Monday, September 6, 2010

What makes worship good or bad?

I've been thinking about this a lot lately especially in light of funerals, of which I attend many. For the three or four of you who follow my blog, you know I'm an Episcopal priest. Our tradition has pretty structured liturgy and my liturgical style is pretty broad. I can run the gamut of liturgy from contemporary/informal to smoke slinging/chanting Anglo-Catholic. But even with a structured liturgy, I've seen some pretty sloppy stuff go on.

Personally, I find it gets much worse in more free church, non-denominational traditions. Don't get me wrong, I've seen some very good and moving worship in these traditions. But the likelihood of running the worship into a ditch goes way up when the pastor gets to make up the liturgical road map as he/she goes.

Case in point, I've been to a lot of very Protestant funerals in the free church style (Baptist, non-denominational, Pentecostal). Some have been well crafted ... dare I say ... well structured. Others have gone into the ditch and never returned. I went to one which was officiated by a local Baptist pastor who obviously took the time to prepare the service. He had an order of worship, it was punctuated with appropriate music, his message was clear and on target. Admittedly, there were elements which are alien to my tradition - eulogies of the deceased and an "altar call" of sorts asking those present to make a personal commitment to Jesus Christ as their Savior - but these were expected within the tradition of the family and were appropriate. What was clear is that this pastor had prepared and organized the service well.

I've been to other funerals where the officiant did not prepare or if they did prepare they hid it well! These are usually services where the pastor seems to be enchanted by the sound of his own voice. These services are disjointed, the message sloppy, no music, and prayers that consist of three topic points and a poem. I've heard clergy say they don't want to "stifle the Holy Spirit" so they don't write much down. Personally, I'm beginning to think that not "stifling the Spirit" is a cop out for shoddy preparation.

It reminds me of a line from one of Barbara Brown Taylor's books wherein she said she has experienced preaching where she really wished there was a "pulpit police" to slap the cuffs on the preacher and take him away. Sometimes I wish there was a "liturgical police" to do the same during sloppy worship.

It could be this is because I'm seeing mostly funerals and, let's be honest, most clergy only do funerals periodically. I do funerals a lot ... really. To me, the funeral or memorial service is the last chance the deceased person has to share their faith with others. As the officiant, you are giving voice to a person who can no longer do so in the land of the living. It seems to me this calls for even more careful planning - but sadly that doesn't always happen. I guess my love of liturgy, regardless of tradition variants, makes me cringe when I can see the officiant just threw something together. I guess knowing too much makes this a professional hazard.

So the forum is open ... here on the blog and on my Facebook notes tab. What makes worship work (or not) for you?

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