What Are We Doing?

March 27th, 2013
Image © Omega Man via Flickr | Creative Commons

Palm Sunday morning, I led my two daughters to the back of the sanctuary so they could be part of the palm-waving processional to kick off Holy Week. On the way, I spotted a visiting family with children and asked if they wanted to join the other kids in the processional. The boy was feeling shy, but the girl, about eight years old, came on back and waited with us for the service to begin.

As the announcements finally got started, the preschoolers used their palms like swords and my toddler's initial enthusiasm waned, this bespectacled third grader looked up at me and asked, "What are we doing?"

"Well, it's Palm Sunday," I told her, "so we're remembering when Jesus arrived in Jerusalem. People got excited and waved palm branches along his path, so we're pretending to be those people, welcoming Jesus in."

She listened respectfully, and then said, "But what do we do when we get up there?" gesturing to the front of the sanctuary.

"Oh. Well, we'll put the palms in those white vases there, and then you can go back to your seat."

The Why and the How

This little girl's question (and my possible misinterpretation of it) reminded me that the confusion visitors (and regulars, for that matter) can feel during worship has two dimensions, which might be verbalized in two questions: Why are we doing this? and How do we do it?

There is the philosophical desire to understand the significance of strange actions and the practical concern for what to do to avoid looking foolish.

Communion is an easy example. Why are we eating a little piece of bread with not enough grape juice to wash it down? Why does this help us remember Jesus? And how are we supposed to walk/kneel/pass to get it? (There's nothing like the face of a newcomer who has just eaten the bread they were supposed to dip in a common cup.)

What are we doing? Why? How?

What are we doing when we stand for some scripture readings and not for others?

What are we doing when everybody says certain words that don't seem to be in a book, bulletin, or on a screen?

Some things—particularly the hows—can be a bigger concern for visitors, but even lifelong Christians and long-time church members can forget things or let once-meaningful things become rote and meaningless.

Remind people of the whys and the hows. Be aware of practices or words that are so familiar to long-time members of your church that you may take explanation for granted. Try to view your church with fresh eyes—or better yet, ask someone to visit an point out to you confusing things you might not even notice. Tell people why you're taking up an offering, how you line up for communion, where to find the words to that song or response some people have memorized.

It shouldn't take more than a sentence or two to explain how to participate in an element of worship. ("Read the words in bold." "Take the bread and dip it into the cup." "Approach by the center aisle and return to your seats by the side aisles.") If it does, you might be making it too complicated.

The whys shouldn't require too many extra words either. Obviously, some of the deeper theological "whys" will require a separate conversation, Bible study, or some book/website recommendations for people who really want to know more. But if the spiritual significance of a certain worship element can't be made clear on at least a basic level without interrupting the flow of worship, you may need to rethink its place in your worship experience.

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