Even within the confines of a traditional service, and without adjusting the rubrics at all, we can introduce changes that can revitalize the tone and tenor of the service.

John Killinger

London theater audiences have been entranced for some time by Peter Shaffer's Lettice and Lovage, a comedy starring Maggie Smith. Smith plays the part of a guide in a rather unexciting National Trust home. Bored with the job, she begins spicing up her presentations with highly imaginative concoctions about the families that lived there and the royalty who visited them. One fanciful story involves Queen Elizabeth I, who is said to have tripped on the stairway and been caught in midair by her host, who was subsequently knighted for his deft act!

I couldn't help thinking, the day after seeing the play, what the woman played by Maggie Smith could do for some of the unimaginative worship services I've sat through or even led. She'd spark a onewoman liturgical renaissance.

Having only recently moved back to an academic setting after several years in the pastorate, I'm quite aware that we ministers are not that free to invent our material out of whole cloth or to introduce it without general consent among our congregations. There is, nevertheless, a great deal we can do to enliven the worship offered up on most Saturdays by our members.

For big changes, such as placing the offering after the sermon (where by both theology and tradition it properly ought to be, if I may say so), it is undoubtedly best to work through a worship committee and perhaps even obtain a mandate of the congregation. I've known pastors who shortened their tenure by acting presumptuously in shaping or reordering the liturgy, even though the congregation appeared to be largely apathetic about it before the "tampering" took place.

But even within the confines of a traditional service, and without adjusting the rubrics at all, we can introduce changes that can revitalize the tone and tenor of the service. To do so doesn't require taking the liberties assumed by the guide in Lettice and Lovage. It merely requires our thoughtful devotion to the details of the liturgy.

Prayers that Evidence Thought

Consider the prayers, which interlace the service, set a mood for the worshipers, and help move everything along from the time the congregation gathers until it is ready to be dispersed again into the world.

It's a temptation to regard prayers as mere conversational interludes during which we can voice whatever we happen to be feeling at the moment. It's not uncommon to stand and offer prayers that, genuine as they are, are filled with rather mindless phrases and impressions spoken in the language of cliche.

I once heard a man comment of his minister's casual attitude toward praying. He said, "My wife even makes a list before she goes to the grocery store. You'd think anyone would have the decency to think through what he wanted to say to God!"

George A. Buttrick, the great New York preacher and chaplain to Harvard University, said on many occasions that if he had time before a service to prepare only the prayers or his sermon, he would choose every time to spend it on the prayers. He knew that accuracy of thought and phrasing, together with a prayerful spirit, brings a sense of reality to worship and helps bind worshipers to the Spirit of God.

Stanley Mooneyham, the former president of World Vision, called me once to say that he and his wife, Nancy, would like to visit our early worship service on a particular Saturday. Delighted to hear that, I asked Stan if he would offer the morning prayer for us. When he consented, I said, "Now, Stan, the early service is rather small. We have it in the chapel, and there won't be many people." I didn't want him to expect too much. But the size of the crowd mattered not at all to Stan.

When he got up to pray, he spoke one of the most beautifully composed prayers I have ever heard. It was in several parts, each part concerned with a separate area of our praying, and one part flowed to another with the grace of a sonnet by Shakespeare or a composition by Mozart.

Afterward, people wanted copies of the prayer because it expressed so well what they wanted to say to God.

I'm convinced that if we considered more carefully what to say in our public prayers, the prayers alone would raise the spiritual temperature of our congregations by fifteen degrees. Whatever is worth saying publicly to God is worth of preparation and cerfuyl meditation.

Affirmations that Reflect Current Faith

Affirmations of faith? Deadly, most people think.

"I believe in God the Father Almighty..." Good theology, but heavy. And dull, when you repeat it meeting after meeting.

But suppose I rewrite the affirmation occasionally, substituting for the traditional language some thoughts for our times. Here's one from my book Lost in Wonder, Love, and Praise: Prayers and Affirmations for Christian Worship. I composed it for a worship service in the springtime:

I believein the beauty of spring that is known in windy skies, blossoming fruit trees, waving jonquils, and sweet-smelling grass.

I believe in the warmth of a friendship that is communicated in gentle eyes, a loving smile, a fond touch of the hand, and an arm laid on the shoulder.

I believe in the power of Christ, whose presence is felt in every season of the year but especially now, when life wells up everywhere and folks feel a quickening in their souls because it is spring and summer is on the way.

I believe Christ is responsible for both spring and friendship, and that the excitement I feel today is related to the fact that he was dead but is alive forevermore, not only in our memories but in the truest kind of actuality.

I worship him by coming here, and say, "Hallelujah! Christ is alive and in this very place!"

Affirmations need to affirm a faith that is current. While the ancient affirmations link us with the sound theology of the past, our new creations can tie that theology to the thought and concerns of the people in our pews. When our people can say, Yes! That's what I believel we have helped enliven their worship.

Scripture Readings that Live

The reading of Scripture takes place in every church on Sabbath morning. It's a cut-and-dried event, too brief to worry much about in the overall planning of the service.

Or so goes the conventional wisdom.

I still haven't forgotten the confession of a layman in a church I attended years ago. "I get along very well in the worship service," he said, "until the preacher gets up to read the Bible. Then something happens to me. It's like a curtain drops in my mind, and I shut off. I guess I'm just a contemporary man, and it's an ancient book, and I have a hard time listening to it."

There may not be a lot of those "contemporary" people out there in my congregation, but I always worry about them. What if they shut off and miss the Word of the Lord? How can we help people to listen to the Scripture reading? One way is by being sure it is read as clearly and winsomely as possible, so that the power of the words breaks through.

A few months ago, the actor Arthur Petersen was presenting his one-man show about Robert Frost, Fire and Ice, in the Commonwealth Theater. Impressed by Petersen's personal piety as well as his dramatic skills, I invited him to read from the Old and New Testaments at a morning worship service. It was a treat beyond anything I had imagined.

Familiar texts leapt to life, danced, turned, twisted, revealed aspects of themselves I had never seen, and then concluded like a graceful ballerina finishing her act and bowing low before the audience. No one breathed. We were torn between worship and applause. We had heard the Word!

As one untrained in drama, I probably shouldn't attempt to give dramatic readings of the Scriptures; that would be posturing, and it would call attention to the wrong things. But I can be better prepared to read than I sometimes am. One trick is to print the texts in orator type so I can see them easily; another is to familiarize myself with those texts so completely that I'm able to communicate them without excessive strain or fumbling.

I worshiped for several years with a church that used lay people to read the lections each Saturday, rotating them so that each person on a team of a dozen readers read only a few times a year. The readers were given simple instructions by a local speech professor and were coached individually when they sought assistance. The variety kept the readings interesting, and, perhaps more important, reminded us Saturday by Saturday that the Bible belongs to the people and is not the exclusive domain of the clergy.

In the desiderata department, I have always wished for a choral reading group in my church that frequently would read he Scriptures on Sabbath morning. I have heard such groups occasionally at conferences and in college or university chapels and found them extraordinarily powerful. By alternating parts between soloists, small groups, and the entire choir, they are able to move almost instantly from a whisper to a shout, from music to cacophony, from thunder to moonlight, and the effect is spine-tingling.

No one yawns when the Scriptures are read with the skill they deserve.

Preaching that Captivates

The sermon is probably more exclusively the business of the preacher than any other part of the liturgy, and, because it normally requires more time than almost anything else, it offers us the greatest opportunity to invest the service with power and vitality. Granted that not many of us are stemwinders, what can we do to improve the contribution of the sermon to the worship as a whole?

I suggest we begin by thinking in terms of renewsal. No, not renewal but renewsal: getting the news back into preaching.

As I visit churches and ministers, I find some preachers tend, because of their great familiarity with the message of Christianity, to assume everybody in their congregations has heard the message. Therefore they bring little evangelistic fervor to their preaching and fall into the rut of what I call "footnote preaching," dealing with secondary concerns such as managing personal loneliness, coping with grief, and leading a moral life in an immoral society.

The latter are important, but they are important only after people have met Christ and decided to make him the center of their lives. If Christ is not exalted regularly in our sermons, they soon become moralistic homilies, not words to raise the dead.

Worse, congregations begin to think of themselves as sophisticated or uptown and actually start to deplore too much emphasis on Christ and the Spirit at work among them. They may even sneer at a new minister who talks too much about Jesus and not enough about the cultural trends or sociological musings they have been accustomed to hearing.

When this happens, churches die from a lack of spiritual oxygen. The only thing to save them is a renewal in preaching. We have to remember Who it is we preach about.

Delivery is also important. Even sermons focusing on Jesus can be dull and routine unless I take care to make them otherwise. My experience of Christ must be continually fresh, and my expression of that experience faithful and effervescent, if my preaching is to be effective.

"Seeing" truth — perceiving it with the right side of the brain — is especially important. And, when we've learned to do this, we'll soon be seeing Christ everywhere—in books, plays, art galleries, newspapers, and all our personal encounters. Most good stewards of the mysteries of life keep a notebook or journal of their sightings, so that they can recollect them months and years afterward and then distill their essence into usable form — in the minister's case, into sermons.

Everywhere I go, I urge preachers to develop the habit of writing thoughts, observations, anecdotes, and experiences in notebooks; and, just as faithfully, I hear later from these preachers, "I'm so glad I began keeping a notebook. Now I never run out of preaching material. My sermons are fresher than they've been in years!"

Some ministers find that even varying the form of the sermon improves their communications skills. They cast their thoughts into dialogue sermons, dramatic monologues, sermonic epistles to particular persons or biblical characters, imaginary newscasts, story sermons, and even musical presentations.

The important thing, I've found, is to see the sermon in its true perspective. It is not a twenty-minute space in the liturgy merely to be filled with my talk. It is an opportunity within the orchestration of the divine service to speak for Christ in the most imaginative, communicative way possible, so that the Holy Spirit finds the situation combustible and can truly ignite the hearts of the congregation.

Music that Motivates

To this point, I've said nothing about music, although it doubtless plays one of the most critical roles in helping the congregation worship with enthusiasm. The reason I've waited is that in most instances it is the part of the service least under our control. Many musical directors or ministers of music have rather independent feelings about the choice and disposition of church music and tend to be somewhat jealous of their prerogatives.

But even in situations in which we have no direct control over the music, we often hold considerable power of negotiation within the framework of relationships and can make suggestions regarding the kind of musical selections that will best serve the purposes we envision.

I've served all kinds of churches, from small, country churches where the pianist couldn't play hymns with more than one flat or sharp, to large, city churches with fabulous organs and paid choir personnel. What I have learned about church music is that the majority of people in any congregation, whether in the country or the city, prefer music that is (1) singable by even the untalented people, (2) simply and memorably worded, (3) in English, and (4) charged with deep and true emotion.

I have two personal beefs about the music in most of the worship services I attend (including my own).

One is that it is too heavily weighted by old hymns and classical anthems, giving the liturgy an air of mustiness and antiquity.

The other is that the contemporary hymns and anthems are often poorly written and scored, so that they amount to what conductor Roger Shaw calls "holy slush."

The solution? Work. We have to dig out the best of contemporary music and retain the classic works of old. We have to plan the musical fare with the care we do our sermons or prayers.

If it is true that more doctrine is learned from hymns than from sermons, and that Christianity sings, not speaks, its way in the world, then we should spare no effort to insure that the music with which we worship God is the finest music of our time.

A Tone that Invites

Finally, there is the matter of the tone of the service — its temper and personality—which is largely in our hands.

Is the service positive in its outlook? Then it is probably because we exude these characteristics. Is it predictable and plodding? Again, it is probably an extension of the worship leader's attitude.

Take a simple item like the announcements. They can be regarded as a necessary evil to be dispatched with as swift a nod as possible. Or, one may evidence no particular attitude toward them and merely muddle through them.

I prefer to look brightly upon announcements as an expression of the theology of Incarnation, and deliver them with a kind of lightness and happiness that reproduces such an atmosphere in the congregation. I suspect my people prefer to receive the announcements in such a way. Even the lowly benediction is significant for the way it continues and climaxes the mood of a good service. The easy way out is to intone a few words that I memorized years ago when I began ministry: "May the Lord bless you and keep you..." It can become mindless for both the benedictor and the benedictees. I like the story of the young minister who spent so much time talking baby talk to the recent addition to his family that he lapsed one worship morning service and said, "Now may gracey, mercy, and peacey..."

But, rather than some vapid verbalization, wouldn't it be richer and more meaningful for the congregation to be dismissed with a blessing that thoughtfully draws to a conclusion of the service they have been offering to God that particular day, something that forms a natural bridge between the themes they actually have dealt with and the life they are going out to live in the world? If the service has centered on the seasons of life, for example, why not a benediction that concludes:

Now may God, who has ordained the seasons of the year and the seasons of life as well, grant you serenity and joy in this season of your soul, and life everlasting in the world to come, through Jesus who died and lives forevermore. Amen.

Or if the service was a Communion service, why not words of parting that say: Now may God, who has fed us at His table with the gift of His own Son, continue to feed us through this week on His Holy Spirit, that we may be led into every pathway intended for us and possess the joy that has been promised us, through Jesus Christ our Lord. Amen

These aren't major changes of the structure of worship; they're minor alterations with major significance. If worshiping God is the greatest joy and privilege we have, and I believe it is, then we'll want to craft every service of worship like a great artist's masterpiece: grand and beautiful in conception, and faithful in the execution of even the smallest details.

John Killinger writes from Alabama.