The Power of Words, Symbols and Place in Worship

This morning I went to the funeral of a lady whom I would consider a friend. She was an older lady who went to a different church, but she always felt like a good friend. She was humble, gentle and respectful towards everyone. She had also led a life which had had a fair share of suffering which she carried with great grace. All in all a lady respected in the community as a genuine follower of Jesus,

As we sat in the dimly lit auditorium of one of the local Pentecostal churches, I was struck be a number of things which I hadn't noticed so starkly in the past. These are general observations about worship and I'm not intending any disrespect to the pastor of the church who is also a friend of many years standing.

The thing I've noticed over many years is that when ministers use orders of service that are not carefully thought out, then it's easy for words to take over without any meaning carried.

For example many churches have a custom of allowing lay people to lead Communion. This usually consists of a long-winded talk about something that might or might not be related to the death of Jesus and our redemption. Sometimes the communion talk is longer than the main sermon. Add that to the offering talk, and the service can carry three separate sermons. So a "free" communion service liberated from a formal liturgy takes up two or three times the amount of time, and yet fails generally to draw people into the place of awe that Communion is supposed to be.

As my college lecturers used to tell us, once you deviate from the liturgy which has been developed over centuries, words are added to words but no meaning is added.

I've also noticed that pastors can be very confused about what a christian funeral is about. While the occasion is the death of a believer, the focus for christians has to be on the gospel and the promise of resurrection. Increasingly the focus in many christian funerals is the individual who died.

The prayers, the Bible readings, the sermon- everything that is said needs to point people towards Jesus.

I'm finding that for more formal worship events, my own preference is for traditional styles of liturgy, brought into contemporary culture. I need to think about the words that I am to say in order to honour both Christ and the person being buried (or married or whatever). If I rely on spontaneous words, I will either not say what needs to be said or else I will say too many words that are light in meaning.

When we speak off the cuff, the tendency can be to generalise. "God" rather than "Christ", "eternity" rather than "life forever with God". Somehow the particularity of Christian belief gets lost.

I was surprised this morning by the Bible reading. It was announced as being from "The Message" version of Ecclesiastes. Maybe I wasn't paying attention, but as I was thinking "This seems to be a very long reading," the pastor mentioned the person's name. I had not seen where the Word of God ended and the Word of the Man of God commenced. At least when someone says "This is the word of the Lord" and everyone mumbles "Praise be to God" you know the scripture reading is concluded.

The symbols of worship need to be thought through also. The gathering place does matter, in some ways. Sure if all you have is a shed or a rented building there isn't much you can do. When I sit in a room that is used for christian worship it's nice to know that it is in some ways different from the local cinema. Sitting in the dark while the podium is the only lit up space does not encourage community, as we are all strangers without faces. Are the people of God really in the dark waiting to receive the light from the pastor?

Why do meeting places have to be bland spaces, like corporate function rooms? If nothing else a cross at the front of the auditorium says "this is a place of worship." I know I can worship anywhere, but the use of symbols and banners can help people to focus in on God before the formal worship starts.

Having said all that, I can easily apply the same critique to the way I lead worship. Too often I speak too quickly and too long. Often our use of space is pretty utilitarian, and our approach to worship too casual.

At the same time, I don't want to advocate an approach to worship that is ritualistic and inflexible.

As a pastor I want to make sure that when I am leading worship we get a balance between bland and over the top ritualised worship that does not touch people's hearts. I want to worship in a way that shows due diligence but remains open to the Holy Spirit. At the end of the day I want my congregation to know God and to worship Him in Spirit and in truth.

Again I want to stress that I'm not being critical of one particular person or congregation. The traditions of Pentecostal churches are no different from the traditions of other christian flavours. I do think however that we settle for far less in our worship than we could be aiming for.


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