Friday, 12 December 2014

Seven Ways to Blunt Public Worship

Question: What are the pitfalls to avoid in the conduct of church worship from the front? 

FRIENDS, IT WILL NEVER BE PERFECT - not until the City of God comes down to earth. But, at the least, we can try to anticipate that great day when there will be no need even of a temple (Revelation 21:22 ), and our communion with the Lord will be immediate, and face to face. 

Such 'anticipation' takes imaginative preparation and prayerful commitment. Joint worship cannot simply be switched on . If, ahead of time, the whole church can bathe its times of public worship in prayer, (yes, we MUST believe in prayer meetings), then the confident expectation will be that the Holy Spirit will irradiate all that takes place in the public gathering. We can believe that He will accommodate and override our human limitations, creating wonder - and the joy of discovery - among the worshippers. In this way we can advance with eagerness towards our worship times, as we reflect, we prayed about this!

For some, coming into our Christian gatherings for the first time, worship is A FORCE - that shatters misconceptions and paves the way for the good news of Jesus Christ to take a permanent hold upon life and outlook. Further - for the regular faithful - church worship is something to look forward to; that high moment of the week when, surrounded by people we have come to love and trust in the greatest fellowship on earth, our spirits rise as one, to meet with the glorious Trinity; to have our lives touched and renovated by the sheer power of the Scriptures as they are sung , read , taught - and claimed in the power of combined prayer. There is no force quite like biblically-inspired, prayerfully-prepared church worship!

Approached in this way, the whole event is a worship experience. True, we may sometimes hear leaders - as they take up their instruments - saying, " Now we are going to ' worship .'" Please! We were worshipping from the word go - even as we came in and sat down and began to chat to our neighbour (the animated chatting and relating to fellow-believers in the Lord Jesus Christ is an important prelude to the whole vital event, and not to be discouraged). Even the announcements from the front (if well thought out) ought to be seen as a part of the whole, as the pastor interacts with the congregation. Corporate worship should never be narrowed in the width of its embrace. It's the whole thing, right down to the coffee or tea at the end. Here is the family of Christ, drawn together by agreement. This represents a force.

But for some, public worship can be A FARCE , a travesty, a distortion; in which the Lord God is either hidden behind a blanket of incomprehensible rituals, extravagant robes and confusing, culturally-correct jargonese - or , alternatively, brought down to the level of being our applauded best Pal.

Again, let it be emphasised, we fallen humans can never get it perfect. But there is something to be said for looking at some unfortunate ways in which we blunt the effectiveness of our times together as Christ's worshipping people. This may spur us to take avoiding action. Some simple cameos may help:

1. 'Couldn't care less'

Whether you take a formal or an informal worship setting as your model, you will certainly find leaders up front who give the impression that they themselves are thoroughly bored and uninterested by the entire proceedings.

An East African girls choir, on a tour of the UK , came to worship one day at a well-known cathedral. Listening to the dean, in lofty detachment as he mumbled his way through the liturgy, the impression given was of a dressed-up Egyptian mummy talking to itself in its own tomb. A sixth-former jogged her teacher. "Is he saved?" she asked.

On another front, a church minister was describing his experience of an evangelical church that he had attended. Here, everything was casual, slipshod, late, unprepared and off-the-cuff. "To me," he remarked, "until we got to the sermon, the whole thing was an exercise in studied mediocrity ."

2. 'The holiday-camp' 

Researchers have disclosed that thriving churches are often those in which the leader up front can make the members laugh. That is understandable, for people are glad to have spirits lifted in a world where personal survival is all too often the name of the game.

The down-slide begins when humour becomes an accepted worship art-form in itself, for there is a world of difference between a trusted and faithful minister - directing people through Calvary to the very throne of God himself - and a stand-up comic . It is the ethos of the holiday camp that sometimes takes over:
  • Anyone here from Bournemouth ? Great - let's put our hands together for them! And from Boscombe? Well done Boscombe!
  • Let's give a welcome to Jesus!.. Come along everybody - you can do better than that!
  • We're going to talk to God right now. Here's Fred who's going to lead us; he's a great intercessor! Take us away, Fred!
The informal human touch is to be welcomed, but we are not here to be rivalling the entertainment industry, nor to come over as patronising hosts of the Lord's church. It is not we who are to be 'welcoming' him , let alone applauding him - for from the start it was never our show! Rather it is HE who is summoning US.

3. 'A sprinkling of little sermons'

I've done it myself - often. It's the preacher in us. Eventually you can get into a rut of being unable to start the service, introduce a hymn or song, begin a period of opening prayer or acknowledge the item that has just concluded - without delivering a little sermonette of your own. It may be an admirable word - carefully crafted upon a Scripture sentence, or alternatively coming impromptu right out of your head - but do it too often, and the regulars begin to find it predictable! At that stage it becomes tediously tiring to endure. It also tends to blunt the main sermon when it finally comes. 

There is a fine dividing line between the habitual delivery of these little homilies, and on the other hand the bald announcement, "Hymn Number Forty. Four-O!"

This requires a sensitive touch. Sometimes I have preferred briefly to draw attention to the story of a hymn's author , perhaps to the significance of one of the hymn's lines , or - in a single sentence - to the theme of the hymn. An introduction really should not be long, even if from time to time the rule is broken. Sometimes it is right for the hymn or song simply to begin, with no announcement at all.

4. 'Death by a thousand bullet-points'

At one stage, the innovation was of the Overhead Projector. "Let's sing", they would say. "We'll stick it up on the overhead." Now it's Powerpoint.

Good? Certainly. It can help with the talks - especially illustrated children's talks. It can save all the business of books or of service sheets in church - provided people can see the screen ahead, which is not always the case. It's only when Powerpoint takes over - as a form that is perceived as essential to the meeting - that its effectiveness begins to wear off.

This very point was made in a secular BBC radio programme in 2005. The perception was that protracted use of Powerpoint finally leaves the 'viewers' with less rather than more, in terms of absorbing the intended information; 'death by a thousand bullet points' was the phrase used.

In church services this may be partly because of the habit of projecting the relevant Bible passage directly onto the screen - plus the preacher's points and selected verses. In the end the 'viewer' may have to dodge between three different focal points - the screen, the preacher, and the Bible that, hopefully, should be open on the lap ( so that scripture may be compared with scripture ). If a worshipper also wishes to take notes, that is a further complicating factor.

Certainly in some churches where the Scripture passage is projected onto the screen, I have observed that the Bibles in the seats are not picked up at all, not even for the sermon. Indeed in one large church I attended, there was no provision of Bibles whatever; presumably the assumption was that they would not be required. Everything was on the screen; the leader's head, the liturgy, announcements, hymns and prayers; the Bible passage and the sermon's bullet points - right down to the closing blessing!

Forever mooning at the screen, you find yourself eventually mesmerised into a switched-off stupor. Actually, I reflected afterwards, w e have not been listening to a sermon in any case, but to an animated lecture.

Powerpoint is an excellent aid - and not least when it comes to making reports and presenting information. But that is more in the style of lecturing; it is not preaching. Preaching is the God-inspired 'art of persuasion,' of the appeal to the will. All in all, the screen was not designed for that.

Powerpoint is good , make no mistake! But the BBC may be right. Used in the wrong context, it is likely to be subject to the law of diminishing returns.

5. 'The we-them syndrome'

It's everywhere; the best of us may find ourselves succumbing to its tentacles. It's the mindset that reasons, "If WE do THIS (on stage, up front, in the chancel), it will make THEM respond in THAT desirable way that WE intend for THEM." This is none other than manipulation, and can be applied to a special piece of emotive music, a burst of purple oratory (carefully timed to evoke applause), and to the general tone of the language used throughout. Basically it is we/them. In certain Christian meetings it can be detected by discerning people from the very start:
  • We welcome you to our meeting; we're telling you that you're going to have a great time; we've got a great programme for you this evening!
  • What we want you all to do right now is this; turn to the person next to you, and say 'I love you.'
  • Put your hand up if you're wanting to see Jesus come back in your own generation!
It's akin to the way of sectarian groups who like to own, control and 'disciple' people (when in fact the Christian is to be a disciple of One Man only). Certainly there needs to be order in public meetings of Christians - but we are to beware of slipping into the cynical marshalling and manipulation of precious people. I am warned, then, by the words of Soren Kierkegaard: Ten thousand lips, shouting the same thing, makes the statement fraudulent, even if it happens to be true. 

6. 'The strange in-talk language of Jargonese'

Public worship? But how accessible is it to visiting Christians coming in from outside - let alone unchurched members of the public? Most of us who have ever led church services or led in public prayer have at times unconsciously isolated the visitor from the regular faithful. We do it by talking in church 'shorthand'; by using name abbreviations, and by a blather of well-worn clichés, familiar to the insiders, but baffling to an untaught agnostic or, say, visiting Chinese. This is how we can be caught coming across:
  • "Today let's remember Joan, working with Eye-fees in India (IFES: International Fellowship of Evangelical Students) ; also we give thanks that Henry who has been tent-making in Djibouti is now going out with Wy-Wam" (THINKS: 'Joan'? Who is she? And 'Henry? Who is he 'making tents' for? Going out, eh? That's nice for him - I wonder who this girl Wy-wam is? Oh, right, it's an organisation then? YWAM? I wonder what it stands for?)
  • " Shall we just bow our heads?" (Bow my head? What on earth for?)
  • "The NIV has the right reading at this point."
  • "Well, we've got a new PCC since last Monday's excellent APCM. I'm also very glad to tell you that that a lot more people have come in with FWO and our Duplex envelope scheme. Now about the TEAR Fund lunch - let me hand you over to Gabby" (Er...okay, okay)
It's true that we can't completely avoid a degree of 'in' language. It's the attitude that counts for everything in the end; a mindset that understands what it feels like to come into a strange place and feel mentally cordoned off.
7. 'The cosy chat'
In the cosy chat syndrome, a service scarcely has a beginning at all; it drifts its way into being. You become aware that, six or seven minutes past starting time, there's some anonymous person at the front wearing a sweater; could it be an out of work trucker? Oh, it's the curate. What was that he was saying
  • I don't know about you; but I've had a frightful time getting here. I wonder how you managed? Anyway, we began with a late breakfast on this Mother's Day, and one way and another I've never quite caught up..
  • It's time for us to sing a chorus. There it is, on the screen. It's a great song, isn't it? It's my mother's favourite, actually.
  • And then, Father, we just want to come to you, Lord, each and every one of us, Jesus, so that we can say 'Sorry'. All the things, Father God, that we've done; the things, that we've said. Father; yes, Jesus - and even thought, Lord...
There's a place and a time for conversational intimacies - or for prayer that spills out of the heart with pronouns interchanging, and verbs missing. But this is really not for public worship. At this point we are called upon to be leading, speaking or praying, not in our own right as an individual, but on behalf of an entire gathering. When a service drifts its way along - I can tell you from personal experience - the people at the back have ceased to be involved. They are either talking quietly to each other, gazing at their babies or are counting their money.

To be at the front requires some grip; a crisp beginning, an announcement from heaven itself - and an opening hymn that wakes everyone up - hurtling into the arena like a tennis ace down the centre line. Oh, there are such hymns! 

Seven ways to blunt public worship. There must be plenty more. But it's too painful to take it further. On a later page, maybe, we should try and open up seven positives!