discovered new insights on a way of describing preaching, if not exactly defining it. The “view from the pew” has been very informative.

When I was a preaching pastor, I rarely had the opportunity to hear other preachers. Looking back on that lack of experience, I’d now recommend strongly that every pastor regularly (say, four times a year at least) be sent off to other churches to worship. Then they’d listen to sermons in a very different way—as pew-sitters rather than as preachers.

So far, I’ve found that sermons I hear fall roughly into four “categories.” These are not rigid groupings, but sorts of Sunday preachments that I’ve heard, not just from Presbyterians, but from other Protestants, Roman Catholics and Orthodox. Often a sermon would reflect more than one type, yet usually one would dominate.

The Lecture

One preacher I know was especially good at this. He came out of a ministry focused on social issues, and his sermons were loaded with illustrations of the implications of the Gospel in the world around us.

Mind you, these were informative lectures. He could have included an extra insert in the morning bulletin offering footnotes and citations of resources—instead he spoke them, which lengthened the lectures.

From my position in the pew, however, I did not find his lectures relevant in any personal way. Perhaps some were caught up and inspired by his words. My reaction as I left was that it was a good lecture, but it was all about something “out there,” distant and beyond my reach.

The Lesson

Sometimes I’ve been treated to a Bible-study lesson in place of a sermon. The congregation was instructed to grab a Bible from the pew rack, or look at the screen to have the text at hand. Then we went through it verse by verse with homiletical bits thrown out along the way.

On a couple of occasions, a separate sheet has been provided with an outline of the text, and spaces in which to scrawl your notes.

While there were times when this was very informative, and the interpretation of the preacher/teacher was fascinating, this also was a distancing experience. The connection between the speaker and the pew-sitters was not made; on the contrary, it was blocked by the intrusion of printed materials.

The Essay

There are those preachers who offer a theological essay. They may be sharply reasoned, clearly stated, and theologically profound. The diligence of the speaker’s study and depth of wisdom is often impressive. It can be the kind of speech you’d like to have in print to take home and ponder at length.

And therein lies the problem. The distance from the listener is because of the complexity of the thought processes. The theological essay is often too much for most people to absorb in one sitting. To many, it will come off as abstract and remote, maybe making the speaker seem arrogant and aloof.

The Sermon

So if those are the problems, what might the solution be? Someone* once said, “Sermons are intimate conversations with people you love.”

What I welcome as a worshipper is the sense that the preacher is speaking to me, and to everyone else in the room. This means that the preacher really cares about us, has a pastoral attitude, and wants to share something very personal, something of life-and-death importance. What is more, the person in the pulpit speaks from personal experience and is human like the rest of us.

The bridges between preacher and people are crossed and the barriers are broken down in a good sermon. The Gospel is shared, passed along by word of mouth, to be carried out the door and lived.

In the interest of candor, I will admit that I’ve delivered my share of what I’d hoped would pass as sermons, but included some of the stuff of Lectures, Lessons and Essays. When I let the Gospel speak to me, when I heard the Word in my heart, and then boldly let it speak through me to others, then a real sermon was given.

What kind of sermons do you hear where you are? What kind do you preach?

*This was attributed to Frederick Buechner, although he did not own it when I interviewed him for the Reformed Liturgy & Music journal in 1994. If you’d like to have a copy of the interview, drop me an email at

Saturday, December 21, 2013

Christmas Is Personal

Canticle of Simeon
Nunc Dimittis; Luke 2:29-32

Now, Lord, you let your servant go in peace:
your word has been fulfilled.
My own eyes have seen the salvation
which you have prepared in the sight of every people:
a light to reveal you to the nations
and the glory of your people Israel

If there is one person with whom we can identify, especially we older folks, it is the old man Simeon. He just knew in his heart of hearts that he would not leave this life without coming face to face with the Messiah of God.

Sure enough, when Mary and Joseph brought their child Jesus to the temple to fulfill the requirements of dedication, Simeon met them. He recognized the infant as the One he was waiting for. The encounter had an enormous impact on Simeon’s life—in fact, it gave meaning to Simeon’s many years of worshipping God.

The tradition of the church calls us to sing Simeon’s song each night as our day comes to an end. When we give ourselves up to sleep, we surrender our lives into God’s keeping, confident in the promise of new life when morning comes. Like Simeon, we are prompted by the Spirit to recognize the presence of God’s Messiah, remembering how we, too, have prayed and longed for what our Christ will bring us.

Simeon’s Song is a canticle for Christmas, a personal message to each one of us. Christmas is the reminder that God has come to us in Jesus Christ, to each one personally, even in the darkest of times, revealing the brightness of God’s glory.

Sometimes the personal impact of Christmas gets blurred by the busyness of the season. Put Simeon's Song on your list to sing this year. Take Christmas very personally. As Simeon took the child Jesus in his arms, each one of us can embrace God’s gift of grace with joy, and then, wherever God will lead us, we will go in peace.

Wednesday, November 27, 2013

Why Do We (Not) Sing Psalms?

It’s a double-barreled question.

Way back when, it was the custom of Presbyterians to sing psalms. In fact, in church they sang only psalms. Anything other than the biblical Psalms was unfit for human singing, because the Psalter had divine authorship, or, at the very least, God’s seal of approval.

Songs of mere human composition just didn’t measure up. This was true at least until people like the brothers Wesley and Watts took pen to paper and came up with psalm-like hymns that were seductively singable. Their success provoked the true-blue Psalm-singers to recast the Psalms into hymn-like metrical settings. Sometimes it must have been difficult to tell the difference between biblical songs and songs crafted by humans.

As hymnody increased in popularity for Sunday morning singing, the use of Psalms waned. Why bother with the old when you could have the new?

This very sketchy historical review helps us understand how we Presbyterians (and some other Protestants as well) got to the situation we’re in. The Psalter has been neglected if not abandoned. A Psalm is too rarely sung in worship in some churches, unless it sneaks in masquerading as a hymn. That’s the answer to the question, “Why do we not sing the Psalms?”

If it weren’t for the monastics persisting in singing the Psalms day and night, and the resurgence in local congregations and individual Christians to pray the Liturgy of the Hours, we might have forgotten about Psalms on Sunday morning altogether.

So, now we ask the question, “Why do we sing the Psalms?”

The Psalms are part of our spiritual history. They were collected to be the song/prayer book of Judaism, the anthology Jesus knew, used and quoted. They continued to be the source of prayer and praise for the early Christians.

The Psalms are candid, honest prayers. They cover the full range of human needs, express emotions from one end to the other, and have an intimate and personal quality that touches people in the depths.

The Psalms (at least many of them) are used as responses to the Old Testament reading in Sunday Christian worship. Yet they have also been recognized to speak of Jesus Christ, and in this usage, they show the continuity of God’s revelation throughout the Scripture. In this role, the Psalms serve as a historical and theological bridge between the Old and New Testaments in the pilgrimage of Lord’s Day worship.

When the Psalms are sung on Sunday mornings, the congregation has the opportunity to be the “true choir” as the Reformers thought they should be.

I’m sure there are many other reasons to be cited, but you get the idea. We don’t use the Psalms in worship as well as we could and should.

In my travels in retirement, I’ve confronted this delinquency in various forms. In many churches there simply is no Psalm. Others might include the Psalm, but they will read it (not sing it) responsively. Some will sing a Psalm, but in place of a hymn. Rarely will the Psalm be sung following the Old Testament reading. Even more rare is the chanted Psalm.

Congregational singing of the Psalms can be intimidating, of course, yet with proper training and leadership of church musicians, it can also be tremendously inspiring. I remember well the occasion decades ago when I had the chance to attend a large Lutheran church in Minneapolis. The Psalm that morning was to be chanted, according to the tones recorded in the hymnal. The people had been taught well. The music was uplifting, stirring, even exhilarating as the tones of prayer rose heavenward.

The objections are likely to come quickly when psalm-singing is suggested. “How can we expect the people in the pews to sing anything more demanding than simple hymns?” That’s a good place to start, and move on to chants with congregational responses and refrains, or specially composed pieces, to everyone chanting the full psalm text.

Of course, this does not happen without some exertion on part of worship leaders, clergy and musicians. It requires their liturgical and musical education in order to educate and train the congregation to praise God with sung Psalms.

Psalms are available in many modern settings (and some ancient ones) that lend themselves to congregational usage. Two resources are highly recommended for your perusal: The Psalter: Psalms and Canticles for Singing, Westminster/John Knox Press, Louisville, Kentucky, 1993; and Psalms for All Seasons, Calvin Institute of Christian Worship, Faith Alive Christian Resources, Brazos Press, Grand Rapids, Michigan, 2012.

Monday, October 14, 2013

A Lesson from the East

I’m probably as touchy as the next person when it comes to criticism about worship services I’ve planned or led. On the other hand, I like to think I’m smart enough to learn from the critic’s viewpoint.

That’s why I’ve taken seriously the critique fired off by Russian Orthodox Bishop Hilarion Alfeyev at the beginning of a long lecture on “Orthodox Worship as a School of Theology.”

Setting up a contrast to Orthodox worship, the Bishop has this to say about non-Orthodox services he’d attended over the years: “Protestant [and Catholic] services as a rule are comprised of a series of isolated, incoherent prayerful actions…. The services are interspersed with explanations by the clergy, who tell their congregation in which hymnal and on which page a certain hymn is to be found, and whether they should sing it while standing or remaining seated….”

The hardest part of hearing evaluations like this is having to agree with them. On this one, the Bishop has got us in the spotlight.

I’ve attended my share of worship events that have followed what is rashly called an “order” that I suspect was determined by throwing the items down a flight of stairs. Logic of procedure, not to mention a “theo-logic” of content, is difficult to perceive.

Even when there is some semblance of sensible order, even when the sequence defined in the Book of Common Worship is followed, worship often seems to follow an agenda. “Prayerful actions” are scattered like items on a list, all to be completed by the end of the hour.

With such a mindset, it is easy for the presider to start behaving like an emcee.

For example, before the Call to Worship we might hear, “Let us join in the call to worship.”

Or, announcing the Prayer of Confession before scriptural introductions, something like “Let us come before God with our confessions.”

Before reading Scripture some readers insert non-scriptural summaries of the text.

“Let us stand and affirm our faith,” might precede the Creed.

Announcing the offering could be done without “Let us worship God with our offering.” Just an appropriate biblical text will do.

The Greeting of Peace is too often an interruption of a far greater magnitude, but makes the point.

Instructions given in the midst of the Eucharist fracture the solemnity of the sacrament.

All of these words, and many others, spoken by a worship leader are essentially rubrics (= “written in red”), instructions that could just as easily be printed in a bulletin, and left unspoken. What would that be like, I wonder, if we did just that?

Well, the Bishop has an answer for us, as he goes on to describe what worship should be: “Orthodox divine services…are a totally different matter. From the priest’s exclamation at the very beginning of the service we are immersed in an atmosphere of uninterrupted prayer, in which psalms, litanies,...prayers and the celebrating priest’s invocations follow one another in a continuous stream. The entire service is conducted as if in one breath, in one rhythm, like an ever unfolding mystery in which nothing distracts from prayer.”

Not that we’re all going to do a seismic shift from the Reformed to the Orthodox tradition next Sunday. Yet it is possible for us to look at what we do from another perspective.

What if everyone started to worship God the instant they entered the room? Perhaps leaders as well as people in the pews would find more focus on their purpose for being there.

If there were no stops and starts to break up the flow of worship, all would begin to see the interrelatedness of the various parts, a wholeness to the service. We would, over a period of time discover that all that transpires in a given service is worship, praise and thanksgiving to God.

Getting rid of the instructive distractions would allow worshippers to contemplate the mystery of God’s grace that calls the likes of us sinners to come, forgives us, feeds us with Word and Sacrament, and sends is into the world to follow the Risen Lord.

What we learn from the Orthodox Bishop is that we Protestants are Westerners—we tend to think in a linear fashion, with lists and agendas and orders of worship. Yet we can learn to experience fullness in our worship, a unity of form and expression as we praise God.

What are the distractions or interruptions to services in your church? How might you minimize them?

Saturday, September 28, 2013

"Blended" Worship?

Over coffee one afternoon, a new pastor to our area confided to me that the worship service he inherited was, in a word, “chaotic.”

I offered to pay him a Sunday morning visit and, if he wished, give him my critique. Please note that a “critique” is not necessarily negative, but in this case it was difficult to get out of the minus column.

To start with the positive: The young man’s sermon was strong and meaningful. The church organist led the congregation in the singing of one wonderful hymn. Communion by intinction was reverently accomplished. The end.

Otherwise, the pastor was right: It was chaotic.

The “praise” singers arrived late, scattered their guitar cases and coats around the platform, and grabbed mikes to sing and sway. The music they sang was old, and vapid, in the 7-11 category (seven words sung over eleven times), with totally forgettable melodies, the shelf life of which ended before anyone arrived in the parking lot. The “children’s sermon” was spoken over a mike by a person invisible to the congregation except those small people before whom she knelt. During the sermon, the singers left the room. For most of the service the organist did nothing. The order was random, except in its broadest outline. And so forth.

The pastor and I had a chance to debrief some weeks later. It became clear that there was no truce in the Worship War for this congregation. It was the generation gap—the geriatric section wanted the “traditional” style, while the younger people clamored for the “contemporary.”

What the pastor hoped to accomplish was a “blended” worship experience, drawing from the best of both generations. It was, at least for him, an uphill climb.

As I listened to him describe what the two groups wanted, it occurred to me that they were both searching past each other, and not likely either the old folks or the youngsters would get what they wanted.

The gray-haired generation was looking back to the “good old days.” The familiar hymns brought the chills of nostalgia. Some liturgical formality, in vestments and language, gave authority to the proceedings. Quiet and peaceful worship was healing and spiritually soothing.

The younger people were looking forward to more lively worship, less formality, new more entertaining music, and some real challenges that “rock.” They want it to look like it belongs in the 21st century, not the 19th.

What people who advocate for either of these positions do not seem to know is that Christian worship is a living, growing experience.

You cannot recreate the past, because it’s gone.

Neither can you replace what we have now with liturgy that is completely new.

In both instances people fail to realize that what we have is a living experience, ever changing, constantly growing or needing repair. The Protestant Reformation was not a one-time experience. When it comes to Christian worship, the need for reformation is perpetual.

But reforming and renewing worship now does not happen without knowledge of where we’ve been and what the world looks like down the road ahead of us.

So, the only hope for my friend, and many of the rest of us, is to learn about the liturgical heritage our ancestors left us, build on it, and reshape next Sunday’s experience accordingly. There is desperate need these days for liturgical education—not just among pew-sitters, but for musicians, church leaders, and even for the clergy. Chaotic worship happens when nobody’s paying attention, and what we do is perfunctory and thoughtless.

If there is such a thing as “blended worship,” we don’t get there by sticking two things together that have nothing to do with right now. Rather we grow into it, letting the Spirit work to bring to life what is fresh and new.

How does your worship get evaluated and reviewed to see what needs to be better understood by the people, by musicians, by leaders and clergy?

Sunday, August 11, 2013

Shelf Life of Sermons

After the service a couple of Sundays ago, at which I was the featured guest preacher and presider, a kind gentleman came up to me and said to me something like, “That was a good one. You ought to give it again.”

Coincidentally, a few minutes later someone else tugged at my sleeve with a smiling suggestion that the sermon should be printed up and distributed.

In spite of the fact that flattery will get anyone farther than criticism, I balked at both notions because I’ve learned better.

There was a time, back in my young and foolish days, that I did actually try to pass off a used sermon on a different congregation. After all, they hadn’t heard it before, so for all they knew in their pious innocence, it was the latest and greatest.

The problem was, I’d heard it before, and spoken it before. Even though I preach from a written text in semi-outline form that allows leeway for adlibbing, it had all the freshness to me of yesterday’s mashed potatoes served with last week’s steamed broccoli.

Old sermons, even if they are only as old as yesterday, have a very short shelf life. They go stale quickly, losing zest like a Coke with the cap off. That loss of flavor and sharpness for the preacher inevitably leads to an insipid sermon for the people who hear it.

The rule that I learned, a few times the hard way, is, Don’t bother trying to resurrect an old sermon.

The corollary is, Don’t bother to print them up either, especially if you’ve taped it and want to print a transcript.

Printed sermons are read out-of-context—away from the sacred space, the gathered community of faith, and the sounds, sights and smells of Christian worship. Rather they are likely to be scanned in a setting with none of the supporting atmosphere, all of which makes the sermon less sermonic and more distant.

Besides that, if one is to print a delivered sermon, it needs a complete rewriting. A sermon to be read from ink on paper is very different from the conversationally spoken one. The labor invested in editing and re-writing is almost as much as crafting a fresh homily.

Not that sermons printed up are without value. They can be. I like to read sermons—by other people. It’s educational to see how someone else is touched by a passage, how the Spirit works in that person’s mind, soul and spirit, and how the Word speaks in that particular time and place.

Perhaps my sermons could be educational, even challenging to another person. In which case, some may be of sufficient value to reprint. Printed sermons, however, are clearly out-of-date, not current, and not local. All of that must be considered whenever you read sermons in print.

All of this brings me back to the main point: preaching happens in the here and now. Sermons are not to be written for publishing in books or preserved for the ages—they belong to a particular time of worship and the folks then gathered. There is a mighty arrogance to assume that a sermon prepared for this congregation on a particular date will “work” for anyone and everyone, wherever and whenever. If a sermon is aimed in that direction, it’ll fall flat in front of the pulpit.

In this sense, sermons are disposable items. They are good for one use and then should be discarded. To use a sermon more than once is to borrow trouble.

Given the rule (Don’t resurrect an old sermon) and its corollary (Don’t print a transcript of a sermon without editing), there is another rule: Don’t go back to read your old sermons on the same text you’re working on for next Sunday.

Should you go dig out parts of old sermons for the current one, you’ll likely start thinking like you did last time, and not be as open to the Spirit as you should be. What the “Good Word” was a year or three ago probably doesn’t sound quite right today.

Recycling preaching is a short-cut leading to a dead end street.

The preacher’s task is to listen before speaking, to “listen to what the Spirit is saying to the churches,” and then, only then, speak promptly and plainly.

Monday, July 8, 2013

Liturgical Ecumenism

There’s a very old joke about the young seminarian who was reporting to one of the elders of his home church about courses he was taking. “One of the most interesting,” the seminarian said, “is the course on ‘ecumenics’.” “That’s wonderful,” replied the oldster. “Ministers ought to know how to handle money.”

That joke dates from the days when ecumenism was a new concept in some circles, and there was a learning curve in local churches. Although you’d think we’d know better now, if you look around you’ll discover ecumenical relations among Christians and inter-faith relations between Christians and Jews and Moslems could stand considerable improvement.

On the Christian scene, it seems as though many congregations have climbed into their congregational boxes and folded over the tops. We’re clutching our own traditions, running dangerously into the mire of stagnation. Worship too often is static and stale, without passion or enthusiasm. Then, all that follows from worship grinds to a halt.

I was provoked to think about this quandary by a recent address made by John X, Patriarch of the Orthodox Church of Antioch, sent to me by a friend who is an Antiochian Orthodox priest. It contained this challenge to the Patriarch’s Orthodox constituents, just as applicable to all Christians:

“We should acknowledge that schism today is not only between the Churches, but also within... each of them. While we are called to learn from each other, each of us is searching for Christ in our own way and sings for Him with our own particular words and rituals. We have to love the face of Christ as He is seen by the other. Only then will our experiences complement each other; and we shall discover that the wall of enmity and schism does not grow so high as to reach the heavens.”

This, of course, confronts my Reformed sensibilities. It’s so easy for the likes of me, born and bred Presbyterian, steeped in the American “Book of Common Worship” tradition, to consider what I know to be all there is to know. We take our worship seriously, and build it on learning from our ancestors and education about our current practices. Yet that kind of wisdom and knowledge can become a box with the lid on tight.

Taking the above counsel of the Patriarch personally, it behooves me and others to at least peek outside the box of our own liturgy, and see what’s going on elsewhere.

Here’s a suggestion—that pastors and sessions (governing boards) need to include in their contracts the following requirement: That quarterly (at least four times a year) the pastor will take a weekend off to attend worship in another church (Protestant, Roman Catholic, Orthodox, Independent) and spend time with the spiritual leader of that congregation to discuss the experience.

Notice, this is a requirement—not an option.

What’s to be gained by such adventures?

Visiting other Protestant churches might possibly open one to the discovery of common threads of tradition. Lutherans will teach us that non-Reformed Protestants know how to worship as profoundly as we do, maybe more so. Southern Baptists reveal another more informal style reflecting other American customs. Episcopalians show that formality is not to be feared. There is even something to be learned from those in our own denomination.

Roman Catholics have struggled the past fifty years in “reforming” their worship. The actions of Vatican II have prompted many changes in the liturgy to restore the active role of the people. The ascendancy of Pope Benedict XVI, however, has introduced an era of undoing what Vatican II accomplished. Still, Roman Catholics struggle to understand their past and renew their worship.

On the Orthodox side, there is much to be learned. For a thousand years or so, the West has drifted from the East, and vice versa. Nevertheless, many Protestant and Catholic individuals have found their spiritual pilgrimages taking them in the Orthodox direction. Curiously, Presbyterians sometimes find a real attraction to Orthodox liturgy. It’s been suggested that this is because Calvin based his understanding of worshipping God on the early church theologians, who are also cited by the Orthodox liturgists. The full participation of the people and the awareness of transcendence in worship are among the commonalities.

(While we’re on the subject, even non-Christian people have something to contribute to our understanding of our own worship. A visit at the local synagogue, obviously, might also be included. How else is one to understand that the first Christians were Jews just as Jesus was, and our worship from the beginning was shaped by the traditions continuing in Sabbath worship? And Muslim worship can also be informative, even if commonalities are not so obvious. The devout piety and praise of God is clear, and conversation with the imam or other Muslim could reveal insights and understanding.}

Shared worship experiences can only be broadening for the pastor, and through him or her, enriching to the worship of the people.

Do you or your pastor ever visit other churches to learn about different worship experiences?

Sunday, June 16, 2013

Relevant Worship?

Recently a friend sent me an article from the Washington Post titled, “Seminary graduates not always ministering from the pulpit”. Here’s the gist of the article:

About 41 percent of masters of divinity graduates expect to pursue full-time church ministry, down from 52 percent in 2001 and from 90-something percent a few decades ago, according to the Association of Theological Schools, the country’s largest such group.

Americans, particularly young ones, are becoming less religiously affiliated, and many see churches as too focused on internal politics and dogma and not enough on bettering the outside world. Institutional religion doesn’t have the stature it once did, and pastor jobs are fewer and less stable.

The skepticism about religious institutions has led to a broadened concept of what it means to minister.*

Comments quoted from fledgling ministers revealed dissatisfaction with the gap between words and actions in the institutional church. One young man “thought that church institutions were hypocritical, talking about Jesus but not living like Him. They focused too much on personal salvation and not enough on caring for others, he thought, historically not fighting hard enough against segregation and slavery.”

This is a classic good-news-bad-news situation.

The good news is that young people are getting an education that builds a theological foundation for their “ministry” in a so-called “secular” calling. One woman, for example, would use her seminary training to support her work as a physician.

The bad news is that the institutional church is being abandoned by those it needs to have the most. If we talk about Jesus but don’t live like Jesus calls us to live in this world, then there is a failure in the way we worship. So the bright young people with fresh M.Div. diplomas are those we need in our churches to shape and lead worship that connects what we say we believe with what we do. Worship should prepare all of us for the ministries to which God calls us as teachers, filmmakers, engineers, doctors, contractors, sales people—whatever we do, wherever we are sent to follow our risen Lord.

In other words, Christian worship should be relevant.

The survey noted above suggests it’s time to check Lord’s Day praise and prayer on the “relevancy meter.” Just how well does worship prepare us to go out and be and do what God expects of us?

The problem is that in the culture of our churches there is a huge disconnect between what we label as “secular” issues and those which are “moral” or “spiritual” issues. For example, the recent (and continuing) debate about universal, affordable medical care is branded as political, and off limits for religious discussion. You probably don’t hear much about it from the pulpit. Yet you can quote chapter and verse about the ethical, moral, spiritual requirement for Christians to take care of the sick and the poor.

Nevertheless, it is sometimes difficult for us to be relevant regarding topics up for public and political debate. I discovered that when I retired, it became much easier for me to talk about these things. I had done so when a pastor, but in retrospect I realize I had sanded down the sharp edges. Now I was free to be more sharply accurate.

For example, I was the guest preacher filling in for a friend and the text was about Jesus healing the sick, and I connected that with medical care debate as a moral issue. After the service, as I was leaving, two members confronted me about the sermon. “I wish our pastor would preach like that,” said one, to which the other added, “We need to hear about those issues more often.” After saying appropriate thanks, I said, “Your pastor preaches relevant sermons. The difference is that you pay his salary and you don’t pay mine.”

Like it or not, there is a certain kind of intimidation that mutes the prophetic voice at least a trifle. Pew-sitters need to know this so they will encourage the preacher to be relevant, and make that faith-action, church-world connection sharply and clearly.

The same thing is necessary in the prayers we articulate in our gathered worship.

A good friend of mine, a neighbor rabbi, gave me this useful definition: “A prayer is a down payment on faithful action.” What we say in prayer is a commitment to God and ourselves that we will follow through.

Sometimes I’ve noticed that prayers in church are spoken as though the prayer itself is all that is necessary. Prayers for the sick members who are not present seem in and of themselves to suffice. I suppose it’s a “let God do it” mentality—if I pray for someone who’s sick, God will fix them, and I’ve done my good deed.

Our prayers are empty echoes without the means to act on them. What and who we pray for in our intercessions, and even our personal needs, must have opportunities provided to be carried out, to be made real. So our prayers are linked to mission efforts, educational programs, visitation plans, etc., whatever we need to act on what we pray for.

Worship in general is for “the equipping of the saints.” The hour or so we spend together to hear and taste God’s Word is supposed to prepare us to “Go out into the world in peace; have courage; hold on to what is good; return no one evil for evil; strengthen the fainthearted; support the weak, and help the suffering; honor all people; love and serve the Lord, rejoicing in the power of the Holy Spirit.”

When that’s accomplished, worship is indeed relevant.

*Seminary graduates not always ministering from the pulpit, by Michelle Boorstein, The Washington Post, May 17, 2013

Saturday, June 1, 2013

Bulletin Art

Why is it that so many church bulletin covers look like real estate ads?

In this era of reclusive and fading congregations, promoting a congregation’s worship life with such a major emphasis on physical structure may be some of the problem.

In the nineteen-fifties and early sixties many people referred to the overall church structure as a “plant”. New businesses were popping up and older ones were expanding, and churches followed their example. Christian education classrooms were generously added on to worship spaces, while new church buildings sprawled out to provide ample room for all. Some suggested that the churches suffered from an “edifice complex.”

Of course, the flaw in logic of a church building on the bulletin cover is that the bulletin is given to people who are already there, and can see the building, live and in color, inside as well as out. The “art,” no matter how lovely, was aimed at the wrong target.

To say the least, featuring the façade of place of worship on cover of worship order is beside the point. To say more, it’s in the way, distracting, and mildly heretical.

What is on the cover of the bulletin should be minimally a clue to what’s inside. It should be a preview of the major theme of the service, the time or season of the Christian year, the scriptural story in the text for the day, giving the worshippers a sneak peek of what’s in store for them spiriturally.

So, thinking of churches of various sizes, what does one put on the cover of our Sunday worship folder?

The easy answer is to chase down clip art that works for that Sunday, that congregation, and reasonably falls in the category of “art.” “Clip art” is the first logical solution to seek out. There are many excellent opportunities to retrieve religious symbols and art, in color as well as black-and-white, that will serve as a suitably reverent introduction to worship. Even smaller churches have the technical equipment and people with the knowhow to make clip art a wonderful aid to Sunday morning prayer and praise.

The graphic or photo should evidence some thought and effort and have a message that can be captured in the blink of an eye. A good bulletin cover will offer a three-second sermon, capturing a theological concept graphically, luring the viewer into seeking the presence of God.

Poetry and prayers sometimes work on the cover, but they have to be powerful and brief. Not only should they serve as introductions to the worship service, but must function well as take-homes, a snippet of verse or petitionary prayer that is a reminder of the message in the days to follow. Such poetry and prayers are art-forms in their own right, to be sought diligently.

Another approach to getting bulletin art is to recruit artists in your congregation. You don’t have any, you say? Sorry, but I doubt that. My bet is that, even if your faithful group of Jesus’ disciples is small, you have someone or some several people who create artistic works.

Obviously, you want to think about someone who creates graphic art: an architect, engineer or builder who does drawings; a school teacher (they often have artistic skills, or know someone who does); a college student artist; a photographer (professional or amateur); and surely there are others.

And how about the women (or men) who sew and embroider, do needlepoint or stitchery. They work with designs and colors and can work wonders when asked politely.

Moving further along, it’s a great idea to invite the whole congregation to do drawings, black and white or in living color, of Christian symbols that express their faith. (Keep the size about 4”x5” vertical to fit the bulletin space, unless you use larger paper than 8 ½ by 11 folded.) This might require a series of workshops or classes about Christian symbolism to stimulate their creative juices.

Don’t forget to include asking the children. You may get some simplistic looking art work, but then, some grown-ups have become famous with nothing more. Innocence showing through is not bad.

The cover of the worship bulletin is more important than some folks admit. It can reek of boredom, or it can instead provoke interest, entice worshippers to prayer and praise, and educate Christ’s disciples.

What’s on your bulletin cover?

Sunday, May 12, 2013

That's (Not) Entertainment

Today was “Youth Sunday.”

Well, actually, by the Hallmark Holy Day Calendar, it was “Mother’s Day,” but the church we attended approached it from a different angle.

Young people led the service of worship from beginning to end—all spoken parts and musical contributions, including some individual instrumental pieces, chanting, and singing of songs on behalf of the congregation—everything led by teenagers of the church’s youth group.

As I told the pastors after the service, the children set the bar high, and the pastors had better get to work to measure up for next Sunday.

For us older folks, this “Youth Sunday” offered a service of hope. To be led by children in praise of God is both humbling and inspiring. The future of the church is in good hands, and the promises of God were visible in the faces and voices of these children.

So, in a real way, appreciation for mothers was strong in this service, and for fathers, too. The parents of these youngsters had a right to indulge in the sin of pride. It was a strong service of worship, out of a strong youth program, supported by many moms and dads.

One of the most powerful parts of the service was an anthem sung by the Youth Choir. Eleven young people, without music sheets in front of them, sang a song of personal commitment to God called “What the Lord Has Done in Me.” Face to face with the congregation, they witnessed to the new life we all have in Jesus Christ.

This was, for me, worship at its very best. The young people’s song became my song. They enabled and enriched my worship. Somehow, through this piece, I was connected to God, touched by the Living Lord, and moved by the Spirit. I think it was true for many, if not all the others as well.

But then it happened. When the song was ended, there was silence…for a moment…and then applause. The magical mystery of worship was broken. Clapping hands shifted everything. What the youngsters had done ceased to be worship because it was transformed into entertainment.

Søren Kierkegaard exposed this problem generations ago. As he pointed out, we often see worship as theater, where the congregation is the audience, the clergy and choir are the performers, and God is the prompter. That’s all wrong, however, because it’s only entertainment. Shift one space over and you’ll find that in worship God is the Audience, the clergy and choir are the prompters, and the congregation are the performers.

What happened at the end of the young people’s anthem was the shift backward from worship to entertainment. We applaud for things done for our amusement. It’s possible to applaud in celebration of God’s grace, to be sure, but what happened here was that worshippers gave the kids a hand for doing something they liked.

Several things resulted from the applause. First of all, we stopped worshipping God. We seemed to be more interested in congratulating the youngsters for a fine job than praising God for our redemption in the death and resurrection of Jesus Christ. And the applause took us out of range of thinking about what God has done and is doing in us. A moment or two of meditation would have been much better spent.

Furthermore, the worshipful presentation of the anthem by the young people was itself discounted. Their own act of worship in singing was trivialized into a performance, rather than accepted as an offering to God.

Also, the young people themselves were belittled by the applause, as though they needed it to be recognized. Rarely does the adult choir draw applause and few sermons leave people clapping—because that’s not why they are offered. They are acts of worship for God, not entertainment for people. Young people deserve to be accepted as real members, able to make real contributions.

I’m sure it was far from anyone’s thought to devalue the effort of the young people. Maybe the applause was a genuine reaction of appreciation and a kind of “Amen” by gesture, a signing on to what was sung and said. But the effect of applause is usually just the opposite, because that’s the way it’s used most of the time in the rest of our lives.

So, there needs to be some congregational education. It would be helpful to post a line in the bulletin from time to time to the effect that applause should be withheld. Let’s be sure we do not drift away from worship into something less worthy of our God.

Do folks clap for children’s choir anthems in your church?

Sunday, April 28, 2013

Children, All

What with shrinking church membership these days, I wonder when we’re going to re-think the place of children in worship.

Most of the time children are often viewed as problems, special creatures that have to be dealt with in some extraordinary fashion in order to have a service of worship “work” for everyone in attendance. What shall we do with the children? And then we come up with a list of possible “answers” and hope something pans out.

First of all I feel obligated, in accord with “truth in blogging” requirements, to fess up that I have aided and abetted those who have pursued such policies that I’m about rant about. In some cases, I even thought they were fairly good ideas, at least in want of any better ones. I’ve learned a few things through the years, however, so now I rant.

One common solution to the puzzle of the presence of children in church is to get them out of there before the really adult part of the service. So, children arrive with mom and dad, and sing a hymn and say a prayer and then they are on their way. This is done, of course, under the pretense of doing something nice for the children, relieving them of the tedious sermon and setting them free for more fun endeavors. We all know that, even if there is a drop of truth in that, there’s a whole bucket full in the fact that it’s just as often for the convenience and quiet of adults.

I’ve always felt it strange that, in many places, before the children are dismissed to go where it’s educational and age-appropriate for them, they are subjected to a “children’s sermon”. By my observation, those things rarely qualify as anything children crave or take delight in. Usually the kids are put on stage and provide entertainment for the grown-ups in the room.

There are congregations that welcome back the previously discharged children, just in time for them to come to the Lord’s Table and take part in the Eucharist. That’s a laudable policy, to have children come to the table with the rest of the church family. The problem comes when they have been away while Scripture has been read and the Gospel proclaimed. For the little people, then, Communion has no liturgical foundation because the link of Word and Sacrament is broken.

Another way out of the children-at-worship dilemma is to keep them there the whole time, but treat them as second-rate congregants. Again the “children’s sermon” is employed, a mini-message for minor Christians.

But this approach to children doesn’t work, and shouldn’t. Children may be small people, but they are people nevertheless, no less important than any of the other people. Condescension is another word for insult, and when we stoop and dumb down to children, they can see it as the disrespect that it is.

For example, coloring books in the pew racks should be recycled and made into something useful. All such entertaining distractions to keep little minds occupied are designed to keep them out of the way, and an affront to any child’s dignity.

I recall a committee conversation some years ago with an esteemed Presbyterian church historian about the appropriateness of children receiving Communion. He proclaimed that, historically, this would not be acceptable because “children do not understand what happens in the Lord’s Supper.” When he was challenged as to whether or not he really understood the Eucharist, he admitted, “Well, no—it’s a mystery.” The committee member replied, “Children know it’s a mystery too.” We need to recognize that even small children have an intuitive understanding of what they experience in a church service.

What is more, children are curious, absorbing all sorts of data around them, learning constantly. The best way, it should go without saying, for children to learn how to worship is for them to worship, and the best arena is in the Sunday morning service.. They belong there for the whole time, certainly if they are of school age. There they can sit next to parents or other adults who will point the way through the order and whisper information that gives meaning to the new experience.

That’s not the only education growing Christians need, of course, but it is the rock foundation. We’re all God’s children, after all, whatever our age, and we never outgrow the need for the cultivation and increase of our faith.

Do children worship with adults on Sunday in your church? If not, what other arrangement do you have? Why?

Sunday, April 21, 2013

Trivializing Worship

A report came to me from the far reaches of the Realm about a couple of troublesome liturgical events—to say the least. My source is eminently reliable and trustworthy to a fault, so the veracity of the dispatch is beyond even a smidge of doubt. I share this information with you, without mention of names in order to protect the guilty.

It seems that the young pastor of this un-named church was presiding at the baptism of two infants. In holding the first child, the baptizer allowed the little one to splash the water in the font, not once but several times. The second child was actually invited to slosh the water, vigorously.

One can only speculate about the congregation’s (audience’s) reaction, since it was not mentioned in the report I received. I suspect, however, there were numerous gasps, followed by uncomfortable giggles.

My source, whom I regard as reasonable and understanding, wrote of this activity using words like “despicable” and “disrespectful.” That seems clear enough.

It’s a challenge to discern the pastor’s rationale for such aquatic frivolity. Perhaps it was an attempt to warn the little ones of the water temperature before the actual baptismal splash--sort of a liturgical version of toe-in-the-water-before-jumping-in-the-pool.

More likely this sacramental debacle was an ill-thought attempt to lighten the mood and make the experience fun for the kiddies of all ages.

There are times when maybe the Catholics have it right, and this is one of them. By sacralizing the contents of the font and calling it Holy Water, they minimize the possibility of childish silliness.

The other event, believe it or not, took place in the same church. The Gospel lesson, a substantial portion of the Sermon on the Mount, was presented by the pastor in duet with another clergyperson. The first read the text as written, while the second interspersed such comments as, “You’ve got to be kidding, right?” and other expository remarks indicating disbelief. At the end, it was announced that “This is the Word of the Lord,” which actually only applied to what one person said.

A gracious evaluation might concede this was an effort to show the stark contrast between what Jesus preached and what folks wanted to hear, then and now. Nevertheless, the commentary was not only invasive but silly. Certainly the responses to the scriptural message were distracting rather than informative.

Most of all, the way the Word was proclaimed in this kind of dual reading violated the rule that Scripture stands on its own, and the Word of God in Jesus Christ is present in its reading. Interpretation before or during the reading only gets in the way. Save the exposition and explanation for the sermon.

Both these events are sterling examples of “the trivialization of worship.”

The finger-wading by children in the baptismal font scales down the importance of the sacrament, not only to the children but to all witnesses. That is what will likely be remembered, rather than the parental commitment of young children to growth in faith and moral stature, rather than promises made by the congregation to be kept and fulfilled. Such triviality in worship deserves condemnation because it is “precious,” sweet and empty of content.

Chopping up the Gospel reading with cheeky cheap shots clutters up the Message of the Gospel. In the guise of being creative, such theatrical efforts also deserve censure because they are “cute,” several notches below clever and very much out of place.

These are not the only trivializing activities besieging our churches. Relegating the Lord’s Supper to “when it’s not too convenient” or “not so often that we get used to it” is a massive minimalization of the central worship act of Christians everywhere.

This approach produces side-shows. They are minor in meaning, but often major in impact by keeping the worshippers’ focus elsewhere than on the Main Event, communal worship on the Lord’s Day. Who we are as the church of Jesus Christ flows from God’s people gathered for worship. Distractions can be deadly for the church.

Perhaps that is a prevailing problem for many congregations. Some suppose that “precious” practices and “cute” creations will draw people, but they are wrong. When the chips are down, people seek faith that counts, commitments that make a difference, challenges to be met boldly, even bravely. Entertainment at the side shows fails utterly on all counts. As long as there is trivialization of worship, everything the church is and does will be trivial too.

Friday, April 12, 2013

What I Want in Worship

Wants, needs, expectations—we all have them rattling around in us on a Sunday morning en route to church. They vary, of course, from one of us to another by infinite degrees. Yet there are certain commonalities, those hopes and yearnings that persist in each of us as we anticipate gathering with the people of God.

My post-retirement “view from the pew” has given me a clearer perspective on this subject, and a more personal understanding of what others may want in worship. Here are some glimmers of insight I have to offer.

A Serious Celebration

The worship of God, especially on the Lord’s Day, should be a celebration, no doubt about it. The grace and overwhelming love God has shown in the birth, life and ministry, death, resurrection and ascension of Jesus Christ calls forth an expression of joy in word and song, from each of us, from all of us together.

At the same time, our worship is not to be giddy and casually gleeful. Sometimes joy is forced by so-called “praise music,” or a presider’s emcee glibness, ignoring the seriousness of the occasion. Christian worship is about life-and-death matters, and deserves sincere and sober consideration. We need to remember that “serious” is not the same as “solemn” and “somber,” but can be coupled with profound gladness erupting in celebration.

Confession Forgiven

It is in the Prayer of Confession and the Declaration of Forgiveness that the idea of a “serious celebration” ceases to seem like an oxymoron.

For individuals, confession is always a serious matter. To share this confession with others publically makes it all the more so. This is not so easy to do, if one is earnest about it. Maybe this is why so many churches fail to include a confession of sin in their orders, because it’s difficult to admit we so often miss the mark.

Yet confession of sin is not just an individual exercise at Sunday worship. It is also an acknowledgement of corporate sin. It’s even harder for us to fess up to taking part in the sins of the church or our government or of other groups to which we belong. This too is a serious subject for honest confession.

The difficulty of confessing, however, is matched by the humility conferred on us by God’s forgiveness. This is very different from confirming everyone’s inherent goodness and ignoring corporate sin in the world. When we are realistic about our failure to follow God’s lead in life, God’s forgiveness washes away guilt and blesses us with a chance to start over, all because of Jesus Christ. Now there’s cause for loud happy song and joyous tears.

Renewal and Change

When we come to worship and hear the story of God’s people told via Scripture, we ought to begin to get the idea that the message is all about change. God’s people have always been summoned and set on missions to turn things upside down, to make wrong right, and bad good. The renewal of life experienced in worship breathes breath into the prophetic voice of God’s people.

This is not simply a matter of personal change, but of social change as well. I used to have parishioners who claimed that social change was beyond the reach of Christian renewal—our job was to get individuals to change and then the world would naturally be altered accordingly. The biblical prophets including Jesus himself, not to mention many of his followers through history up to now, would disagree with that. Groups (including churches and governments) behave differently sometimes than the individuals involved.

The renewal of worship, in order to proclaim the message of repentance and reformation, needs to be high on the priority list for the church today. This is what will enable the church to speak forth for God on moral issues, wherever and whenever they appear.

Encouraging Challenge

All of which leads to the most important thing I want in when I go to church in Sunday. That is to be challenged.

One of the weaknesses in our churches today is that there is not sufficient provocation of people in the pews to act out their faith by following Jesus. Are we as generous as we could be? Are suburban church budgets as benevolent as they could be? Are we Christians caring for the poor and prodding our government representatives to do their job? Do we take the side of the weak and powerless? There are pages of similar questions to be asked.

Sunday morning is challenge time. Let’s have it laid out for us what needs to be done by disciples of Jesus, and then let’s be encouraged by the promises of the Spirit that, with God’s help, we can move mountains if need be.

Without such spiritual prodding, there will be very little renewal or change, and ever-decreasing commitment by the people in the pews. Scripture, sermons, prayers and praise all combine to make us different people when we leave church from who we were when we came in.

What do you want in worship?

Monday, March 18, 2013

"Explain Yourself"

There are certain questions about worship you should ask your pastor. As the “resident liturgical theologian” and recently titled “teaching elder”, she or he has responsibility for educating worshippers about what they’re doing. Therefore these queries reasonably seek enlightenment for the people in the pews.

The questions are asked in the negative, but if any are answered positively, explanation is required nevertheless. (My comments are reserved until the end.) So, here are inquiries to pose to your pastor:

Why don’t we have Communion every Sunday? (If perchance your congregation does celebrate the Sacrament each week, then that deserves an explanation also.)

Why don’t we read from the Old Testament in church? (Or, why not all three, Old Testament, Epistle and Gospel?)

Why don’t we sing psalms like Presbyterians used to? (Sometimes psalms are used, but spoken. That’s better than no psalms at all, but it’s still not singing.)

Why don’t we say or sing the Apostles’ Creed (or other confession of faith) each week? (A plethora of creedal affirmations is out there to be recited, read, sung or chanted.)

Why don’t we have a prayer of confession? (You’re asking about corporate confession as well as personal confession in public.)

Why don’t people from the congregation read the Scripture lessons in church? (If they read one or two, but not all, then the question is still why?)

Why don’t we always sing all the verses of the hymns? (Abbreviated hymnody is the issue.)

Why is the Baptismal Font usually off in the corner, to the side, out of view? (Fonts are often furtive and difficult to locate.)

Why isn’t the choir seated behind the congregation? (Location is the issue here, as it affects the function and role of the choir relative to the people in the pews.)

Why isn’t there more silent time in the service? (For prayer, contemplation of Scripture readings, pondering sermon, etc.)

Most congregations follow or neglect some worship practices, not knowing what they do or don’t do, or why. These questions raise some issues that need to be taken up locally for the edification of all, worship leaders and pew-sitters alike.

Communion every Sunday The fact is that congregations which do not celebrate the Lord’s Supper each Lord’s Day are in the distinct minority among Christians throughout history. That ought to be enough to provoke some thought that just maybe there’s something to weekly sharing of Bread and Wine with the Living Lord.

Old Testament Readings—or Three Readings The point is that the Gospel of Jesus Christ does not stand alone, but in context. Actually, there are at least two major contexts: the Jewish roots of Jesus, and the fertile field of the church of the Risen Christ. So, Old Testament readings and Epistle readings are essential to provide those contexts.

Psalm-Singing Such a great and wondrous tradition awaits reclaiming. Two points here: first, the richness of the Psalms in and of themselves brings theological and spiritual depth to worship; second, singing doubles (maybe triples) the impact.

Saying, Singing Creeds A flat-out brief affirmation of personal and shared faith helps bring focus to worship. The ancient and biblical statements link us to our spiritual ancestors on whose shoulders we stand. More current ones remind us that faith is not static but alive and growing. Singing helps folks keep them in memory for use outside Sunday morning.

Prayer of Confession There are folks who think they don’t need to confess, or if they do, not much. Humility, however, is good for the soul. Individually and together, before God and one another, we acknowledge and accept what God has already given us: forgiveness and healing.

Scripture Readers The idea of people from the pews reading from the Bible on Sundays is not new, but not universal either. When this happens, especially when it is done well, it serves as a reminder that worship belongs, not to the clergy or other leaders, but to the people, and the Bible is the common text we all share.

All Hymn Verses Too often someone thinks they’re doing the congregation a favor by amputating a verse or two from a hymn so they can get home sooner. Crippling a hymn in that way often distorts the meaning of the poetry. It makes for poor theology and confusing poetry. Respect the work of the lyricist and composer—sing it from top to bottom.

Baptismal Font It should be in the way, so people have to walk around it to get in the church. There should be water in it. Remembering our baptisms helps us recall Whose we are and why we’ve come to church in the first place. Shoving the font into the corner is a sin of neglect, maybe abandonment.

Choir Seating My guess is that in most Presbyterian churches the choir is up front, although I know of some places where they’re in the back of the congregation. From behind, the choir becomes the supporting voice for congregational singing. From a loft or platform in front, the temptation to perform is fierce. It’s not impossible, of course, for the choir to undergird the congregation’s singing from the front, nor to present an anthem on behalf of the congregation from the back.

Silence The placement of silence in a service can keep us from moving too quickly ahead and leaving meaning behind. Some leaders get nervous with silence, thinking, I suppose, that they must fill every moment with sound. Silence gives worshippers a chance to reflect, ponder, consider, commit, meditate, speculate, dream, hope, resolve, and remember what God has done and promises to do.

So, have a conversation with your pastor. Gently propose a question or two. Discuss the answers. Discover possibilities for change.

Sunday, March 10, 2013

Creed - Part Two

It seems that one of my spiritual ancestors, John Calvin, thought it was a good idea for the congregation to sing the creed. At least, so he indicated in his Geneva liturgy. I mention this so that it doesn’t appear to be a crazy innovation.

Actually, when you think about it, we’ve been doing something like what Calvin suggested, perhaps without knowing it. How many orders of service do you know that has a hymn following the sermon? Many if not most.

The proclamation of the Word calls for a response from the people. The reading of Scripture and subsequent preaching challenges worshippers to affirm their faith anew. One of the ways this is commonly done is by the singing of a hymn. Even if a creed is recited in unison, singing the song of faith is often included.

The reason that we sing hymns anywhere in a service, but especially after hearing the Word proclaimed, is that music makes what we sing more memorable than it would be if we only said it. Calvin knew that.

So, if we sing the creed, we’re going to remember it better than if we only spoke it. Since creeds are important if we are going to learn the language of faith, it helps to carry them in our memories, and set to music, creeds stay with us.

Now it’s entirely possible that we might just settle for hymns to fill the spot of creedal affirmation in the service. After all, aren’t all hymns, in one way or another, affirmations of faith? True enough. But some are better than others.

Often the hymn after the sermon is selected for its relationship to the preached message. Just as often hymns are connected to the special day or season of the Christian Year. When other relationships are obvious, the hymn’s use as a creed may not be so apparent. Nevertheless, it’s worth a try.

So let’s move in another direction and see if there are any hymns that lend themselves to use as a creed. Indeed there are. In the Presbyterian Hymnal, two pieces in particular are perfectly useful as creeds, because they are biblical affirmations set to music.

One is based on Philippians 2:5-1, number 148 in the Presbyterian Hymnal. The biblical text, so we’re told, was an affirmation of faith, probably used in worship. Its poetic format even hints that it may well have been sung originally. In this setting, the words of the text are restated in metrical verse, like a hymn, to be easily sung and, therefore, more easily remembered.

Another is found at number 598 of the Presbyterian Hymnal, based on 1 Corinthians 15. This, too, is supposed to have been poetry used and perhaps sung in early worship. Its setting in the hymnal is not as a hymn, however, but as service music. Clearly it’s intended to be used as a sung confession of faith.

Other traditional creeds, such as the Apostles’ Creed and the Nicene Creed can be and have been re-phrased to be sung or simply chanted. There are many options to be explored by pastors and musicians to enliven our professions of faith in God. Lifting our voices in song helps us lift our loyalty to God as we rejoice in our faith.

Do you sing or chant the creed in your worship service?

Thursday, February 21, 2013


Early in my pastoral ministry, the order of worship in the church I served included no such thing as a Creed or Affirmation of Faith. My predecessor had hoped and prayed that one might be included, but had encountered consistent resistance. When he died, it was left to me to take up the challenge.

This is not about the multi-year struggle that finally resulted in a Confession of Faith. Rather our discussion here focuses on what we’re talking about. What is an Affirmation of Faith, liturgically? Why is it important for everyone to stand up and say “We believe…” in unison? Or is it at all necessary? Maybe it’s not even a good idea to do it.

After church one morning I was confronted by a gentleman who announced politely, but firmly, that he was more than a little miffed that I had “put words in my mouth,” as he phrased it. He “resented” (his word) the Apostles’ Creed. “I can’t buy everything in that Creed,” he announced, “and what I do believe I wouldn’t say that way anyhow.” I don’t recall if I had a convincing response at that moment, and perhaps he was not convince-able anyway. But he did raise a good question about creeds in worship.

When we stand and say “We believe…,” are we articulating personal convictions? In that liturgical act, am I stating my individual theological conclusions?

Many worshippers, I suppose, trip over that assumption, that the creed in worship requires our personal assent, line for line and word for word.

The answer to the question, clearly, is “No.”

Part of the problem is that the Apostles’ Creed, ever popular in many Protestant churches, begins with the singular “I”, and sounds for all the world like a personal statement, signed at the bottom and notarized. (This is because, perhaps, it originated as a baptismal confession.) The Nicene Creed, which is perhaps more commonly used among all Christians, starts off with the plural pronoun.

In the course of a worship service, in which the “audience” is God, the creedal statement is an expression of God’s own people of confidence in the promises and gifts received in Jesus Christ. It is a corporate testimonial, an assertion of love and loyalty.

The corporate quality of the creed is not confined to those who happen to be in the room on Sunday morning, but expands to include the community of the saints, all those who have come before us and those who follow. In the moment of saying the creed, we link hands with generations of God’s own faithful people.

So we begin to realize that saying the creed is more celebrative than doctrinal, more poetic and prayerful than scholarly. It’s not an oral exam for either a Ph.D. thesis or Communicants’ Class, but an act of worship. We speak with no pretensions that we understand all Christian dogmas and doctrines including every jot and tittle. We simply utter our faith from our depths, doubts and all.

There are a number of resources available for affirming faith by a congregation at worship. The Apostles’ Creed and the Nicene Creed, of course, are used regularly.

The Presbyterian Church (USA) includes in its Book of Confessions a number of historical creeds and affirmations, many of which are in response to particular theological or doctrinal issues. Sections of some of them, however, can be excerpted and compiled into usable liturgical statements.

In 1983, the newly reunited denomination of the former northern and southern Presbyterian churches established a committee to draft a new, shorter statement of faith that could be used in worship. Drawing extensively on the historic documents in the “Book of Confessions” as well as Scripture, they fashioned “A Brief Statement of Faith”, arranged in a Trinitarian structure. It is laid out in “phrase-line” format, which makes it visually useful, and the language itself is appropriate for current worshippers. The three major sections can be used independently as creedal statements, along with the introduction based on Scripture texts, and the concluding doxology of praise and thanksgiving.

The Book of Common Worship (1983) also includes a number of affirmations from Scripture that are powerful congregational affirmations, such as the one from Phil. 2:5-11.

Some churches fashion their own home-made creedal statement. This can be an exceptionally exciting experience of learning and spiritual growth for the people involved. It’s important that the task not be accomplished by a small group alone—efforts must be made to involve classes and groups of the church in the process. It’s also essential that the local creed be seen in the context of the faith of the Church of Jesus Christ through the centuries.

How does your church’s congregation affirm faith during Sunday worship?

Sunday, February 10, 2013

"Vee Haff Roolss!"

That was the comment my father used, imitating a stern German accent, as he good-naturedly reminded us kids of chores or homework we needed to do. His voice echoed in my mind as I thought of the fundamental efforts required to provide Christian worship.

Yes it is true, when we are gathered as followers of Jesus Christ to give our praise and prayers to the Almighty God, “We have rules!”

Here are a few for your consideration:

Clean House.
Janitors, custodians or volunteers who keep the worship space tidy contribute significantly to the worship of God. It’s distracting, to say the least, to find old bulletins stuffed in the pew racks, cob webs in corners, brochure rack materials helter-skelter, and other signs of slovenliness. Good housekeeping is the first rule of respect—of the people and their God.

Set the Table.
The Communion Table is placed in the focal center of the worship space, from the perspective of the people in the pews. “Front and center” is appropriate.

The Communion Table is set for celebrating the Sacrament. That is, assuming you are celebrating the Sacrament every Sunday as is the on-going tradition and custom for most Christians, most of the time throughout the centuries.

If not, if there is the occasional Lord’s Day you do not celebrate the Lord’s Supper, then set the Table anyway, with at the least a chalice and plate. A white table cloth is always appropriate; liturgical colors may be added seasonally.

Remember the Table’s function. It is not a flower stand—put them somewhere else. It’s not an altar either, on which deacons can place the offering plates. The Table is reserved for celebrating the sacrifice God gave us in Jesus Christ.

Find the Font.
In some churches, far too many, you have to hunt to find the Baptismal Font because when not in use it is relegated to a dark corner. Bring it out front and center also, or nearby the Table at least. Better yet, place it at the entrance of the room so all will pass it on the way to their seats.

If the Font has a top or lid, remove it, and put water in the basin. People may want to touch the water in remembrance of their own baptisms. Like the Table, the Font should always be set to indicate its intended purpose.

Remove extra chairs, tables, easels, microphone stands, audio-visual equipment, musical instruments, and other items not being used for that service. Even if they are used, they need not be strewn on the liturgical landscape.

Use Three Passages of Scripture.
There’s a reason for this: Every text needs context. Someone famous once said that Scripture interprets Scripture. Texts from the Old Testament, the New Testament Epistles and the Gospels provide context for one another. The lectionary is a guide that helps us cover a lot of biblical ground over the year. Don’t skip and skimp.

Sing Psalms.
There was a time when we Presbyterians were famous, even notorious, for singing Psalms. In many churches, the Psalter is making a comeback, so don’t be left behind. The Psalms, as we all know, has been the prayer book of God’s people for millennia, including Jesus himself. Use at least one psalm in every service.

Too many churches take the “easy” way out and read the psalms, maybe responsively. It’s much better, more interesting, and even exciting to sing them, for there are delightful musical options for each one.

Beware of Electronics.
Older church buildings were designed to be used without electronic voice amplification. In those days, preachers and other public speakers knew how to project. Those who must rely on microphones and tweeters and woofers should take speaking lessons and exercise their diaphragms.

Flickering screens and Power Point presentations overshadow, if not overwhelm, the beauty of the architectural setting and the accoutrements of the rituals, not to mention any resident works of art in sculpture and stained glass. Do not obscure what is there or try to improve upon it by electronic means.

There’s a law somewhere that proclaims that whatever can go wrong, will. This is universally true in electronics. If you can possibly get along without audio-visuals and the like, do—it’s safer.

Lay Readers. Those who bravely go to the lectern to read Scripture or lead a prayer deserve the opportunity to learn how to do it. Pronouncing biblical names, placing proper emphasis on biblical phrases, making sense of theological passages, and presenting dialogue are only a few of the tricky parts of reading from the Bible. Help should be generously bestowed by the pastor and musicians who have had more experience.

Clergy. Lest clergy forget, they also need to rehearse. Preaching out loud in advance is just good practice. Turning on a tape recorder and listening can help.

It should go without saying that the choir rehearses what it sings on behalf of the people; the choir should also rehearse what the congregation sings, however, so everyone sings better.

Help the People Pray and Praise.
The folks out there in the pews are the ones who are doing worship. Presiders and musicians are coaches and boosters, there to energize the liturgical work of the people. Remember your role and responsibilities.

There are other rules to be considered, no doubt. I hope you will make your suggestions for the primary, essential, absolutely necessary rules to which we must adhere if our worship will be effective and faithful.

Sunday, February 3, 2013

Writing Prayers

Even if you’re a compulsive ad-lib sort of worship planner/leader, the time will come when you have to write down and print out the words of a unison prayer.

Now, you can get away with copying prayers from the Book of Common Worship (BCW) or other similar resource for a while, but you’ll discover that they have a shelf life and go stale after repeated use. Besides, prayers in the BCW are essentially models to be emulated, and not intended to be eternal substitutes for prayers created on site.

So often I run across unison prayers in a church bulletin that contain sentence fragments, strange syntax, subjects and verbs out of sync, and other distractions. Even when everything is “correct”, the prayer itself could benefit from more clarity.

Prayers in a worship service should be suitable to the people in the pews as well as the leaders. A unison prayer is made up of sentences designed to fit comfortably in the mouths of the people saying it. After all, it’s their prayer—the leader is just their coach.

Even the prayers spoken only by the leader on behalf of the people need to be stated appropriately for everyone. Petitions articulated solo by the presider should be written down as well, put together just as carefully as any unison prayer.

In either case, unison by all or solo statement by the presider, the prayers represent conversation between the people and the Almighty, and should, therefore, be shaped accordingly.

This is not to say that prayers should be expressed in jargon, slang or common clichés. Good grammar and crystal clear vocabulary used in a fashion worthy of the God addressed is obviously desired.

Writing prayers for worship is an art as much as it is a craft. One continues to learn how by doing—practice may not make perfect, but it sure helps. Here are a few suggestions:

Psalms It’s always a good idea to consult experts, and biblical sources of prayer are the places to begin. Maybe that’s why the Psalms have been so much a part of Christian (not to mention Jewish) worship through the centuries. The Psalter provides an education in prayer, not as a text book, but as a prayer book. Learn to pray the Psalms and you’ll write better prayers.

Poetry not Prose Remember that praying is more akin to poetry than it is to prose. Prose prayers often come out sounding like the phone book. Poetic prayers, drawing on biblical metaphors and symbols, carry more freight than humdrum prose. But poetic prayers are not so easy to come by. Read on.

Phrase-lining Many, if not all, the prayers in the BCW are laid out in a format called “phrase-lining”, that is, one phrase to each line. You can do the same, and find that even if you print it in prose format, it will read better. For example, this morning where I was visiting, the following prayer of confession, said in unison, started out this way:

Sometimes, God, we do not know what to confess. We seek to keep your law, but the right course is not always clear. We want to follow your direction, but it is hard to discern what is true….

Now, reversing the process, look at it in phrase-lined format, to see why it works so well.

Sometimes, God,
we do not know what to confess.
We seek to keep your law,
but the right course is not always clear.
We want to follow your direction,
but it is hard to discern what is true

If it were up to me, I’d leave it in the bulletin that way, because even visually it looks more poetic and the substance more clearly stated.

Rhythm You’ll notice that in most good prayers there is a rhythm. No, not rap—just the natural rhythm of conversation. One of the ways you can check the rhythm of a prayer you’ve written is to read it out loud in your study (or other private place) while you walk around the room. If it’s out of rhythm, you’ll be the first to know.

Listen The best way, of course, to check the quality and appropriateness of your written prayer is to listen to it. You could use a recording device and play it back to yourself. Even better, however, is to ask your spouse or good friend to read it to you. Listen several times, and revise as you go.

Giving time and energy to writing prayers for worship is well worth it. It’s easy, among the multitude of tasks the church throws at worship planners and presiders, to neglect something as obvious as prayers. But the Audience of our prayers wants to hear from us, and so we should do our very best.

Do you review and re-write unison prayers before printing? Do you write out your pastoral and other prayers? Do you prepare any prayers for worship, memorize them and recite them in the service?

Sunday, January 27, 2013

Pastoral Prayers

When I was growing up, it was expected that kids would attend regular worship with their parents. One of the more memorable parts of the service for me as a teenager was, believe it or not, the Pastoral Prayer.

The reason I found the Pastoral Prayer noteworthy was on the average it lasted about 30 minutes. My junior high mentality found such theological appeals tedious and tiresome—I got some relief by timing them so I could report to my dad whether or not a record was set. Dad confessed that he often tuned out as well because the list of petitions seemed rambling, disorganized and never-ending.

Shifting the scene, I remember a different story about pastoral prayers told by a friend named Don. He was living and working in New York and became a regular worshipper at the Riverside Church when Harry Emerson Fosdick was Pastor.

The most memorable part of the service for Don was not necessarily Fosdick’s preaching, but more especially the Pastoral Prayers. Don would close his eyes to focus on the prayers he was hearing, and every time would have the sense that he and Harry were the only two people in the room. Fosdick’s prayers somehow had an intense intimacy, touching Don in meaningful and relevant ways.*

The contrast between these two experiences is instructive. Quite apart from the immature teenager’s view versus the grown-up adult’s approach, Fosdick’s prayers suggest a process of preparation worthy of consideration.

First of all, preparation of pastoral prayers begins before the pastor is even thinking of crafting a prayer. The seeds of such petitions are found in counseling situations, in hospital rooms, in social settings, in chance encounters at the grocery store, and many other times and places as pastor and people engage in the common events of life.

A good pastor is alert and cultivates the skill of listening so that it is second nature. Listening, however, is not simply to words, but to the depth of meaning behind them. Pastors learn to hear the anxieties and fears, the hopes and dreams, the joys and frustrations that are kept in the hearts and souls of the people.

At the same time, pastors become increasingly aware of the same unarticulated prayers rumbling about in their own souls. There is a kinship between pastor and people, not only in mutual humanness, but in receiving and rejoicing in the grace of God.

The time comes then that the Pastoral Prayer must be written down. The temptation may be to rattle off any old list of common petitions a là the pastor of my youth. A better approach is to focus on the people who will occupy the pews, recalling them personally.

I always had a church directory within reach at my desk, and before I started on the Pastoral Prayer, I’d flip through to remember the real people, with real needs and longings, who would be praying along with me on Sunday.

But the Pastoral Prayer is not just about church folks. There is a world of people beyond the walls where we worship who deserve our prayers, people who are worthy of our commitments because they, like us, are God’s children. Someone once suggested that sermons should be written with the Bible in one hand and the morning newspaper in the other—that is a formula that would hold for the Pastoral Prayer as well.

Finally, the actual writing of the Pastoral Prayer requires special attention. It’s not ordinary scribbling or pounding at the keyboard. Writing the Pastoral Prayer, like most other liturgical creations, is an act of prayer itself. The Spirit guides us in prayer, and the pastor should be alert and receptive to the Spirit’s promptings in the crafting of the Pastoral Prayer, spending some of the time in reflection and meditation.

The Pastoral Prayer is not incidental to worship. In many ways it is one of the most critical and essential liturgical acts. For here the people as individuals find their prayers articulated, and at the same time discover their commonality in needs and hopes, and their unity in faith that God’s grace comes generously to all.

How is the Pastoral Prayer presented in your church? Spoken by the pastor only? Prepared or ad lib? A series of brief prayers with responses? Something else?

*See A Book of Public Prayers by Harry Emerson Fosdick, Harper and Brothers, 1959. The prayers are couched in the language of a past generation, but they are nevertheless very instructive today.

Friday, January 25, 2013

What Worship Will Be

Monday-morning-quarterbacking is a common activity among pundits and prophets in the religious realm.  Anyone can look back and have the eyes of an eagle to spot the problems and issues that have got us into the present situation.  

This is particularly true when thinking about worship.  Reviewing the past and critiquing it is a usual approach to the current state of Christian liturgy, but to project one’s thoughts into the future is an altogether different and more difficult exercise.  

So, for your consideration here’s some positive speculation about what our worship might be in the next generation or so, if we were to focus our attention and put real effort into reform and renewal of liturgy. The underlying premise here is not new: If liturgy is renewed and reformed, the church will be also.

Therefore, what I offer are hopes, dreams, perhaps even some wishful thinking – dare I suggest, “a vision”? – about what worship might be, could be for our grandchildren and their children.  There’s no definite schedule—but we can glimpse it coming, over the horizon.

The church in the future will define itself by its worship life. For example: The Sacrament of Baptism will be the motivator for its education of Christians young and old. The Confession of Sin and reception of God’s  forgiveness, will give each one personal release and the capacity to forgive others. The Word in Scripture will be the guide for the church’s witness to the Good News of God’s love for all people.  The Lord’s Supper will be the feast to which all are invited to receive God’s nourishment for the journey of life.  The Prayers of the People will rise up as individual and corporate commitments to perform caring acts, and dedication to carry out a healing mission to a hurting world.

Future Christians will be drawn to common worship each week—every week, in fact.  They will be inwardly committed to attending, barring only sickness or urgent necessity.  Should they miss a week for whatever reason, they’ll experience an emptiness, a loss of something important in their lives.

What is more, they’ll see their hour or so at worship as an active experience, requiring effort and energy and personal engagement.  They’ll sing with emphasis and pray fervently.  They’ll rejoice not only with volume and voice, but at the depths of the heart and soul. They will listen intently and take within their thoughts the Word proclaimed and interpreted. They’ll rehearse and relive their own baptisms along with every new disciple bathed in the holy sacrament.  They’ll take and share food and drink with one another, and with the physically and spiritually hungry of the world. Their celebration will be in common with the praise and prayers of those around them, as well as with Christians in every land. 

Christians of the future will not confine their worship activity to one day a week, but will accept or define self-discipline to lead them toward “praying without ceasing.”  Such personal prayer will include prayers with others as well as solitary times.  This daily prayer activity by individuals and small groups will compliment, support and continue the Lord’s Day worship of the whole church. 

This coming generation of Christians will carry their worship experiences, Sunday or weekday, into their lives.  They will leave the church building, or rise from personal prayer, energized and enthusiastic* to carry out the particular mission with which God has entrusted them.  They’ll do so courageously and foolishly, risking all for the one who gave everything for them.

If this is the vision, then the task is to aim our liturgy in that direction.  It’s not so much to wag the finger of criticism of the past practices, as it is to see what needs to change to get better results.  (Although, it’s helpful to keep history of past failure and foolishness in sight so as not to repeat it.) 

For your church, what would “perfect” worship look like? What do you personally hope for in congregational worship life?  How do you project your personal prayer life into the future?

*The word enthusiasm has its origins in Greek (en-theos, or having God within).

Sunday, January 20, 2013


The First Sunday of Christmas I was the guest preacher (and worship leader) at a lovely church in a rural community not far from my home. The pastor who had invited me to fill in for him, so he could go to a family wedding out of town, gave me a head’s-up about a change from the Book of Common Worship order that he had made.

This was the change: The Passing the Peace was set at the very beginning of the worship service, preceded only by a few announcements and the Prelude.

And this is what it looked like: People gathered a few at a time, greeting one another, getting various things ready for the service. As the appointed time approached, one gentleman took himself to the balcony at the rear of the room. And when the minute hand on the clock hit twelve, he pulled on the chord and rang the bell to summon the faithful. The chit-chat ended, and people took their places. A few quick announcements were given. And then…

The peace of our Lord Jesus Christ be with you all.
And also with you.

Whereupon everyone rose, greeted those around them with the words, “Peace be with you,” or other similar words.

It was a small congregation of about fifteen or so. Almost all had arrived early and had a chance to exchange friendly “hellos”. When they came to “pass the Peace”, they stuck to the script, as best I could tell, and only blessed one another with the Peace of Christ. In a very few minutes, everyone was able to give the liturgical greeting to everyone else.

What happened was that in starting the service with the Passing of the Peace, a transition was made from one realm to another. Before that ritual took place, the group was a bunch of friends and a few strangers who came to church. During the Passing of the Peace they became the Church of Jesus Christ.

Granted that the small size of the congregation made the transition, from a gathering of friends to God’s people assembled for Christian worship, rather simple and smooth. Nevertheless, it was clear that the nature and purpose of the group had shifted from mundane to special, from ordinary to extraordinary.

This experience raises the question about how we deal with this transition from the worldly sphere to the time and place when we enter the promised presence of Almighty God.

In most Sunday morning situations, the place of worship is reserved for the event of worship. Merely entering the room helps worshippers to make or at least start the transition. The friendly gathering can take place in the narthex or vestibule beforehand.

Yet in some churches, the worship room is also used for other things such as a class or choir rehearsal. A shift needs to be made so that the room itself is transformed. And, for those who come early and see the room used for another purpose, the experience of transition is somewhat more difficult.

Presbytery meetings often provide another illustration. In our neck of the woods, presbytery meetings almost always take place in the worship space of a church. Screens on the wall show agendas and resolutions and charts. Pews are strewn with papers, and the pulpit becomes a podium. Microphones and speakers and other electronic materials are in evidence. The room has clearly become a meeting hall, and is only barely recognized as a place for worship.

So, when the time arrives for the body to stop being a council of the church debating and deliberating, and become the church of Jesus Christ at worship, a great transition needs to be made. In this case, first and foremost the space needs to be reclaimed for its intended purpose and use. That means collecting all the scattered papers, reinstating the liturgical furniture in the proper places, removing distractions from the room’s focal and symbolic centers, getting unnecessary electronics out of the way, and so forth. More than a reclaiming of the worship environment, however, there needs to be a transition from a group of people doing business to a particular expression of God’s people gathered as Christ’s Church.

Over and again such a transition takes place, sometimes clearly, other times without much definition. So it’s important that those responsible for worship planning, preparation and leadership pay attention to how the transition may be encouraged if not enabled.

What happens to help the transition from worldly activity to worship in your church? Do you see the transition take place in other settings?