Thursday, November 20, 2014

Wondering on the Ways We Worship...

Perhaps the best part of my call with the Vermont Conference is the time I spend directly interacting with our churches. When 2014 ends, I will have visited more than three dozen of you this year, preaching and sharing worship in more than 20 different churches.

The diversity of worship expressions around the Conference is something I wish you all could see. There are the 'liturgical' churches, where every prayer is an opportunity for reading responsively, with multi-page bulletins in color. And others where the congregation mainly receives rather than participates. Some are careful to include the words to every corporate prayer, not assuming that every visitor will know the words to The Lord's Prayer. Musical expressions vary widely, from majestic pipe organs and electronic organs, to pianos and Clavinovas, to strings and brass and guitars. Projecting on screens or walls during worship is gaining ground. Some sermons are relatively short, some much longer. In some churches the sermon is the central focal point of worship; in others, it seems to be prayers of the people and the pastoral prayer. Some celebrate communion weekly, some monthly, and a few quarterly.

Here's the interesting thing. In all this diversity, I could not begin to tell you which liturgical practices are 'right' and which are 'wrong.' Because there's no such thing. Most seem to work in their contextual setting, fitting the congregation that gathers in its own way.

Moreover, I would posit that it's challenging to know from the 'inside' which parts of worship the assembled find most compelling. It is as difficult as looking directly into your own eyes. Because you ARE that.

When Tom Harty and I began as co-pastors in Randolph Center, we added the Passing of the Peace to our weekly liturgy. In the beginning, the congregation participated stiffly, almost grudgingly, rarely moving from their pews. In time it gained wider acceptance, but the change came gradually, nearly imperceptibly. The time for Passing the Peace grew longer and longer, people travelling further and further from their pews, until one day I realized that everyone made contact with everyone else, and the interaction went well beyond "Peace be with you."

Well, this wouldn't do. It was taking too long! It was threatening to cut into my sermon time! I wanted to get a bell to keep on the pulpit which I could ring and train them (Thanks, Pavlov!) to return to their seats on command. This was just too successful. Harrumph. 

One mid-winter Sunday after church, as I was grumbling about the Passing of the Peace, an elderly widow took me aside and gently said to me, "Jim, sometimes Sunday morning is the only time I get out of my house all week. This is the one place where I get some human touch."


Now, I would have told you that I suspected that my carefully crafted liturgy or inspiring and challenging sermon was the part of worship that was most valued. But, at least for one woman, it was fellowship, community, and the sharing of appropriate physical contact.

So, I wonder. Why do you worship the way you do? When's the last time you seriously deconstructed your liturgy to know what people find meaningful and cherished? Are the booming pipes (organ or pastor) it? Or the quiet spaces for reflection? Is everything in worship a prelude to an invitation to the table? Something else?

And, perhaps, two harder questions. Are the things important to you also the things that might be important to visitors and seekers? Is your worship designed for your insiders, or those you haven't met yet?

Stay tuned - we'll soon be announcing information about 
Recalculating the Way II coming in March. Rev Mike Piazza will be the keynote, and we will explore worship as our topic. 

Blessings to you and yours this holiday season.