Today is Tuesday, and pastors everywhere are back in the office after their “day-off”. Most pastors take Mondays off which is lousy. No one else takes Monday off, so all of their friends and family are usually at work/school. Usually, the only other people they can connect with on a Monday are other pastors, but who wants to talk “shop” on their day off? So they usually spend the whole day alone, trying to find something fun and edifying to do, which seldom works, and just leaves them feeling frustrated. Tuesday comes with mixed feelings since they don’t get back to the office feeling rested, but there is at least some sense of relief in knowing what to do with yourself rather than sitting at home channel-surfing or wandering aimlessly around the mall looking at “stuff”.
So Tuesday it is, you’re a pastor, and here you are back in the office. Doubtless, you have meetings to schedule, people to counsel, email to answer, sermons to write, (musicians to phone back!!!!!) and all the myriad other tasks involved with leading and feeding your congregation. I understand the demands on your time and some of the things that weigh on your mind, but I have a request. (No, not to book a concert. Well,… yes, but that’s for another time.) While you’re planning this Sunday’s service, would you arrange to include a scripture reading (2 would be great), and take time to teach us how to pray?
Lately people have been asking me about the state of worship in the church. A lot! For awhile, I couldn’t figure out why. Although I did serve as a worship pastor for 5 years before I found myself in the middle of my present ministry as an itinerant singer/songwriter, that hardly makes me any kind of expert. But, I suppose I’ve been around a lot. I’ve visited around 200 churches across Canada during my travels over the past 4 years. I’ve heard a lot of announcements, heard a lot of sermons, and listened to a lot of worship teams. I’ve been to a few Mega-churches and to a number of really small churches (mini-churches?). So I guess that gives me a bit of a unique perspective. The more people ask, the more I think about it, and I’ve noticed a few trends emerging. I was sharing these thoughts with a good friend a little while ago, and he convinced me to write them down.
To give you a bit of context, let me tell you where I’ve come from. I came to faith when I was 16 in a little Baptist church in Regina in the mid-nineties. Up until that point I’d had very little exposure to church except for the odd service at the Orthodox church my grandparents attended. Most of that was in Ukrainian. The “worship wars” were in full swing when I started attending, but at that time we were only just starting to use guitars in the services at our church. I was fortunate in that my first experience with church was a very good one. What continually drew me back, Sunday after Sunday, was not the “guitar music”. although I found that much more easy to sing and understand than the hymns which had been a staple before I got there. but the liturgy.
The Baptist tradition is a relatively diverse one. A Baptist church can be anywhere along a spectrum from charismatic and almost indistinguishable from a Pentecostal church on one end, to very liturgical and almost indistinguishable from an Anglican church on the other end. The church I attended was on the liturgical end of the spectrum. We started the service with a Call to Worship and an invocation. A proper one. Usually a reading from the Psalms or another portion of scripture. After that, we’d sing a few carefully chosen hymns & choruses followed by the prayer of confession.
It’s hard for me to overstate the importance of having a regular Prayer of Confession. Including it in worship does at least two things. First of all, practicing a regular discipline of confession will lead to spiritual health, both corporately and individually. Confessing regularly helps us to keep “short accounts” with God. Rather than waiting until we’ve done something wrong to confess, regular confession makes it easier to identify attitudes and motivations before they lead to destructive action. Taking time for regular reflection and introspection nurtures and sustains an attitude of humility. Our churches would all be a lot healthier if everyone were a lot more humble, since it is in being forgiven that we learn to forgive. ??Secondly, when followed with an assurance of Pardon, it serves to communicate the gospel in its simplest form. Namely, that our sin separates us from God, but by repenting from our sin and clinging to Christ, we are reconciled to Him. I don’t remember hearing a “Gospel Message” during the first 4 months I attended church, but the regular rhythm of confessing and receiving pardon every week taught me the Gospel because I was, in essence, acting it out.
After the prayer of confession there was usually another song or two, followed by the offering, special music, children’s song & story (what ever happened to that?) and the Prayers and Petitions. The importance of having corporate prayer for one’s church family, community, city, country and the wider world to draw one’s attention off of themselves and toward the needs around them should be obvious, and has probably been discussed elsewhere. One of the most meaningful aspects of both the Prayers and Petitions and the Prayer of Confession at my church was the time of silence given at the end of the corporate prayer to offer individual prayers. It’s a proven principle in education that if you want someone to really learn how to do something, you need to tell them how to do it, then show them, then give them a chance to try it out. Doing corporate prayer in this way was literally how I learned to pray. ??The final element that we had every Sunday was not one, but two scripture readings. Usually one Old Testament reading and one from the New Testament. One of these would have been the text for the sermon. The other would have been a secondary text, or at least an alternate text that provided the context for the first text. Now read this very carefully, because it’s important. I can’t think of a single church that I’ve visited in the last year and half that’s had a scripture reading. Not one! I keep trying to find an explanation for this (pastor is busy, can’t find readers, service is too full, desire to keep the service seeker-oriented, etc.), but none of these are really sound reasons.
I recently finished reading “The Last Word”, an excellent book on understanding scripture by eminent scholar and Bishop of Durham, N.T. Wright. He concludes the book by arguing that if we claim to be a people whose belief rests on the foundation of scripture and who submit to scripture as our final authority, then the public reading of scripture must be central to our worship. It’s hypocritical for a church to refer to themselves as “bible-believing” to forsake the public reading of scripture. Ironically, many of the traditions whom evangelicals consider to have wandered away from orthodoxy faithfully read the scriptures every Sunday as part of their liturgy. In contrast, evangelical churches seldom read scripture. At most, the preacher might read the relevant portions during their sermon. But that’s not the same thing. There need to be times when we allow scripture to speak for itself. Do we really believe in the power and the authority of scripture if we can’t read it without felling the need to comment on it? So pastors and church leaders ask yourselves, “What is central to our worship as a church? Scripture, or the preacher’s interpretation of it?”. Scripture itself commands us, “Devote yourself to the public reading of scripture.” (1 Timothy 4:13)
I used to be responsible for planning the services at my church. I know how these things get squeezed out. There’s a missionary couple home from the field who want 10 minutes to share about their ministry, or a promo video, or a guest musician. And you know why prayer and scripture are the easiest to leave out? Because no one will notice. At least not right away. But lead a church five or ten years without corporate prayer and scripture reading and soon you’ll have a church of prayerless biblically illiterate Christians, and then everyone will notice.
So please, as you sit in the office this Tuesday, think about Sunday, and carve out some time in the service to pray with us, and read the scriptures to us. Thanks for all you do.