Monday, September 29, 2008

Further key elements to services

As signalled in the previous post ... some thoughts about a family service attended on Sunday (yesterday), concentrating on 'key' elements which I think need to be present in every service, though the actual working out of these elements may vary from one type of service to another:

(1) Timing - in two senses: the service kept moving along, the leader assisting with a good sense of momentum and where we were heading; also, the service was completed in 50 minutes. So, no points of boredom, no anxiety that 'gosh this part seems interminable and there is lots yet to come ...'.

(2) Consistent message: the service was about Moses, and the Lord's message to Israel, and to us, that God is with us. Nothing in the songs, or prayers, or drama, or message deviated from that theme or imposed another theme on top of it.

(3) Comprehensive message: being a family service the leader/messenger rightly did not subject us to a long "adult" sermon; but the whole service was the message, so no adult should feel disappointed about the shortness of the part of the service designated as 'the talk'.

(4) Internal and external foci: the service was 'in house' in the sense that it conveyed the last term's worth of lessons in Sunday School, and 'showed off' (in the best sense) the work of the children, including a magnificent reproduction of the 'ark of the covenant', and its message was 'internal' to our faith journey, emphasising that 'God is with us' BUT there was a lovely external focus in the intercessions which took us to the trouble spots of the world - children suffering from tainted food in China, people suffering from the major bomb blast in Pakistan.

Well done!

Sunday, September 28, 2008

Those key elements to services keep recurring

Yesterday attended/participated in our Diocesan 150th celebration service for the Diocese and Nelson as a 'City' being simultaneously promulgated by Queen Victoria. Outstanding. Why?
(1) Coherent - music, readings, drama, sermon, prayers all worked together around the central (and obvious) theme for the day
(2) Depth - the sermon (preached by +Richard) gathered the feelings and thinkings generated by the occasion and the different parts of it and drew our minds into a deeper appreciation of the most significant common theme for church and city, "community"
(3) Both/and - the service did not rely on one element being outstanding, it grew its quality from doing all things well
(4) Connection - there was lots in the service for the varied and diverse congregation (regular Anglican worshippers, non-Anglicans, irregular worshippers, and - presumably - with various civic authorities there, agnostics, and atheists also present) to connect with. Among the connection possibilities were some deft touches of humour.
(5) A lovely touch or too - my two favourites, make that three ... an anthem by Elgar (Ave Verum), Taize responses to the prayers ("O Lord hear my prayer" - always wonderful when sung by a large congregation), and God Save Our Gracious Queen - felt like I was at the last night of the Proms!!

This morning another service with some 'key' elements to success present in it. Will post about that soon.

Monday, September 22, 2008

Anglicans missing in action

The other day I had a conversation with someone who described herself as an Anglican. She asked whether the Anglican church had modernized. I said I thought it had. She went on to say that she could not go with Anglican services which were just words said by 'rote', and nor could she go with Pentecostal-style services.

I thought those comments were interesting because they implied a middle way which might be expressed in many Anglican services today which blend elements from here and there, but then again might not ...

Reflecting further on the conversation I am wondering if we are missing Anglicans from our services because they do not agree with the two main lines of styles we pursue, on the one hand the objective, traditional, repetitive words of formal written services, and on the other hand the subjective, non-traditional, spontaneous words (and actions) of informal services (whose only 'written' parts may be the songs). I mention 'actions', by the way, because one specific critique of Pentecostal services was the actions represented in waving hands and arms.

Readers of this will surely say, 'but we do have services which find a way between the two styles you have described'. The question might then be, Are we communicating this fact?

Sunday, September 14, 2008

Arresting decline with the Lord’s Prayer

Today I preached on the Lord’s Prayer (per request, it was not a lectionary reading). I found in preparing the message that my mind engaged with some anecdotes from the past few days in which some of our parishes are noticing a decline in worshipping numbers.

When talking about decline in numbers there are always some specific factors to consider – people move geographically, leadership may have made a mistake (insisting on the Latin Mass when everyone wanted it to be in French etc!!), lousy winters and Saturday night rugby tests impact some Sundays, and so forth. But there has been for 50 years or so (some might say 250 years or so) a more general factor of Western world secularization. In this general factor, as I understand it, a combination of advancement in knowledge, improvement in conditions of living, widespread materialism, and critique of religious belief undermine either commitment to Christian faith or openness to the possibility of Christian faith. In simpler terms, temptations to leave or ignore the church abound, and pressing reasons to seek the solace of the gospel are fewer.

So, if we are facing a declining situation in our own parish, we need to reflect at two levels. One level is the specific situation and addressing questions such as ‘why are people leaving?’ The answer may be something we can do something about or it may not be. The other level is the general situation of the impact of the gospel in the Western world. We need to find (in the words used just on Friday during a course I was running) where people are itching and let the gospel do some scratching.

The Lord’s Prayer is a gospel prayer. There is no relationship with the Father (for example) without the death of the Son. That death also leads to our forgiveness and to assurance that we can be delivered from evil, and so on. In preparing for the sermon I realised that people itch in different ways, and the Lord’s Prayer is a useful summary of the gospel in its different ‘scratch’ applications. In this season of election preparation (now NZ, as well as the US), for example, we are reminded of the tawdry imperfections of the kingdoms of this world. ‘Your kingdom come’ reminds us that there is another kingdom which offers promises which do not fail! I am sure you can think of the itches that ‘Father’, ‘bread’, ‘forgiveness’, and ‘deliverance’ scratch!

Sunday, September 7, 2008

Musing on sermons

Struggled this week through more drafts than usual to get a satisfactory sermon, from my delivery end. Receivers will make their own judgement. At heart of the struggle, I think, was a lack of clarity in my mind about what I wanted to deliver. Information? Bible knowledge? Inspiring thoughts? I had a passage, Romans 13:8-14 which is perfect for 'teaching the Bible' - juicy verses dripping with exegetical possibilities. But was the congregation agog with desire to listen to exegesis? Possibly. But in the end I took another tack. I thought of a problem and a question and set out to solve one and answer the other.

The problem and question were a 'best guess' at something of interest and relevance to the congregation. The problem was, being tempted to give up on doing good as a Christian. This led to reflection on 13:11-14. The questions was, how do we know what to do? This was related to 13:8-10.

The question about what the purpose of preaching is, not just this sermon, but any sermon, has stood out for me this week. I suggest it is worth every preacher thinking about!

Monday, September 1, 2008

Getting informal worship right

Sitting in a service yesterday which was informal in general character, it was pleasant to notice the form and structure of the service which were right. Ministry of the sacrament succeeded rather than preceded the ministry of the word. There were public intercessions which concluded with the Lord's Prayer. There was a confession (which involved the congregation praying the confession together). The sermon attended to the readings (and the prayers picked up on the major theme of the sermon).

At a superficial level one could participate in such a service and conclude that it passed muster on form and content on the basis of its conformity to the form and content of Anglican worship according to the prayer book. But I am also interested in the way in which Anglican worship patterns conform to Scripture!

When Jesus went to church (i.e. the synagogue) he read from the Scriptures and expounded them. Paul commands us in 1 Timothy 2 to pray publicly in our services. Jesus commanded us to pray the Lord's Prayer (if you do not think he did, look again at what Jesus says)! Jesus also commanded us to reenact the Last Supper - which itself was an event occurring after Jesus' ministry of the word (e.g. in the days preceding), to say nothing of our presumption that, being the Passover, the Scriptures had been recited priort to Jesus taking the bread and the cup. Confession of sin is not only biblically appropriate in worship (think of what happened in Old Testament temple worship etc) but also crucial to our healing (James 5).

Yesterday's service also had singing of songs of praise (of course!) and that feature of biblical worship permeates the Old Testament, and is enjoined by Paul.