Purpose of Sunday Worship
Much depends on what we think we are preparing for: that is, on our understanding of the nature and purpose of congregational worship. Emphases vary, and perhaps rightly, from place to place and time to time, but there should always be some balance between objective and subjective elements of worship:-
Obviously, forms of expression, in the types of language, music and movement used in worship, will have different meanings for different people, and people will also vary in their readiness to participate in forms with which they are not familiar or do not prefer. The effects of many of these differences will have settled down to some kind of compromise on the cultural forms of worship in most congregations, but sensitivity to and deep knowledge of the subjective needs of individuals and groups will always be part of the responsibility of worship leaders if the purposes of worship, both objective and subjective, are to be fulfilled.
Who is responsible?
Preparation for Sunday worship is long term and broadly based in Christian life and ministry, at the same time that it is focussed on the present, short term, needs of the worshipping community and their situation. This broad view of preparation implies that consideration needs to be given to who is doing the preparation and the extent to which it is directed towards a particular outcome compared with taking an open ended approach which deliberately allows for unanticipated outcomes.
Let me take up the last point first, with a couple of illustrations. One on occasion I was discussing a service with the director of music, and he asked, "What effect do you hope to achieve? How do we want people to feel afterwards?" I said that we should expect different people to respond in different ways, and leave them free to develop outcomes that we could not predict. Not that he intended anything as manipulative, but worship is not an occasion for social engineering by the management of emotions through music or by any other means. Yet I fear that all too often we try to produce particular effects and might even measure our success by such hoped for outcomes. I am reminded of an occasion when as a young theological student I had an argument with the professor who had oversight of my course. I wanted to change my course to do something he did not approve, and he asked, accusingly, "Where did you get that idea?", and I said, "From your sermon last week"; to which he replied, "It was supposed to have exactly the opposite effect!" The point is that the worship and preaching we prepare is beyond our control. It is after all the work of the Spirit, if we will let it be. And in that regard it is the congregation and the whole church, not just the individual leader who needs to be open to unexpected possibilities, being prepared to be led in both where we begin and where we might arrive. We do not do that alone. It is the whole church that is responsible. We should not assume responsibility for more than we can deliver.
It sometimes seems to me in these days of sharing and sensitivity and the demands for relevance, that while we must of course allow a proper place for the subjective elements, nevertheless, paradoxically perhaps, the greatest respect for individual differences and the best strategy for leaving people free to discover unexpected outcomes is to have a serious regard for the objective elements of worship: celebrate the Word and trust the Spirit to do the work of God in the lives of the people. You don't have to produce effects or spell out all the implications of the Gospel. Your responsibility is limited.
Neither does shared responsibility mean that everyone does everything. Particular members of the body have particular functions. If we rely upon the guidance of the Spirit, it is the same Spirit which inspires and equips different ministries, and the church from time to time discerns the gifts for various ministries amongst its members. Leadership is given to some who act in representative roles, both in representing the universal church in the congregation and in representing the whole congregation as pastoral and liturgical leaders. Ministers commissioned to such responsibilities cannot hand over to a group or to popular demand, although they must listen and share with the members and especially with those who have other particular responsibilities. So some preparation for worship will be likely to involve group activities, but a minister who is accountable to the wider church for the exercise of his or her ministry will not abandon the apostolic witness in favour of local and temporary demands or committee decisions.
In our system in the Uniting Church in Australia, which has a strong emphasis on consultation and shared responsibility, it is the appointed minister who is accountable to the Presbytery for the oversight of worship and preaching. Worship committees, discussions with elders, and consultation with music leaders and those who work with children, may be normal expectations, but both the objective elements of worship and pastoral responsibility mean that the minister must make decisions after receiving appropriate advice and assistance. Preparation should be done both with others and alone. When it is shared with others they may be others in the wider church with particular gifts and responsibilities as well as other members of the congregation. But, however necessary it is that others are involved, ministers of the Word and Sacraments cannot escape the responsibilities for which they were ordained.
One final thought on the need to prepare individually. Just as we cannot leave it to any group or network, neither can we give up responsibility and rely on the leading of the Spirit of God on the occasion, although we must always also do that. Perhaps on rare occasions one might hope for sufficient guidance in the moment when responding to an overwhelming and immediate need, but not normally when we know in advance what we are required to do. I am reminded of a story that has been told of Martin Luther, but which I think has appeared in several different forms: it is said that a friend once suggested to Luther that he should not prepare for preaching but rely upon what God would say to him when he is in the pulpit. Luther did that once, and when his friend saw him again he asked, "And did God speak to you". Luther replied, "Yes, he did: he said, 'Martin, you are a very lazy fellow!'"
Long term preparation
Given then what we understand about the nature and purpose of congregational worship, and who is responsible, preparation involves a good deal more than a minister's schedule of activities in between one Sunday and the next. We do need to give attention to how the short term task can be carried out most effectively in the weekly cycle of congregational life and ministry. But the whole long term development of the leader of worship and the congregation in Christian life and ministry has more to do with the preparation for each Sunday than what is done in the week before.
To be effective in the long term a minister needs to keep alive the sense of call and commission which has brought him or her to the present task. That will probably mean taking some time out in retreats, or other personal spiritual disciplines away from the immediate demands of parish life, as well as continuing a discipline of devotional prayer and study. It also involves others in the fellowship of ministry. We need to able to ask each other sometimes, "How is it with you and God?' At other times we might benefit from sharing in groups such as those formed for studying the Lectionary, or mutual support in ministry, or continuing education, or supervision. The wider life and fellowship of the ministry is important in maintaining our sense of who were are, as is our private life of devotion, of prayer and reading not directed to an immediate purpose. We are embedded in the whole life of the church of God, and in God, in our preparation for Sunday worship as ministers of the Word and sacraments.
Then there is the more specific and focussed preparation in the development of one's capacity to carry out the work with professional skill. We regard the ministry as a vocation rather than a profession, but much of what we do should be done with professional skill. We need to sharpen our skill and keep up with developments in theology and liturgy. There is much value in accumulating resource materials, such as prayers, notes on the Lectionary, musical options, a range of choices of hymns and other songs, biblical commentaries and knowledge of where to find other resources for preaching. These days that includes knowledge of how to find useful material on the Internet.
Similarly, knowledge of the world we live in is important, especially critical appreciation of the culture in which the Word is to be represented in worship and celebrated, with application, but without compromise. Theological critique of contemporary culture is one of our most demanding tasks today, and one which requires long term preparation, including knowledge of what some of the best contemporary theologians have been saying. Writers I have helpful in this regard include Robert Jensen, Colin Gunton and Rowan Williams. At the same time there is much value in serious scholarly study of other intellectual disciplines not directly related to theology. What is going on in contemporary science, philosophy, literature, history and the arts? The ways in which we prepare for Sunday worship should allow for the possibilities of integration and challenge between different disciplines.
Then, whatever professionally skilled, theologically sound, and intellectually enriched long term preparation we make, there is nothing which can substitute for what is learned from pastoral practice and engagement with members of the church, especially the local congregation. This includes our priestly task of intercession for those placed in our pastoral care, and our experience of the ministry of reconciliation, however it might be practised in our traditions and situations. If you do not love them, and cannot pray for them, and help them personally to relate to God, how can you lead them in communal prayer or preach to them of the God of love?
As pastoral leaders, in addition to our own long term preparation, which includes that always developing pastoral bond, we share with others such as elders in the long term preparation of the congregation for Sunday worship. People need to learn how to worship. Many need individual help in how to pray and how to listen. In the way our Uniting Church functions, it often seems helpful to begin with the elders, in discussions of worship, practice in constructing and leading prayers, bible study on the Lectionary, and consideration of some possible variations in the order of worship, including the reasons for why we do things the way we do. A little time can sometimes be taken during worship to explain what we are doing in some particular action or part of the service, but the best teaching comes from the content itself. Sometimes the sermon can include a reference to something we do in worship as an illustration of some aspect of faith.
Change and tradition are both endemic to church life. New songs can be taught. Innovations such as dance and drama can be introduced. All sorts of variations are possible as part of the long term preparation of the congregation for worship, but not all are desirable and not all will be welcomed. When something new is done, it is helpful for people to have an opportunity of reflect openly on their experience of it. Similarly, it may be helpful to encourage people to share their experiences of visiting other congregations. Rather than ministers trying to get their own way in these things, to change the congregation in a way that seems right to them, the aim should be to help people to worship more effectively in regard to both the objective and subjective elements. There is a need for both change and continuity in the history of a congregation, so that the congregation knowing what to expect in general terms is not thrown off balance or reduced in its capacity to worship when something unexpected happens. So they should be open to the Word, which is new every morning, yet the same yesterday, today and for ever.
Short term preparation
Perhaps it is the weekly short term preparation that you expected me to talk about, and it is important. There is a weekly rhythm in the worship of those who believe in the resurrection and meet regularly on the first day of the week. It is part of a longer on-going life of discipleship, and if it is well done short term preparation will catch up the fruits of longer term preparation to make the short time task more effective. There are elements of short term preparation which make a difference to the possibilities of enrichment from the longer term background.
The most important element in linking short term preparation with the resources developed over the long term is time for reflection and review. If the principal themes are evident fairly early in the process, and when the Lectionary is being followed, if the readings are known well in advance of the detailed preparation of the service, there is ample opportunity to watch out for relevant material, to look at things from different points of view, and ask oneself and others questions which might challenge initial preconceptions of the best way to go about the task. Time will also allow opportunities for the expected themes to interact with pastoral experience. First thoughts on what it to be done might be developed some weeks in advance or perhaps early in the week concerned, but it cannot be done in a way which allows for deep processing if one does not begin until Saturday night. One of the least happy discoveries I have made from running a web site which provides resources for preachers and worship leaders using the Revised Common Lectionary is that the highest rate of hits is on Saturday evening, to be more precise it is at the time when it is Saturday night in the US, although most people do seek material by Thursday and use of the site is spread throughout the week. There is not much point in my encouraging people to make the material their own and relate it to their local situations if they do not have time for the necessary reflection and review.
In regular parish ministry, short term preparation commonly begins some weeks before the week concerned. There is intermediate term planning as well as weekly work to be done. As we come to particulars I am very much aware of individual differences in the way people work. Different ministers and congregations work in different ways, but the way I worked in my last parish would not be atypical. In addition to discussion of worship plans with the elders from time to time, I used to meet every few weeks with a small group which included the music director, the leader of the Sunday school and a few others who were good at creative thinking. We would look at the major themes of the coming weeks readings and considered how they related to the Sunday school curriculum and any special occasions which were coming up. We discussed musical resources, symbols, actions, and people who might take part. We planned periodically for an all age participation type of service and the music and drama that might go into it, as well as any other special services.
Then in the weekly round, I usually took Monday off and studied the Lectionary readings, all of them, when time allow on the Tuesday and Wednesday, although I might have been thinking ahead on the main themes for a week or two previously. I would study the commentaries. By Thursday I had settled upon the main theme of the sermon, and the liturgy sufficiently to make a final selection of the hymns and prepare written material for the printed order of service. I would often also complete a draft of the sermon by Thursday, and not later than Friday, allowing time for editing and review. Saturday I found most valuably employed in undemanding refection and some unavoidable practical tasks. I am very reluctant to discuss my own practices as if they are in any way normative, and they have varied in different kinds of ministry over the years. My responsibilities as a presbytery minister have made preparation different from when I was in parish ministry, but when I have been pastor to ministers I tried to give no less time to preparation for those Sundays when I was preaching than I would in a parish.
For what it is worth, as one example among many, a word or two more about preparation of the sermon. For a good many years now I have avoided topical sermons except on rare occasions to meet particular needs. I follow the Revised Common Lectionary as recommended by the Church, and make use of background material I have collected from previous cycles of the three year set of readings which I have kept on computer files for about 14 years now, and I look to other commentators who use the Lectionary also, some printed, some on the net. When I have settled on the main theme, hopefully early in the week, or a week or two before, I begin to read the passage in depth and read commentaries and cross references to set it within a broad biblical context. (Of course, when publishing on the net more lead time is required.) Computer based searches of scripture and alternative translations and the meaning of words in Greek and Hebrew, can be helpful, as background, but seldom would they justify a direct reference in the sermon. I make notes, draft paragraphs, and put them aside, hopefully for a few days before returning to edit, and often to bring in more material from my broader knowledge of pastoral issues, other aspects of the worship, and the state of the world generally; although in the latter respect I believe the preacher should only point a direction and leave lay people to work out many of the applications themselves. I believe that the Word truly represented will make its own transformation of the culture, and that theocracies don't work.
The Lectionary will often also provide specific material for other parts of the service beside the readings: for example, words from the Psalm may be suitable for a call to worship, invocation or prayer of adoration. Other passages of scripture might suggest or inspire other prayers or perhaps a confession of faith. However, I never allow the themes for the day to dominate the whole of the service. There are always people present who will need some other emphases to be made, and the traditional structure of the service and resources published by the church will cover a much wider set of themes than one would produce oneself.
Circumstances can have significant effects too. At one time, over twenty years ago, I had a part time honorary settlement to serve a congregation which not small, while I held a full time job as head of a university department. I had agreed with the elders that I would preach and lead three out of four Sunday services and attend to the most necessary pastoral matters, but they would do the bulk of the pastoral work and all the organisational tasks. As I had only very limited time on week days I stuck to a strict schedule of following a daily office with prayers, psalms and readings in which I read the passages set for the following Sunday, one each day, beginning with the Gospel on Mondays and reaching a view of the sermon and hymns by the Thursday although I had very few notes by then. I would return to the Gospel reading again on the Friday and do the main preparation on the Saturday as well as necessary pastoral visiting. It was inadequate preparation and a great strain, but it was the unavoidable increase in the pastoral load which eventually led me to bring the arrangement to an end after two years. The link of pastoral practice to leadership of worship is critically important. I have no doubt, however, that I could have done better, particularly if I had been able to reduce my time on my "day job", and no doubt there are others who have had similar demands on their time who have worked out better compromises than I managed to do.
We are all different and the same discipline will not suit everyone. I can only make a plea that we all consider carefully how we can most effectively use our time, while allowing for certain fundamentals, such the need for deep processing of the material in our own minds over a sufficient length of time for the benefits of a lifetime of preparation to be brought to bear in the present. Another fundamental, whatever methods or the schedule of activities one might follow, is that biblical passages must be studied in depth, and the sermon prepared out of a solid background of biblical and theological scholarship whatever degree of topical interest it may have. Similarly, the service as a whole needs to be planned in detail in a theologically and liturgically sound format.
In our traditions in the Uniting Church, we have a standard order of worship in "Uniting in Worship", with many alternatives and additional resources at several points in the Leaders Book. We are required by the Assembly to use it as a model although the published material need not be used word for word. We are expected to have sufficient knowledge of the general principles of liturgy to put our own material into the common framework and even to vary the structure to a degree for particular purposes. I am not convinced that all our worship leaders in fact have the capacity to make use of the liberty that is allowed, or that people realize the constraints that good liturgical practice would impose if it were known. I would recommend that worship leaders should become thoroughly familiar with the model, and include their material within it gradually as they learn how it works. There are some points at which special care is required, as in the great prayer of thanksgiving in the Eucharist. It takes a lot of experience and hard work to write one which does all that needs to be done. Even to choose among published alternatives which are not among those specifically approved requires both knowledge and care. Whatever is done that is original cannot be done in a hurry although our ministers are generally expected to produce new work in the liturgy every Sunday. It takes time. Even when not everything is written and provision is made for extemporary prayer, thoughtful and prayerful preparation is necessary for those parts of the service also.
So preparation is both individual and embedded in the life of the church, and it is both short term and long term. It is a mighty responsibility for those called to lead, and very rewarding when it is an integrated part of one's whole life and pastoral ministry.
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