Sunday, January 25, 2015

Deflated Worship

With all the controversy about deflated footballs, I encountered another “deflation” issue in a worship service recently. Held during a meeting, it was a complete service, Word and Sacrament (Lord’s Supper).

The setting in a local church was rather traditional, Communion Table front and center floor level, pulpit and lectern up a few steps on the platform, with stained glass windows for the backdrop. Oh, yes, there was one other item, off to the side on the left: an open projection screen had been set up.

Not being a big fan of audio-visuals in worship, I found the presence of the screen a nuisance, and its use an annoyance. By the time we reached the last hymn, I realized what the problem really was.

Projecting the words of the hymns on the screen was passable, for it made juggling hymnals unnecessary. And the responses for the Communion liturgy shown on the screen eliminated the need for a printed bulletin. (Although hymnals were in the pews and more paper was generated for the meeting than would be consumed by a few bulletins.)

What went wrong, however, was that when we looked over to the left to read, the whole experience of feasting at the Lord’s Table was reduced from three-dimensional, life-size, living color, real time experience, to a mere two-dimensional, 6-by-8-foot rectangle, shades-of-gray, image appearing before (and sometimes after) we needed to read it. The result was a persistent distraction, and because our visual attention was snatched away from the real action, the Eucharistic event at the table was deflated. It was flattened out in what we saw, and sagging in enthusiasm.

Sharing in the Communion meal requires focus, on the part of those who receive as well as of those who serve. We need not only to be attentive to what is happening at the Table, but that we are in the midst of a community sharing an intimate experience.

Having the screen off to the side requiring our attention was a rude intrusion to the service. It took our attention away from the main event, much like at a family gathering around the dining table when some kinfolk are gazing at the tiny screens of their cell phones. It tends to take the air out of interpersonal relationships.

The Eucharist is all about interpersonal, intimate relationships, between the worshippers and the Triune God, and among the worshippers themselves. Maybe we could set aside the technical gimmicks and pay attention to the gifts of God who has claimed us to be the people of God.

It has been said that deflating a football makes it easier to handle and improves the game. Puncturing a worship service this way, however, can make it go flat altogether.

Saturday, January 17, 2015

The Presider

One of the advantages of being retired from parish ministry is that I get the opportunity to worship in a variety of churches.  As a pastor leading worship each Sunday, I was deprived of “the view from the pew.” Now I enjoy that perspective more often than not as I visit several churches as a pew-sitter.

One of the curiosities revealed several times in different places was that, all of a sudden, the chancel where the worship leaders are supposed to be, became unpopulated.  All the furniture was there: Table, Pulpit, Lectern and Font, and three fancy chairs…but no pastor.  It was an empty platform as far as people went.  Actually, sometimes they all went.  The Lay Reader stepped into the congregation’s pews after fulfilling her responsibilities, and the pastor went off the platform to take a seat to the side.  And the choir was non-existent or in the back of the room.

It looked like the ship was adrift because there was no one at the rudder. As it so happens, this metaphor is built into church architecture.  The “nave” of the church, where the pews, and the people in them, are, gets its name from the Latin from which we also get the English word, “navy.”  And the people on the platform are “steering the ship on a scriptural course” through the waters of worship. One of the most common illustrations of the church is a ship in full sail.

A more accurate (and less colorful) image is that of a gathering of people to conduct some business. The pastor, as minister of Word and Sacrament, is the presider, the one who leads the members through the liturgical agenda.  Standing at the Lectern or Pulpit or Font, the pastor makes sure the service of worship proceeds “decently and in order.” 

Now, that’s a phrase often used with reference to business meetings, or church meetings that get involved in polity.  I confess that I made extensive use of the term during the years that I was stated clerk of my presbytery. Take a look at the end of the 14th chapter of Paul’s First Letter to the Corinthians, and you will see it refers to how people should worship God: “…all things should be done decently and in order.” That phrase is the bottom line, Paul’s last word on the subject.

Of course there is more to leading worship than making sure everyone “gets the rite right.” The order of worship can be marched through with lock-step precision, and leave every heart untouched, every soul unchanged. The presider comes with his or her personal passion of faith to encounter God, to be moved by the Spirit and to follow wherever the risen Lord leads.

For the person who leads worship is worshipping too.  The truth is, it isn’t always easy to do.  Leading worship can be a huge distraction from really worshipping. There are many things to keep track of and remember to do.  Nevertheless, the worship leader—in fact all worship leaders, lay readers and musicians too—are there to worship.  If the pastor is authentically worshiping, his or her attitude will set a good example.

This does not mean, you can be sure, that the pastor/presider, or any other leader of liturgy, will “perform” and act out the role of a pious person on stage before the congregational crowd. That shifts the whole event into the category of entertainment, with the people as the audience instead of Almighty God. If worship is to be genuine for the folks who come, it will have to be the “real deal” for the leaders.

Notice that the presider is always face-to-face with the people.  The visual presence of the worship leader provides a social glue to hold the congregation together.  Eye contact is extremely powerful in leadership, especially in a sharing as intimate as worship can be.  The leaders up front in the room complete the circle of the assembly.  The lay person reading a New Testament epistle is delivering the mail to this particular congregation.  The preacher proclaiming the Good News knows the people with whom she’s having this important conversation.  The pastor with the prayers of the people looks directly at those whose prayers he is articulating.  In a special way, singing the hymns, a group exercise of praise and prayer, the presider is part of the congregation/choir, leading the way.

A very practical, advantage of the presider being up front at all times is that the people in the pews are visible to the presider. Facial expressions and physical postures speak volumes about needed pastoral care.  Comings and goings may ring alarms of emergent need. Seeing a particular person may trigger a reminder of responsibility to be filled.

Being a presider is a complicated and sometimes difficult task.  Yet in taking on this role, one is at the center of the church being re-assembled by God, created anew by the Spirit as God’s own people, and meeting the risen Lord once again to be his disciples.  It promises to be an uplifting experience every time.

What other advantages are there to leading worship?  Where are the pitfalls?