Tuesday, September 28, 2010

Stick to the Script

It is common to see Pastors ad lib during the Divine Service in an effort to reduce the formality and make the liturgy a bit more folksy.  Some of the more common offenses include "Good Mornings" by all the folks in the liturgy (usually done in the beginning to explain what is going to be happening but sometimes done by the reader when introducing the lessons and even witnessed at the introduction to the prayer of the Church).  Others include the exchange of personal greetings during the sharing of the peace ("Hi, how are ya?  How's your foot [or insert here other offensive member]? or "Missed you last week; where were you?").  Perhaps the most egregious include conversation at the rail as the Body and Blood of Christ are being distributed (everything from "Are you Lutheran?" to "Can he receive the wine?" to "I am so sorry to hear about your father.").  BTW, all that I referenced above I have heard with my own ears spoken by the clergy to lay during the liturgy.

Not all the offenders are the ministers of the service but the folks in the pew tend to take their cue from those leading the worship so I single them out.  It seems that even in traditional parishes that use the liturgy from the hymnal, the Pastor cannot resist the impulse to improvise, personalize, and comment upon what he is doing.  It would be one thing if these were simply well-meaning helps to understanding what is going on but the vast majority are the kinds of banter an MC might have on a variety show or the Oscars or such.  In between the "action" the dead silence is enlivened by a little light conversation -- usually humorous.  Most of it is frivolous, much of it banal, and all of trivial.  It diminishes who is there and what we are there for.  So I say -- no, plead -- stop.  Stick to the script.

It is one thing to say something mildly humorous from the pulpit as a means of making a point.  I have used humor to make a point.  But it is a commodity to be used seldom and in light doses, carefully applied.  Outside the announcements and the very occasional word from the pulpit, do not do anything to trivialize or detract from what is happening in the liturgy.  It is no wonder our people are confused.  On the one hand the person leading the Divine Service is talking like Jay Leno in his monologue and on the other the words of the liturgy are telling us that God is present, that in order to meet Him we need to be cleansed by absolution, prepared by the Spirit, and acknowledge the holy ground that grace has bidden us to tread upon.

It is bad enough when something spontaneously slips from the lips of the presider.  It is quite another when it is programmed in and planned out like directions on a set.  This competing script detracts from and fights against the liturgy.  And the worst of it all, the audience becomes the victim in this since they are left with a confused idea of what is happening in the liturgy -- are we hear to meet the Jesus who comes to us in His Word and Sacrament or here for some other less serious purpose?  The presider has a duty to make sure that people understand what is happening in the Divine Service and I have seldom had the experience that people take the presence of Christ too seriously and much experience that they are far too casual about the God who comes to us as He has promised in His Word and Sacrament.

Stick to the script.  How many times must we say it?  The point of Sunday morning is not, as my hometown newspaper ended all local coverage, "a good time was had by all."  The point of Sunday morning is for the people of God to meet their Lord where He has promised to be.  Only faith can prepare them for this but let us not confuse this faith by detracting from the solemnity by making it all a joke.

25 comments:

Rev. Eric J Brown said...

I find I do have one or two things I have inadvertently added - mainly that I introduce the Creed by saying, "We now confess our common Christian faith with the words of the ______ Creed." I say it every Sunday - it is now de facto part of the liturgy - and it's basically a way of making sure we confess the same creed. I think if I were to stop here, it would be jarring.

Rev. Kevin Jennings said...

You have an incredible gift, Pastor Peters, for identifying stuff I did early on in my time as a pastor, but for which I have since repented!

One of my major pet peeves about this very topic is the ability of the laity to reverence the National Ensign of the United States, but not be reverent in the presence of Christ.

Don't get me wrong. As a veteran, care and respect for Old Glory are important to me! Yet, do we not display a greater reverence for the Lord of the universe?

Perhaps one of the greatest contributors to this kind of thing is the American Protestant teaching that God is everywhere (to which I respond, "Yes, but you aren't"). Sound teaching on the Sacraments is a must, and that sound teaching is best carried out and reinforced in the liturgy.

By the way, Pastor Brown, I'm not so sure that's a guffaw or a carry over from teaching what the Creeds are.

Paul McCain said...

You put your finger precisely on my number one "pet peeve" with the conduct of the liturgy in our circles, in many instances: this incessant need to interject oneself into the liturgy, for that is precisely what I think it is all about: the pastor wanting to "add something" and whether he realizes it or not, that "something" is generally himself.

The need to put a running commentary under the entire liturgy, or to make little quips and asides and little "funnies" or otherwise "helpful" observations...drives me crazy.

The only quibble I have with your post is criticizing a pastor for asking a communicant unknown to him at the rail about their confession of faith. I could not fault a man for that, in fact, I think I would tend to praise him for even caring to ask.

Now, of course, ideally, we would hope that the congregation's practice of closed communion is well enough articulated somewhere so that visitors would not think simply to present themselves for the Sacrament without making themselves known to the pastor, but better to check, I think than not check.

Rev. Allen Bergstrazer said...

As Pastor Jennings said, there are a few things mentioned that I've repented of, and one or two that occasionally creep up out of the old Adam. One bit of noise that never seems to go away and always makes me cringe when I hear it is; 'we make our beginning in the name of the Father the Son and the Holy Spirit."

Jesse said...

The corporate Confession at my parish is usually tailored to the sermon topic of the week. That just drives me up a wall, especially when the video screens they project it on malfunction.

Master of None said...

Jesse, your point is well made. If the "script" changes every week (as you and I both experience) it sure is hard to imprint "the play" on ones heart and mind. Oh blessed are those who Do the Red and Say the Black.

Anonymous said...

for Mr. McCain: I recently visited another Lutheran church; the pastor was not available at the beginning of the worship service, the ushers did not direct me anywhere when I told them I was a visitor. I sat near the front, sang all the hymns, sang the entire liturgy from memory and when I proceeded to the altar to receive Holy Communion was asked by the Pastor in a loud voice, "ARE YOU LUTHERAN?" When I said "yes" he said "MISSOURI SYNOD?" I was so embarrassed. Surely there is another way...

Anonymous said...

Actually, the same experience anonymous had, happened to me several times. In one case I had been associated with that parish for nearly 30 years, was married there, knew half the staff by name... but the Pastor was not there before the service, I announced on the binder and signed up to commune listing my home LCMS congregation and still at the altar rail was a running conversation: who are you, where are you from, are you Lutheran, are you Missouri, and, why did you not speak to me prior to the service as the bulletin requested? There must be a better way, indeed.

Rev. Thomas C. Messer, SSP said...

Anonymous,

The better way would be for the pastor to be available prior to the Service and for the ushers to be trained to direct visitors who desire to commune to speak with the pastor. Sorry that didn't happen in the experience you shared.

However, even when such is in place, it does happen that visitors make it to the rail without having spoken to the pastor. When that has happened where I serve, I do ask them if they are Lutheran, etc. I don't do so with a loud voice, but in a loving, quiet manner. Usually, with the exception of the persons kneeling immediately beside them, no one else is even aware of this. Usually, the person is a fellow LCMSer who just didn't think about announcing his/her intent to commune. On a few occasions, the person has been a member of a different Christian denomination. In that case, I briefly explain to them why I cannot commune them, again as lovingly and quietly as I can, pray a blessing upon them, and move along. After the Service, I always make it a point to chat with these people, the Lutherans and non-Lutherans alike, and explain in detail why I paused to speak with them before communing them, or not communing them, as the case may be. With the exception of one time, that has always gone well and the people not only understood, but appreciated the fact that a) I took the Holy Communion of our Lord's Body and Blood seriously, and b) I cared enough to speak with them about it afterward. The one time it went not so good was with an elderly Methodist lady who said to me on the way out, before I could even say "Good Morning," "I can't believe you call yourselves Christians here!" and stormed out before I could respond.

Our Lord never promised us that faithfulness would be easy and comfortable. If there is a better way to handle this, I'd love to hear it.

Chris said...

If I, an Orthodox Christian, desire to commune at another Orthodox church besides my own, regardless of whether I know the priest(s) at the other church or not, I always have in hand a letter written by my priest that I am an Orthodox Christian in good standing. Do all Orthodox christian take the time to go through with this courtesy? Of course not, but I think that if such a "courtesy" of bringing a letter from your pastor were preached with care, then this might clear up some of the more awkward moments. Just a thought

Pastor Peters said...

I did not intend this to turn into a discussion of close(d) communion. That said, NO ONE should face inquisition at the altar rail. If the bulletin states who is to commune, if the friends or family who brought non-Missouri folks have done their homework, if the ushers and greeters have done their homework, if the Pastor is there 15-20 minutes (visible and available), then whispered or loud questions at the rail don't have to happen!

You are free to disagree with me, but unless I have a compelling reason not to (someone is known to me who should NOT be there), I commune them once they get to the rail.

I do not believe that this detracts from close(d) communion nor do I believe that the merciful Lord is keeping this against my stewardship of His mysteries if, occasionally, despite our best efforts, someone is communed who is not LCMS or in fellowship with LCMS. Our purpose, after all, is not to close the gate but to make sure that everyone who communes is able to receive in faith the fullness of who and what is offered in the bread that is His body and the cup that is His blood.

Anonymous said...

I have repented of inquiring of people's offensive body parts during the sharing of the peace, and am working on smiling less and being less pleasant during my presiding at the liturgy, and deo volente will soon be able to hold my fingers in the correct positions when needed.

Pastor Peters said...

I believe I said nothing about less smiling or pleasantness and am pretty sure I said nothing about how you hold your hands. I do smile and I am told I am pleasant and sometimes I find I am not even fully aware of where my hands are in the liturgy... because the focus is upon Christ and not upon me...

Rev. Thomas C. Messer, SSP said...

Thanks for allowing me the freedom to disagree with you, Fr. Peters. I will exercise that freedom and state my disagreement. :)

First of all, as I said in my last post, even where good practices are in place (detailed statement in the bulletin, availability of the pastor, trained ushers and congregants), it still does happen that people who the pastor doesn't know make it to the rail sometimes. Thus, your "if these things are in place, then whispered or loud questions at the rail don't have to happen" is not quite true.

Secondly, using "inquisition" is a bit much, don't ya think? I mean, I suppose that there might be some pastors who make a big show out of this and play "20 Questions" with unknown people, but I would bet that the vast majority of us handle this in as loving and discreet a manner as possible.

Thirdly, given the fact that some unknown people do sometimes make it to the rail, even when practices have been put in place in the hope of preventing that, it seems that our "best effort," as stewards of the mysteries of God, would be to make sure they share our confession of the faith.

Fourthly, you stated: "Our purpose, after all, is not to close the gate but to make sure that everyone who communes is able to receive in faith the fullness of who and what is offered in the bread that is His body and the cup that is His blood." That's all well and good, except that it neglects the fact that those who do not discern the very Body and Blood of our Lord in the Eucharist eat and drink to their judgment. It seems rather unloving to allow that to happen when it is easily avoidable by asking them what they believe.

So, yeah, I disagree. I don't think it is responsible stewardship of this mystery to just assume that those we don't know share our confession and aren't, in fact, eating and drinking to their judgment. I mean, it sounds like you're saying, "Oh well, I did my best. If they don't believe, that's their problem." I guess I don't see closed communion as a policy left to written statements, but a practice to be employed.

Pastor Peters said...

I do not believe it is merely a statement either. But I as an LCMS Pastor for more than 30 years have been denied the Sacrament at several LCMS parishes, have been subjected to rather loud embarrassing questions at the rail, and all because the Pastor was not there and not one person spoke to me regarding who I was or why I was there until I got to the rail. What about in parishes communing 500 or more on a Sunday. Does the Pastor know them all by name or face? If you stopped all the strange faces at the rail to ask, the distribution would never end. I know and call by first name at the rail 250 per week. The several per year who slip past all the explanations and people and my own standing at the door do not constitute a break of close(d) communion any more than letting an LCMS person commune who is unrepentant. We do all we can do.

Pastor Peters said...

I should have noted that the LCMS person is secretly unrepentant and not under discipline...

Rev. Thomas C. Messer, SSP said...

Fr. Peters,

The secret unrepentant LCMSer is not our problem. We can't read hearts. But, that is quite a different thing from communing the person we don't know. Are we really practicing closed communion if we commune strangers? I don't see it.

Even in larger congregations, I seriously doubt that the pastor(s) don't know who belongs to their flock and who doesn't. If they don't, there's a bigger problem than the one we're discussing here! So, I don't buy the "there's too many strange faces and the Distribution would never end" argument.

And, as I said before, who ever said this was going to be easy or comfortable?

But, besides all this, what really stumps me is this idea being floated around that we need to avoid embarrassing people. I really don't get that at all. Should we Christians be embarrassed when asked to confess our faith?

Look, I'm sure there are failings on all sides of this issue - pastors and congregations not doing as well as they could at trying to preempt this situation from occurring, and visitors not taking the need to announce themselves as seriously as they should. But, I don't see how such neglect should lead to our neglect at the altar. Again, are we really practicing closed communion when we commune strangers?

Btw, I really don't like disagreeing with you - not very comfortable at all!

Greg said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Greg said...

In the spirit of our recent convention, I offer a thought...

1) Whereas the timing of things prevents either one of us (pastors) to be available prior to our 11:00 a.m. service (I am always in a hurry after the conclusion of Bible class!); and

2) whereas communion statements in the bulletin are not always read; and

3) whereas heterodox churches are now using language ("real presence) which can lead folks of another confession to beleive they have the same confession; and

4) whereas a brief conversation may not be sufficient for examination prior to the servce, and

5) whereas the practice of closed communion necessitates the congregation be given direction from the pastor(s), the steward(s) of the mysteries,

We have resolved that...

Immediately following the Prayer of the Church, and before the Service of the Sacrament begins, we make the following verbal announcement:

"In keeping with clear Scriptural teaching, it is the practice of this congregation, and of the Lutheran Church, to provide proper instruction prior to receiving the Sacrament of the Altar. Therefore, if you have not received such instruction in this or another LCMS congregation, we invite you forward for a blessing. Simply come forward at the usher's direction, and cross your arms over your chest, so we will know to give you that blessing."

At the rail, then, when an adult has his/her arms crossed, I will ask one simple question: "Are you baptized?" Based on their answer, I give them an appropriate blessing.

With our verbal announcement, I've never had to ask anyone at the rail regarding his or her confession of faith.

I hope this is of some help.

(And please feel free to clear up the language in our verbal announcement.)

John said...

I am a Lutheran layman who has never been asked a question at the altar, nor been denied the Lord's Supper at a congregation in fellowship with my own.

It's really simple in this day of instant communication.

All one has to do is to email or phone the pastor and learn what to do in order to commune at the congregation one will be attending.

I arrive at least 20 minutes prior to the beginning of the service in the event that I must meet with the pastor before communing.

Have some respect for the congregation you will be visiting. Don't impose your ideas of how they should do things upon them. You are their guest. Act like it.

John said...

Our pastor welcomes visitors and addresses the theme prior to the opening hymn.

The Divine Service is free of any comment and there is no Childrens Message.

The pastor does make announcements after the Benediction and closing hymn.

Rev. Cary Larson said...

I find it interesting how this conversation took a hard turn toward closed communion (and closed blessings).

To speak to the original topic. I too am troubled when pastors go "freestyle" and with all humility, everyone of us who leads in the Divine Service need to keep in mind that it is (and always will be) all about Christ Jesus.

With that being said, the wonderful thing about the liturgy of the Divine Service is that it is chock full of Holy Scripture (as it should be) and yet we do not have in the Scriptures themselves the rubrics of said service. Can we get too carried away on the proper order of things? What is within the blessed gift of Christian freedom?

Even in accepted liturgy we have options. For example does the Lord's Prayer come before or after the Words of Institution? According to LW, the answer is "yes". So which one is the true "script"?

I can't quote the exact source, but I recall that Luther is credited for saying something like the value of the liturgy is that it keeps us, those who are leading worship, honest.

I think the Rev. McCain is on target as it relates to the sinful desire to "interject oneself into the liturgy". May God preserve his people from our vanity.

Greg said...

I really would like to hear Pr. Peter's thoughts about the verbal announcement described above...

but...I'll offer a thought on the original post's topic of sticking to the script.

While I agree that the additions of interjections to the liturgy are often times the result of a pastor's need to "help it along," and almost always tend to distract from the gifts given in and through the liturgy itself, I wonder if the perceived need (and in some cases actual need) for direction is merely a symptom of our churches lack of catholicity iits liturgical practice. That is to say, we are far removed from having an order of things, and a ceremony, which is common even to LCMSers. Unfortunately, the peridigmatic question is, "How do you do it here?" And unfortunately, it isn't just asking about how everyone will be ushered up for the Holy Communion.

Pastor Peters said...

As I said and have said, this is not a problem in my parish. We speak to visitors, I am available before the service, and we have an announcement right there in the bulletin where the whole liturgy is printed out. I am NOT speaking as one who has this problem in my own parish. I am speaking as one who has been a visitor in other LCMS parishes where this was a problem -- mostly due to the lack of attention given to new people and lack of the Pastor's availability. I have even gone in during the prelude to speak with people I did not know. It is not MY problem but the problem of those Pastors who want to practice close(d) communion but do not equip ushers to speak with visitors, do not give attention to new people, or make themselves available before the service. I am not against close(d) communion but I am offended by Pastors who preach it and then practice in such a way as to make it impossible to "enforce" except at the rail -- when it does not need to come down to that. Period. Last statement on this subject, from me, at least, on this thread...

Rev. Thomas C. Messer, SSP said...

". . . when it does not need to come down to that. Period. Last statement on this subject, from me, at least, on this thread..."

Again, even when a detailed communion statement appears in the bulletin, the ushers and congregants have been well trained, and the pastor makes himself available, it still does happen that strangers sometimes make it to the rail. When that happens - rare as it might be in congregations where the above practices are in place - I fail to see how closed communion is being practiced if the pastor communes such strangers without determining what they believe.

But, hey, since you put your "period" on things, I guess we're done here. I mean, it's not YOUR problem. Funny, I thought we were sort of in this together, being brother pastors on the same clergy roster and all . . .