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 fa├žade 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?