Thursday, January 21, 2010

Too Many Words...

One of the complaints I have about churches I visit (both traditional and contemporary) is that the presiders use too many words. I did not always notice this. A friend who had been away from the States for a long time stopped by to visit. He was there over a Sunday and after worship his critique was "too many words, not enough silence." I have tried a million times to make for silence and it is as hard as pulling teeth. Our people are so fearful of silence that they generally spend the silent moments looking around to see who screwed up and did not come in on time (presider, organist, choir, etc...). Though I try, this use of silence is a constant battle. But the critique of "too many words" I have taken to heart and it has shaped my thinking greatly.

One of the things you notice about the creed and about liturgical language is its succinct nature. It is an economy of words that the framers of the creed showed to us and the liturgy has preserved to us. These are compact -- carefully chosen words, filled with meaning, and pregnant with expression of the evangelical and catholic faith. Jesus is likewise compact in His discourses. We would presume more but He gives us more without giving us more words.

Contemporary worship services (the homemade versions) tend to be wordy -- very wordy. Like Taylor's Living Bible, they say in ten words what Jesus, the creeds, and the liturgical texts say in two or three. It is not that they say more, they say it with more words. They provide wordy bridges between different elements of their "liturgy" and they introduce everything with anecdotes and explanations that grow tiresome to ears already too filled with words. In the end the Words of Christ become just additional words in the great soup of words that is the contemporary Christian service.

"Traditional" liturgy can also be infected by this bug. I have heard Pastors add words to the most compact and elegant of liturgical prose -- and their words do not help it all. For example, I have been told repeatedly we make our beginning In the Name of God the Father, God the Son, and God the Holy Spirit. Such additions do not add to the classic invocation but turn it into the language of a rubric or explanatory text for the footnotes. They introduce hymns even though numbers are posted and directions printed out in the service folder. They try to bridge the elements of the Divine Service much the way presiders in contemporary worship do -- even up to the end when they solemnly tell us: Receive the benediction of the Lord and then benedict us. Such words are not only NOT necessary, they clutter up the service and the ears of the people gathered there.

Sermons also are areas where an accumulation of words is confused with clarity of words. Again, those who tend to preach "how to" sermons (about happier marriages, better kids, more successful work, etc) and those who preach Bible studies (not really text expositions but actual Bible studies) are also too wordy.

There are nations who revise and amend their constitutions ad nauseum while the US constitution is compact in language and, for the most part, has been resistant to this incessant need to add words. There is everywhere elegant and eloquent language that is compact and succinct. It is, however, the hallmark of liturgical language and creedal language that it takes this call to compactness most seriously.

Take a cue from the hymnwriters of the Church. They have left us with a marvelous poetic gift in which the few words of a stanza can say what paragraphs must say in prose. Learn from the hymnwriter by reading and memorizing hymn stanzas to see how it is that they craft these phrases so pregnant with meaning, so filled with rich imagery, and so elegant in sound. Sure, we have some 15 or 20 stanza hymns and some of you might think these mitigate against my point but they say so much in those stanzas it is impossible to replicate their message in prose without adding page upon page of words. Let the hymnwriters teach us how to use language well. And, if you will grant me this, read good secular poetry and good secular prose and it too will teach you the craft of language that speaks much without saying too many words.

If we paid attention to the rubrics, if we taught the liturgy as we teach so many other things, and if we allowed a little silence for people to think for a moment and soak it all up, we could get by with fewer words and not need to constantly add to what is there. So I urge the Pastors of our church body to think clearly, to let the liturgical language speak without commentary or explanations or introductions or bridges between the various elements. People will soon learn to appreciate this. Everywhere in this life we are bombarded by words and more words and even more words. What we need are not more words but words filled with meaning, elegant prose and poetry, eloquence of vocabulary, all that speak clearly without speaking just more words.


Tapani Simojoki said...

Pastor Peters,

Spot on, again!

The same can also apply to other unnecessary communication, such as gesturing. Why-oh-why do liturgists need to say or indicate "Please stand", when (a) it's there in the book, and (b) almost everyone knows what to do anyway, because they have been standing in that place for years? That way, the liturgist takes on the additional role of master of ceremonies, which inevitably distracts from his role as liturgist and, therefore, from the liturgy.

Your post reminds me again C.S. Lewis' analogy of dancing as opposed to learning to dance.

Matt said...

Great post! I am very irritated by pastors who try to get a laugh from the audience, usually through lame jokes near the beginning of the sermon. I'm embarrassed for them.

There is a place for wit and humor in good preaching, but it should never be forced. I think pastors think that they are putting the congregation at ease with humor; it usually puts me on edge.

Rev. Luke T. Zimmerman said...

"Traffic Cop Celebrants/Liturgists": that's what my seminary mates called the pastors you mention in your post.

Learning how to use language well from poets and good writers is advice given in T. David Gordon's book Why Johnny Can't Preach (the book for discussion this month in my circuit). It includes other observations about the lack of critical thinking skills among American preachers. Gordon's short--but pointed--critique of American Reformed preaching is worth consideration by us who preach as a vocation.

Rev. Paul T. McCain said...

Oh, yes and amen. Thrice so!

Nothing grates on my nerves during Divine Service more than the guys who feel a need to provide a running "color commentary" going on the liturgy, or an obsession to keep giving stage directions, or simply a desire to try to "chat up" the congregation to make things more "warm and cozy" feeling with the "cold, dry, formal" liturgy.

Blessed Kurt Marquart was often to heard lamenting the "chattiness" of the contemporary worship crowd.

Rev. Eric J Brown said...

I will admit, I tell folks what hymn we are singing. . . but that's just because they need every admonition to sing there is!

Matt said...

What are your thoughts on an "instructed service"? By that I mean a worship service once a year or so with commentary interpolated in six or seven places to explain what we're doing and why we're doing it. I suppose that would combine worship with liturgical catechesis.

I would trade to have one service a year with intentional running commentary if that would buy all of the others without extraneous explanation.

Anonymous said...

Liturgy 101 :
Say the Black
Do the Red

David said...

One exception. When facing a congregation who are not used to making the sign of the cross to encourage them to do so until it catches on.

Anonymous said...

Re: Tapani's post:

I have long been a member of a congregation where the pastors ignore the notations in the hymnal regarding standing, sitting, etc.

For instance, we may stand for the Gospel one Sunday, but not the next, or we may stand while the sermon text is read, or we may not.

Just a stab for 'variety' in the service, I guess.

Tapani Simojoki said...

Re. Luke T. Zimmermann:

If you haven't read Gordon's book yet, get it now and read it (takes about an hour to get through at a leisurely pace). It's a gem.

Janis Williams said...

May a layperson put in her spoke?

The Holy Scripture is the epitome of succinct. God tells us exactly what He wants us to know without excess verbiage. Isn't this one reason the Liturgy has such an economy of words? They are for the most part straight from Holy Scripture?

BTW forestboar, I love that!

Why do foolish humans think we can improve on that? Is this a possible application (I know, bad word, bad word!) of the warnings to not add to God's Word?

Rev. Luke T. Zimmerman said...


Yes, Gordon's book is a gem. It should be made required reading for seminary homiletics courses and pastoral conferences.


Anonymous said...

Brothers [and sisters]: I'm among the pastors of the LCMS who have a Scandinavian heritage and thus use the 'Receive the benediction of the Lord' prior to the final benediction. It might be of interest to consider that it is part of Olavus Petri's 1531 rite ---which, by the way, is the Lutheran rite with the longest unbroken usage--- and more parallels Luther's 1523 'Formulae Missae' than Luther's 1526 German Mass. The point: the "Receive the benediction..." is not a flippant addition but has a long history among Lutherans.
D. E. Bestul, Pastor