Christians and congregations bring a host of assumptions about what constitutes Christian worship with them to the service. Rather than allowing these assumptions to catch us in conversation about “good” and “bad” or “right” and “wrong” worship, we can testify to the belief that “at all times and at all places the Holy Spirit helps us to pray” (Rom. 8:26). Liturgical historian James F. White’s seven “categories” for analyzing Christian worship—people, piety, time, place, prayer, preaching, and music—can help congregations talk about worship without getting caught in conversation about individual preferences. While these seven elements of a worship service certainly do not exhaust all possibilities, they provide a manageable set of reference points with which to organize conversation about worship.
Frequently, the best way to understand worship is in terms of people. How do people’s personalities and social lives affect worship? Which characteristics of people must be taken into account in worship? In what way do people participate in worship? Are they passive or receptive, as people watch or listen to someone else do something, or active, as people pray, sing, shout, and move themselves? A congregation that participates in preaching by listening attentively and responding audibly can help a struggling sermon to soar, while a congregation that does not respond or refuses to listen can fatally wound an otherwise powerful proclamation of the gospel.
We can also explore how worship makes people a part of the church, both consciously and unconsciously. Consider the ways worship both forms and reflects the congregation. For example, watching the way young children, who do not understand content, participate in worship (or “play church”) provides important clues in this regard. Those who participate are so important that, in White’s scheme, people stand at the center of the seven categories and relate to both the circumstances of worship (piety, time, and place) and the acts of worship (prayer, preaching, music). People are key to understanding worship.
Spirituality or piety concerns the ways people relate to God and to each other. A congregation’s piety is hard to assess for three reasons. First, piety is very subjective. What some congregations regard as proper others dismiss as rigid and still others as irreverent. A second reason piety is difficult to assess is that crosscurrents of different pieties operate within the same congregation. For example, while some in a congregation regard the Lord’s Supper as a foretaste of the resurrected life and desire to receive it often, others, who regard the Lord’s Supper solely in terms of forgiveness, do not understand themselves sinning enough to warrant frequent celebration. The piety reflected in how frequently Holy Communion is part of worship might be a compromise among several pieties rather than an expression of the congregation’s piety.
The third reason that a congregation’s piety is difficult to analyze is that piety can change over time, for example, from penitential to resurrection focused.
Though it is challenging, piety deserves examination, because preaching and worship are always shaded in the direction of someone’s piety—the minister’s, the congregation’s, or some group’s within the congregation.
As in all of life’s activities, what people do in worship is heavily conditioned by the time when it occurs. I am frequently asked how long sermons should be. In other words, how should sermons fit in time? Rather than offering a number of minutes, I respond that a sermon or worship service’s location in time strongly influences both the expectations worshipers bring and the interpretations they assign. Some congregations worship, some ministers preach, and some parishioners listen for as long as the Spirit leads them; other congregations are constrained to fit the entire service within a well-established time limit.
Lucy Lind Hogan, professor of preaching and worship at Wesley Theological Seminary in Washington, D.C., encourages preachers to consider time in their preaching by holding the past, present, and future in a divine tension or balance. Sermons ought to balance recalling God’s mighty deeds of the past, caring for our neighbors in the present, and keeping before us the knowledge that our lives and our futures are in God’s powerful and loving hands. In this way, preaching will address the full story of salvation—formation and teaching, mission and Christian responsibility to the world today, and God’s future, the eschaton.
The place where congregations worship reflects and influences what happens there. For example, the space where preaching occurs forms preacher and congregation and reflects who they are in ways beyond sermon content. When people can see each other during the sermon, they experience preaching as a community gathering. When the church grows dark as a spotlight floods the preacher, preaching becomes individuals watching a performance.
An analysis of a congregation’s worship considers the layout of the worship space, the visual accompaniments of worship, and the way sounds behave during worship. First, we can examine the relationship of the basic spaces for worship: gathering, movement, congregational, choir, baptismal, and altar. The way all these spaces relate to each other and to what many consider the four focal points of worship (pulpit, font, altar, and seating for worship leaders) are important indicators of how things work in worship. Does the pulpit or the altar dominate? Are the people arranged in a shoebox-shaped nave away from the action, or do they encircle it? The design of the four focal points tells much about the importance accorded to what happens at them.
Turning from the circumstances of worship to the activities of worship, a congregation can better understand itself as a faith community by considering both the form and the leadership of prayer. Examining the form of a congregation’s prayer reveals how the ministers and people speak to God. Prayer might be fixed in printed books or free and open to local diversity. Congregational prayer can be prepared in advance of worship or left to the spontaneous prompting of the Holy Spirit. The congregation might pray in everyday speech, in elevated prose, or in sacral language from the Elizabethan era. In addition to the ways prayers are crafted, the mechanisms used and the degree to which individual prayers and weekday prayer services relate to the Sunday gathering of the whole community also indicate how the faith community understands its life together.
The leadership of prayer, who voices prayer for the community, indicates whether worship is something the clergy does for the people or the congregation does together. Prayer might be a unison act, a solo performance, or something done spontaneously and simultaneously by everyone. Whether and which prayers are led by the clergy and how both lay-led prayer and the prayers of congregation members are incorporated into worship are practices that can be identified and examined.
An appreciation of a sermon’s worship context leads to examining the ways the elements of the service, such as hymns, prayers, confession, offering, and sacraments, inform and reinforce the message of the sermon. The style of worship, expressed in the language of prayer and Scripture, ritual action, physical environment, and structures of ministry, forms a specific style that influences the style and content of the sermon.
Preaching takes a variety of forms and serves an assortment of purposes. For example, some sermons are intended to introduce the unc
hurched to Jesus, others to teach Christian doctrine to the faithful. Biblical preaching can be both exegetical and topical. The form and function of preaching vary even among congregations of the same Christian tradition.
Both the forms of music and who performs it are important considerations when examining a congregation’s worship. Music might be included in the service as congregational song or as choral music. The role of instrumental music, or prohibitions against it, should be considered. Is service music present or absent? Most important, does music function as an offering to God, as a proclamation by or to the people, or as both? Hymns sung most frequently (or sung well) provide especially important evidence of the types of piety prevalent in the congregation, because hymns provide people words to express their faith. Because hymns have the additional power of repetition when they are sung over the course of weeks, seasons, years, and lifetimes, singing hymns is an effective way to teach the faith. Moreover, inasmuch as hymns are different from sermons and most prayers in that lyrics do not change, they provide one of the best sources of theology and can be used effectively as a source of theological statements.
These characteristics of Christian worship can help congregations move beyond matters of preference, taste, and correctness to discuss their worship more objectively, in order to ask the more significant questions: What does your congregation’s worship communicate about God, faith, the church, and the world? Is this, in fact, what you intend to proclaim?
Adapted from When God Speaks through You: How Faith Convictions Shape Preaching and Mission, copyright © 2008 by the Alban Institute.
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