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Thinking theologically about worship pet peeves

Last week in Ken Carder's Introduction to Christian Ministry course where I am the teaching assistant, we discussed leading worship. 

The students had read this provocative quote by Will Willmon in their reading,

"Why, when a pastor is before more people in Sunday morning worship than at any other time in the week, do we mumble through vague, poorly constructed, almost inaudible prayers; slouch around the altar as if we were fixing a washing machine rather than making Eucharist; chatter incessantly about nothing through the entire service, and, in general, appear to go to great lengths to give people the impression that we are doing nothing of any consequence, leading them nowhere of any great importance, and dealing with material of no particular significance?  Our casualness with the Holy, our sloppiness with the liturgy, is not missed by lay persons.  When I talk with laity about worship, they continually express bafflement at why their pastors seem to invest themselves within every other pastoral activity besides the leadership of public worship."  (William H. Willimon, Worship as Pastoral Care (Nashville: Abingdon, 1979), 196-197. quoted in William H. Willimon, Pastor: A Reader for Ordained Ministry (Nashville: Abingdon, 2002), 70-71). 

In contrast, Willimon tells a story about a pastor who was loved for his benedictions. A woman said to Willimon about her pastor, "He gives the best benedictions . . . His benedictions have become the highlight of each Sunday as far as I am concerned." (Worship as Pastoral Care quoted in Reader  80-81). 

Richard Lischer also received compliments from his congregation for his seriousness in conducting the liturgy.  "I took such pleasure in lifting the chalice--'the way the Catholics do it!' someone said." (Richard Lischer, Open Secrets, 71 quoted in Reader 102).

Similarly, Sam Wells recounts a compliment on the seriousness with which he leads worship,

I vividly recall sitting down with my training incumbent to reflect on my first service in my title parish. “You don't know what to do with your hands,” I remember him saying. It was true. I hadn't a clue what to do with my hands. They felt like a hindrance rather than a help. Last month I had lunch with a student leaving the divinity school at Duke. She said a rather different thing to me “You're one of the only people I've met who presides at the Eucharist as if the Holy Spirit were actually there.” I assume that means that in the 17 years between the first conversation and the second one I‟d at some stage learned what to do with my hands . . . I didn't learn about the power of touch in liturgy so much from a priest or a manual. I learned it from becoming a storyteller in Godly Play. When one begins to tell a story in Godly Play when holds the box for a period of time, until the story is ready. Then one cherishes the box and its contents as if it were a box of love letters one has just received from one‟s beloved. Everything that comes out of the box needs to be held tenderly – and most certainly in two hands. And when one places each item within the story, one pauses to reflect and digest the significance of that individual piece. The point is not to do things slowly, but to assume that the Holy Spirit is showing you something through that character or element in the story. When the story and all the wondering is over, I tend to put each item back into the box one by one, again cherishing each one anew and offering it back to God in prayer, thankful for the new depth of meaning that has been disclosed through its presence in the story and the wondering.  I take the same approach to leading worship – particularly presiding at the Eucharist. Taking the bread has been deeply informed for me by learning how to handle the Godly Play figures with tenderness. Holding the bread means showing the congregation how precious and how astonishing is the mystery of our salvation. Here touching conveys reverence and fear. It's not a performance for the congregation but an invitation into a moment of profound touch. In Jesus, God is here and has touched our lives. That's what your whole body posture should be saying, regardless of your particular preference as to the transformation taking place in Holy Communion. Watching you preside at the Eucharist should be for the congregation a training in how to receive and cherish material things, and see in them mirrors of God's glory. 
(Sam Wells, "The Power of Touch, Matthew 17.1-8 An address to the Worcester ordination retreat, June 2008, " unpublished), 1-2).

The people above all describe the beauty and significance of the liturgy--reinforcing for clergy the importance of leading liturgy well.  Willimon is United Methodist (former Dean of the Chapel at Duke and now a bishop), Lischer is Lutheran and a professor of preaching at Duke, and Wells is Anglican and the current Dean of the Chapel at Duke.  Much of the reading I am doing here at Duke explains how virtues are formed by the liturgy.  Roman Catholic priest Emmanuel Katongole, another professor at Duke Divinity School, extols the importance of the Greeting ("Passing the peace").  Emmanuel Katongole, "Greeting: Beyond Racial Reconciliation, " in The Blackwell Companion to Christian Ethics (ed. Stanley Hauerwas and Samuel Wells; Oxford: Blackwell, 2006), 68-81.  He writes, "But that the entire gamut of Christian theology and ethics should be embodied within such a gesture as greeting just confirms how God is not abstract, but as concrete as handshakes, voices, hugs, and kisses of a people who greet each other 'in the name of the Father . . .'"  Episcopalian Barbara Brown Taylor similarly explains all of the parts of the liturgy in chapter six of The Preaching Life (pages 67-80).  Much of the work of Wells and Hauerwas build similarly build upon the liturgy.  See especially their Blackwell Companion to Christian Ethics and Wells's God's Companions.  In all of these accounts, there is an appreciation for the rich tradition of Christian history.  The operative question is, "How can we benefit from the wisdom of the saints who have come before us?"  The answer is "By following the rhythms of the liturgy they participated in, perhaps we too will be formed into people with the Jesus-like character of Augustine, Aquinas, Luther, Calvin and Wesley."

This appreciation for the Christian past and thus its liturgical resources is not limited to Duke Divinity School--though it is very strong here.  See the Chrisitanity Today February cover story (admittedly written by a Duke Ph.D. grad Chris Armstrong). 

The Future Lies in the Past

Why evangelicals are connecting with the early church as they move into the 21st century.

Chris Armstrong | posted 2/08/2008 10:01AM

Many of the students in the class are United Methodist.  Some are attracted to a high church Anglican style of worship--"John Wesley never left the Anglican church; he was almost Catholic," they say. 

Others are more attracted to the tent-meeting, riding-on-horseback John Wesley.  The latter group had questions about this emphasis on leading the liturgy with seriousness to teach a sense of reverence for the Holy.  Moreover, how are people from Baptist, Independent, and Pentecostal traditions to apply this advice?  In their traditions, what Duke sociologist Mark Chaves calls "Enthusiasm" is valued more; and "Ceremony" is valued less; than in the Roman Catholic, Episcopal, Lutheran, Reformed, and Methodist traditions.  See Mark Chaves, Congregations in America (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 2004), 147. 

These less ceremonial traditions are quite large.  It is important that we are able to talk across traditions. 

Religious tradition distribution of U.S. congregations (1998). 
Religious Tradition                Percent of attenders in congregations within listed tradition
Roman Catholic                     29
Baptist                                      21
Methodist                                 11
Lutheran                                     8
Presbyterian/Reformed           7
Christian, not elsewhere
classified                                   7
Pentecostal                               6
Episcopal                                  3
Adventist                                    2
Church/Churches of Christ    1
Mennonite/Brethren                 1

Data selected from Chaves, Congregations in America, 26. 

There are three ways to bridge the distance between traditions that care little for ceremony and those where ceremony is absolutely central.

First, it is important to think about worship practices in terms of the immanence and transcendence of God.  When Independent traditions are wary of the serious formality of a well-conducted liturgy--when they are thinking theologically as they should be--they question whether the ceremony communicates that Jesus became flesh and lived among us (John 1:14).  They do not want children, youth and adults to get the sense that they need to "get all cleaned up and religious" in order to meet God.  However, on the other hand, Independents, Baptists, and Pentecostals would agree that there should be some time in the worship service where people realize that God is transcendent.  Perhaps there comes a time when people have their hands raised and song lyrics focus on a characteristic of God.  Perhaps it is the seriousness with which people take the "Holy" Bible.  As the bumper sticker puts it, "God said it.  I believe it.  That settles it."  Christians would agree regardless of their tradition that at some point in a worship service, we must come to the point of realizing, "God is God and I am not." This is the transcendence of God.  On the other hand, there also needs to be a sense somewhere in the worship service that God has become flesh (the immanence of God).  For the liturgically-minded, this comes in the form of appreciating the sensual--the five senses--tasting the bread (taste), kneeling for prayer (touch), seeing the colors of the church year (sight), hearing of forgiveness that have been said over the centuries (hearing), and smelling the incense (smell).  In the five senses, God comes to us in the ordinary.  This is why the concept of "sacrament" is so important to the liturgical traditions--it enables them to access the the immanence of God.  For the less ceremonial, the immanence of God is reflected in application-oriented sermons, informal music styles, architecture, and clothing that more closely-reflect the outside culture.  

Second, another way to bridge the ceremony vs. not ceremony divide is to reflect on the missiological implications of the gospel.  How is the gospel to be communicated to the outside world?  There is broad agreement that the congregation should be living holy lives in their schools, workplaces and neighborhoods.  But should the practices of the church also reflect the culture?  All agree that the church has the potential to go too far with this--to accomodate to the culture; to sink down to act just like the world; in the desire to be relevant.  However, there is also broad agreement that church worship services should be "intelligible" (1 Cor 14).  They should not be so ceremonial that people do not understand what is being communicated.  There are a few anti-Vatican2-Roman Catholics who want to return to the Latin mass but in most circles there is a sense that "translation" to some degree needs to take place for the edifying of the congregation.  In my last post, I commended Ed Stetzer's discussion of the emerging church in terms of missiology.  How the congregation intends to communicate the gospel is a question which congregations across the denominational spectrum can engage.  The danger of undercontextualization and overcontextualization similarly are a danger for all.  How do we communicate the gospel to outsiders without compromising it?   

Third, all of this can be studied profitably in terms of "practices."  We can try to describe the biblical practices, the traditional practices of the church, and try to come to terms with which ones are most central and why.  In this work, we appreciate the ceremony of liturgical churches in a deeper way while also being thoughtful about the "casual" worship practices in Independent congregations.  There are good reasons for doing some "casual" practices like encouraging congregations to talk with one another about the implications of a sermon--Acts 17:11"Now the Bereans were of more noble character than the Thessalonians, for they received the message with great eagerness and examined the Scriptures every day to see if what Paul said was true."  But "casual" is only beneficial if it facilitates congregation members understanding the Jesus has become flesh.  Casual is not beneficial just for casual sake.  The chatty worship leader is distracting:  "This morning in the shower I thought about which songs to sing and I remembered when I was a little kid and this hamster we had and it kind of reminded me about the Jesus and this song . . ."  Yes, Jesus told parables about ordinary objects but this is not a license to distract people with trivialities.  The church leader, who is thinking theologically, is constantly trying to teach the congregation the wonder of Jesus becoming flesh (Philippians 2:6-7) and the implications for the way we live.  By being aware of what we are trying to communicate in each of these practices, we become better church leaders because we emphasize the right aspects of them.  We don't just do a benediction or encourage people to pass the peace, we teach the theological significance of these practices.    

See also my posts:

FAQ about Worship: Seekers, Emotions, and Me-Songs

How to plan and lead worship

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