The acrobatic part of the worship service

You might think that when it’s time for the sermon, you have reached the part of the service where you are the most passive – just sit back quietly and take it in.

Microphone and congregation graphic found via Google

In The Preaching Life, author and Episcopalian priest Barbara Brown Taylor proposes that we look at both the preacher and the congregation as two acrobats performing a routine in the circus who both step out into the air, trusting everything they have done to prepare for this moment and trusting each other not to let go. The routine will only be a success if both acrobats play their part.

Similarly with the sermon: As the preacher actively brings God’s Word to the people, the congregation also has an active role to playThe Preaching Life by Barbara Brown Taylor in receiving it. With candor, Pastor Taylor writes:

A congregation can make or break a sermon by the quality of their response to it. An inspired sermon can wind up skewered somewhere near the second pew by a congregation of people who sit with their arms crossed and their eyes narrowed, coughing and scuffing their feet as the preacher struggles to be heard. Similarly, a weak sermon can grow strong in the presence of people who attend carefully to it, leaning forward in their pews and opening their faces to a preacher from whom they clearly expect to receive good news. (p. 77)

And that says nothing about how we can actively prepare for and follow up with a sermon. Several ways come to mind:

  • praying beforehand for the preacher as s/he speaks and for myself that I may listen well
  • familiarizing myself with the day’s text(s) before the service starts
  • allowing the prayers and songs after the message to strengthen in my mind the theme and point of the message
  • reviewing the text and message with family or friends over lunch following the service
  • taking a practical step in living out the implications of the text and message

When both the preacher and the congregation see themselves as two acrobats, two active players in the process of hearing God’s Word, we’ll be blessed with some of the best sermons ever preached.

The counter-intuitive part of the worship service

You wouldn’t be the first person to suggest to me that we drop the part of the worship service where we gather the offering. After all, it can take up to five minutes – if the deacons or ushers simply had baskets by the door into which people could drop their money as they exit, we could add something more meaningful to the worship service. (Or just be out the door sooner.) It doesn’t seem like the most effective use of time, does it?

I, however, believe that gathering the offerings every Sunday is a very effective use of time. It is effective in reminding me that everything I have comes from God. The old hymn still rings true:

“We give Thee but Thine own,
whate’re the gift may be;
all that we have is Thine alone,
a trust, O Lord, from Thee.”

I need this constant reminder in a world that wants me to believe it’s my talent, effort, connections, or just dumb luck that brings me what I have instead of seeing God’s providing hand in it all. The reality is that I’m giving to God something that’s already His.

I also need the offering to help me practice acting the way God does towards me – generously. Reflecting the One we follow, Christians are called not to first of all be go-getters but go-givers (as Lee. C Camp reminds me in Mere Discipleship), and Sunday’s offering is one consistent place I can practice that. It reminds and equips me to continue behaving that way as I walk away from the worship service and into the week even if the culture surrounding me makes me feel it’s counter-intuitive or even foolish to let go of that money.

I’d also argue that the offering is one of the more “practical” moments in the service where I put faith into action. The Worship Sourcebook describes it well: Giving to the offering “helps us connect our adoration for God with our life of discipleship” (p. 241). It prompts me to discern what other gifts God is inviting me generously return to Him and share with others – gifts of time, possessions, energy, and love. What’s more, the offering is a token or symbol for how I want to offer to God all of me.

Offering graphic found via Google

God may very well use a 5-minute offering to help me remember this everyday stuff and put it into action.

The ridiculous part of the worship service

I’m not sure how well known this is, but as God’s people, we don’t actually confess our sins in a worship service so that we might be forgiven. As Arlo D. Duba writes in Reformed Worship:

We confess our sins because we know and have the assurance that our God is a gracious and forgiving God who, while we were yet sinners, sent Christ to die for us, received us in baptism, and for Jesus’ sake forgives our sins. So we dare to approach the throne of grace with confidence, not with fear. (RW June 1999, p. 16)

Although it is rightly a solemn, introspective moment in the service, it is also a moment of celebration: Even as we confess our sins to God and one another – honestly owning up to our failures – we are assured that in Christ we are forgiven. Not “maybe forgiven” or “possibly forgiven if we’re lucky.” We are “assured” that God’s amazing, boundless, cleansing grace is for me and you. As The Worship Sourcebook puts it: “We confess sin in the context of the covenant Lord’s love shown to us through Jesus Christ” (p. 81).

Forgiveness graphic found via Google

Need I point out that this is the Lord who knows every single thing about you and me? He knows every nasty, secret thing I’ve ever thought. He knows every unethical scheme I’ve concocted. He knows every rotten thing I think I’ve gotten away with. He knows every ignorant, hurtful word I’ve uttered. This is the Lord who shows love and mercy to me in Christ!

It’s almost ridiculous that the great and perfect ruler of the universe chooses to call me one of His children. Yet that is the truth I claim every time a worship service includes an assurance of pardon following the confession of sins. Somewhere along the way, every genuine worship service and every true act of worship echoes with this Gospel, this Good News.

The honest part of the worship service

I’ve heard that including a time for the corporate confession of sins is becoming increasingly rare in worship services across denominational lines. I suspect for some, it’s difficult to integrate into a service filled mostly with praise. Perhaps others fear that dwelling on our sins will frighten away seekers who were not expecting to be reminded of their mistakes.

The fact is that any relationship will not flourish without honesty, and that’s true for our relationship with God. Things go best when we can freely express our hopes as well as our fears, our praise as well as our lament, our gratitude as well as our guilt. Confessing our sins both privately and corporately allows us to bring out into the open what everyone already knows: The God we worship is holy but we are not.

Even though he wrote it in Calvin Seminary’s Kerux student newspaper over a decade ago, my colleague Craig Hoekema made an analogy that sticks with me to this day:

When we don’t confess, I think we are ignoring who God really is and the seriousness of our offense. It is a bit like going to a Presidential Ball in jeans and t-shirt. And even though the President himself has a suit/dress waiting for us, we just proceed with the evening and never take time to change. I think that if we’re gathered as a sinful people in the presence of a holy God, then we are lying to ourselves and each other if we don’t explicitly and intentionally address our sin every single time.  (Kerux, 21 Oct 2004, pp. 1-2)

Recognizing something is wrong is the first step the Holy Spirit uses to move us to do something about it. How can we want something to be fixed if we don’t even acknowledge that it’s broken?

Confession graphic found via Google

Our time of corporate confession in a worship service enables us to honestly assess who we are and where we fall short. But even better, it sets us up for hearing the best news of all: that God is eager to clothe us with His mercy. (More on that next time…)

The awkward part of the worship service

Not until I read Thom S. Rainer’s blog did I realize how contentious the greeting time in a worship service can be. In each service at Trinity CRC, after we receive God’s greeting, we take a few moments to greet and encourage one another. Usually we simply say “Good morning” or Mutual greetings at Parker Memorial Baptist Church, Anniston AL. Photo from The Anniston Star, found via Google“Nice to see you” to one another; occasionally we more formally pass the peace and say “The peace of Christ be with you,” extending God’s blessing to one another.

According to an informal survey, Dr. Rainer discovered that the mutual greeting time of worship is a big turnoff for people, particularly guests. Reasons for disliking it abound:

  • Some introverts would rather have a root canal than be subjected to a meet and greet time.
  • It exposes the hypocrisy of people who say “Hello” during the mutual greetings but ignore you any other time.
  • Shaking hands with someone who just wiped his nose with his hand is gross.
  • It feels awkward to be told to say something kind to random people around you.

Because this practice can be awkward at best and hypocritical at worst, Dr. Rainer proposes in a subsequent blog post alternatives to the time of mutual greetings including ending the service on time so people have time to chat afterwards if they so choose; putting friendly, extroverted people in key places; and deploying roving greeters.

Around the same time I read Dr. Rainer’s blog, I was reading A Primer on Christian Worship by William A. Dyrness, and – wouldn’t you knowA Primer on Christian Worship by William Dyrness it? – he devotes a paragraph to the practice of greeting one another in a worship service. Dr. Dyrness admits that he, too, sympathizes with those who find this part of the worship service distasteful. But then he takes a step back and observes something valuable in this moment of worship. In his words:

A part of me says, What hypocrisy! Why should I greet these people who I don’t know and who probably aren’t interested in greeting me? But each time I stretch out my hand to a stranger or hug a friend, something happens. I am reminded by [this] practice … of … the kind of people we are becoming in Christ. Whether I feel like meeting someone or not is irrelevant. Our life in Christ has this particular conciliatory shape to it. As a result, this is a community in which sharing and conciliation are core values, and, by the practices of worship, these values are being formed in me.

What I think I hear Dr. Dyrness saying is this: Even when it’s awkward or fake, we practice greeting one another so that we can get better at it which will make it more natural and authentic. We already are and yet still are becoming a community in Jesus Christ; greeting one another helps us work at getting it right even if we don’t at first succeed. In worship, we speak kindness and peace to one another so it becomes increasingly natural to do so, especially after the service is over and during the week.

I like to be sensitive to introverts (such as myself) who dread the mutual greetings. And I simultaneously hope I can convince them (and myself) that the tradition has merit: It gives us a moment to show in a practical way the love that the Holy Spirit is growing among us in Christ as we love and worship Him.

The best part of the worship service

It’s certainly not the longest and maybe seldom the most memorable part, but giving and receiving God’s greeting has got to be one of the best parts of a worship service, imho. It’s near the beginning. People stand. I raise my arms. “Grace and peace to you…” I say.

Grace and Peace graphic found via Google

These are not my words. And these are not words from Trinity CRC’s leadership or from church history. These are Biblical words from God Himself. As a pastor, there’s a simultaneously awesome and humbling thought right there! Think about it: Using my voice, God is welcoming you, expressing His pleasure that people have responded to His call to corporate (that is, group) worship.

The Worship Sourcebook says that these words of greeting “establish the lines of communication in worship. God always comes to us before we come to God. So it is fitting for worship to begin with Scriptural words that convey God’s greeting to us” (p. 56).

As we gather for worship, one of the first things that’s affirmed is that God has graciously brought us together, and that He is mysteriously yet wondrously present whether we come in joy or sorrow, praise or doubt. I certainly cannot think of a better way for the worship experience to begin each Sunday morning!

My colleague, Leon Johnston, has also been reflecting on
God’s greeting
at the start of the worship service.

The most important moment in the worship service

I sometimes wonder how often we thoughtlessly skip right over the most important part of the worship service when we gather on Sundays. I wonder if the most important part of the service is actually that moment of silence before the first note is played on the piano or the first frame is projected in a multimedia presentation or the first word is spoken into the microphone.

Silence graphic found via Google

Pastor Steven Rodriguez suggests that “our worship of God begins not with the first word spoken, but with the silence before it. If we speak to God without pausing first, we are just offering ourselves to God. But if we begin with silence, we are opening ourselves up to receive God.

I know at least one colleague who pauses momentarily to quietly pray before she ascends the platform steps to open the service. I’ve been invited to lead worship in at least a couple churches where one of the first elements in the order of worship is 30 seconds of silent prayer. I suspect they’re on to something – intentionally holding their tongues, holding their breath, even, inviting God to fill the moment before they make any sound.