Thursday, December 18, 2014

"Care-Full" Worship

The first visit I made many years ago to the New Skete Monastery near Cambridge, New York, required a substantial thought adjustment on my part.

A friend and I arrived unannounced at their “Old World” church for Vespers as the sun was setting. We were the only visitors. The service was beautifully sung and chanted by the ten monks, for more than an hour.

To my Protestant mind, it was impressive, to say the least. Wow! I thought, how much rehearsal must it have taken to perform such a program? Not only Vespers (Evening Prayer), but they sang Matins (Morning Prayer) every day as well. The brothers had shown extraordinary care in preparing their liturgy, the music, the space, everything. Clearly all this was not for just the two of us. If my friend and I had not shown up, it would have been only the monks and their God in the liturgical conversation.

Well, this demanded a reorienting of my ideas of worship. So often in Protestant churches, we are so concerned with the response and reaction of the “audience,” we forget that the most important listener is the Almighty.

Even so, in our desire to please the congregation in front of us, we don’t always give it our very best. We cut corners or slack off a bit, because we are too busy in other arenas of our lives. Worship doesn’t always appear at the top of the To-Do List. Even if it does, other responsibilities are known to claw their way to the top of the heap. Preparing and leading worship may be ranked Number One, but there are a lot of other things ranked One-B. Clergy have sermon prep, visits, committees, counseling, family, prayer, study, and those other unexpected emergencies that take over prime time. Everyone is busily busy.

Nevertheless, should we not care more fully about our worship? Is it not important for us to make it as first-rate and near perfect as possible? Being care-full in our worship demands our extra attention in many areas.

If one is going to use electronics, for example, spend the extra time to make sure everything works the way it’s supposed to.

As the guest preacher one Sunday, I was greeted by an elder who clamped a tiny mike on my stole. I asked to try it out, and when we did, I was glad we did, because it only worked on its own whim. After fussing to fix it and failing, I removed the mike and spoke louder. Microphones, amplifiers and speakers that crackle and cut out can completely obscure whatever is being said or sung. Give electronics considerable care.

I’m not a fan of projecting lyrics or readings on the wall, mainly because it is so rarely done with perfection. In a church recently a lengthy creedal statement was printed in the bulletin in paragraph-prose format, but also shown on the wall. Most people watched the wall. So when one slide was skipped, the leaders continued without the congregation, until they caught up with the wall. Better to read it from the printed page. If you’re into projecting, be extra full of care.

(Also, while we’re on the subject, printing anything to be read by the people is best not in a paragraph-prose format. Try phrase-lining, a phrase to a line as one would speak it—for samples, look at the prayers in the Book of Common Worship. It’s a way of being care-full so the people can do their parts in prayer and praise.)

And one more small admonition to care: proof read. The misspelling of a word that people are to read aloud can be annoying at best, disastrous at worst. Someone other than the secretary or writer should give it a care-full second, even third look.

After all, when we worship, we are gathered in God’s presence, and it behooves us to be full of care so we do our best for our God.

Wednesday, December 10, 2014


Sometimes it’s the bumper-sticker quotes that stick to my brain and remind me of a critical truth. The one that’s been pestering me recently is this: “We go from service of worship to the worship of service.”

Too often service concludes not with a “sending” but an “ending.” Worship winds up with a closed door, slammed, not swung open to world. When that happens, the curtain comes down and worship winds up just going through the motions.

On the other hand, sending means that our worship is open-ended. When it’s over, it’s not over. So something must happen to lead us out to be God’s people scattered into the world.

Whether your congregation is made up of 50 or 100 or thousands, stop thinking about it the number of people in the pews. What really counts in the long run is how many Christian disciples go out into the world to be the Body of Christ and do his work as our constant acts of worship. What a difference might that many laborers make?

For liturgy to have value, as we all know, it must be lived. Otherwise, our prayers and praise have a hollow sound to them. The “work of the people” during the hour or so on Sunday morning needs transforming into the “work of the people” the rest of the time.

The Book of Common Worship (1993) views the order of Christian liturgy in four major sections: Gathering, The Word, The Eucharist, and Sending. It’s the use of the term “Sending” that tips us to the clue that our Lord’s Day worship experiences are not finished when we leave; we are just shifting to a different expression of prayer and praise to Almighty God in the outside world.

Prayers of the People

Someone once said that we should offer our prayers every day with the morning newspaper at hand. To prepare ourselves for “going out into the world,” it’s a good idea to bring the world in to our worship first. Prayers of the people can be pointedly aimed at current questions or controversies. This delivers our prayers from being so vague as to be ultimately meaningless. A friend of mine once said: “All our prayers are down payments on our actions so they will come true.”

Special Announcement

There may be opportunities for congregants to venture in ministry and service beyond their own church activities. It would be appropriate to announce such occasions toward the end of the service, briefly, as a memory boost. There may also be specific references in the sermon to local issues or needs that call for Christian response. These can be underlined by a brief mention.

The Charge

The BCW provides a number of charges to the congregation based on biblical references to worshipping God in action. For example, See 1 Cor. 16:13; 2 Tim. 2:1; Eph. 6:10; 1 Thess. 5:13-22; and 1 Peter 2:17
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.

This charge is the one I most often use, as I have for many years. Many times I’ve been asked for a copy of it. I’ve been told that it has been memorized by some, and in other homes it’s appeared on refrigerators, dresser tops and bathroom mirrors—a constant reminder that we are all “sent” people every day. Including Sunday mornings.

and Benediction

The benediction completes the charge to the congregation. Not only are we sent out to act faithfully as disciples of Christ, we are also conferred (read “blessed” and “empowered”) with God’s love and grace to accomplish what we are charged to do and be.


The practice of the choir and other worship leaders filing out during the last hymn is a helpful example. Just as a procession at the beginning of the service is symbolic of the gathering of the community, so the recession visually displays the start of the dispersion of worshippers to serve in God’s name.


In some places it is the custom to remain seated for the postlude. Not that it’s supposed to be a “performance,” although some treat it that way. Rather the postlude can serve as accompaniment for a time of reflection to absorb the meaning of the worship, in which case it might be quiet and contemplative in tone.

On the other hand, if there is to be reflective ending music, it should be followed by a very different postlude when the congregation is on the move out of the pews. That calls for music to be bright and brassy, a sprightly tune for the “exit dance.”

Go forth and carry your worship with you wherever you go and whatever you do.

Tuesday, December 2, 2014

Worship at Meetings - Part 2

In the previous post, I lamented the deflated worship before/during/after a meeting that was the result of the planners duplicating or rehearsing Lord’s Day services, or perhaps creating something ex nihilo. The reason this too often happens, I think, is that these are the only options the producers of liturgy think they have: a Sunday-like service, or make it up.

Ah, but there is something else, another model that’s been around a long, long time for the people of God to use. Known typically as “Daily Prayer” in Christian circles, this form of worship is rooted in ancient Hebrew practice, and repeatedly reformed and renewed by the Church through the centuries. (For purposes of discussion here, I’m referring to the daily prayer source I know the best, Book of Common Worship—Daily Prayer, Westminster John Knox Press, 1993.)

While Daily Prayer is often practiced as an individual exercise, it was really designed for groups. Nevertheless, some folks surmise that saying prayers every day is accomplished solo. When we assemble with others, they think “Sunday” and follow that great tradition. Daily Prayer, however, has its own tradition, running simultaneously with the development of Lord’s Day worship. Over the centuries the two have connected and co-opted items back and forth, but always remained different, serving various needs in a variety of ways.

The Daily Prayer option offers flexibility in use for groups small and large, meetings long and short. The service can be molded to fit the shape of any meeting from that of a national group to a family of four, from an ecclesiastical judicatory to a neighborhood service committee, from a seminary chapel to a Sunday school class. What is more, such a service often is lay-led, not requiring the presence or participation of clergy.

Daily Prayer is shaped by the cycle of the day, starting with Evening as in the biblical tradition. Morning, Midday, Evening, and Close of Day—each one calls for a special time of prayer. Morning and Evening are the major times, with Midday and Close of Day inserted as their brief extensions.

Each service offers the possibility of compression or expansion as appropriate. For example, Morning Prayer, with optional items to be added, is outlined this way:

Opening Sentences
Morning Psalm or Morning Hymn
Silent Prayer
[Psalm Prayer]
Scripture Reading
Silent Reflection
[A Brief Interpretation of the Reading, or a Nonbiblical Reading]
Canticle of Zechariah or Other Canticle
Prayers of Thanksgiving and Intercession
Concluding Prayer
Lord's Prayer
[Hymn or Spiritual]
[Sign of Peace]

At the other extreme, given the need to abbreviate the service, it could be cut to the bare essentials:

Scripture Reading
Silent Reflection
Prayers of Thanksgiving and Intercession

Or, of course, the services could be compressed or expanded to the “perfect” size and shape.

Certainly planning and producing a Daily Prayer service is much more than assembling the list of ingredients. Essential is that the event be personalized. It’s all about God’s relationship to the people in the room and their relationship to God.

One of the ways this happens is in the Morning and Evening Prayers of Thanksgiving and Intercession. Ellipses (….) provide opportunities for silent or vocalized prayers by the participants related to specific subjects of common concern.

For example, just before the prayers at the end of a meeting of the General Assembly of the Presbyterian Church, the 600-plus commissioners were asked to stack their materials on their desks in front of them. During the brief service, prayers offering the work of the assembly to God were vocalized, prayers of thanksgiving for the gifts of the Spirit, prayers for those served by actions of the assembly, and so forth, each followed by silence for individual prayers recalling personal involvement. That worship experience has been in my memory for decades.

Another example came from a series of session meetings I moderated while the church was seeking a pastor. At the start of each meeting we had a brief Evening Prayer, prepared by me but led by the elders. During the Prayers of Thanksgiving and Intercession, personal concerns and celebrations came out. By this prayerful sharing, the members bonded to accomplish their challenging task.

Months later two of the elders asked me if I’d help them do Daily Prayer services for a weekend meeting involving several congregations. I told them I was sure they knew how to do it, and they should go ahead—I‘d help them if they got stuck. They never asked more of me. They did just fine.

Prayer is always a personal matter. The tradition of Daily Prayer in the Church is a great resource for those who plan for weekday worship that supports the ministry of the people of God. Next time you’re asked to lead worship for your group, reach for a book of Daily Prayer.