Monday, December 14, 2009

No Stars in God's Cast of Characters...

One of the hallmarks of modern American Christianity is the tendency to turn preachers into stars and celebrities -- much in the same way that we pick out people from Hollywood or sports as the heroic figures on which to focus. Rick Warren is certainly such a star. So is Joel Osteen. Then there is Joyce Meier. And a host of others I will not name here. But you do not have to have a TV program and national stature to be a star. I was talking with a preacher who told me that he spends all his time on sermons and delivery -- it would be a mistake to call this man a Pastor, he was definitely a preacher. He had a very large congregation and this was his "ministry" and he told me that he worked very hard to give them more than their money's worth on Sundays (and Wednesdays).

I suppose the same charge could be laid at those who fulfill the priestly role in sacramental churches but it goes against the grain of the liturgy. In the liturgical setting of the Divine Service, there are no stars in God's cast of characters. Not the one who stands at the altar or in the pulpit, not the assisting ministers who lend their voices to the lessons or beckon the people to prayer, not the acolytes who carry the light or the crucifer who lifts high the cross.... I would even hesitate to call them worship leaders. They are the servants of Christ in service to the Christ who comes to us in His Word and Sacraments.

If it is not the preacher who is the star, we might say that the people in the pews (make that theater seating with cup holders) are the stars -- the ones who get to judge what is successful, what is meaningful, what is good. Can it be that we have stars in the congregation who sit like judges with their wallets and attendance as the votes determining which of the pulpit stars shine brightest?

I can understand this. There is a part in most of us that likes the limelight. We like people to see and notice us. I enjoy positive feedback. I like it when people like me. But I wonder if this does not work against the very success that God intends. What happens when we center our faith and our spiritual lives on a person (other than our Lord Jesus Christ)? What do we open ourselves to when the one at the pulpit or the soloist at the mic takes on a larger than life role in shaping and defining our lives as Christian people.

As a Pastor wearing vestments that draw attention to my office but not to me, I live in the tension between being center stage and being one among God's cast of characters who serve Him in His House on Sunday morning. Every preacher must find his own voice but that voice is not a ticket to stardom in a venue that highlights who you are, what you think, or what you believe. Every presider must find a comfort level in that priestly role but not as the star headlining the drama of ceremony and ritual. When attention is drawn to how something is done or to the person doing it, it risks masking the very Word that ceremony or ritual is to support.

It is no wonder that Roman Catholics to Lutherans to Orthodox to Anglicans need to remind the people who serve as presiders and preachers within the liturgy that it is not about you. It is so very attractive to those who want to be in the spotlight and if you have a decent sense of humor and wit, you can easily overshadow the Divine Service. Some Pastors feel the need to tell people people what they are doing instead of just doing it (Now receive the benediction of the Lord...). Others feel the need to embellish on the words (In the Name of God the Father, God the Son, and God the Holy Spirit...). Others begin rewriting the liturgy to make things clearer or more contemporary (who can forget the Supplement of 1969 and its weirdness "We are here because we are men..."). Soon the liturgy is gone and the worship leader is defining what God's people will do and the preacher makes the sermon his own vehicle instead of the Word's... and then we are left with stars and celebrities instead of the Pastors and Priests and Preachers who live in the shadow of the Christ they serve in Word and Sacrament.

Whenever we develop star power, we diminish the light that is supposed to shine on Christ. That is John's simple dictum in other words (He must increase, I must decrease)... It is something worth thinking about as we approach one of those times in the year when the church building will be full of people... They deserve more than Larry Peters. That is what I wrestle with...

1 comment:

Hemmer said...

I preached on this yesterday. John the Baptist, the preacher of preachers, would be considered unsuccessful by any popular measures of success. He's arrested; his wilderness congregation presumably disbands (or, at least, he sends them to Jesus), and he's beheaded. Mamas, don't let your babies grow up to be pastors.

But John's success is in his "Behold the Lamb of God." I would do well to imitate that success.