how to do it

So, we’ve spent the week at one of the churches that I mentioned in my last post. A delightful place and we’re almost sold on it. The preacher uses the lectionary (RCL) and seems to be ELCA-influenced. Today’s sermon was taken from the RCL’s gospel text (Mark 9.38-50), in which some of the apostles come to Jesus regarding a man who is casting out demons in Jesus’ name, but “was not following us.” This is a problematic text in most Churches of Christ and, thus, is rarely preached on. The minister handled it with aplomb and said quite a few things that needed to be said about the good things done by those who are not of our “party.”

Anyway, on to matters liturgical: this congo makes use of two hymnals, Sacred Selections for the Church and Great Songs of the Church (probably the closest that the CofC will ever get to the Hymnal 1982). It’s an interesting juxtaposition, I guess, but works pretty well. The Sunday morning songleader focuses on 17th and 18th century stuff and refuses to sing any of the Stamps-Baxter stuff.

***

I was asked earlier to reflect on how to introduce the lectionary into the worship of a congregation. Here’s how we did it at South Newnan.

When I arrived, the worship format was identical to most NI Churches of Christ: two songs and a prayer, a “scripture reading” (i.e. one or two verses right before the sermon), a lengthy sermon and a perfunctory Lord’s Supper experience. All of this (song selections and personnel) was thrown together during the 15 minutes between Sunday School and worship. We also had one man doing all of the songleading and worship logistics. Our second Sunday there, he was away and I got drafted (10 minutes before worship) to lead singing (which I’d never done before). That’s how it all started.

I started talking to the songleader alot about worship (the way it worked, etc.) after that. He was way overworked but excited to talk about worship and to find ways that it could be improved. We started meeting on Saturday mornings to plan worship ahead of time and made a few changes along the way (like changing up the order of service, including an additional scripture reading, etc.).

At the same time, I had been using the BCP Daily Office Lectionary for my daily Bible reading/devotional time. As I became more familiar with the BCP, I figured out how to use the weekly lectionary and began reading through the passages each week and thinking about them. After a while, it hit me that the BCP Lectionary might be the foundation around which we could restructure South Newnan’s worship service. I took the idea to Steve (the songleader). He was very open to trying it and we talked about it for a while.

We first went through a process of what you might call “values clarification.” In other words, we talked about what the current order of worship lacked and what it should have/be about. We came up with two main things: there needed to be more Scripture in worship and all of the parts of the service (the 5 acts of worship) should receive equal billing (in other words, no 45 minute sermon with 15 minutes of filler). We mutually decided that using the BCP Lectionary as the skeleton of the service addressed both of these concerns very well. Before we implemented anything, we tried to anticipate possible objections and sat down to develop a positive rationale for why we were making the changes we intended to make — something that we could present to those who might be afraid of the changes that we were going to make.

Second point: we didn’t change the whole service at once. We introduced new and different things gradually, one thing at a time. So, for instance, with the responsive psalm: we started off by having someone get up and read a psalm each Sunday morning. After that became an accepted part of the service, then we tried to do it responsively. We got lots of positive comments about it the first time we did it. Even so, we immediately backed off of that for about three weeks (all the while still having someone get up and read a psalm). After about 2 or 3 weeks had passed, we did the psalm responsively again. Eventually, we tried it that way two Sundays in row and only then went to every Sunday. By then, people were used to it and we had already addressed the main objections (it’s too Catholic) to everyone’s satisfaction. We also tried to make sure that we solicited feedback from the congregation at each step.

Third thing: Steve and I explained all changes in terms of the worship of God, not in terms of the BCP. If you try to use it, don’t allow the BCP to become the issue. You will lose. Most likely, it will be seen as some sort of “denominational” creed book (which it’s not, of course). In fact, at South Newnan, only a handful of people ever knew that we were drawing the Scripture readings from the BCP.

Fourth: The service, for all of the differences, was still recognizable as a cofC worship service, complete with the “five acts of worship.” Along this line, we were also careful to retain the traditional lingo. So, for example, we didn’t start referring to the LS as the Eucharist or calling the opening prayer the “Collect.” Stick with what your people already know. One change at a time. What may surprise you in this regard (it certainly surprised me…), was how, if you call things by the “right name,” people will buy almost anything. That’s a little scary too. Had we been attempting to make really serious, devious changes, it’s almost as though we could have done it, all the while covering it over with the familiar, comfortable cofC lingo.

Fifth: Hymnody. South Newnan had, about a year before I got there, a bad experience with a preacher who tried to introduce a lot of praise and worship stuff, clapping, small groups, etc. all at once. (Not that I’m saying that any of that stuff is necessarily wrong or “unscriptural,” it just didn’t fit the congo at South Newnan at all — a mostly older, very conservative, mixed race* crowd). So, one of the decisions that we made early on was to stick with traditional hymnody. 1) This provided an element of continuity amid the other changes that we were making. 2) I tend to think, unapologetically I might add, that a Wesley hymn beats theologically vapid ditties like “Shine Jesus Shine” hands down any day of the week. To that same end, I did my best to rid our services of the Stamps-Baxter style stuff as well. I was able to coordinate all of this with Wednesday song practices. We would take about 10 minutes after Wednesday night class to learn “new” songs (stuff drawn mostly from the 1966 Methodist Hymnal or the Episcopal Hymnal 1982, but also stuff from Songs of the Church — again, it was an issue of continuity: I didn’t want to totally invalidate the hymnal we were already using or stop singing familiar songs). Doing it on Wednesday nights worked well: song practice was done in manageable, bite-sized bits and people didn’t get bored with it. We would spend 2 or 3 Wednesday nights on a song until we had it and could integrate it into Sunday services, then we would turn to a new song.

Sixth: a change of order of worship/worship style is a change of theology. Making these changes had very definite consequences for our worship. It restores balance in the service — all parts of the service are equally represented. By this past summer we had a pretty well-oiled order of worship which assumed a 20-25 minute sermon and ~35 minutes of songs, prayer, 4 separate Scripture readings (including a responsive psalm) and the Lord’s Supper.

All of this exerts a subtle pressure. The BCP Lectionary is of course built around the liturgical year. So every few Sundays we came to things like Ascension, Easter, Pentecost or Trinity Sunday. It forced us to address issues and events that we wouldn’t normally address. It also makes it very difficult for a guest preacher to get up in the pulpit and start spouting off bizarre theories about the “work of the church” or “fellowship” or any other pet issue. The difference between Jesus (in the Gospel lection) and some of our distinctive “issues” is highlighted.

Thoughts?

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*I point this out because, like it or not, the praise and worship style appeals almost exclusively to white middle-class/upper middle-class baby boomers and their children.

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4 responses to “how to do it

  1. Wow, Chris, wow. I am very impressed by the intentional and exhaustive approach you took toward the worship experience at South Newnan. (I never knew the extent of it; but, then again, I never asked.) This is useful to all faith traditions (not just cofC) in any attempt to make a change to, or an enhancement of, their worship service…and more proof that you really need to direct your talents toward ministry in only a greater (full-time?)capacity.

    Again, my hat’s off to you, dear friend. Thanks for the insights–and inspiration.

    MBH

  2. Although I am very much in favor of rethinking worship meetings, I have never seen as clear a blueprint for changing the theological identity of a congregation!

    Exactly why is it that you decided to use the Methodist Hymnal or Episcopal Hymnal? Many of the songs are found in any of the books members of your congregation are familiar with…

  3. Thanks for your comments, Rudy.

    You’re quite right to say that there is some overlap between our hymnals (Hymns for Worship) and those hymnals. But when you are following a lectionary that is based upon the ecclesiastical calendar, inevitably you will come to a Sunday that discusses a subject or scriptural theme that our hymnals either completely ignore or alter lyrics to avoid.

    A good example would be Pentecost. On that occasion, I went to the 1966 Methodist Hymnal to find a couple of Wesley hymns that address that event and that (more shockingly, perhaps) mention the Holy Spirit. On other occasions, I used the Hymnal 1982 to introduce a couple of new hymn texts set to tunes that the congregation was already familiar with.

    In general, it has served me well to have a wide variety of hymnals, from several different traditions on hand to draw from. I think that it makes the whole songleading enterprise much more fulfilling for both songleader and congregation.

    C.

  4. Thanks for your response. I don’t want to turn this into a debate, but still have some questions left. Although I am very much in favor of rethinking models of worship as used within churches of Christ.

    Using a number of songbooks (different ones) is one thing. From what you posted, however, it seems you are trying to seperate yourself entirely from anything published/used traditionally by churches of Christ, and are developing a totally different theology of worship based on someone else’s tradtions and models! It seems, from what I get out of your posting, that you are trading one traditional model for another traditional model, rather than asked the harder question: Is there such a thing as a model for worship?
    We use some song software that has over 8,000 titles, from many different sources. But rather than adopting an other human model, I am spending more time on finding a better biblical model…

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