September 15, 2014

Renewing The Evangelical Worship Service, Part Two

willow_performance2This morning we began looking at some ideas that could help renew evangelicalism, or at least the weekly worship service aspect of many evangelical churches. I want to continue this discussion, but first a couple more observations.

First of all, we must must must remember that the focus of the service is Jesus, not me. Not my “felt needs” (which is purely manipulative from a marketing standpoint). Not my purpose or destiny. Jesus. In many of the services I’ve attended Jesus is an afterthought, if a thought at all. From the call to worship to the benediction, Jesus must be front and center. If a church service does not focus on Jesus in every element, then it is simply there to entertain and amuse. I can think of a lot better uses of my time than to sit through another Christless church service.

Chaplain Mike asked in a comment to part one if perhaps the reason there is no longer very many liturgical elements in evangelical services is because of ignorance rather than a deliberate shunning. I agree that some are ignorant because they have grown up in evangelicalism and have never been exposed to liturgy. Yet there are many others who, upon their conversion, decide to leave the church they grew up in and attach themselves to the “happenin’ church” in their city. They are told they are now “free to worship in the Spirit” as opposed to “bound up by traditions of men.” (And I have heard this said many, many times.)

Dennis and Robin Bratcher write about the evangelical aversion to liturgy better than I can.

For many evangelicals there remains a visceral aversion to even the mention of the word “liturgy.” Many evangelicals, especially those who have grown up in more conservative or fundamentalist traditions, immediately associate “liturgy” with Roman Catholic, which evokes the religious prejudice that opposes “Catholic” to “Christian.” For many in those traditions, to do anything “Catholic,” which becomes a prejudicial label for anything different then how we do things, is the equivalent of abandoning Christianity.

And yet, as many of those same evangelicals mature in their Faith they are attracted to the aspects of worship that are lacking in their own traditional worship experiences. These include the elements of mystery in liturgical worship, the sacraments, the communal dimension of worship, the longing to move out of sectarianism and be part of the larger Church, the focus on Scripture and prayer, even things like incense and making the sign of the cross as a testimony to their own Faith.

As a result, many evangelical churches, even from very low-church traditions, are increasingly seeking to incorporate aspects of liturgical worship into their own worship. But this in itself has created somewhat of a dilemma, since many pastors and church leaders are not familiar with liturgical worship. There is some sense, beyond the bigotry, that they really do not want to become Catholic or Anglican. Yet, there are aspects of those traditions that are increasingly seen to have value in ministering to people in a contemporary culture and to fulfill the longing of many in evangelical churches for deeper worship. (Dennis Bratcher and Robin Stephenson-Bratcher, www.crivoice.org)

One last observation. Not all evangelical churches are alike. Not all are focused on me me me. There are many pastors who are actually pastors—shepherds—who want to lead their flocks to green pastures, and know that the path to get there includes much more than providing an entertainment experience on Sunday mornings unlike any other. There are evangelical churches that practice the elements I’m suggesting, and do them very well. But these churches typically fly under the radar. The majority of evangelical churches follow a model of entertainment and of meeting felt needs. They are driven by modern church growth techniques (read: marketing and manipulation) in order to pack in the most wallets per service as possible.

If evangelicalism is to be renewed, drastic change must occur. And the weekly worship service is as good a place to begin as any.

This morning we looked at the call to worship, the song service, and reciting the creeds. That brings us to …

The announcements. This is the time in the service when an amateur comedian gets up to practice his standup act by telling us things that are happening in the church in the coming week. Or when a member of the staff reads to us what we could read ourselves. I have known the announcement portion of the service to be longer than the sermon. Do any other denominations/movements within Christianity place such emphasis on announcements as do evangelicals? And can evangelicals no longer read? Why not print upcoming events in the bulletin and let those interested read it for themselves?

My suggestion: Do away with the announcements all together, unless somehow you can show me how they help me focus on Jesus. (Good luck with that one.)

And the announcements lead us straight in the collection of the offerings. In the Baptist church in which I was raised as a believer (I was born into a Presbyterian church where my father was an elder. Woody Harrelson and I were in the toddler class together. He was not nearly as funny then as he is now…), the pastor did not want to interrupt the service by passing plates to collect the offering. So he had two chests—called Joash Chests—constructed and one placed by each door. Tithes and offerings were dropped in there. He claimed that giving increased greatly after the church went from passing plates to the chests. A note was always in the bulletin explaining how the church received offerings, and what they were used for. Sometimes the pastor would make a brief mention of this just before his message. Very little time was spent on money.

I’m not sure this is the best way to receive offerings. In one way it’s a good alternative to the mini-sermons on how God will prosper you if you give to the church. But in another way, I would like to see giving as a true act of worship. Make this a fun time. God loves cheerful giving. But—once again, here is my refrain—keep the focus on Jesus. This is not about me and how my needs will be met and how God will open the windows of heaven and pour out on me. This is about making a joyful sacrifice of what I have earned and giving it gladly to the Lord. If there is going to be any entertainment in the service, this would be the place for it. A song by the band. A video about a recent missions trip. Only … keep the focus …

For a people who put so much emphasis on the Bible, don’t you think it odd that very few evangelical services incorporate Scripture reading?  I don’t mean the verses peppered throughout the message (if even then). I mean a reading from the Old Testament and a reading from the New. It doesn’t even have to follow the lectionary. But a formal reading—even a responsive reading, if you like—from the Book of Books surely should not be out of place. So faith comes from hearing, that is, hearing the Good News about Christ. Yet many churches resist because, well, it is not spontaneous.

Which brings us to the main event. Ladies and gentlemen, if you will direct your attention to the center ring, it’s time for …

The sermon. In other expressions of the faith—Catholic, Lutheran, Anglican, Orthodox—this is no more important than any other part of the service. It is certainly shorter than any card-carrying evangelical preacher would deliver. In most evangelical services, everything else is simply leading up to the sermon. It is the sermon where the Gospel is presented (if at all). Thus the emphasis on “dynamic” preachers. This, of course, is translated into “entertaining” preachers. The evangelical sermon must be entertaining, if nothing else. We want to keep ‘em coming back, after all. And if your message is not fun and easy to hear, the next ten churches down the way have their doors open.

Michael Spencer wrote about Christless preaching. Since he wrote that, I think the landscape has only become more littered with motivational speeches masquerading as sermons that build the faith. Here are things that need to be removed from messages if the evangelical service is to be renewed.

  • Jokes. Come on, you are not that funny. Really, you’re not. And I didn’t come to be entertained. I came to see and hear Jesus. I’m not saying Christians shouldn’t laugh and tell jokes. But don’t try your standup routine on me from the pulpit. Please, don’t. And especially don’t read jokes that have been passed around in the internet since Al Gore invented the thing.
  • Top Ten lists. See the above.
  • Clips from movies or TV shows. I know I will get a lot of push-back on this one. Yes, I believe movies can illustrate the Gospel, often better than the sermon can. But if you cannot find words to use, then just show the whole movie and stay in your seat.
  • YouTube videos. Please. I know you are paying good money for a “communication director” to be on your staff, and he is young and is enamored with all that is available on the internet, but is there anything on YouTube that I need to see during a worship service? The answer is no, there isn’t.

If you don’t take the message seriously, then why should I? Again, this doesn’t mean you can’t smile or perhaps make us laugh. Frederick Buechner says if we don’t see the Gospel as one big joke then we really don’t get it. I think Capon says something similar. But I want to see Jesus, not your creative genius at work. Show me Jesus in Scripture. Don’t try to answer all of my questions. Instead, help me ask the right questions. Then stand back and let the Holy Spirit answer them over time for me.

What should be in the sermon? Stories. Jesus spoke in parables. That seems like a good way to go to me. And Jesus didn’t use parables to teach life principles. He told stories to make people think. Then he left it up to them to figure out what he meant. I know—I used that word again. Think. How dare I?

Scripture. Did you know that studies show when Christians are reading a book and come to a passage of Scripture they more often than not skip over it? It’s true. It’s because we think we’ve read it and heard it already, so it’s not that important to read again. And others studies show the incredibly small percentage of those who call themselves “born again” (one of the definitions that go along with “evangelical”) who actually read their Bibles. I mean it is embarrassingly small. We need Scripture read to us over and over. We need it taught us by those who themselves have studied and wrestled with it.

Law and grace. Every time. The Gospel: Law and grace. Without law and grace, you are just flappin’ your lips. Christians need the Gospel preached to them constantly. Every week. Every sermon. Every time.

Hand-in-hand with the Gospel preached is the Gospel given in communion. “Communion” is how evangelicals refer to the Eucharist. I have no problem with the term “communion.” It implies an act done in community, as it should be. We need to erase every aspect of individualism that we can from our services, and here is an act that requires at least two: the one serving, and the one receiving.

The thing about Catholicism that attracts me the most is the daily mass. To think I could receive the body and blood of Jesus daily is amazing to me. I grew up in a Baptist church where it was served quarterly. When I went off to college, there was a Friday evening communion service that I loved. I loved having it available to me much more frequently. I need this constant reminder that I can do nothing for the forgiveness of my sins but receive what has been given. Yet so many evangelical churches offer communion once a month at best. I asked our pastor why we only receive communion once a month, and he said he thought that helped keep it special. “Do you only have sex with your wife once a month to keep that special?” I asked. Wouldn’t you hate to be my pastor?

Do we have to keep communion infrequent so we have some kind of special feelings when we partake? Think about your daily meals. Aren’t most of them simply routine—the cooking, the eating, the cleaning? Yet they are necessary whether or not they feel special. Why not offer the table of the Lord each week, even if off to the side following the conclusion of the service for those who want to receive?

And the conclusion of the service is the perfect place for a benediction. This is simply the pastor conferring a blessing of peace upon all present. There are several good ones in the Bible. Use those. No need to get super creative here. But confer a blessing rather than just say, “You’re dismissed.”

One last word. I’m not saying that every evangelical church should implement all of these changes this Sunday. Too many changes and you will chase everyone away. Try one, like a benediction, and see how that goes. Then try another. Don’t be afraid to fail. Don’t be afraid to mix it up. Just don’t be afraid to try.

 

Comments

  1. Eh, I’ve seen the excesses announcements can go to but they’re fine in principle- lots of liturgical churches do them too. Not everyone is going to read the bulletin. The important thing is to keep them short and just highlight a few things instead of being exhaustive. At my church the announcements come between the third scripture reading and the fourth one (which is usually the sermon text). This helps keep them from becoming too prominent.

    • Headless Unicorn Guy says:

      At St Boniface, announcements come at the end of Mass, right before the Dismissal/Recessional. They never go over two minutes.

      As for the sermon (homily in Romish Popery) starting with a joke, we have one assistant pastor who always does that. The prevailing attitude is “That’s Fr So-and-so, that’s just the way he is.” (St B’s has three priests who rotate off, so we get some variety in homily style.)

      Oh, and normally I take weekly communion (under both species until they discontinued the cup during this latest flu outbreak), but Lent starts in two weeks where I’ll be taking it daily.

      • HUG, is that St. Boniface in Huntington Beach? (think you’ve mentioned living in SoCal in other posts). Several family members attend mass there.

        • Are you in HB, Karen?

          I’m just up the street a ways in NB.

          • No, Steve, wish I was though! We’re in Riverside, having moved out of OC many years ago order to be able to buy a house. Couldn’t afford those OC prices. My daughter used to live in NB, right on the peninsula across from the elementary school. Now she’s in HB.

        • Headless Unicorn Guy says:

          No, St Boniface in downtown Anaheim. Didn’t know there were two St Bony’s in the county.

          Bit of local oral history of my St Bony’s:

          Ninety years ago, during the peak of the Second Klan in the Roaring Twenties, Anaheim was a sleepy little citrus-orchard town and a Klan town — “Klanaheim, Kalifornia”. The mayor was KKK, the entire city council was KKK, as were the cops and fire department. Cross-burning rallies were a regular event at what’s now La Palma Park, and the “Welcome to Anaheim” signs at the city limits had the Klan sigil and the Klonversation recognition code phrase “KIGY” (“Klansman, I Greet You”).

          It was the Knights of Columbus working out of St Boniface who led the Anti-Klan Resistance movement in the town; took them almost ten years, but they broke the Klan’s hold on Klanaheim.

          • Very interesting info about Anaheim, never knew that. As for St. Bony’s….my mistake. The one in HB is actually St. Bonaventure’s.

    • Richard Hershberger says:

      ” lots of liturgical churches do them too”

      Yes. Yes, we do. And often not well. My personal preference is that they come either before or after the service, as they are not part of it. Having them during the service is like having a commercial interruption, but without the option of using to run to the bathroom. But the overriding principle is keep them short. Short announcements in the middle are better than long announcements anywhere else.

    • I find the announcements are useful not so much for telling people the details of what’s coming up, but it’s a good place to tell stories about what has been happening. And done well it helps our folk see there’s more going on in our church than whatever their involvement is.

      I do agree they can be done badly, and I’m probably the worst offender.

    • Ours come after the benediction when the service is officially over. I am Lutheran (Missouri Synod).

  2. I disagree somewhat with your comments about giving offerings in the worship service. Giving an offering is one of the most visible elements of worship (actually giving something). To relegate it to dropping a check in a box on the way out the door misses the point. Also, to have “entertainment” happening on the stage takes away from the significance of the moment. Perhaps we should make the offering time even more visible. I have always appreciated the way many African/American congregations give an offering by taking it up front (although this can become a matter of excess and show if not careful). We have become so self-conscious and private about our money that we want to make it as unobtrusive as possible. How we give is certainly more revealing of our relationship with Jesus than how we sing.

    • Richard Hershberger says:

      I think the relevant bit about the offering is that it is traditionally done as part of the offertory: the placing of the Eucharistic elements on the altar. Often the offering plates and the elements are brought forward at the same time. The symbolism is obvious. (The offering, unlike the elements, is not placed on the altar, as that would get the symbolism all wrong.)

      I think the point about “entertainment” is that the time when the plates are being physically passed around is otherwise down time: like dead air on the radio. How this works in practice depends on the size of the church. Within reason, a little down time is not a bad thing, but it can go on too long.

      The one time I attended an African American church, the offering was not only taken up front, but two elders then took it off to the side and counted it, and the preacher then announced the total. I suspect the origin of this practice is to avoid embezzlement. The white mainline equivalent is to have a rotation of counters, always two and not the same two every week. But the counting is done discreetly in the office after the service.

  3. Several of the volumes in Robert Webber’s 7-volume Library of Christian Worship collection probably have some good information for this. They’re currently only $4.99 each at christianbook.com, a real bargain.

    • They only have 2 of the 7 :( but yes, those are tremendous resources, and incredibly ecumenical. Everybody can learn from his anthologies of tradition.

      • I only looked at a couple at Christianbook.com. I have volumes 1,2,6,7 but not 3,4,5 in Logos based on my interests and potential churches. I assume if you search the Net you can find all 7 if you want to.

  4. At our church, the announcements come after the prayer after communion. The reason we do it at the end is because the announcements are part of the sending forth of the community. They let people know how we are serving each other and the community in the week(s) ahead and how they can be a part of that, for God’s glory. I think incorporating it as part of the “sending forth” helps see announcements not as a chore, but as a tangible (embodied) way that we respond to the grace of Jesus that we have heard and seen and received in the service.

  5. Richard Hershberger says:

    In fairness, “Communion” (or “Holy Communion”) is what Protestants generally call the Eucharist, unless we are going low church and calling it “The Lord’s Supper”. The widespread use of the word “Eucharist” is fairly recent. Check out the Book of Common Prayer, from which most English-language mainline Protestant traditions cribbed their text, whether directly or indirectly. (Yes, even English-speaking Lutherans. We started worshiping in English in the early 19th century, and quite pragmatically saw no reason to reinvent the wheel when there was the genius of Archbishop Cranmer just begging to be plagiarized.)

  6. Jeff, your suggestions are so right on the money, imo. Had evangelical churches been open to these things, there’s a chance I might still be in one.

    One issue though: shorter sermons don’t necessarily mean we see them as less important. Sometimes there’s a point where going longer isn’t making it any better. Lutherans used to preach for an hour. I’d have no problem with siting through a 2 hour service if we could get anybody to come to it. But generally speaking, preachers in liturgical churches are just more sensitive to wasting everyone’s time with their personality. But the sermon is still essential: Lutherans view sermons as the Word of God to the extent that they faithfully convey its content.

    Announcements: I believe they belong at the end, right before the benediction. Especially if your last words are “Go in peace. Serve the Lord.” Well, then, you’ve just been given a list of opportunities. The bookends to the Divine Service or mass are the gathering/introductory rites, and the closing rites. The closing rites are often looked at as a commission of sorts, or a sending back into the world, a solemnization of our scattering to be the hands and feet of Christ to our neighbors. It’s a great place to let people know of opportunities to live their faith as a community.

  7. Jeff, I find myself sceptical of what you write here, simply because so much of it has no real evidence. For example, you write: “The majority of evangelical churches follow a model of entertainment and of meeting felt needs. They are driven by modern church growth techniques (read: marketing and manipulation) in order to pack the most wallets per service as possible.”

    How do you know this? Are you saying, “the majority of evangelical churches I have experienced do this?” If so, your evidence is anecdotal and is limited. Where is your real evidence? Let me suggest some other evidence. The Southern Baptist Convention is filled with evangelical churches, I am sure everyone would agree. Yet only 0.4% of SB churches are “megachurches” with about 10% of Southern Baptists attending these churches. That means that 90% of Southern Baptists are attending smaller churches whose average weekly attendance is 120–churches “flying under the radar”, to use your words. If the purpose of these churches attended by 90% of Southern Baptists is to”pack the most wallets per service as possible”, then they are failing significantly. Perhaps it is you who have miscalculated their purpose.

    • Megachurches and loud-mouthed pastors garner the most press and elicit the biggest reactions. To some extent, I think that pastors of smaller churches do try to emulate what they see the big boys doing, but it seems they have very limited success. I think most pastors in small churches are just desperate to get the people in those churches to do anything. This is based on my own anecdotal evidence, too, so I’m sure I’m biased. My dad has been at the same small church for over 30 years now, and what I see when I look at him is someone who’s just trying to be faithful to his calling. I see a lot pastors like that.

    • It might be helpful to distinguish between every evangelical church and the subculture of evangelicalism. Evangelicalism is big movement with hazy borders, but running through it and influencing many are a network of seminaries, parachurch organizations, and ministries/companies marketing to evangelicals. A clear set of expectations or pictures about what church is and what godly living are discernable; more than that, there’s a common lingo and a set of products—even if evangelicals argue over what these pictures should have in them. There is definitely common music, books, etc that someone spends a lot of time making appear like “the movement”. And when it comes to church growth, even those not on board have to work there way around the ideas.

      The churches and people are not all identical to this “mainstream,” but they are pulling from it or interfacing with it in one way or another. That is what Jeff’s chasing, I think.