Monday, November 24, 2014

Worship at Meetings

We Presbyterians are wont to gather in clusters from time to time, just to bring local congregational representatives and clergy together for mutual support and guidance. These are “presbytery meetings,” during which we talk (and sometimes argue, or debate,) about ecclesiastical and social issues, and how best we can be the church in a larger-than-congregational region.

For many of us clergy, especially those of us who are retired from parish ministry, this is our church. (Presbyterian clergy do not have membership in local churches, but in a presbytery.) So it’s particularly important that we worship and pray together, for in this particular grouping, we are a unique expression of the whole Church of Jesus Christ.

Therefore, it’s crucial that worship be “authentic” and “meaningful” and “relevant,” and you can add other appropriate modifiers. What happens so often instead is that worship at these meetings often comes off as either “sloppy” or “stilted,” “casual” or “high-church formal.”

For one example, there are the occasions when, in the middle of a meeting, delegates take time out, usually before a meal, to “have church.” What is experienced may be a Sunday morning sample, either a preview of next Sunday’s service for the planners or preacher, or a rehash of an old preaching and prayers.

In both situations worship is likely to be below par in fulfilling the modifiers. Rehearsals are rarely as well presented as the event itself. And re-runs are weak and weary. Second runs of sermons are, as someone once told me, “as tasty as yesterday’s mashed potatoes.”

On the other hand, however, worship offered at these get-togethers can be just the opposite. Neither rehearsal nor re-run, it appears to be last-minute and thoughtless.

In addition to my own past experiences, I sometimes get reports from my friends in distant regions about such “wannabe worship” experiences that never quite make it. Often they take place like this:

When the leader says, “Let us pray,” heads are appropriately bowed, unaware that hi-tech projections on the wall give a prayer to say in unison or lyrics of a prayerful hymn to sing. The leader lacks leadership. Then we have those musicians who don’t bother to tune up in advance, or even practice what they’re playing, and so their accompaniment is a rough and ragged distraction for the singers. An ad-lib prayer is often thrown in, punctuated with uh’s and um’s. I have no problems with prayers offered in the moment, but they should be thoughtful and clear. There’s no shame in writing down a prayer. Worship at meetings deserves more than an offhand and erratic experience.

The problem with both the Sunday service imitation and the slipshod alternative is that neither one takes into account the group of people there as a group, as a body of Christians who are part of the Body of Christ.

How rare it is when a group assembled for a meeting can worship in the context of their immediate circumstance. As each meeting is different and as each group has its own ongoing history of challenges and needs, the worship of that group should lift up those particulars.

My own experience lately has been that I didn’t realize how inadequate some of our presbytery worship was until we had a couple of meetings where our prayer and preaching rose out of our situation. It all fit who we were in those moments, what worried us, and where we might be going. After those experiences, I began to see clearly where other efforts were lacking. Do it well and you’ll not want to settle for less ever again.

The other problem with the two alternatives mentioned above is that they are cheap efforts. Not much energy has been put into them. Using an old order, bygone prayers, and past preaching is a shortcut, just as thoughtless as pulling a prayer out of the hat and improvising the music. In both cases, preparation is needed. Preparation prevents perfunctory praise and prayer.

What is more, preparation is itself an act of prayer and worship. Writing a prayer, reading commentaries, doing exegesis, learning the music, tuning the instrument, thinking through the service, and thinking some more about what is needed, what God is offering—all of this is worship that lays the groundwork for the worship of the community.

Working carefully to prepare the worship for such assemblages is the appropriate and right thing to do for the worshippers. Yet even more so, we do not ever want to cut corners in what we offer our God in praise and prayer. God is worthy of our very best.


  1. Thank you, Don, for the reminder that every offering of our worship is worthy of our best efforts. Do you suppose our churches might be different if our worship at meetings was a first order of business, the highest priority for our care, out of which would flow the decisions to affect the body?

  2. Working with (Southern Baptist) pastors on an associational level, I see how easy it is for each one to become isolated in their own church context. Precious and few are the opportunities for pastors to come together in worship as a "unique expression of the whole Church of Jesus Christ." That is a phrase I will dwell on for a while, and see how it fits.


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