Don't Leave Your Congregation in the Dark

December 12th, 2012
Image © HeyltsWilliam via Flickr | Creative Commons

“When Jesus was alone, those who were around him along with the twelve asked him about the parables. And he said to them, ‘To you has been given the secret of the kingdom of God, but for those outside, everything comes in parables; in order that “they may indeed look, but not perceive, and may indeed listen, but not understand; so that they may not turn again and be forgiven.”’” (Mark 4:10-12 NRSV)

“Why are three Advent candles purple, and one pink?”

"Why do some churches use blue candles?"

“Why can’t we sing ‘Joy to the World’? It’s already December 9!”

“What is Advent, anyway?”

Heard any of these questions from your members lately?

Jesus may have been a bit obscure at times, but when it comes to telling our congregations about how we worship, there’s no need to leave the church in a lurch. As the new church year begins, think about making a new year’s liturgical resolution to keep your community better informed about how and why you worship the way you do. Here are five possibilities:

1. Create printed material explaining parts of your worship.

This happens in three easy steps:

First, pick a few topics appropriate to the church calendar (if your church goes by it) or elements of your regular worship. No detail is too small. For instance: what is a purificator, and why do we use one? Why do we process? What do the numerals at the bottom of a hymn mean? What are the seasons of the church, and why do they each have a color? The list of potential topics is literally endless.

Second, do your research. If you’re not sure of the reasons for some of your church’s traditions, you will learn a lot from this too, and it is not overly time consuming. Good places to start are The Oxford Dictionary of the Christian Church, James White’s Introduction to Christian Worship.

Finally, write a regular feature explaining one aspect of the liturgy at a time. This can appear on your website, in a newsletter, regular e-mails to interested church members, or, better yet, a weekly bulletin insert explaining one aspect of the day’s service. Make a big deal when you launch the program, and give it a fun name: Ways We Worship, The Method of Methodism, Presbyterian Prayer Practices, Looking at Lutheran Liturgy, Explaining Episcopal Essentials, Pews News, Leitourgia, Liturgy Bit. You get the idea.

2. Create a special “For Visitors Only” booklet.

This suggestion is particularly important in the season of Advent and Lent, when our churches are likely to have more visitors than usual. Stepping into a new church for the first time—or coming after months of being away—can be an intimidating experience. Explaining some of the more basic aspects of worship to visitors can be a vital ministry of welcome.

If you come from a tradition that uses multiple service books, offer some clarity: what does “BCP” mean? Where in the hymnal are the songs that start with the letter S (as in S130), and when will they be used? When do I sit? When do I stand? When do I kneel? Kneel?! The more you can explain to your visitors the basics of how your congregation worships, the more comfortable they will be, and the more likely that they will want to come back.

At Advent, a special note about what the wreath represents or why we’re not singing Christmas music just yet can be useful as well. (Similar season-specific notes can be added for each season of the liturgical year.) The only hitch with this suggestion is that a visitors’ booklet risks being just one more book the visitor has to fumble with. Between the visitors’ booklet, the bulletin, and all the other books, visitors may wonder if they have accidentally stepped into the Church of the Holy Octopus. Therefore, during a season like Advent or Easter, when there are more visitors than usual, come up with your own solution that makes all visitors feel not overwhelmed but welcome. You might decide the best way to introduce this information is on your website and note that in your bulletin or on the projection screen.

3. Hold a teaching worship service

This works by going through the service as usual but explaining—in just a few words—every step. This may not cover some of the smallest details or traditions—but congregations can get a good idea for why particular parts of the service exist, just before they actually enact that section of the liturgy. Explain in a few words why we call people to worship, then begin the Call to Worship. Give a brief description of the words of institution, then lead in.

A teaching worship service can be led by the pastor alone or by several members of the congregation (have the reader explain why we read scripture, the acolyte explain what she is doing, and so on). Teaching worship services should be well advertised beforehand, and you may want to skip (or greatly abbreviate) the sermon—the explanations can serve as the sermon, so long as you make sure to explain everything in the context of how and why we worship God.

4. Preach about worship

Particularly on Sundays when elements of early Christian worship or ancient Israelite worship come up in the lectionary, take the opportunity to explain what practices we still have with us or what we have left in the past. Congregation members may not realize how many parts of the worship service come directly from scripture, including calls to worship, benedictions, the words of institution, the Lord’s Prayer, and a common sermon-opening prayer (“May the words of my mouth and the meditations of my [or our] heart[s] . . .”). These are just a few examples of direct scriptural allusions that are common in our liturgies.

Also, lectionary passages like the covenant with Abraham (Genesis 17, RCL Year B, Second Sunday of Lent) or Jesus washing the disciples’ feet (John 13:1-17, RCL all years, Maundy Thursday) are good opportunities to discuss why we worship the way we do. Why did baptism replace circumcision as the Christian rite of initiation? Why did foot washing not catch on the way that communion did? Or, more positively, how can we reclaim some of the earliest scriptural worship practices? Could we start practicing the “holy kiss” when we share the peace again (2 Corinthians 13:12, RCL Year A, Trinity Sunday)? Can we imagine sharing a communal meal with communion (1 Corinthians 11:20-34, RCL all years, Maundy Thursday)? What if we all danced our praise like David (2 Samuel 6:12b-19, RCL Year B, Proper 10)?

The possibilities for preaching about worship are nearly endless and entirely appropriate: what else is worship, after all, if not celebrating the good news—the gospel—by praising our God? Therefore, when we share the good news with our congregations through sermons, making worship central to the message is wholly fitting.

5. Offer an “All About Worship” class

The principle here is the same as the other suggestions: the more you can help your congregation understand about worship, the better. In a Christian education setting, there is more time to go into detail, as well as opportunities to let other congregation members do the research and teaching. Is Abigail from the Altar Guild passionate about “O Come, O Come, Emmanuel”? Let her research the hymn’s background and spend one session taking the class through the history of plainchant and the hymn’s seven names for God. Is Darren the Deacon a font of information about baptism? He should teach a class on that sacrament and its scriptural basis.

This goes for the worship newsletter as well--let someone else write it once in a while. The Christian education setting offers unique opportunities to take advantage of the liturgical knowledge and expertise of others.

The benefits of these various types of explanations of worship are enormous. You will, of course, satisfy the curiosity of your congregation in an informative and helpful way. But more important, you will begin a process of congregational education that will add immensely to your community’s worship. When church members are better informed about how and why worship works, the liturgy as a whole is more effective. Instead of wondering why such-and-such happens, people can be more focused on what is most appropriate during worship: praising God.

Happy Advent, Merry Christmas, and may your congregation come out of your services as wise as the Magi!

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