Thursday, September 10, 2009

Essential Elements of a Church Service

My brother always joked that he was a Presbyterian dressed in Southern Baptist clothing.  He even pastored a Southern Baptist church for a time.  But he and his family recently joined a PCA church, and they couldn't be happier.

I spent a few years in a Presbyterian church, sandwiched in between my Baptist and independent Bible church years.  I really grew to love the liturgy.  I suppose if one grew up with it or did it long enough, it would get dry and stale.  But I loved the intentionality of it and the "meatiness" it built into the service.  If the sermon stunk, at least you had Bible reading, prayer, confession of sin, and worship all built in.  I realize that many churches have moved away from liturgy because it was becoming a hindrance for some people-- it lacked spontaneity, it seemed too rigid and contrived, and so forth.  People wanted to leave room for the "Spirit to move," or, at the very least, the freedom to mix it up on occasion. 

But lack of liturgy becomes its own liturgy.  We still sing x number of songs, do announcements, do x number of songs, take the offering, throw in some quick prayers, have a sermon, quick prayer to wrap it up, then leave.  Isn't that a structure built in to every worship service?  Can that not also become stale?

I have privately bemoaned many churches' pitiful lack of meaningful prayer during worship services for some time now.  We tend to use prayer as a filler and a transitionary device:  "Song is done, thus let us pray for 30 seconds to give the pastor time to get to the pulpit to preach."  I remember a few months back when one of our assistant pastors prayed, he actually prayed.  He prayed for the world, he prayed for us, he confessed corporate sin on our behalf, and he took his good old time with it.  I started crying, it was so refreshing.

[Original post edited here to remove disrespectful attitude towards a specific person.] Another essential element we are missing from our church services is SILENCE.  To corporately allow God time to speak to our hearts and allow time for us to confess and worship him in silence is a valuable thing that is often overlooked.

I know many of these issues are a matter of preference.  There is no right or wrong way to order a service (well, there may be some wrong ways!).  My pet peeves may be someone else's favorite part of the service.  For instance, I can't stand the "tinkly piano music" that often accompanies prayer and the last minute of a sermon as the pastor gets really serious and starts hammering home his point.  I'm a musician, and my mind immediately focuses on the music, not what is being said.  I also know that music is a great manipulator of emotions, and what one might mistake for the Holy Spirit was really the swelling transition from the minor sixth back to the root chord.  (Or, to quote Derek Webb, "I don't want the Spirit, I want the kick drum.") But other people like that tinkly piano music.  It helps them focus their thoughts and examine their hearts.  If it's doing something for somebody, well, then, I can suck it up and deal with it.

But opinions and preferences aside, there has to be some elements that are essential to every worship service.  I'm rather ignorant as far as church history and liturgy in this regard, so these are just things that I assume are important:  worship and confession through prayer, worship and confession through song and silence, worship through offerings (monetary or otherwise), the reading and exposition of scripture, and the edification of believers.  How those things are accomplished could certainly vary.  And I'm probably missing some things.

So, what elements do you think are essential to a church service?  I'd love to hear your thoughts.


jaigner said...

Totally with you. If I hear another common-tone modulation in a church service I'm going to shoot myself. And I always am thinking things like, "crazy pianist, a VsubVI - I has no place here."

I think silence has a sacramental quality to it, at least in a way. Unfortunately, modern ears perceive silence as a mistake...sort of a staticky screen during Must See TV on NBC or something.

You are also correct in realizing that no liturgy becomes a liturgy. Just like having "no creed but the Bible" is in itself a creed. I feel like there is a true freedom in liturgy. I miss worshiping in that setting.

E. A. Harvey said...

Ha, ha, so I'm not the only one critiquing the chord changes! Whew, and here I thought I was crazy. :-)

You are right, we are not generally comfortable with silence. Everyone starts to fidget and tries to stifle their coughs. But I think it can be a learned skill.

After a long hiatus, I'm getting back into the church pianist rotation in a few weeks. I think I'm going to refuse to do tinkly piano music as a matter of principle. We'll see how well that goes over.

Ruth said...

Hello again.
With you, I also have a problem with "elevator music" in a "church service". However, I don't think "liturgy" as commonly understood, is the answer. That results in a rote-memory thing that I think few really think about -- and I'm not even sure they should. (See my postings on "repentance" and "forgiveness").
I believe the best NT description we have of a "worship meeting" is in I Cor.14:26-33. EVERYBODY is expected to have a contribution to make to the common learning and faithfulness! I have never seen that in practice, unfortunately. But the role of "audience" does not seem to have existed in the early church. (If you have a problem with the "verses" immediately following, please see my translation notes on the passage.) I enjoy songs as well, as long as they are carefully vetted as to content; old or new makes no difference, as long as I can affirm what they SAY. And certainly there is evidence of corporate prayer (Acts 2 and 13.) So I am not sure we need a "standard" pattern. But it is certainly intended to be a GROUP affair, not a speech or a concert. I like the image that was contributed by a student in one of our Word Study classes -- "worship seems to be mainly reporting for duty!" I would also add, praise and admiration for our King. Hebrews 6 is pretty clear that re-hashing the beginnings is NOT edifying. I would love to find a group that agreed to try to "follow instructions"!

E. A. Harvey said...

Ruth, I like your comment that worship is supposed to be a group affair, not a speech or concert. Too many churches (mine included) treat it like a concert with a speech at the end. (A rather mediocre concert and a boring speech at that.)

I love the Flannery O'Connor reference in Philip Yancey's book "Church: Why Bother?":

"I identified with one of Flannery O'Connor's in-laws, who started attending church because the service was 'so horrible, he knew there must be something else there to make the people come.'"

Dan Martin said...

Great thoughts, Leesha. And I loved your Yancey/O'Connor quote, lol!

I could never find myself settling into a liturgy long-term, but for me with my own NON-liturgical background, I remember very clearly how exciting it was for me the first time I sang a choral mass (Mozart's Missa Brevis in C Minor, if I recall correctly) in college. Not only did I enjoy learning the Latin, I found it special to worship in the very same words that Christians had been using for over 17 centuries. Of course, that probably meant more to me precisely because it was new to me, even if not new to any good Catholic or high-church Protestant.

I do find it amusing that you allude to the Presbyterian approach, though, because the (wonderful) PCA church we attended for a while was anything but liturgical-rhetorical, though they certainly quoted the bit about doing things "decently and in order" often enough. They also gave me the wonderful term "the frozen chosen" as a description of what they didn't want to be...

So what does appropriate worship contain? I gotta back up my Mom with another shout out to the notion that everybody in the fellowship ought to have the chance--and be encouraged to take the chance--to contribute to corporate worship as and when they can. The idea of limited "worship teams" or even worse "worship staff" and "worship pastors" is about as antithetical to the NT church as anything I can envision.

But I would also say that probably the most important element of worship (usually overlooked or flat-out violated in my experience) is that it should take our focus off ourselves and put it on our Lord, in such a way that it inspires us to anew take on his challenges and go out to serve. Diametrically opposed to the feel-good cotton candy that most "worship" dishes out these days.

And if that's not enough of a vent for you, then have a look at my rant from this morning. . . ;{)

Larry said...

Wow. BIG issue.

To my mind, worship is the bringing of one's heart / mind / self / and even body to God. It can be done in myriad ways, myriad. It can be focused in a short period of time or - better yet - spread out over one's whole day-by-day life.

If it is group worship, then the communality is of course the crucial second element. Then there simply has to be compromise all around, and the pastoral leadership has to recognize and honor that - explicitly at times. We are here to worship GOD together, not some individual's or small group's definition of what "good" worship is.

I'm rereading Mike Hayes' "Googling God". Very spiritually sensitive, culturally sensitive, much love for "young adults" (roughly 20-40), and a strong Roman Catholic setting and focus.

He distinguishes between the needs/wants of Gen Xers and of Millenials (over-generalizations he admits, but still helpful and apparent around us). X'ers want connection and service / activity. Millenials want surety of theological guidance and "mystery", which would include the silence you speak of. To hit both with integrity (and other groups too) in worship services is a great challenge and great privilege.

I include deliberate moments of silence in the congregational - pastoral prayer time about once a month, and it seems to be welcome. But it is weird at first for us Baptists!

Whenever I think of group confession I think of P T Forsyth's question: "Of what good is a general confession for specific sins?"

Some of my closest ministry colleagues here are more mainstream and liturgy-focused than I am or care to be. More of that necessary compromise I guess.

My earlier "Plymouth Brethren" associations put a lot of emphasis on everyone being involved in leading the public worship (except women, "of course"!). And all the music was congregational and a capella. There were some very, very powerful group worship experiences in those settings - like what the Quakers call a "gathered meeting" I suppose. But there were some incredibly mind-and-body numbing meetings too!

Well, thanks for bringing up the topic. It's something I think about a lot. Very important to the health of Christians in the midst of this world.

Larry said...

We had an a capella soprano soloist with a gentle, pure voice, sing "Ubi Caritas" while the Communion elements were being passed recently. Very unusual for our group, but very much appreciated. It's fun exploring boundaries with a flexible group!

E. A. Harvey said...

Larry, that's an interesting quote by Forsyth. Obviously, we need specific, individual confession of our own specific sins. I think corporate confession is useful, though, for at least 2 reasons.

1. The OT model of worship includes the community confessing sin corporately. While we certainly don't follow all the elements of OT worship, confession, and sacrifice, I think recognizing our sin as a whole elevates God to His rightful place and reminds us of ours. The rest of a worship service celebrating His character, grace, forgiveness, etc. can take on deeper meaning if we build in a reminder of just how little we deserve His grace.

2. In our culture that often calls sin "mistakes," "weaknesses," and "disorders," it is a good way to preach the gospel within the service. It's hard to preach the good news until people know the bad news. Confessing sin is a spiritual discipline, and doing it together is a good way to learn the necessity of it. I find that I am often more able to confess my specific sins after confessing corporate sins.

Connie said...

"lack of liturgy becomes its own liturgy." is quotable. And so is "It's hard to preach the good news until people know the bad news." and "I find that I am often more able to confess my specific sins after confessing corporate sins." is too. Thanks for that E.A. :)

My personal feeling is that if the Word and the Spirit is in it, it can all be good...

but I do have a hard time picturing communicating with anyone else in this unnatural way that I see during some liturgical services I have experienced. Yet I also see that when the service is more open, it is the same outspoken people who take over...

I have really enjoyed the times of directed silence lately in our church. It becomes a precious opportunity for awareness and confession that I don't usually find on my own. I know that I must, though.

Good thoughts. Thanks for sharing.