When I consider the standard evangelical worship service, two things bug me more than anything else. The first is how they begin. The second is how they end.
I have lately been captivated by the High Church processionals that begin the worship of our more liturgical siblings. If you have never been to one, find one tomorrow. Here is what you might experience.
In the stained glass sanctuaries (many of them designed in the shape of a cross) people are milling about, finding places to sit and connecting with friends and neighbors. Then the pipe organ plays one definitive note and everybody knows to find their seats, open their hymnals and quiet their hearts. The organ follows up the first note with the lines from some triumphant hymn. Then all manner of worship leaders (priests, altar boys and girls, scripture readers, incense bearers, servers and the like) parade in while the congregation sings the glorious hymn.
My services begin with a “hi, how y’all doin?” and that just doesn’t cut it.
So, too, last fall I grew quite discontent with how my services ended. What usually happened was I preached, then prayed, then gave a benediction. Some days I forgot the benediction. On those days the congregation stared at me blankly, waiting for something more that was not there. So I feebly said, “oh, uh, go in peace.”
I tried to placate my growing frustration by telling my music team that we would always do a closing song. We sang it between the sermon and the benediction and always tried to choose that song well. It worked well enough but could only slow the growth of my frustration, not dispense with it entirely.
Because the worship service was never supposed to end with the sermon. Historically, the sermon was a means to another end, a piece of a growing crescendo that found its fulfillment in the Eucharist. Thus my sacramental friends would say that the Eucharist should be the congregational response to every sermon and they are right. I would love to end every service at the table of the Lord. However, my congregation is not there yet
So when I moved, I realized I would have to double down on my creativity and come up with other unique, symbol based, movement oriented responses to my sermons.
Even if and when we do get to the point where we eat at the Table every Sunday, I think it is still fitting to have some other symbol based, movement oriented response to the sermon because everything I am reading about performance, entertainment, worship and the arts says that we now require all senses to be engaged. Under this thinking, when we focus so much on the audible, in say a spoken sermon, then we cut out 4/5ths of the worship experience.
With that in mind, my final step in preparing a sermon is to come up with such a response that will allow the congregation to do something to connect with the message.
In a sermon on fear, we sang, “Cast All Your Cares” while the congregation wrote their fears on sticky notes and stuck them to the altars. (Bonus: I had several things to pray for all week long!)
In a sermon on regret I had the congregation write letters giving their younger selves advice.
In a sermon on God shredding the heavens to be present to us, I had my congregation write down things that were inhibiting their worship of God and then shred those things in shredders lining the altars.
In a sermon about being in the world but not of it, I identified four key tensions and had the congregation divide into four groups where they could pray for wisdom to live into that tension.
Last week in a sermon about loved ones who are living in ignorance of the great treasures God has for us, I had the congregation light candles as they prayed for those loved ones.
And of course, once a month we gather around the Lord’s Table. On those Sundays the sermons build towards the table so that the table is the necessary response to the message.
The problem, of course, is that it usually takes a bunch of creativity to just write a sermon, let alone come up with some creative response to follow it. However, I trust that as I work hard at interacting with the text and the congregation than God will reward that work by giving me a response. And so far God has not let me down, though some weeks the response has come flying into my brain on Sunday morning at 9am.
With all that said, it would very remiss of me to not mention that the ultimate response to the spoken word is not just a creative, tactile response or even just the Eucharist. The end of worship is ultimately the sending. When we have gathered to hear the written word and commune with the Living Word, we are sent to be the Body of the Living Word to a world in need of a savior.
So after the response and the song, I always put great emphasis on the sending with the hopes that my congregation will understand that church does not end at noon Sunday but rather the church is sent at noon Sunday to love God and love their neighbors every day of the week.