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.


  1. Amen! While encourage people to dip their fingers in the font and mark themselves with the sign of the cross (coming in and leaving from worship), this sounds like a situtation where the Sacrament itself is being trivialized. You are right on target with that one and your commentary really captures the problem! As for the gospel reading becoming a comedy act (poorly done from the sound of it) ... I just don't understand how someone could offer a running comedic commentary on the text and consider that as faithful proclamation. Thank you again for post.

  2. This post seems very quick to speculate and judge about an incident for which you were not present (just as, I grant you, I am very quick to come to an opposite conclusion). But there is nothing sacred or holy about the water in the font *until* the moment the presider leads the congregation in prayer over it. (And, even then, it's not that the water somehow "becomes" holy, but it is being set apart and used for a holy action.) I have seen pastors do similar things when older children being baptized seem apprehensive. At my congregation, our pastor invites all children present to help pour the water into the font before the baptism takes place.

    For me, a far worse trivializing of baptism occurred when I watched a pastor baptize a young girl without asking her to take off her fancy church hat. The water didn't even touch her!

    I also think if more Presbyterians were serious about using abundant quantities of water in baptism, it would dwarf whatever "splashing" the kids did beforehand.

    Calling it "holy water" is not "getting it right," at least not in Reformed theology as I understand it. The action is what is holy, not the physical element divorced from the community's prayers and the working of the Holy Spirit.

    As for the other, I would also object to humorous running commentary alongside the Scripture reading *as* Scripture reading (I argued this point in the Outlook last year; but I could easily such a presentation as an alternative form of proclamation.

    And I am in complete agreement that we should reclaim weekly Eucharist.

    Thanks for a thought-provoking post.

  3. Worship and Wisdom in Israel's History among the nations in God's Creation belongs to the Hope the Messiah as the Lord is. Worship without Wisdom is blind; Wisdom without Worship is lame. All else is trivial.

    John McKenna


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