Polonius: What do you read, my lord?It starts with the Announcements (as we used to sing in Scout camp, “a terrible death to die, a terrible death to die . . . “). These can go on for, well, 3-5 business days, it seems. The liturgist has a little routine he or she always does, then the pastor has to give just a few reminders, and in many congregations the floor is opened up to the laity as well. Sharing of Joys and Concerns (whether then or later) can keep the ball rolling for long enough for you to complete the Sunday crossword puzzle. Keep in mind, that not only does all this hold up the functioning parts of the service, but everything said (by everybody) is completely mystifying to newcomers, who don’t know what’s going on or who anybody is yet.
Hamlet: Words, words, words.
Meanwhile, if there’s a worship band (God have mercy on your soul if there is), then the band leader has to share just a few reflections, as well as notes on composition, to introduce each number in their “set.” And everybody who has anything to do up front has to tell a joke, say hello, or try to warm up the crowd. The different leaders feed off each other and comment on each other’s stuff. It’s like a late night talk show.
When the sermon finally comes around, it often doesn’t have a conventional starting place or ending place. Many preachers start talking about what they’re going to be talking about for some time before pausing to read any Scripture. And lots of others are still trying to make one more point when it comes time for the Benediction. And everything, sermon and prayer and announcements, is all delivered at about the same level of intensity and in the same, conversational manner. It’s like being drowned in a tank of tepid oatmeal.
There are no quiet moments in Protestant worship any more. There are no pauses, no waiting for a reaction, no time to answer the question posed (assuming one was). Even where you’d expect time to process something asked of you, the response is written in for you rather than let you wrestle with it. And we’re on to the next thing.
And, besides quiet, you know what else all the chatty-chat is covering up? The absence of Scripture. Which you’d think would be noticeable in a Protestant worship service, since we’re all sola Scriptura and such. But no. The Word is shared in a surprisingly sparse manner in most Protestant worship services I’ve been to in recent years.
You see, “contemporary worship” has done away with "liturgy," and even “traditional worship” doesn’t have much of it left. Once upon a time, in addition to the reading of the principal text(s) of the day, the whole congregation would recite a Psalm or some other Scriptural reading. We would have a Call to Worship (which was usually a Scriptural text). We would sing little Scriptural phrases like the Gloria and Doxology. The Benediction would frequently be one of the blessings from the Bible. The hymns (remember hymns?) were often based upon bibilical texts. Even the choir and soloists would often perform works that were basically Scriptural texts. We said the words of Scripture, we sang the words of Scripture, we recited the words of Scripture, over and over to each other.
And the readings were all from what we may call the English Bible tradition. We didn’t use quirky paraphrases like The Message for public reading and recitation. We may have moved on from the KJV to the RSV or the NRSV, or (depending on your denominational preferences) the NASB or NIV. But all of those versions are consciously and carefully made to be part of a long line of Biblical referencing. If you want Scripture to get down to the deepest part of the human heart, where it can pop up when you need it, then you need to be imprinting upon the mind Scripture that sounds like what we’re used to having Scripture sound like.
That which wasn’t Scripture that was shared in the service were usually ancient texts based on the Scriptures, like the Apostles’ or Nicene Creeds, or the Te Deum and other early canticles. Likewise, when we celebrated holy communion, we used words that have been worn smooth by many generations of worshipers, words written by the best of us for even the worst of us. Even if we departed from the words printed in the back of the hymnal, we still followed the order, saying the things that the liturgy said. Years ago, I asked a mother of some of my youth who was raised Lutheran about how I could best bring communion to shut-ins. She replied, “as soon as you begin with the words of the service, I’m ‘there.’” Years of faithfully rehearsing the words and acts together had enabled her to receive communion even under difficult and distracting circumstances, like a hospital stay or a long, painful recovery at home. The words of the liturgy brought her back to where she needed to be spiritually, in order to meet Christ and have her need met in him.
When our latest UM Book of Worship came out some years ago, it left out of the Funeral Service the old committal from the Book of Common Prayer. But you know, when you’re standing there around the grave of your loved one, and you need the right words to finish out what we’ve done, the right words to know you can leave him or her here and go back to normal life, what better words have ever been written than these?
Forasmuch as the spirit of the departed hath returned to God who gave it, we therefore tenderly commit his/her body to the ground, earth to earth, ashes to ashes, dust to dust, looking for the general resurrection at the last day and the life of the world to come through our Lord Jesus Christ; at whose coming in glorious majesty the earth and the sea shall give up their dead, and the corruptible bodies of those who sleep in him shall be changed and made like unto his own glorious body, according to the mighty working whereby he is able to subdue all things unto himself.I just dashed those down, from memory. I have said them so often. No words of mine, no sentimental poem, no made-up ceremonial, has half the effect as those magnificent words. They aren’t Scripture, but they’re better than anything that’s been written in the last half century – and they’re based upon Scripture.
And I heard a voice from heaven, saying unto me, Blessed are the dead who die in the Lord form henceforth.
Yea, saith the Spirit, that they may rest from the labors; and their works do follow them.
St. Paul said, long ago, “the kingdom of God does not consist in talk, but in power.” How strange, then, that so many Protestant churches do not connect their dwindling power with the volume of talkiness that fills their increasingly empty churches to overflowing.