Monday, October 14, 2013

A Lesson from the East

I’m probably as touchy as the next person when it comes to criticism about worship services I’ve planned or led. On the other hand, I like to think I’m smart enough to learn from the critic’s viewpoint.

That’s why I’ve taken seriously the critique fired off by Russian Orthodox Bishop Hilarion Alfeyev at the beginning of a long lecture on “Orthodox Worship as a School of Theology.”

Setting up a contrast to Orthodox worship, the Bishop has this to say about non-Orthodox services he’d attended over the years: “Protestant [and Catholic] services as a rule are comprised of a series of isolated, incoherent prayerful actions…. The services are interspersed with explanations by the clergy, who tell their congregation in which hymnal and on which page a certain hymn is to be found, and whether they should sing it while standing or remaining seated….”

The hardest part of hearing evaluations like this is having to agree with them. On this one, the Bishop has got us in the spotlight.

I’ve attended my share of worship events that have followed what is rashly called an “order” that I suspect was determined by throwing the items down a flight of stairs. Logic of procedure, not to mention a “theo-logic” of content, is difficult to perceive.

Even when there is some semblance of sensible order, even when the sequence defined in the Book of Common Worship is followed, worship often seems to follow an agenda. “Prayerful actions” are scattered like items on a list, all to be completed by the end of the hour.

With such a mindset, it is easy for the presider to start behaving like an emcee.

For example, before the Call to Worship we might hear, “Let us join in the call to worship.”

Or, announcing the Prayer of Confession before scriptural introductions, something like “Let us come before God with our confessions.”

Before reading Scripture some readers insert non-scriptural summaries of the text.

“Let us stand and affirm our faith,” might precede the Creed.

Announcing the offering could be done without “Let us worship God with our offering.” Just an appropriate biblical text will do.

The Greeting of Peace is too often an interruption of a far greater magnitude, but makes the point.

Instructions given in the midst of the Eucharist fracture the solemnity of the sacrament.

All of these words, and many others, spoken by a worship leader are essentially rubrics (= “written in red”), instructions that could just as easily be printed in a bulletin, and left unspoken. What would that be like, I wonder, if we did just that?

Well, the Bishop has an answer for us, as he goes on to describe what worship should be: “Orthodox divine services…are a totally different matter. From the priest’s exclamation at the very beginning of the service we are immersed in an atmosphere of uninterrupted prayer, in which psalms, litanies,...prayers and the celebrating priest’s invocations follow one another in a continuous stream. The entire service is conducted as if in one breath, in one rhythm, like an ever unfolding mystery in which nothing distracts from prayer.”

Not that we’re all going to do a seismic shift from the Reformed to the Orthodox tradition next Sunday. Yet it is possible for us to look at what we do from another perspective.

What if everyone started to worship God the instant they entered the room? Perhaps leaders as well as people in the pews would find more focus on their purpose for being there.

If there were no stops and starts to break up the flow of worship, all would begin to see the interrelatedness of the various parts, a wholeness to the service. We would, over a period of time discover that all that transpires in a given service is worship, praise and thanksgiving to God.

Getting rid of the instructive distractions would allow worshippers to contemplate the mystery of God’s grace that calls the likes of us sinners to come, forgives us, feeds us with Word and Sacrament, and sends is into the world to follow the Risen Lord.

What we learn from the Orthodox Bishop is that we Protestants are Westerners—we tend to think in a linear fashion, with lists and agendas and orders of worship. Yet we can learn to experience fullness in our worship, a unity of form and expression as we praise God.

What are the distractions or interruptions to services in your church? How might you minimize them?


  1. I don't know how I feel about this. I have been to Orthodox services, but don't remember them really well. I do remember not liking feeling so out of the loop, not knowing when to stand, sit, kneel, talk or stay silent. I do remember being at Catholic masses with my head buried in the little book frantically trying to figure out where we were and what was coming next, whether I needed to prepare to stand or kneel. Obviously a lot of this comes from not being a insider, someone who worships there frequently. But I hate the idea that worship is only a good experience for the insiders. I like being invited to join in a song, a prayer, to stand with the group. I feel welcomed and acknowledged that way. So while I agree that the obvious redundancies should be done away with ("listen to the gospel") I really don't have a problem with instructions to rise or sit, or how to proceed for communion. It's only courteous to our guests, and may we always be blessed with guests in the Lord's house.

  2. The needs of visitors are important, to be sure.
    One way to make visitors know what is going on and what to do next, is to prvide notes in the printed order of worship.
    If you believe hospitality is a Christian virtue, you might try what I experienced in a Missouri Synod Lutheran church when I was spotted as a visitor: A lady came and sat down next to me, introduced herself, and said she would stay with me through the service and help me find my way to prayers and hymns, stand and sit, receive the elements of Communion, and whatever else was necessary. All of which she did, very pleasantly, and I felt much at home.
    The idea of the Lesson from the East is to see the service as a whole, rather than as a collection of fragments. The kind Lutheran lady knew how to make that happen for a stranger.

  3. One thing I love about Orthodoxy is if you get lost in the service you can close your eyes and just listen. It does not matter if you are sitting or standing, what really matters is that you are soaking in the prayers that are being said by the priest or deacon, and sung by the choir.
    I also admire how they have a prayer for everything. They have a prayer for the living and the dead, the healthy and the sick, the rich and the poor, those who are state side and those who are abroad, those who are in the military and our government leaders. No group of people is left out.
    Please do not get scared away by the standing, sitting, and prostrating. When you are fully submerged in a service you should not worry about how you look or if you are doing it right. What matters is your heart being in the right place.


Thanks for joining in the conversation!