Tuesday, July 27, 2010

It's like your very own pez dispenser for the Eucharist.

As I was flipping through the latest Cokesbury catalog, I came across the newest example of our troubling obsession with being sanitized at every moment of our lives. Behold! The Communion Wafer Dispenser!

This communion appointment enables one to “dispense” the sacrament with minimal human contact, and it can in fact reduce the number of persons involved in serving communion by as much as 50 percent (which seems like more of a minus than a plus). Also on the page I found a “Shallow Bowl” Intinction set specially designed to “prevent fingers from touching the juice or wine.”

Our obsession with cleanliness and our fear of one another’s “germed” bodies radically clashes at the Lord’s Table with the reality that it is in this meal that we are made one Body, one Family, that is sharing, through the power of the Holy Spirit, in the body and blood of the Lord. It is the place where we are the closest, where we commune together, yet for many people the Table is a place of fear because of the distrust we have with one another’s bodies.

As soon as I saw this the Communion Dispenser, I immediately posted it on Facebook because I was so incredulous that the object existed. This of course led to the requisite jokes, the best of which probably was that it was only an updated version of the Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles Pizza Thrower from back in the day. That, and when one of my friends removed the descriptive terms of the object, it pretty clearly resembles an advertisement for a gun: “The revolutionary Rapid Re-Load™ system dispenses up to […] without having to be re-filled, while being fast and easy when you need to re-load.”

All jokes aside, shouldn’t we be alarmed when one of the driving forces behind the designs for our communion appointments is sanitization? Shouldn’t we be alarmed when our we are so terrified of one another’s bodies, that we have to begin devising ways to alter our practices of receiving the Lord’s Supper to appease those fears?

It is true that there can be a real danger for those with compromised immune systems, particularly with regard to H1N1. Those are things about which we should be genuinely concerned. Yet, does that really necessitate the requisite loud squirt of hand sanitizer before we touch the Eucharist?

In reality, because this is a fear we are dealing with, none of the rational answers will likely suffice in the end. Rather, perhaps our work must be helping one another to overcome the fear of our bodies and the bodies of others.

We, as members of the Body of Christ, find ourselves part of a body that was beaten and broken, whose blood makes us clean. Yet, we find ourselves afraid even of receiving that body and blood. The scent of incense is now replaced by Purrell.

In a world of Communion Wafer Dispensers, what are we to do with visions like that of Julian of Norwich:

“And then it came to me that God has provided us on earth with abundant water for our use and bodily refreshment, because of the tender love he has for us, yet it pleases him better that we should simply take his holy blood to wash away our sins; for there is no liquid created which he likes to give so much; it is as plentiful as it is precious by virtue of his Holy Godhead. And it shares our nature and pours over and transports us by virtue of his precious love. The beloved blood of our Lord Jesus Christ is as truly precious as it is truly plentiful” (Julian of Norwich, Revelvations of Divine Love, Long Text, para. 12).

Yes, good hand hygiene is important, especially during cold and flu season, but it cannot be the driving force of our practices of Holy Communion. Rather, our practice of Holy Communion must help us to learn how we are to live together with one another’s bodies, even when those bodies are not well. To illustrate this, I will share a story that Dr. Amy Laura Hall shared with a class I was in at Duke:

There was a church that had a member who had contracted HIV. This created a lot of questions for the church about how they would take communion because they shared a common cup. The church decided that before they would make any decisions, they would pray and fast together for a given amount of time. When they came back together, they realized that the most faithful act would be to all the person with HIV to receive Communion first because that person was the one who was in the most danger.

This church didn’t get a communion dispenser and move to use the individual cups. Rather, they discovered a faithful way to be the one Body of Christ, to share the same cup, without compromising who they were.

I don't mean this as a rant, nor to I mean it as a way to suggest that what I have written will answer the concerns folks often raise. Rather, it can be a beginning place for a conversation. I will still have folks in my congergation insisting that we figure out a “better” or “cleaner” way to share communion when cold and flu season comes around. That pressure will always be there as long as there are those Lysol commercials that show how many germs are all over everything.

However, perhaps if we begin to reflect as Christians together about the relationship between sharing the body and blood of Jesus and our obsession with being clean, maybe we will see what Julian saw, that it is in Christ’s plentiful blood that we are made truly clean, and we are most healthy when we are one Body.

Friday, July 23, 2010

Noise and Discipleship, Part 3: Sounds of Silence in Worship




Wonder? or Wandering?

Destination? or Segué.

Home? or Strange land?

Essential? Or best avoided?

Something in all of us knows it is essential, even if we may not be quite sure what to do with it. 

Or how to make room for it in worship.

The Sounds of Silence
Absolute silence is something none of us experiences while alive. The universe is alive with vibrations, down to the smallest of subatomic particles, and our bodies are receptors for these vibrations. Even if our "hearing" is impaired or damaged, we may still sense and make sense of the vibrations as if we were hearing, sight or touch or other vibrational "senses" not yet named interpreting those vibrations to us by other means.

When moments of silence come in worship, whether planned or spontaneous, there are always other sounds and vibrations as well. Chairs or pews creak. Pipes may bang in the winter. Air ducts may whoosh. Traffic may rumble. Sirens may cry in a distance, or babies or small children in our midst. If we are outside for worship, the sounds of birds, insects, wind through trees or fields and other animals we may have blocked out may become more prominent. Clothing may rustle a bit. Coughs and sneezes may occur, or throats may be cleared. We may become more aware of the sounds of breathing-- our own and our neighbors. We may even hear our own heartbeats. And many of us may experience some sort of background sound, whether ringing or something like a mild electric hum in our ears. Indeed there comes a point as we quiet ourselves that all these other sounds we simply had not noticed may seem almost overwhelming!

So when we reflect on silence in worship, it is not absolute silence of which we speak, but always that quieting, that stilling of mind and body, accompanied by a reduction if not a cessation in sound and other sensory stimulation.

Sabbath as Silence
And on the seventh day God was putting the final touches on the labor God performed, 
 and was resting on the seventh day from all the labor which [God] performed.

And God was blessing the seventh day and making it holy,
 because in it God was resting from all the work which God had performed. 

(Genesis 2:2-3, translation mine).

I am reading and translating these lines in Genesis 2 as poetry rather than prose. The meter and internal rhymes and even near-puns in the Hebrew suggest this, though they do not require it. 

Lined out this way, though, the parallelism of verse 2 strongly suggests, as least, that God's completion or finishing touch was not additional work, but actually the resting or the ceasing itself.

As Genesis 1 describes the work of God in creating, it was primarily a work of speaking. God spoke, and it was. Light, darkness, day, night, sun, moon, stars, and on earth, waters above and below, land and seas, and all that lives and moves upon them, including us. God spoke and so they were made. Occasionally God would also separate things (the waters above and below the firmament in verse 7)  put things in particular places (such as the lights in verse 17), but primarily God spoke, things popped into existence, and then God called them good and maybe blessed them. So while some of the work of God pictured here may have occasionally also been the work of "God's hands," it was mostly and primarily a matter of God's voice-- the Sound, the Speech of the Almighty.

And so when, as the light turned to dusk after the sixth day, God began to rest from the labor God had performed, the primary form that resting took must have been the ceasing of such sound and speech, a holy silence.

Such holy silence completes and ever renews creation.

Our invitation to enter into Sabbath, then, is an invitation to enter holy silence. To cease not only from our normal work, but from our normal sounds. To rest with holy joy as God's silence makes all things whole. 

Worship: Words upon Chaos, Words from Holy Silence

Why then do neither the people of the Torah nor the people of the Risen One gather and remain in silence when we worship? 

Perhaps because getting to The Silence, getting to The Mystery, is indeed our common goal in worship, but it takes us all time to get there as a people, even as it take time for each of us to still our own minds and bodies individually. We have to remember who we are again-- an act the Entrance can help us do. We have to praise God rightly and hear the Word read and proclaimed to put us into our right minds, to retune our bodies and souls to the Holy. All this takes sound, noise-- words upon the chaos of our lives, a labor-- a work of the people-- that recapitulates God's labor in creation. 

And time, too, for small silences along the way-- not as segués to something else, but as opportunities, after speaking or singing or praying or hearing the word to let the creative labor at least begin to finish its work in us. 

All of that, and all of the Great Thanksgiving, concluding with the Great Amen (which we may sing three times to make the point!), all of that may be what it takes to take in what, in the great arc of at least the Western Christian tradition, has been perhaps the profoundest silence of all: the silence after the breaking of the bread. 

Whether the sound before it is the snap of a wafer, or the tearing of the fibers of a loaf, it takes the breath away. In time, perhaps only a second. In our hearts, eternity. A full silence. A fulfilled silence. Death, life; universe, nothingness; end, beginning; light, darkness; violence, Love. 

As from Sabbath to Sabbath God's creation proceeds, rests and proceeds, so from that Silence to that Silence, our life in the new creation springs. 

Silence in Worship Where You Are

So how does silence happen or not happen in worship where you are?

Are there times for quiet and stillness? 

Does it spring from wonder, or lead there? Or does it seem instead to invite minds to wander?

Is it the place you're trying to go-- the journey's end that renews the journey to come?

Or is it a happenstance pause because the next action needs more time to get started?

Is silence becoming a home for the people with whom you worship? 

Or does it remain a strange and maybe forbidding land?

If we all know we need silence from time to time, do worshipers where you are get the message that it's really best avoided?

How do you help worshipers hear and join the "words upon the chaos?" How is their speech transformed into true words in worship and beyond from the depths of holy silence?

Share your thoughts, your questions, and your struggles in the comments below-- words upon your own chaos. 

Perhaps in the sharing, you may find yourself and others more closely drawn to the Silence that made and renews all things.

Peace in Christ,

Taylor Burton-Edwards

Image Credit: Adam Ayari. Released for free use and reproduction. 

Thursday, July 15, 2010

Getting Practical

As a pastor in a local church, it often appears to me that folks have an aversion to talking theologically because there is a sense that it is “up in the clouds,” that it is just not “practical.” Along with this, I also sense a reluctance to reflect on worship services beyond the most basic discussion of aesthetic preferences.

This often creates problems and misunderstandings because without theological reflection, as well as a healthy sense of the church’s tradition and the basic pattern of worship, adjudicating what is and is not appropriate in a worship service becomes nearly impossible.

It is almost as if we are “here” and God is “there,” and you have to do this thing called worship to get to God, yet the actual means of that process is left to personal preferences of those involved in the leadership of those services, rather than being traditioned and normed by the life and experience of the church across time and space.

In considering this situation, I am drawn to a quote from the preface of Geoffrey Wainwright’s systematic theology, Doxology: “My conviction is that the relations between doctrine and worship are deeper rooted and further reaching than many theologians and liturgists have appeared to recognize in their writings” (Wainwright, Doxology, ix). His systematic theology is guided by doxology, our praise to God, as the string that runs throughout Christianity shaping theology and the transmission of the faith. Worship is the place in which all of our beliefs and practices are formed before we go out into the world, and it is to worship that we return for nourishment and formation.

Wainwright’s conviction does not apply only to those who are professionally involved in theology or liturgy because we are all theologians and liturgists by virtue of the common baptism into the body of Jesus Christ we share. However, we often become like those professional folks Wainwright speaks about when we fail to consider the relationship between theology and liturgy. The worship practices we undertake say something about what we believe, and what we believe informs our worship practices.

Theology and liturgy, because they are related, are constantly informing and norming one another. In failing to reflect theologically on our worship practices, we are neglecting what is arguably the most practical thing in which we participate as Christians: the worship of the Triune God. Further, if Wainwright’s conviction holds true, then not reflecting on our worship practices theologically not only means that we may allow inappropriate elements into worship, but more dangerously, we may be injure one another because what we do in worship may teach our minds and bodies practices that are contrary to Scripture and Church teachings.

With that in mind, I hope that my posts on this blog will concern themselves with reflecting on the relationship between theology and liturgy. Such reflection is of critical importance to us as Christians because learning to “see” as a Christian, speaking the language, doing the actions that followers of Christ do, is conditioned, strengthened, and nourished by practices we undertake in the liturgy. It is thus important that we be clear about the theological underpinnings for our liturgies. They must teach practices consistent with the story of God’s decisive action in history in Jesus Christ that we find in Scripture.

Folks unfamiliar with the church are less likely to respond to a sales pitch, to the right information. There is plenty information on the internet if that if that is all they want. Rather, it is my own conviction that what is crucial is that we get caught up into the story of God’s acts in history, in the practices that will then shape our experiences, leading us to return to God with praise and thanksgiving. I look forward to reflecting with you further on these subjects!


Alan Combs

Wednesday, July 14, 2010

Noise and Discipleship, Part 2: Mid-Level and Conversational Sound in Worship


We begin again with the quote from Garret Keizer:

"[Sound amplification destroys intimacy] by drowning out conversation, or else it counterfeits intimacy by making physical proximity irrelevant to social intercourse. This is glaringly at odds with the classic, nearly universal religious tradition of a teacher imparting wisdom to pupils who sit, literally, at his or her feet. Yeshivas can be noisy places, but I have not encountered any anecdotes of rabbis teaching Talmud with megaphones. A religion of microphones and loudspeakers is a religion of leaders and followers, which is not the same thing as a religion of teachers and disciples. The goal of the latter is to raise the disciple to the level of the teacher; the goal of the former is to keep the followers ‘informed,’ and in formation." -- Garret Keizer, The Unwanted Sound of Everything We Want: A Book about Noise as quoted here

Keizer's major concern appears to be that if sound gets too loud, face to face intimacy is destroyed, and without such intimacy, true religion that transforms people to become like their teachers cannot exist. What will happen in its place is counterfeit community as a shill for uniformity and possibly violent action under despotism.

What we saw in the last post was that such a concern about "Thunderhead Sound," however produced (with or without megaphones!) may be somewhat misplaced. There is a role for it at times, especially if the space is large and the people are numerous. "Thunderhead Sound" can call a genuine community together for good action, warn them decisively against bad action, call particular attention to what is most important at a particular time, and send people forth united in purpose to live as bold and faithful servants of God to their neighbors.

But what about midrange sound-- sound that is neither very loud nor so quiet as to be nearly silent? How does that play out is the historic patterns of Christian worship? And how does it play out in worship where you are?

Let me first make a general observation about worship I have observed over the years in many places and cultures in The United Methodist Church. By and large, with a few notable exceptions (discussed later), worship in our churches and in the church historically only rarely hits an actual conversational volume, tone or cadence. The sound level at worship generally isn't like that of talking with your neighbor. It's almost always pitched at least a level or two louder than that. 

When we lead a call to worship, the sound may not be Thunderhead, but it is acclamatory. Something is being announced to everyone and everyone responds. A similar level of voice is (or probably should be!) used for the reading of the scriptures. If one tries to read them at a conversational tone or volume in a large enough space with enough people, even with amplification, it will be nearly impossible for the congregation to make out what is being read. The same can be said for leading prayer, including the prayers at Holy Communion and Baptism. All of these call for a kind of raised level of voice, perhaps not booming, but not really conversational, either.

And despite what some may say to the contrary, even much contemporary preaching, even if it has taken on a more conversational or informal kind of vocabulary, is still performed at a higher volume than one would expect to find in any actual conversation. And the same can be said for interactive preaching-- both the preacher and those who respond individually still tend to speak more loudly than if they were talking with one or a few people around a table or in the parking lot. (But of course, parking lot conversations can sometimes get loud, too!).

Bring in a decibel meter sometime and measure it. I'm pretty sure you'll find that, again in most (if not all) instances, worship is not conversational in volume

But there are two places, historically, where it may be: the peace and the giving of the body and blood of Christ at communion.

At the peace, we say to those with whom we seek reconciliation, and to others around us, "The peace of Christ be always with you," or, more simply, "The Peace of Christ" or even "Peace." We reach hands to shake, or arms to hug. This is person to person intimacy in the body. Perhaps this is one of the most significant ways in which we embody the teaching of Christ as his disciples. So maybe this is why, across many cultures and centuries, the peace has persisted as conversational. 

And as we receive the body and the blood, someone says to us, again most often in a conversational tone and volume of voice, or maybe just a bit quieter, "The body of Christ, given for you", "The blood of Christ, poured out for you." And we reply, matching tone and volume, "Amen" or "Thanks be to God." As before we shared Christ's peace with one another, speaking conversationally, here we recognize that Christ shares himself with us, speaking conversationally. 

These are about the only times we actually speak conversationally in worship. 

Perhaps that is because these two moments are the conversations in worship that matter most!

For Further Discussion

How does the mid-range of sound play out in worship where you are? 

What is conversational, and what is pitched just above the conversational level? 

And what do these perhaps small, but significant, variances of the mid-range of sound in worship mean and enact where you are?

Peace in Christ,

Taylor Burton-Edwards

Image Credit: The Lord's Prayer by James Tissot, late 19th century. Public Domain.


Updated! Call to Action Congregational Vitality Presentation on Worship: A Study Guide


On Monday, July 12, United Methodist Communications posted the two major research reports given to the Call to Action Committee created by the Council of Bishops and the Connectional Table. The work of this committee has been to understand our current situation as a Church, to discern better ways of aligning our assets (institutional and leadership) toward achieving the mission of the church, and to make significant recommendations toward that end to the Council and the Connectional Table at their fall meetings in 2010 (late October/early November). The Committee hired two research firms to take on two different aspects of their work. One focused on congregational vitality. The other focused on connectional structures and ministry. You can see all the reports released to the public here.

The first of these reports, the Congregational Vitality Presentation (a PowerPoint presentation converted to .pdf)  most directly relates to worship in our Church. 

On Thursday, August 26, 2010, United Methodist News Service reported that the Call to Action Committee met on August 23-25 to consider these reports. It also reported that some of the committee's  members commended the findings of the Congregational Vitality Presentation for immediate implementation by conferences and congregations.  This includes a set of findings about worship in our congregations.

What the Congregational Vitality Presentation Does
Now, open the document (and print it if you like), and take a look at Slide 3.

Here, the research firm (Towers Watson) gives an overview of the work they did. Subsequent slides give more details. But the underlying premise of their work is described here.

Towers Watson began with the six indicators given them by the Call to Action Committee (you can see my commentary on these indicators on the emergingumc blog). They then used data from GCFA to rank every US congregation for which data were available on all six indicators over a five year period of time (to account for any trends). 

When they compiled all of this data, they found four large areas that seemed to be predictive of "high vital" outcomes on their scale.  These were small groups, lay leadership, worship, and factors relating to the pastor. 

They then did some follow-up surveys in each of these fours areas to discover what practices or indicators  related to each of these four areas seemed most correlated with high vital congregations. 

The final report presents these four areas and the specific indicators/practices in each Towers Watson concluded were most correlated with (if not causative of) high vitality.

What the Congregational Vitality Presentation Does NOT Do

Now one implication that some may draw from this study may be that if there is a statistically higher incidence of particular practices in high vital congregations than in low vital congregations, these may be strong clues, if not roadmaps, to what low vital congregations could do to become high vital over time.

However, the nature of the study and the data themselves do not warrant that implication. 

That is because what was tested in this study was the prevalence of practices or indicators relative to vitality based on the six criteria, not causation.

This means that most that can be claimed is a correlation between "high vital" congregations and particular practices they happen to be engaging when the study was done. In other words, this study provides a good snapshot of what is, or what was during the period studied, but it does not explain the meaning of what is and cannot predict what might be

The work of making meaning and taking faithful next steps is up to you in your particular context.

And that's why I'm offering this study guide-- to help you understand what the findings here might mean where you are, and then to have the conversations with each other, with leaders in your congregation, with other colleagues, and always with God, that may help you take the most fruitful next steps where you are.

What does the Presentation Say about Worship?

The Congregational Vitality Presentation identifies five practices that occur more frequently in high vital churches than in low vital churches (Slides 38-43). It also identifies five practices that seem not to be associated with statistically significant differences in vitality (Slide 44).

Five Higher Frequency Practices in High Vital Congregations

1. "High Vital Churches tend to provide a mix of both contemporary and traditional services." (Slide 38)

While there is a general claim that findings such as this would be true across all sizes of churches (Slide 2), Slide 39, shows that is not the case for this claim. There is a significantly higher incidence of both kinds of services in large churches (350 and over in average attendance), but there is no real difference in mid-size churches (100-349), and the difference goes the other way for small and very small churches (99 and under). That is, for these smaller churches, it's actually more likely that two distinct services (one traditional, one contemporary) is associated with low vitality than with high vitality.

What conclusions do you draw from this?

Digging a little deeper, what do you notice about the number of congregations by size in each sample set in Slide 39? How do these numbers compare with the overall sample of United Methodist congregations by size? (Source, GCFA 2006 as appearing in the 2004-2007 GBOD/UMPH Music and Worship Study)

What additional conclusions do you draw?

2. Preaching in traditional worship services in high vital churches tends to be more topical and less based on the lectionary than in low vital churches. (Slide 40)

In high vital congregations, 63% report they use the lectionary and/or some blend of lectionary and topical preaching in their traditional worship service. 37% report using topical preaching only.

In low vital congregations, 78% report using the lectionary and/or some blend of lectionary and topical preaching in their traditional worship service. 22% report using topical preaching only.

What does this finding mean?
Is there something inherent in using the lectionary or using a series that inhibits or supports vitality? 

Or might there be other factors that lead to this finding? If so, what might those other factors be?

It's a reasonable question, especially given that the same question applied to contemporary worship services showed no differences in vitality (See Slide 44).

For more on the question of lectionary versus series preaching, see the two-part article on this blog, "Lectionary Planning/Preaching or Series Planning/Preaching" (Part I, Part 2). 

3. Pastors who are rated as effective for inspiring the congregation through their preaching are more likely to have high vital congregations.   (Slide 41)

The Slide indicates that 81% of congregations with high vitality consider their pastor effective and say their pastor's preaching is "inspiring," while the same is true for 65% of "low vital" congregations.

What are the implications of this finding for our appointive process? What are its implications for our pastors and congregations? 

4. High vital churches are more likely to use contemporary music in their contemporary service (Slide 42).

In "low vital" congregations, the bulk of the music used (57%) is actually not contemporary, but rather "blended." (What is meant by "blended music" is not defined). Only 36% of these low vitality congregations with both kinds of services responded that they used contemporary music.

Those stats are roughly reversed for "high vital" congregations in their contemporary services. There, 56% use contemporary music in their contemporary services, while 39% report using "blended" music. 

At the same time, Slide 44 shows there is no difference in vitality in traditional worship services no matter what kind of music is used. 
Given the findings about congregations with both kinds of services in Slide 39, and the sample set involved, what conclusions do you draw about this finding? What might its implications be where you are?

5. High vital churches are more likely to use multi-media in their contemporary services. (Slide 43).

The slide shows that 86% of high vital congregations use multi-media in their contemporary services, while 66% of low vital congregations also do so. 

Once again, though, Slide 44 shows that the use of multi-media has no correlation with vitality in traditional worship services.  

If the vast majority are using multimedia in contemporary services, what is the meaning of the difference between high and low vital congregations on this point? 

Slide 39 may provide important clues. You may also find helpful Dan Dick's comments in his article, "Creating the Frankenchurch Monster." 

Two Additional Practices that Do not Appear to Make a Difference 

In addition to the three non-correlated practices already discussed alongside three that were correlated with high vital congregations in the study, Slide 44 names 2 others that seem to have no statistical correlation with high vitality. These were only mentioned and not commented upon. But the remaining two probably deserve some further attention.

1. The use of experiential activities (prayer stations, art, straw polls, etc.) 

This could be an interesting finding given the claims of a number of writers about "postmodern" and "experiential worship" and the practice and teaching of one well-known and fast growing mega-church in particular (Seacoast in South Carolina) that such practices are actually essential for worship that seeks to reach younger adults and postmoderns. 

What could be interesting is that this finding could at least suggest that such claims may need to be tested further rather than merely asserted by "experts" with publishing contracts and speaking tours. 

But we really don't have enough information in the presentation itself to know whether this finding turns out to be interesting or not. Maybe it is more likely that it is not interesting. It could be that the sample set of UMC congregations behind this finding are fairly small, so small that in analysis that looks at impacts (which usually involves some averaging) the resulting impact found is within the margin of error. 

What do you think this might mean where you are?

2. The length of the pastor's sermon.

I can guess why this turns out not to be associated any more with high vital congregations than any other type. I've heard sermons of many different lengths in United Methodist congregations, ranging from under 10 minutes to well over 90. And my experience has been that whether the sermon is 10 minutes or 90 minutes, it can either be a home run or a total wipeout. It's not necessarily length that matters-- but context (time, location, and the nature of the gathered community) and delivery.  

What are your guesses?

But more importantly, what seems to make sermons of whatever length more associated with vitality in the life of the congregation where you are?

The Most Important Slide in the Study for Worship

The most important slide in the study for worship-- and every other indicator the study presents-- is one I haven't talked about yet: Slide 4, repeated on Slide 52.

This is important because it shows how each of the five worship practices that were shown to occur more frequently in high vital churches relates to the vitality indicators provided by the Call to Action Committee. And also, by implication, how each does not!

Take a look at Slide 19. This provides a listing of the three categories of impact (attendance, growth, and engagement)  that are then summarized graphically in the chart on Slides 4 and 52.

Attendance refers to average Sunday worship attendance as a percentage of membership and the number of children, youth and young adults attending as a percentage of membership.

Growth refers to increases over a five year period in average worship attendance as a percentage of membership, membership itself (I am assuming here professing membership-- but the study does not say), and financial benevolence beyond the local congregation. It also refers to changes over a three year period in annual giving per attendee.

Engagement refers to professions of faith per member and average annual giving per attendee.

In worship, none of the four factors listed (this slide does not include "inspiring preaching") impacts all three areas of vitality-- attendance, growth and engagement.

Offering both traditional and contemporary worship services only occurs statistically more frequently in combination with engagement. It does not occur more frequently with  attendance or growth.

Offering more topical preaching and using more contemporary music in contemporary worship are associated with attendance and growth, but not engagement.

Using more multi-media in contemporary worship is only associated with attendance.  

What implications do you see in these findings?

What Should We Do from Here?

Talk amongst yourselves and others! 

You can start by talking here-- in the comments section!

But don't stop there.
Use this article as a study guide for you and a group of leaders to think together about worship where you are and how the findings of this study may or may not affect you in your particular setting.

And then develop your own study guide for the other areas covered in the presentation (Lay leadership, pastoral leadership, and small groups) and have similar conversations about the meaning and implications of this study with the relevant groups. 

Some of the results here may challenge some prejudices you may have. Or you may find that your experience and insights about ministry in your setting challenge some of the findings here-- since as you've already seen, some of the findings here really may not apply to your congregation or setting well at all. But that doesn't mean you have nothing to learn or talk about!

The Congregational Vitality Presentation has offered a gift to our Church and our congregations. My hope is this study guide helps you and your congregation assess what this gift means for you so that whatever level of vitality you may be experiencing now you may find it enhanced, increased and strengthened in the years to come. 

Peace in Christ,

Taylor Burton-Edwards

Friday, July 9, 2010

Noise... and Discipleship? Part I

"There's one thing I hate, all the noise, noise, noise, noise!" From the television adaptation of Dr. Suess's How the Grinch Stole Christmas.

"[Sound amplification destroys intimacy] by drowning out conversation, or else it counterfeits intimacy by making physical proximity irrelevant to social intercourse. This is glaringly at odds with the classic, nearly universal religious tradition of a teacher imparting wisdom to pupils who sit, literally, at his or her feet. Yeshivas can be noisy places, but I have not encountered any anecdotes of rabbis teaching Talmud with megaphones. A religion of microphones and loudspeakers is a religion of leaders and followers, which is not the same thing as a religion of teachers and disciples. The goal of the latter is to raise the disciple to the level of the teacher; the goal of the former is to keep the followers ‘informed,’ and in formation." -- Garret Keizer, The Unwanted Sound of Everything We Want: A Book about Noise as quoted here.

I imagine there's not a reader of this blog who is not familiar with the first quote above or who does not hear it intoned in the voice of Boris Karloff! Well, maybe some of our younger readers may hear it instead in the voice of Jim Carrey?
However you hear it in your head, you probably almost immediately sympathize. There simply is too much noise about us. Some of it actively distracts us. Some of it has become such a permanent soundtrack or soundscape in our lives that we find ourselves distracted if we don't hear it. Even for people who are hearing impaired, noise itself doesn't go away. It just manifests itself in different forms.

"All the noise, noise, noise, noise!" 
Maybe it wasn't that the Grinch's heart was "three sizes too small." Maybe, just maybe, the very thought of all the noise that would rise from the valley below was simply too much for him. And maybe, it was because there was not noise, but music and melody,  singing... maybe that's what caused his heart, ultimately, to grow "four sizes that day" and his strength to become that of "ten grinches, plus two!"

What if it really was all about the noise?

The second quote is probably much less familiar, unless you, as I did, happened to read an article in Religion Dispatches this morning by Peter Laarman ("Noise in the Hood: Raising the Volume and Losing Our Bodies")  reviewing Garret Keizer's new book in which this quote appears. Or unless you (as I have not yet done!) have read Keizer's book. (And I plan to!).

Laarman simply drops the quote, noting it may be of particular interest to RD readers, and then moves on.

I'd like to explore the implications of it a bit further.

God of the Thunderhead, the Conversation, and Silence
First off, I need to say that as compelling as the contrast Keizer makes between the classical model of the preparation of disciples and the phenomenon of the megaphone to move vast crowds into military action (grainy and noisy images of the Hitler rallies are perhaps inescapable here!), like many compelling comparisons, it misses some more subtle points. 

Noise (loud sound) can legitimately be a part of the preparation of a people and of disciples. Well, at least the Bible seems to bear testimony to that. God does not only "speak" in "sheer silence" (I Kings 19:12), but also quite regularly from disorientingly noisy and dangerous phenomena like thunderstorms  and earthquakes (Exodus 19:16 ff.), whirlwinds (Job 38:1) and a rushing mighty wind (Acts 2:2), as well as in conversations in more of a "face to face" mode (much of the teaching of Jesus with his disciples in the gospels). 

And even Jesus himself did not limit his teaching and ministry to a conversational tone. When he was teaching crowds, he would have taken advantage of the "natural megaphone" effects of buildings and geological formations to allow his voice to be heard clearly at a distance.  When he addressed demons or winds and waves or called Lazarus from the tomb, and even when he was dying on the cross (in Mark's account, at least), Jesus "cried aloud." The Greek verb (ekrazen-- he cried aloud) refers to a full-bodied shout! And many times the verb is accompanied with the prepositional phrase "with a great sound/noise." And about the only time we see Jesus actually silent (though not in all accounts of the events!) is when he faces Pilate and Herod while they were determining how to dispose of him.

So we can't (and from what I understand, neither does Keizer) simply idealize silence or even conversational speech as "the one right way" to approach sound levels in the process of worship or preparing disciples. There are many appropriate levels-- for different things! Each can have its proper place.

Here, and in the next three entries,  I'd like to offer some historical reflections and suggestions about which sound levels have gone where-- in worship (this and the next two) and in teaching (the fourth)-- assuming our desired end is indeed the preparation and sending of disciples who become like our Master.

Thunderhead Sound

Taking our cues from the scriptures we've cited above, and some we haven't, big sound generally correlates with big groups and/or big, decisive moments for those groups. While Keizer's quote seems to suggest that big sound for big groups only has the effect of putting them into a physical formation for something violent, like a battle or a holocaust (and we know full well it can help do both!), perhaps a more helpful way of describing this phenomenon is that "Thunderhead Sound"  helps form a people as a people, especially if there are many people present, for those moments when they most need to function as a people rather than a collection of otherwise self-directed individuals. 

Historically, each of the four movements of the basic pattern of Christian (and United Methodist) worship (Entrance, Word and Response, Thanksgiving and Communion, and Sending) has included in it at least one "Thunderhead Sound" moment.

One of the (literally!) striking elements of the liturgy at Christ Church of the Deaf in Baltimore, Maryland, is the Entrance, the beginning of worship. I say "literally striking," because it is. A lay worship leader starts the service by striking a large gong full force three times, one in the name of the Father, one in the name of the Son, and one in the name of the Holy Spirit, Three in One. The very next action is the strong beating of a drum while the choir processes in dancing and singing (signing) in ASL, and the congregation joins with both the signing and the sometimes the beat of the drum and the choir as they march in. Those present who are deaf may not hear the gong or the drum (which are both very, very loud), but everyone can feel the strong vibrations which move through the air, off the walls and ceiling, and through the floor into everyone's bodies. The effect-- visually, aurally and bodily-- is arresting. Something different is happening now. Something important. And we are all-- the deaf and the hearing, the blind and the seeing-- being called into one body, one action, synchronized in body, heartbeat and breath to offer ourselves as one to God in worship.

Within the movement of Word and Response, Christians at least as far back as the fourth century have loudly celebrated the bringing out and reading of the gospel with processionals and Alleluias (except during Lent). Worshiping communities who "go Thunderhead" at this point are indicating that the words about to be heard, and then the words just heard (as Alleluias and another processional accompany the gospel book back to its place of honor) are as significant and powerful in their lives as the voice of God speaking in thunder on Mount Sinai. 

The presentation of the gifts at the table of the Lord has been the "Thunderhead" moment for Thanksgiving and Communion. The original "offertory procession" didn't bring plates of money for a blessing, but a plate of bread, a cup, a flagon of wine and a small container of water, a bowl, and a towel for the presider and other servers to wash their hands. In the Orthodox tradition, this was known as the "Great Entrance," while the gospel processional was known as the "Little Entrance." 

Finally, the Sending Forth is itself envisioned as a culminating "Thunderhead Sound" moment all its own. What happens in the assembly at this moment is not a recessional-- we are not "backing away" from anything! It is instead a bold processional into the world to serve as Christ's representatives in the power of the Spirit wherever we go. Christians thus have often ended worship with processionals, loud and joyous singing, and perhaps more instrumental music after the singing, not actually to end worship with a bang (rather than a whimper) but to rather to begin our missional service,  entering the world no less (and indeed, if fed at Christ's table, much more!) as the one body of Christ redeemed by his blood "than when we'd first begun."
How do you make room for and handle these or other "Thunderhead Sound" moments in your worshiping community? Feel free share your experiences in the comments section below.

Peace in Christ,
Taylor Burton-Edwards

Photo Credit: "You're a Mean One, Mr.  Grinch" A Grinch Cake, by "schmish." Used by permission under a Creative Commons License.