After 40 years as a pastor in New York, I retired and moved to the wild west of Arizona. As my wife and I started to look for a church home, I realized that I had not worshipped for many years…that is, in the pew, anonymous, seeking to be fed and looking for a church home… a potential parishioner…very different than all the times of attending worship when on vacation or away at some meeting. Now I was on the other side! It not only felt very different, but as much as I tried to put down any judgment or criticism or prejudice…I found myself first frustrated, then sad, and not a little irritated at the gross mediocrity, ignorance or simple lack of skill at what the clergy were doing. I got the feeling that I was encountering all the superficial pop stuff of the last generation or two… but very little of that which has stood the test of time…very little that would lift one up to a timeless and transcendent God of the ages.
As we went from church to church, I found myself not only missing my church of 26 years, but also coming to realize how well worship was conducted and the Word preached…and this not especially about my ministry, but in general about reformed churches on the East coast. The thought kept coming to me to share what I am experiencing with fellow pastors in the East coast, to tell them the good news about all the things they are doing right, doing really well, that are often missing here in this far country full of prodigals… that even though attendance and membership are often a struggle and it is all too easy to be a little discouraged now and then…you are doing very well! And if missing a few things, well, work on them; get past the semi-competent comfort zone that envelope too many out west. So here are my reactions, reflections, and thoughts of reforming…
WORSHIP HOUR Worship should be seamless…not a bunch of little parts broken by greetings and announcements, pitches for this or that…or by people not in place for the reading, the singing, or the offering…the congregation waits and watches, starts and stops worshipping. At times I had the feeling of being at a variety show with a little time between each act as they walked up and down, or got set up, or simply weren’t in place when they were supposed to be.
Sunday worship is not an amateur hour. Readers and other leaders of the worship should be trained to be highly competent or should not be there. I recognize the idea that it is a good thing to have more people participate in leading the worship. But does that imply poor training is acceptable? The notion that somehow the fumbling and mistakes of the layperson will make worship more authentic or real is nonsense. It is more often laziness or lack of worship leadership on the part of the pastor not to take the time to carefully train people to be part of leading worship. It caters to feel good ego status for the participants. There is no need to be a bunch of people up front…save that for variety shows. We went to one worship with a small congregation of fifty or so and there were 5 people leading the worship!?
DECENTLY AND IN ORDER Doesn’t anyone study liturgy? There is a logical order, and by the way, in various forms it has been around for a very long time, for very good reasons…and this be it high, middle or low. For example, the prayer of confession and assurance of pardon are part of the beginning of worship, our approach to God…but often I found them missing or scattered about the service. There were a number of times when the benediction was not the end of the service, but preceded the last hymn and a closing prayer or line or two from the pastor. Announcements happened in the middle of services like a time-out from worship. In another service the prelude came after the choral introit, long greetings and announcements, and opening prayer.
Often I have the feeling at the various churches visited that they are playing church. They seem to have only a rudimentary understanding of liturgy and the flow of worship. They move from one thing to another with little thematic wholeness, flow, or cohesiveness. Worse, often there is the suspicion that it is more about the players up front doing their thing, than trying in any way to be a bridge builder between the worshippers and God. Community building requires cohesiveness; and needs to be connected to the ages more than to what is new or popular.
IN A SACRED SPACE I may become a Lutheran only because they have a sanctuary that looks like a sanctuary and not an auditorium or multi-purpose room or a room designed so that if the church doesn’t make it, it would make a good office or car dealership. (Update: add one UCC church and one Episcopal church.) The sanctuary as worship or sacred space is important to a traditionalist like myself…make that one who seeks the transcendent quality of good worship whether I am alone or with the gathered body…the setting does make a difference. Too often one looks at the front and it is messy, poorly “decorated” or organized. The same is true with mess on back tables…or glance over in the corner and there is a bunch of stuff stored for some other activity…there are too many distractions that do not lead one to worship. One can worship anywhere, but I confess there are times I need a little help finding sacred space and this in terms of the physical, the social, and the sounds around me.
True prelude music is non-existent out here. You walk in, sit down and listen and look at all manner of conversations and greetings and feel more alone and isolated…watch people “setting up” for the worship, moving chairs, choir members and readers ambling up to the front…a sense of chaos not peace, of frenzy not focus, of being there too early for the play. Prelude music offers one the opportunity to prepare for worship and to connect with God and that in the company of others who are doing the same. This changes all the filters with which you have been moving through life.
SING AND THE ANGELS SING Hymns are even more important and valuable than I have always believed! Can you imagine how I felt when I didn’t know one hymn…this after 40 years as pastor, not to mention grade school in a RC boarding school, an Episcopal Prep School, topped off by a missionary boarding school in India run by 26 cooperating denominations with every imaginable hymn at a number of mandatory services per week. Never, ever miss having at least one great hymn of the church each week and never ever have more than one possibly unknown hymn. I went to a couple of services that had no redeeming value whatsoever…. except the hymns…and that was enough to redeem the rest of the service and provide some spiritual nourishment for the week ahead.
Where is the organ? The Presbyterian, U.C.C., and Episcopal Churches that we visited did not have one…what’s going on? The organ is a transcendent instrument that will be around long after the worship and music wars are gone and the drum sets are stored in the balcony or basement. I love the piano and it surely has a place in worship, but when it is the sole instrument, I have the feeling of being disconnected from the ages. My suspicion about drums and loud electric guitars is that they are in church only because they have few other venues that have any real interest in them, especially at their skill level or puerile taste. A church is most often overly accepting of anything and anyone…the argument by some is that we must give up our old ways to attract the youth for they are the future of the church!? Does that mean the church should no longer be a place of worship for all? Keep the drum etc. at youth gatherings. Now, this may be connected to the virus of entitlement that permeates the way we deal with young people and probably insures that they will always remain youth and not adults…
UNSOUND SYSTEMS PA systems and projectors are ubiquitous out here…as are a plethora of speakers that sometimes are a real aid, though often a bit loud and the focus of attention when mike settings are adjusted or a mike is handed to a person who is not “miked”. There are a lot of clever mikes that worship leaders wear, some old fashioned and unnoticed, until the person plays with them. Others are very modern curving around their head like a rock star or receptionist. I know they are often of real value and needed, but if so then do it right! It is like the cooling of churches around here…it should be efficient and quiet…but the hum of the blower motors going on an off, distracts almost as much as fussing with sound systems.
SERMON PLEASE With one exception, all the sermons that I have heard told more about the preacher’s views, vague values, questionable interpretations of the Word, or topical wanderings that could barely be called homilies, let alone sermons…none provided nourishment for the week ahead. I have always believed that a sermon should have something for the people to take with them, something to get them through the week, that would also make them come back next Sunday… not a message for the ages, or to entertain, or gain compliments on the way out. The one exception was a sermon by an Episcopal minister, an older woman, not a great sermon, but she preached the Word and shared her journey. So, simply preach the Word, share the Good News, and try not to spill your ego or political view on it…keep it pure or practical as you can.
And by the way, none of the pastors gave the message to the children. It was often done by a layperson. How does a pastor expect to build any kind of relationship with the children if he or she does not take the time to talk to them here? Kids aren’t dumb; they intuitively know they aren’t important if the one who preaches to the grownups does not bother to preach to them. Furthermore, the “junior sermon” preachers do a terrible job and this with all manner of available books and Internet material. It seems to be more a message to the adults Aren’t I cute than a spiritual lesson for the children. This is one more place where self is at the center rather than serving.
The NY Times had a recent article about the decline of Christian faith and I realized how all the above rants have to do with the decline of the church. Passion and zeal, joy and enthusiasm (en-theos) …proclaiming the Good News, to preach and teach about the power of God’s presence and grace as a life changing, healing, redeeming, full of hope in the midst of pain, suffering, despair, and loss…just isn’t there in a lot of churches. It all seems more about staying in the comfort zone of self-serving and social balance. All the new programs, bible studies, worship services, music, and programs have a feeling of being driven by, and striving for, keeping people entertained, comfortable and emotionally warm…but not much else.
Finally, there seems to be a lack of discipline and accountability. The pastors and preachers seem very comfortable doing their own thing their own way, have little sense of holding themselves absolutely accountable to the Word…apparently it can be on whatever terms seem right to them. Authenticity shaped by critical accountability just is not on the radar. The Word is not primary, rather it is used when it fits and then it is applied with a heavy mushy amount of clichés, jargon, and mindless phrases.
We shall keep searching for a church…trying to not compromise or dumb down or lower the bar that has been established and upheld faithfully these many years in the Reformed Churches of the East coast as they hold themselves accountable and under the discipline of their calling.