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?

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