Maybe pastors should stop talking about football

We visit a lot of churches so we have a fairly large sample size to draw from. I don’t think I’m exaggerating when I say that it is fairly common for the “call to worship” to include some kind of commentary on football! It is always done in a light touch and a smile and I understand the pastor’s desire to appear relevant to current events. Honestly, I’d rather hear that than some kind of political comment (and, yes, I’ve heard that too).

Listen, I like football and sports in general. I like talking about it with my friends. But when I go to church my focus is on something else — Someone else. Start the service off with something spiritual; maybe a reminder that we are gathering for a serious purpose. That’s not to say we don’t come with joy and expectation – or that we don’t enjoy fellowship with one another. Of course we do.

It seems to me many of us are already struggling to get our minds off of a thousand other things as we come to worship. Instead of legitimizing the trivial how about reading a powerful passage of scripture and reminding worshipers that we serve an awesome God and that we are, right now, coming into his presence?

I have to admit that I didn’t arrive at this opinion early in my ministry. In fact, as a young pastor I let the song leader (that’s what we called them back in the old days) get up and announce the first song. This without any input from me at all. As time passed I began to think about how we were beginning our worship services and decided that some of our high church friends were on to something with their liturgical calls to worship.

I started seeking out scriptures that called people into worship and began opening services with scripture and prayer. It may just be my imagination but I think the services took on a more Christ-centered atmosphere.

Now, all the above, I know, must be taken with a strong dose of common sense. When the home town team is playing the Super Bowl there’s room for some level of public commentary. Also, there’s a lot of good sermon illustrations in the world of sports. Still, that kind of stuff has a very limited shelf life and should be used sparingly.

This is, of course, all just my opinion. Still, pastor, it might be reasonable to consider how to best invite people to enter into a spirit of worship.

Have church people stopped singing?

It seems to me that church people don’t sing like they used to.

First, a few caveats:

  1. I really don’t know about churches aside from the ones we visit and when we visit we generally visit Nazarenes and their kin.
  2. Of course, I don’t know about YOUR church – maybe people there sing to the top of their lungs.
  3. And, of course, I’m not talking about YOU.  You may be on the Praise Team with a microphone and singing loud and strong throughout the worship service.

Now, with all that out of the way, let me tell you what I’m seeing.  We are pretty much professional church visitors through most of the year.  The worship service in the vast majority of the churches we visit looks and sounds pretty much the same:

  1. There’s a Praise Band: guitar, keyboard, bass, drums – maybe other keyboard instruments (in interest of full disclosure, I play bass guitar whenever I am asked)
  2. There are singers with microphones who sing with energy
  3. The words are on the screen
  4. Everyone is standing anytime there is music being played

So far so good.  We have music being played – generally well played.  We have leaders who are singing out.  We have the words and, most often, a repeatable melody.

But very few people are singing.  Usually, the church leaders are really into it: hands and faces raised in worship.  Scattered around the congregation are others who are singing along.  However, they are the minority.  My most generous estimate is that 1 in 10 worshipers are singing.  Everyone else is just standing there.

Maybe that’s not all bad.  Maybe they are carefully listening to the words, reading them on the screen and being deeply moved by it all.  I don’t know their hearts and I understand that it’s really none of my business.  My business is to be in the moment, turning my thoughts and spirit away from the mundane things of life and focusing on the Lord.

However, my hip starts aching after a while and it starts feeling to me like we’re saying the same words over and over again.  I can’t help but wonder how much longer we’re going linger at this particular stage of worship.

So, I start looking around, being impressed by the sincerity of the folks who are, apparently, really into the worship service.  But I also note that a lot of folks are just standing there like me.

I know I’m one of the senior citizens now and the old people always complain that things used to be better – longing for the good old days.  I don’t want to be one of those people.   I think the point could be made that people just don’t sing any more.  Rather, they go to concerts, stand and listen while people on stage do the singing.  I’m convinced that the concert goers aren’t there for a show, and they really do worship.  Maybe when those concert goers go to church they treat the worship service as another Christian music concert.  They are there to worship but not to sing.

Still, I keep going back to a worship service we attended  in a large church a couple of years ago.  We were near the front, center and, yes, we were standing for the whole song service.  There was a Praise Band and singers with microphones and words on the screens.  There was also a pipe organ and grand piano.  And we were singing a 250 year old Wesley hymn.

The congregation was singing their hearts out.  At first I joined in, singing bass as best I could.  Then I became overwhelmed and had to stop singing.  I just stood there letting the sound of all the voices wash over me.

I miss being part of a congregation that sings like that.

And, by the way, my hip didn’t hurt at all that day.

During Communion

Traveling as we do we see different approaches to the elements of worship. That’s especially true when we visit churches outside our own Zion, but often even different churches of our own denomination have approaches to things that are new to us.

We visited one church in which the bulletin directed us to receive the elements whenever we wanted upon receiving them. They passed the trays and most everyone received them immediately. Those in the front of the church got theirs first, received them, and then waited for the service to continue. I didn’t like that very much because it seemed to take the “union” out of comm-union for me.

Other churches may instruct people to wait for further instructions but they have a congregational song going throughout the distribution of elements. At one place the minister was almost shouting over the praise band, instructing us to “take and eat.” I found myself wanting to say “hush!” to the singers so I could not only contemplate what the Lord did and is doing for me but also hear what the minister was saying.

Since I believe this sacrament is, indeed, “a means of grace” I want to be given a bit of spiritual space when I receive it. Time spent holding the symbols of our Lord’s broken body and shed blood while others are being served is one way that can happen. Also, some quiet time, maybe with just some soft instrumental music, helps me listen to the “still, small voice” of God.

Contemporary worship in a traditional sanctuary

We visit a lot of churches; frankly, it’s a lot of fun. I find hearing different pastors, enjoying the music of some talented people, and even looking over the décor of the sanctuary to be interesting and sometimes inspiring. It’s the sanctuary set-up that I’m thinking about today.

Most churches (thinking of buildings here) that we visit have been around for a while. When they were built people had a rather specific idea of how a church ought to look so it comes as no surprise that buildings that were constructed at similar times for churches of the same denomination have the same look and feel.

Interesting to me is that, while church sanctuaries have remained the same, the worship services themselves have undergone some major upgrades the last 20 years or so. Most churches we visit have gone to a blended type of worship service. The music has changed and now it’s guitars and drums with the piano relegated to a less central role. Organs have fared even worse; often little used or even removed from service all together.

Probably the only sanctuary change in all this that is common is the addition of a video screen. In some churches the screen sticks out like a sore thumb, maybe even covering the top part of a cross during at least part of the service (not a very good visual in my opinion).

Often, aside from the video addition, everything looks pretty much the same as it did 40-50 years ago.

Frankly, I don’t think that works very well. Dark paneling, oak pews, and heavy furniture on the platform…these speak of another day. They make me want to sing “Oh God our Help in Ages Past” with pipe organ rather than “Good, Good Father” with praise band.

I know that, really, what I expect or “feel” about this doesn’t matter much. After all, I’m going to attend and worship either way.

But what does it say to the people we want to reach? If everything they see around them says, “Grandma’s church” all that contemporary music is going to do is create a disjointed feeling, like, say, mixing perfectly good mashed potatoes with perfectly good ice cream. Either one is okay without the other, but together…they don’t mesh very well.

Also, I know that dealing with this kind of stuff is, for a church leader, a stroll through a mine field. Many of our most faithful folk have only grudgingly gone along with the change in music style. If someone starts messing with their pew things could get rather dicey in a hurry.

I’m no architect or designer so I’m not sure how to best accomplish it, but I’m thinking that an updated, contemporary worship service will work best in an updated, modernized setting. Otherwise, we’re just, to borrow (in a rather out-of-context way) from Jesus, trying to put new wine into old wineskins.

Contemporary Worship: things that bug me

No, I’m not going to complain about the style of music or being asked to stand through the song -er- worship service. Here are three contemporary worship services practices that I am seeing that bug me.

  1. Volume of instruments in the praise band. This may surprise you, but I’m not talking about the music being too loud. We seldom come away from a service in a church of our flavor (Church of the Nazarene) thinking the music is too loud. What I do hear fairly often, though, is unbalanced volume from the various instruments in the band. Often, even when the stage has several instruments, the only two I can hear clearly are the strumming of the worship leader on the guitar and the drummer. If you closed your eyes you would think that was all there was: no keyboard, no bass, no second guitar. Of course there are variations to that. Sometimes the music guy plays keyboard and it’s the keyboard you hear. Really, if you are going to recruit instrumentalists to your praise band and have them come to rehearsal it’s reasonable that your music and sound people work together to balance the sound. Obviously, there are exemptions – maybe you have a not-so-talented musician that you want to encourage by having them sit in. Aside from that, though, an effort needs to be made to equalize the sound.
  2. Self-serve communion. It is becoming more common to put the communion elements out and announce to the congregation that during the next song they can come and receive communion if they want. I can’t tell you what poor symbolism I think this is. Communion isn’t a self-serve event. It isn’t an “if you want it” kind of ordinance. Just continuing with the music portion of the service as though communion is just a side line misses the mark. I love communion and I think it has enough spiritual “weight” to hold it’s own in a service. I don’t mind the ritual being updated in some reasonable ways, but I want the pastor to lend his/her authority to the serving of the sacrament.  It bugs me to hear the pastor taking time to do announcements as though that is really important stuff but leaving the serving of the Lord’s Supper on automatic as though it’s just an optional part of that Sunday’s worship service.
  3. Preaching from floor level rather than the platform. I understand the desire of pastors to be informal and approachable during the sermon. I understand that in a contemporary worship service the speaker doesn’t want to appear preachy. Apparently, a lot of pastors have decided that, not only do they not want a pulpit, but they want to be down front rather than on the stage looking down on people. But let me tell you what happens out in the seats: some of us spend the whole sermon trying to look around the people in front of us. After awhile I gain a whole new appreciation for Zacchaeus of New Testament fame who climbed a tree so he could get a glimpse of Jesus. If the speaker would just stand on the platform we could all see him or her. Some pastors think they are enhancing their communication effort by staying off the platform, but I think they are shooting themselves in the foot by creating an absolutely unnecessary distraction.

Any time I see young adults in the church who are really into worship it blesses my heart and I’m happily convinced that a lot of contemporary churches are doing a lot of things right.  Still, I have to confess that these things bug me.

How about you?

Confession of a non-liturgical pastor

Confession of a non-liturgical (at least in the strictest definition of the term) pastor…

Several years ago as I read the history of Christianity I was taken with the emphasis on the public reading of Scripture – something specifically mentioned by Paul to Timothy.

I decided that if it we’re specifically told to do so in the Bible and since it was deeply rooted in the history of the Church that I’d add the reading of Scripture to the regular order of the service. (Note: “Order of worship” is how we non-liturgicals talk about liturgy.)

The question then became what passage to read. My first inclination was to use the passage I was going to preach from later in the service. That, though, had some limitations — really, not all preachable portions of Scripture lend themselves to the reading of Scripture in worship service.

Also, I was still challenged to lift the Scripture, itself. If I read my text early, I was really still reading it as part of the sermon. I wanted to let the Scripture, at that point, just speak for itself and be separate from the sermon.

Ultimately, I decided to go with at least a portion of the Gospel reading from the Book of Common Prayer. It gives us a bit of structure and a certain flow week by week. So each week a lay reader leads us in a responsive reading from the Gospels.

I’m not preaching from it and I still don’t use the lectionary, although I’m not critical of those who do.

By the way, sometime later I added a weekly Psalm, which I use as a call to worship. Then, more recently, I’ve added the reading of one of the wonderful Biblical benedictions to each service.

A Biblical call to worship, a responsive reading from the Word, an expository sermon, and a benediction from Scripture…nope, I’m not liturgical, I just like to use the Bible in worship.