Imaginative Options for Prelude, Offertory, Postlude
A transcribed address on the purpose, place and importance of a prelude, offertory, and postlude in a worship service
An Introduction and Background, Emily Brink
Yesterday, the focus of the plenary sessions was on our heritage--our liturgical and historical roots. This morning, we turn our attention to a very particular part of that heritage which we experience every Sunday: preludes, offertories, and postludes. They are so common, in that they are ordinary and familiar parts of our services, that they have not attracted much attention in official places. However, lest the common become commonplace and undistinguished and less than meaningful, they merit our attention. Jim Heynen and I would like to explore with you some options for preludes, offertories, and postludes which we hope will be imaginative. We will take turns in presenting a perspective on our background and some principles; some options, both musical and non-musical; and a couple of appeals.
In general terms, the history of preludes and postludes is quite simple. The Christian Reformed Church (CRC) did not appear to change what was for the most part the practice in 19th century Reformed churches. The practice was for organists to play preludes before the service, postludes after, and short preludes, interludes, and postludes as bridges between congregational singing and other liturgical acts. In other words, organ music was not integral to, but accompanied and helped to link elements of, the liturgy.
We inherited our tradition of preludes and postludes from a 17th century Dutch tradition, where church organs were owned by the city council, and organists were hired by them. At the early part of the Reformation in the Netherlands, there was no place for organ music at all in Reformed church services. But since Dutch people enjoyed organ music, and organs were still in the churches from Catholic days, the cities often hired organists to provide concerts before and sometimes after the services.
The history of offertories is a bit more complex. The term "offertory" comes from the Mass, when the bread and wine were lifted, or "elevated," from the altar. That ceremony became the occasion for a great deal of organ, instrumental, and choral composition, often very mystical in flavor. Compositions entitled "Offertory" or "Elevation" from the Catholic tradition, therefore, were not intended to accompany the offering of our gifts of gratitude to God for what he has done, but the offering of bread and wine in sacrifice and atonement for sin.
Calvin included the giving of alms in his Strassbourg liturgy. In the Netherlands, some churches (a few to this day) gather the offering after the service, as the people leave. But most Protestant churches, ours included, usually combine organ music with the offering taken during the service.
To find out whatever action our denomination might have taken with regard to the role and function of this organ-playing tradition, I consulted the INDEX to Synodical decisions (1976 edition). Church music entries are included under "Liturgical Matters." The INDEX lists two--and only two--areas of concern for church music: the psalm and hymn question, and the church choir question. There is not a single entry in the INDEX referring to organ playing.
But I did find some reference to the role of organ music in two liturgical reports to Synod in the 1920's. Evidently, liturgical practice was quite diverse in the churches, and a uniform liturgy was recommended in a 1920 report to Synod. No action was taken then, and not until 1928 was a revised report adopted. The recommended liturgy began with the Votum and Salutation and ended with the Benediction, so prelude and postlude were not discussed; however, the parenthetical "(organ prelude)" on top of the liturgy indicated an assumed introduction to the service proper.
An interesting thing happened to the Offertory between the 1920 and 1928 reports. In the ACTS of 1928 we read as follows (p. 291):
We call attention to the fact that the order we now propose differs in one more particular from the one proposed by us to the Synod of 1920. There we proposed that while the offering is taken no other liturgical actions should take place as e.g. the singing of a Psalm. We advocated this on the ground that a coupling up of elements makes it impossible to participate in them properly and that the worshipper should cultivate a devotional spirit while the offering is being received. And to make the silence less painful we suggested that the organist should meanwhile play.
Experience is responsible for our change of mind and for our present proposal that while the offering is taken, the congregation should sing a Psalm. When the organist plays an offertory the congregation pays far more attention to his or her musical efforts than to the cause to which it is contributing and its solemn obligation of stewardship. Your committee proposes that the organ offertory be abolished. We fear it is stimulating a desire for entertainment in our divine services.
So, the only positive role for the organ offertory was to make "silence less painful." The positive was not to be found in the music, but in the avoidance of silence. (Probably for the same reason, the former tradition of silence during the Lord's Supper has virtually disappeared in the last generation or so.) The statement quoted above was getting at the heart of the age-old problem of liturgical music--the dilemma of music which calls attention to itself rather than pointing beyond itself to its liturgical function. But not finding a solution, they sought to avoid the problem and retreat from organ music during the service. Well, in the aftermath of reaction to more substantive matters, the whole liturgy was dropped in 1930.
The only other major liturgical report in our denominational background is the one of 1968, which is printed in the back of the Psalter Hymnal Supplement. Nothing new for liturgical music is offered. In fact, the only references to organ playing are rather negative: "The best prelude to worship is not the organ concert, but the hearts prayer.... Perhaps the organ could discreetly cease a few moments before the liturgy starts" (p. 94). As for offertories, "There is no single right way for the act of offering.... Let each congregation find its own way here" (p. 112).
As if anticipating the disappointment of those who looked for more positive leadership, reference is made to a future report which will deal with the role of music in liturgy. But that report has not yet appeared, and now we find ourselves at a Conference on Liturgy and Music in Reformed Worship, asking some very basic questions. Let us all hope that this conference will serve to move us forward.
Something on Principles, James Heynen
More than seven years ago, while studying at Calvin Seminary, I was told that seven was the perfect number. I knew it was wrong the moment I heard it. The perfect number is three; it has to be. I never heard a seven-point sermon in all the days since I was weaned from Gerber Baby Food in my hometown of Fremont, Michigan--and in Fremont, they don't take you off that stuff until you're seven....
Emily and I have six speeches in all, and this is the first of my three; each has three points, and each of those points has three subpoints, and before I begin the first one I have three notes.
(1) I have great sympathy for those who must write liturgies week in and week out--and I mean by liturgy not an "Order of Worship" so much as what is done within any given order: the words used, texts cited, songs selected, and so forth. When I must write a liturgy for publication, it typically requires ten or twelve hours to complete. When writing them for our own congregation, four-to-six hours is not at all unusual. I'm sympathetic to the liturgist, to the difficulty of the task and the amount of time required to do it well.
(2) Emily and I were asked to speak on preludes, offertories, and postludes. What I'm actually addressing, though, is liturgy--the whole pattern of communal worship--not merely those three elements. To the extent that I deal with them, I mean them to be parts of the service of worship. I do not believe, for example, that an offertory should fill the function of an intermission in worship. All three elements ought to be, I think, considered as part of the whole service--not a warm-up, interlude, or accompaniment for dismissal.
(3) In general, and warming to the topic, I would say that the prelude, the postlude, and the offertory are typically the sink-holes of liturgy in the Christian Reformed Church, meaningful to the organist and his or her students perhaps, but only rarely to others. From my earliest youth, once I'd mastered the art of ignoring the sermon, I perfected the science of tuning out the sound of any organ invented or played by human hands. I don't believe I've ever had a prelude induct me, draft me against my own sluggish will to worship God. Has it ever startled me out of my routine, or bent me into an attitude of worship? Has it ever done more, say, than the organ played at a baseball game telling me the spectators are assembling and something should be done to amuse them? I don't recall it. Offertories are typically, I think, a way of filling what would otherwise be dead auditory space. And, as a rule, postludes announce it's time to leave, give organists a chance to perform, and cause conversationalists to raise their voices in order to be heard. And if this third note is sour and unkind, I don't mean it to be. It is more of a confession than a celebration, and I meant only to describe what I take to be a fairly typical fact of Christian Reformed liturgical life; I did not mean to be hurtful.
So much for notes. What follows are three points. Someone tempted me to call them "principles" and for a moment I nearly gave in. But these aren't principles. Principles are in the Acts of Synod 1968. These are only my ideas. You may pick them up, turn them over, inspect them, and hand them back if you like. You don't have to buy them, even if you break them.
FIRST, I believe communal worship must be a whole, it must have unity.
I am, by trade, an editor and publisher. I spend hours over paragraphs and chapters, pushing stray ideas back toward their origin, shepherding wandering notions back to their rightful fold. I'm occupationally prejudiced toward wholeness and unity, I suppose; but I can't see how to make liturgy effective without it.
What that means is that the appropriateness of any particular item should be judged in terms of the entire service of which it is a part. Preludes, for example, are not to be compared to other preludes (answering the question, "As preludes go, was it a good prelude?"); rather, they should be compared with other parts of the particular service (responding to the query, "As an element of that service, was it a good prelude?")
And I think a single worship service deserves a single theme. That may be compared to a typical Christian Reformed service, including sermon and songs, which might generously be described as a collagé of worship events--operating, I think, on the theory that something should appeal to someone--and could more aptly be termed "perfect chaos." What can we expect of a service which collects some chunks from the organist, other pieces from the preacher, a contribution from the choir director (who, by the way, hates the organist), two announcements from the deacons, all topped off with a special number of dubious theological quality performed joyously by the Tiny Tots Sunday School Class? That sort of service has all the internal cohesion of a tossed salad, and falls--I think--considerably short of communal worship which has unity, which is a whole.
SECOND, I believe communal worship should reflect our context.
I think liturgy should not artificially remove us from this world, or try to do so. The overwhelming teaching of the New Testament regarding worship is that it is not reserved for transcendent experiences in cloud-shrouded holy places. Rather, worship is here-and-now. It is best when it is deeply "contextualized," particular, local. The liturgy, no less than the sermon, must address the character of the neighborhood, and the people who fill the church: their rumors and worries, their wounds and joys, their silliest hopes and deepest disappointments.
A PRELUDE should be a bridge from our context to our communal worship; a POSTLUDE should be the same bridge, walked in the opposite direction. The bridge must be firmly anchored on the side of holy worship but, to be firm, equally well anchored on the side of our earthly context.
THIRD, I believe communal worship should move us to obedience.
Some people believe the ideal worship service would carry worshippers away to soaring, mystical heights. That would be interesting, but I don't think it would be Christian. I go with Ben Patterson's recent observation in the Wittenburg Door, "In pagan religions you had worshipped if you had the experience of transcendence, of contact with the gods. In Biblical faith you worshipped if you obeyed God" ("The Role of Rock," Wittenburg Door, April-May, 1979, p. 4).
"This is the worship I desire," says God: not sacrifice, but mercy; not unctious repetition of words, but compassion; not ceremony, but obedience. I take it that the purpose especially of the OFFERTORY is to remind us that true worship is compassion. But it is not merely the offertory; all communal worship should move us to obedience, and I mean to stress both being genuinely moved, and being genuinely obedient.
We'll come back to all three of these notions in the final part of this session. Meanwhile, both Emily and I would like to outline what we hope are imaginative options for the prelude, postlude, and offertory. Emily will suggest some that are musical; I will suggest some that are not.
Musical Options, Emily Brink
The options I would like to propose may not sound new at all, because, indeed, many of you have been preparing preludes, offertories, and postludes with a great deal of imagination for a long time. But perhaps it would be helpful to think of three types of options and examine our practice in terms of those areas. Just now I am addressing musicians, but others please bear with me and try these options on for size from your vantage point as pew-sitters.
The three areas for options, listed in order of increasing importance, are
(1) the instrument for prelude, offertory, and postlude;
(2) the literature; and
(3) the relationships between the performers and others in the congregation.
Instrumental music in the form of the organ has been the mainstay of our preludes, offertories, and postludes for all of our church's history. There are several reasons for the strength of that organ tradition. The organ is the most powerful and diverse instrument able to be played by one person. Because of its long association with the church, a great deal of liturgical music has been written for it, more than for any other instrument. Another reason for its dominance is the practical simplicity of involving only one person. The length of time needed to prepare for a given Sunday multiplies in proportion to the number of participants; even then, one person must still be responsible to lead the others.
But there are reasons to change an unvarying diet of organ music, to choose the option of other instrumental or choral music for prelude, offertory, or postlude. It is much more work, though often rewarding in recognizing gifts and offering new and joyous praise. Instrumentalists may be gathered for specific compositions. Choirs and congregations may join together, with or without the organ. The possibilities are rich, depending on the resources of the congregation. One week last year, at Hessel Park CRC (Champaign, IL), our little old Allan organ gave out temporarily and all the music, including for leading congregational singing, was provided by two flutes, oboe, clarinet, and string bass--a combination we happen to have just now in our congregation of about seventy people. The only comment from the congregation was: Let the organ break down again! Other small churches leave the organ behind completely for other reasons, preferring piano or guitar. However, I doubt that the organ will soon lose its position of dominance in our churches.
A more substantive issue is the matter of what instrumental literature is to be played. The distinction here is not between liturgical and non-liturgical music, but between different categories of what has been composed as liturgical music, though from different traditions than our own. The option is this: choosing text-related music or not.
In this regard the report of the Psalter Hymnal Supplement Committee to Synod of 1972 makes a provocative statement. Eight principles are listed as guides in developing the Supplement. One deals with instrumental liturgical music: "Instrumental music and instrumental accompaniments are entirely supportive of the text, intended only to assist the congregation in the corporate response that worship requires" (p. 416). In other words, only music based on a tune with a text that the congregation knows is the ideal for our worship services. If that option were followed exclusively, what a radical change would occur! No more compositions simply entitled "Prelude," "Offertory," or "Postlude." No more Voluntaries, Fugues, Sonatinas. And the congregation must know or have access to the text. Bulletin information is essential.
Could so restrictive an option be an imaginative one? I would like to suggest that it is so radical, based on our practice, that it is a very imaginative option. I have tried limiting myself to that option for a couple of years now. The only music chosen is text-related, primarily chorale preludes on tunes from the Psalter Hymnal which are then indicated in the bulletin. For other compositions the choir sings the chorale, or the bulletin prints the text upon which the composition is based.
The decision to opt only for text-related music was based on two concerns; first, that the music be directly related to the content of a given service; and second, that everyone would be assisted in understanding what that relationship was. What better way than to rely on the body of songs which belong to the entire congregation. Actually, choosing music became a much more meaningful task, aided to the degree information was available in advance about the structure and content of the liturgy.
But I do realize that the decision to opt for text-related music exclusively is determined somewhat by the local situation. At Hessel Park the prelude may last about three minutes, the offertory just one or two, and postludes are not even played. In our small congregation, after an extended choral or organ "Amen," conversations over coffee begin--people seldom leave the sanctuary. One reason for mixing the options a bit would be that instrumentalists could participate with greater flexibility if the literature were not restricted to text-related compositions. The two concerns listed above, however,--of relating music to liturgy and making sure the congregation can draw that relationship--those concerns mount in direct proportion to the amount of music not based on texts. I am convinced that the options must be weighted heavily in favor of text-related literature.
The third area for options has to do with the relationships between musicians and others in the congregation. Those relationships were already mentioned in reference to the basis for choosing text-related music. The options are these: the musician has the choice of working independently or together with both those who plan the liturgy and then the entire congregation. He can choose music independently and keep his choices to himself, or he can work together with the minister and then communicate those choices to the congregation.
Unless the musician works with the minister beforehand, any integration with the rest of the service will be coincidental. And unless he informs the congregation of at least the title and hymn number upon which the composition is based, the question must be asked whether the prelude, offertory, or postlude really belong to the congregation as part of their corporate worship or not. This third option is the real liturgical one, for now the question is: for whom are the prelude, offertory, and postlude performed? Whose are they? If they are the congregation's, then how can musicians make them theirs? Of the four motifs listed for liturgy in the 1968 Liturgical Report, it is the pastoral which now must come to the fore. On that basis the congregation is informed, rather than kept in the dark. On that basis the body of songs that belong to them becomes the foundation for their participation. On that basis instruments other than the organ and choral music may be chosen. And, also on that basis, the diversity which is found from one congregation to another, and even within a congregation, can find expression.
There really is only one option here. The musician must work in close relationship both with those who plan the liturgy and with the entire congregation. Only then can prelude, offertory, and postlude become meaningful parts of a liturgical whole.
Non-musical Options, James Heynen
It's first a matter of definition. If by definition a prelude, an offertory, and a postlude must be musical, then by definition what I'm about to describe can't be a prelude, an offertory, or a postlude. I don't know any liturgical or biblical principle which insists that those elements be musical, though our tradition has imposed the limitation. What I'd like to outline quickly for you, in a sort of pot pourri of options, are some non-musical alternatives. These certainly are not meant to be used weekly, but I'd be grateful for your reflection on the possibility that they might be used at all.
Let's start with preludes. It will help if you think of the prelude as that liturgical element which prepares the congregation for worship, or if you prefer, which calls the congregation to worship. Here, at random, are some non-musical options:
1. A readers' chorus, like a musical chorus, needs careful rehearsal and good material. But it can be a wonderful means for opening worship. In the Christmas season, a readers' chorus telling the story of expectant Elizabeth welcoming Mary, mother-to-be of Jesus, can be very moving. As the opening to a worship focusing on Jesus as God's Word, we once began with a choral reading of alternating verses from Genesis 1 and John 1 with very satisfying results.
2. Gary Ruiter, a friend from our congregation, once described the use of a lone voice to initiate a service he'd never forgotten. The congregation was talking loudly and there was no music. Suddenly, from the back of the room, came a strong voice crying as if in the wilderness, "Prepare the way of the Lord, make his paths straight--" (Mark 1:3; Isaiah 40:3). When he describes that moment, he still does it (some years later) with a sense of excitement.
3. Prayer, can be a potent beginning. One way to focus such prayers is to hand out a variety of slips in bulletins as the congregation enters. The slips contain various specific prayer requests, written with enough detail to let us pray specifically for missionaries supported by the congregation, for healing or comfort, for programs or problems in the church. Individuals are asked to read the bulletin, and then begin silent prayer--continuing in prayer until all the worshippers conclude together with the Lord's Prayer--at which point the service is well under way.
I wanted to demonstrate one option under each element. At first, I thought I would work with the more interesting suggestions such as a readers' chorus. But it may be hard enough just to conceive of non-musical preludes, postludes, and offertories and I shouldn't further complicate it. So let me demonstrate an extremely simple non-musical prelude which I believe could have been used effectively in our congregation last Sunday morning. Our pastor's sermon on that occasion was on the fourth Commandment; he explained the meaning of God's rest and our participation in it. If you would be so kind as to be my congregation for a moment, I'll demonstrate how he might have begun. In our church, by the way, we always say "Good morning."
"Good morning.... Some of us came here this morning, prodded by hurried calls of `We're late again,' and at our parents' insistence. Some of us left dirty diapers on the steps, dirty dishes on the cupboard, and dirty faces that somehow evaded the washcloth. Some of us have already had prayer at home; others of us simply exchanged nasty comments. Some of us came from homes we can't afford, but bought anyway; we're angry at ourselves for that. And some of us came from homes we rent for too much money; we hate our landlords.
"We've come because we wanted to be here, and out of a raw sense of duty, and because we couldn't sleep anyway, and ... for some of us ... because we desperately need to feel wanted, important, loved. Now that we're here, it doesn't matter any more what brought us here or what we left behind. We're here to worship. We're here to enter God's rest, to be put at peace with God and with each other, and even with ourselves. We'll talk about God's rest here this morning; let us pray that we will not only talk about it, but that we will also experience it."
Then, there is the offertory. It'll help if we think of an offertory as that liturgical element which calls the congregation to compassion. If it is merely alms collecting, we might better follow the biblical model and place it either before or after the service. But in the service, I consider it a call to compassion, and here are some non-musical options for that:
1. As format, you can use any of the earlier suggestions--readers' chorus, lone voice, etc. In the past years, I've worked with a very talented artist who's taught me something of the power of visual communication. I've only worked with it once in liturgy, when we projected slides on a screen while the offering was collected. The pictures were all from an organization like CRWRC. The pictures were all of people who were hungry, and outcast, and hopeless. There was neither narration nor music, and I think either would have decreased the impact of that moment. We were, I think, all called to compassion that morning.
2. But you needn't make it difficult. If you'd be my congregation once again, I'll happily demonstrate a straight-forward, unabashed call to compassion which I believe is appropriate as an offertory (by the way, this particular item can also be used to introduce the creed in a worship service):
"Dr. Frank Steen, a pastor in Sioux Center, told me of a young rabbi who served in a rebuilt temple near Heidelberg. When he first came, every weekday about four a workingman would stop on his way home, come into the temple, meditate quietly for a few moments, and then recite the ancient shema (`Hear, O Israel, the Lord your God is one Lord.') Though the man was tall and broad and blonde, obviously German rather than Jew, he recited the shema daily in flawless Hebrew. One day, as the man was leaving, he stopped near the rabbi who was folding a scroll. Quietly, without looking up, he asked, `Can you tell me what I just said?' `You mean, in Hebrew?' asked the stunned rabbi, and then--in response to a nod--`You said theshema, the most precious creed of our people, `Hear O Israel, the Lord your God is one God.' And then, curious, the rabbi asked, `If you didn't know what it meant, how did you ever learn it?' There was a long pause, and then came the soft answer. `I was the one who closed the chamber door at Auschwitz; each time, as I sealed it, the last thing I would hear was all of them saying `Shema Israel....'
"We are not called to weep for what is past, but to show compassion for those who suffer now. The ovens of Auschwitz have become the open seas which swallow up dying boat people. The horrors of Dachau have become the prisons of Argentina, the gutters of Calcutta, and the tenements of Harlem and Watts. `Hear, 0 Israel, the Lord your God is one God,' and He asks that you worship Him by being compassionate."
As for postludes, well ... the options are limitless but our time isn't. A postlude should, I think, be the bridge which takes us from communal worship back into the context where we must minister obediently. As you leave at the close of this session, I'll demonstrate one type of postlude you might consider. For now, all we meant to do was stimulate you to consider the purpose of preludes, offertories, and postludes, and some possibly new ways to fulfill their purpose.
Before we adjourn, both Emily and I would like to make an appeal to you--though the appeals are somewhat different. Emily?
An Appeal, Emily Brink
Perhaps the breadth of the non-musical options might have set the stage for an appeal I wish to make for a broader perspective on musical options as well.
I wish to expose and attack what I believe to be a false dichotomy which is rampant among us and does more harm than following or not following any of the options either one of us has suggested. I speak of an attitude which places music and liturgy and people into one of two basic camps which are unappreciative and mistrustful of each other. All kinds of labels have been attached to make the division stick: high brow/low brow; high church/low church; popular/classical; Zondervan/Reformation. These distinctions doexist. But when one joins in building or supporting a wall of partition and places oneself firmly on one side of a partition, defensively maintaining his turf, guarding against contamination from the other camp, then one is operating with a dichotomy that is not only false, but masks the more fundamental distinctions we ought to be making.
First, a very minor example. One musician plays "chorale partitas," which sounds impressive. Another musician, traditionally on the other side of the wall, plays hymn variations. Sounds rather plain. What is the difference? Just a translation of a couple of foreign words, that's all. There is no real distinction there, unless one means to perpetuate a label rather than a title.
Another example accentuates the division a bit more: "If it's baroque, it will make good church music," versus "If it's Singspiration, the people will love it." Or an example could include the following senario. One church prints the entire liturgy and follows a service without announcement. The organist faithfully prints the title of a chorale prelude, in German--no matter that the congregation has no idea what the words mean or what relationship the music has to a given text. Another church does not bother to print the liturgy except in bare outline on the back of the bulletin. No one knows what the organist is playing here either, unless the music is based on a very familiar hymn tune. In these examples, the issue is not "high church" or "low church." The problem lies with both sides, but not on the level of "high brow" or "low brow."
One final example. Two musicians go to the music store to buy music. One musician will automatically dismiss, without a hearing (in the sense of a trial) whatever a given composer has written, because he or she is beyond that wall of partition, in the other camp. The other musician will do the same, with reversed but otherwise same results. But is the "right" composer, or style, or publisher--is that the level where the important issues are? Is that the basis on which to build walls?
I have been guilty of maintaining that wall. I give organ lessons to a woman in her mid-forties or so, who just started taking organ lessons about four years ago and now plays about once a month in her Plymouth Brethren church. She has had no background in music history or styles, but she wanted to start a library, so she ordered about twenty-five different organ music collections. What a hodgepodge! Partitas and gospel tunes and fugues and medleys all grandly stacked in one big pile. She brought them all to me and asked me to look them over and recommend pieces for her to learn. Well, there were several collections I had never considered before; they were by the "wrong" publishers and the "wrong" composers. But I tried to take a proper academic attitude: it would be good sight reading practice for me and, besides, I should know what "other" organists are doing to be informed first-hand. But to my amazement, some of them were pretty good, rather interesting, and I was put in my place.
Musicians with academic backgrounds are often very narrow, stuck in the past, and even proud of their narrowness. But the same narrow attitude can be true of more popularly trained musicians: "I'm getting along just fine, thank you, without all those high-fallutin' discussions of liturgy. Let `them' think about such things if it makes `them' happy."
I heard that one person (perhaps more) did not come to this conference because he thought it was going to be "high brow." I hope not. Perhaps some of us here long for confirmation of our own set attitudes toward others. I hope not. If any of you, like me, find symptoms of a camp mentality, and rather enjoy those divisions in our weaker moments, please look over that camp wall, over the fence. Even remove a picket now and then. The grass is greener than you think, especially in the middle where healthy cross-fertilization of ideas and styles and traditions takes place. Stay away from the parched edges of either extreme of the field, however you may have labeled it. Let us get rid of that herd instinct which allows us to feel safe if we are in a group that makes decisions for us. Let us respect the judgments of those who study, not just because they say so, but because we use our own heads and come to decisions on the basis of our own thinking and studying. Let there be no apology for honestly-held differences of opinion with regard to styles and different musical traditions. That is not campism, unless one becomes judgmental without even having examined that tradition.
What we need is a healthy pluralism so that we can lay to rest that false dichotomy and focus on the real issues of how an increasingly diverse church in an increasingly diverse culture can reach across historical and ethnic and educational lines to worship together in obedience to our Lord as Reformed Christians.
An Appeal and Closing, James Heynen
Mine is a simple appeal for liturgical evaluation. There are plenty of standards being discussed, and questions enough which can be found in the 1968 Report to Synod. I would like to offer three simple questions and they are, by now, utterly predictable:
Of any given service, I should like to ask: "Is it a whole; does it have unity sustained from beginning to end?" Preferably that question would be posed before the service, rather than when it is too late to make changes.
The most typical fallacy in our tradition has been, I think, to see the communal worship as consisting entirely in the sermon. The sermon's an important element. All I'm asking for is a clear indication on a weekly basis that it is not the only important element in the service. Most of my clerical friends are willing to invest hours, yea even days, in a single stubborn sermon; but they too quickly assume that the liturgy is complete if they have notes for use during the congregational prayer. They wouldn't dream of opening their sermons week after week with the same paragraph, but they think nothing of opening literally scores of consecutive services with precisely the same formularies. And when the formularies become so familiar they are no longer noticed, my friends tend to think it is the congregation which is slipping. With all due respect, I'm not convinced of that.
I can tell you that one good chapter can not redeem a bad book. An interesting finalé will not rescue a sinking musicalé. And even the most robust sermon can not undo four unsingable songs, prayers that were droned but not offered, and a liturgy consisting of ancient and venerable words spoken with studied monotony. If the only thing which keeps a worship service from becoming pure ritual is the sermon, we've lost entirely the meaning of worship in its biblical sense.
The second question I should like to ask is, "Does the communal worship reflect the context in which the congregation lives and ministers?"
The liturgist should be forced to ask, each week, "From what do they come to communal worship this week?" Three Mile Island? A Prime Minister's narrow election? A tragic fire in the community? That's when we begin to shape the prelude or call to worship. And the liturgist should be compelled to ask, "How should we be called to compassion this week?" Then we mold an offertory. And when we bump hard against the question, "To what will we go when communal worship has ended?"--then we will effectively begin working on postludes which carry the worship into the context.
I think the matter of context is particularly important to us in the Christian Reformed tradition. Until roughly 45 years ago, we were a homogenous lot: white, Dutch, middle class, Yankees. Some of us may not have noticed, but we've changed. The homogeneity which once marked our worshippers, and therefore our worship, has disappeared. Some people believe that the sameness of our worship from one place to another proved our faithfulness, our obedience. In that perspective, differences in worship within our denomination would indicate unfaithfulness. I disagree.
The context for worship in one church where I ministered is the remote, dying, rural community where children visit but will not stay; where farms once kept in families now belong to unseen corporations; where Sunday mornings are times for noting the congregation is getting older and inexorably smaller. But in another place, the church is met between hot-tar streets; drivers pick their way with practiced skill through parking lots strewn with broken brown glass; the quiet of the silent prayer is shattered by obscenities from the basketball court across the street, and someone in the next-door apartment is crying from a beating she just received. If those are the contexts of the church, it's because the Lord of the church wants His family there. And I dearly believe the liturgies of communal worship must reflect the context in which He has placed us. I do not think that sameness between the liturgies of those two places is a mark of obedience; on the contrary, I think it says more of our tradition than of our faithfulness.
Third, I should like to ask: "Does the communal worship move us toward obedience?" Earlier, I spoke mainly about obedience. Let me say something now about being moved.
We've been schooled in the art of remaining unmoved. As a child, I can remember laughing in church only once in 18 years. It was when the Sunday School Superintendent sneezed during the evening song service and blew his false teeth all the way to the organ. And in that same period, only once did I cry in church. It was at my father's funeral, when Chuck Witteveen--who's at this conference--sang "By the Sea of Crystal," and my father's funeral shouldn't count.
Do you know what Joseph Russell, a wonderful liturgist, recently wrote? Let me quote it to you: "Good liturgy is drama. We are drawn into the story of God's saving action in the world in much the same way that we are drawn into the story of a drama offered in the theater. We are there with the actors. We experience the power of their lives. If the play is a powerful one, we leave the theater with a full range of emotions and commonly shared experiences. We may find ourselves feeling very much at one with the stranger sitting beside us because we both know that we have been deeply touched and moved. The drama of liturgy can be far more powerful, for it directly touches the total experience of a person. We are the actors in this drama ... we are personally called (in) by God...." ("The Bible and Religious Education," Homegrown Christian Education, p. 10).
Why, then, do we nearly always feel that the drama of liturgy in our tradition is consistently, even religiously,less powerful than the drama of a bawdy playhouse? Why are we so seldom moved, except by instruction to sit or stand? Why so seldom made to laugh, or weep, or break into unsolicited psalm? Is it, as some claim, because we are such a sedentary, unmovable people? I don't believe that; do you? I believe it has more to do with the pattern we've set in which liturgies are intended to be retiring and shy, incapable of disturbing us, shaking us, moving us--even toward obedience.
We must recover from our paralyzing fear of being moved. In true worship, it is the Holy Spirit who moves us, and we dare not resist. To think of the boat people and pray without being moved--that is not worship. When we go to prayer for a starving child, and feel our stomachs pinch, then we are moved to compassion--then we have worshipped. If communal worship does not move us toward obedience, then we must listen once more to God's hard word:
I hate, I despise your feasts,
and I take no delight in your solemn assemblies.
Even though you offer me your burnt offerings...
I will not accept them....
Take away from me the noise of your songs;
to the melody of your harps I will not listen.
But let justice roll down like waters,
and righteousness like an everflowing stream.
I desire mercy, and not sacrifice. (Hosea 6:6) (Requoted in Matthew 9:13; 12:7)
You are invited to leave the auditorium now. As you go, I'd like to offer a postlude designed to follow a communion service, or to be used during the Lenten season--or perhaps a homily on obedience....
Would you leave quietly now, listening to the words of St. Mark?
And when it was evening he came with the twelve. And as they were at table eating, Jesus said, "Truly, I say to you, one of you will betray me, one who is eating with me." They began to be sorrowful, and to say to him one after another, "Is it I?" He said to them, "It is one of the twelve, one who is dipping bread into the dish with me. For the Son of man goes as it is written of him, but woe to that man by whom the Son of man is betrayed! It would have been better for that man if he had not been born."
And as they were eating, he took bread, and blessed, and broke it, and gave it to them, and said, "Take; this is my body." And he took a cup, and when he had given thanks he gave it to them, and they all drank of it. And he said to them, "This is my blood of the covenant, which is poured out for many. Truly, I say to you, I shall not drink again of the fruit of the vine until that day when I drink it new in the kingdom of God."
And when they had sung a hymn, they went out to the Mount of Olives. And Jesus said to them, "You will all fall away; for it is written, `I shall strike the shepherd, and the sheep will be scattered.' But after I am raised up, I will go before you to Galilee." Peter said to him, "Even though they all fall away, I will not." And Jesus said to him, "Truly, I say to you, this very night, before the cock crows twice, you will deny me three times." But he said vehemently, "If I must die with you, I will not deny you." And they all said the same.
And they went to a place which was called Gethsemane; and he said to his disciples, "Sit here while I pray." And he took with him Peter and James and John, and began to be greatly distressed and troubled. And he said to them, "My soul is very sorrowful even to death; remain here, and watch." And going a little farther, he fell on the ground and prayed that, if it were possible, the hour might pass from him. And he said, "Abba, Father, all things are possible to thee; remove this cup from me; yet not what I will, but what thou wilt." And he came and found them sleeping, and he said to Peter, "Simon, are you asleep? Could you not watch one hour?"
If you don't see a place above to enter or view comments, it may be due to your browser's security or privacy settings. Please try adjusting your settings or using a different browser.