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?

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