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?