Tuesday, April 26, 2011

Bearings, Part III B: Bearings before the Entrance

This is part 4 of a seven-part miniseries. Part 1, introducing this miniseries, is here.

Worship that engages the whole gathered community does not and cannot begin arbitrarily. Those who compose the worshiping community are asked  move from whatever they've been doing before they arrived to "full, conscious,  and active participation" in the act of the Entrance. 

That's a big ask! 

It's a huge shift for bodies, minds and spirits, and the opposing forces are significant. People enter worship with what could be hundreds or thousands of preoccupations or distractions, large or small. Against all of those individual forces, somehow we are trying to arrive collectively at a singular focus on offering ourselves in praise and thanksgiving as the body of Christ in the presence of the Triune God.

Sound or music can be a very effective bearing to carry this shift in forces. A prelude alone, in many cases, doesn't quite accomplish this. More often the prelude functions more as an instrumental accompaniment to what happens before worship-- conversations, acts of personal preparation, people still arriving from a variety of different places and often through a variety of entrances.  This isn't he same as creating an actual, clear and effective shift point between the body not yet at worship and now fully at worship.

What is usually needed to create that shift is something more dramatic, some other sonic, musical or kinetic event that immediately dissispates, interrupts or overwhelms personal, individual energies and creates a singular "whole body" experience of being the worshiping assembly at worship.  

In contemporary worship settings, this is often accomplished through what some call "the band blast." The band blast is a very loud, familiar (sometimes secular!) song with driving rhythms, a strong vocal lead, and a chorus that all can join and sing. In last year's spoof video, "Sunday's Coming," the makers of the video referred to this as "Opening song, lights and big drums-- you know it's cool because you've heard it on the radio." Call it what you will, it works! Bearings. Distraction ends. Focus is achieved. Worship begins.

My wife is an Episcopal priest in Indianapolis. At her parish, the sonic event is simpler, but no less effective. At Trinity Episcopal Church, many people arrive early to remember their baptism at the font, pray in the pews, have brief conversations, look over the worship program and announcements, and listen to the prelude (if they're not otherwise occupied). But all of these are what might be called "warm-up" or "cool down" activities. No one of these actually functions as bearings between their individual arrivals and the corporate act of Entrance. All of them are more like "pre-lubrication."

The bearings at Trinity are the ringing of a bell.

The prelude stops. There is a brief silence. A bell rings. Immediately everyone stands, and just then, as the bell is still resounding, one of the priests offers the greeting that kicks off the entrance: "Blessed be God, Father, Son and Holy Spirit," to which the people respond in unison, "And blessed be God's kingdom, now and forever. Amen." The collect for purity follows (see UMH 6), the organ plays the introduction to the processional hymn, the choir starts moving, the thurifer starts swinging the incense (on major holy days), and the people all sing.

Before the bell, all kinds of distractions. After the bell, total focus by all. Bearings at work-- simple, elegant, effective.

At Christ Deaf Church (UMC) in Baltimore, Maryland, the bearings are also sonic, but for most participants there it is more sonic-tactile than musical. A lay leader strikes a large gong, and announces, with loud words and large, dramatic signs, "In the name of the Father" (gong), "and of the Son," (gong), "and of the Holy Spirit," (gong) "Three-in-One!" Not just the sounds, but the vibration of that gong can be felt in the floorboards and pews where all are seated. All kinds of texting, signing, or various stages of preparation are happening in the room before that gong. But immediately, at the first strike, all comes to focus on why we've gathered and in whose Name. Bearings at work.

In all three of these contexts, words alone couldn't do this as effectively. Nor would simply starting with a hymn. A powerful sonic or sonic-tactile-musical effect makes the shift to the Entrance both smooth and complete.

Can you identify the bearings before the Entrance where you worship?  If not, what sort of event, sonic, musical or other, might you consider to create bearings there?

 Image Credit: Ball Bearings, Image by Zephyris. Used by permission under a Creative Commons License.


  1. At my previous appointment, I moved the "announcements" to the end of the Sunday School hour (small church) and then had a verbal announcement that we were now moving into a time of worship.

    At that point, I walked to the back of the church and the music to a "Surely the Presence" would begin. After processing in with the acolytes, I would greet the congregation in the name of Jesus Christ.

    I'm not sure if this meets your criteria of bearings, but I can say that moving the announcements out of the worship service was a big improvement for the overall momentum.

    Thank you for this series. Important stuff to think about.

  2. You write, "More often the prelude functions more as an instrumental accompaniment to what happens before worship-- conversations, acts of personal preparation, people still arriving from a variety of different places and often through a variety of entrances." I can't agree more. Pastors (as well as bishops and others in charge) have the idea that musicians should provide music to "gather us together" or "focus our attention" or some other goal, when in reality all music provides is noise to be overcome by whatever other activity the people want to be engaged in prior to the start of worship. I rather like the approach taken by a newly-appointed Nashville pastor who, upon being told that the people really like their time in the sanctuary to talk, visit, joke, and share fellowship, and no pastor has ever found a way to make the transition from fellowship to worship. On his first Sunday the pastor entered the sanctuary, sat in his chair, and at the appointed time for worship to begin he simply stood behind the pulpit and inexpressively stared at a point on the back wall. It took nearly five minutes for the people to stop talking and sit with their attention on the pastor. For three weeks he repeated the process and each week it took less time. On the fourth week, as soon as he stood at the pulpit, the people sat. It was never a problem thereafter. No powerful sonic or sonic-tactile-musical effect needed.

  3. Thanks for this testimony, Dean.

    I might suggest that silence, and being led into silence, it itself a powerful sonic and even sonic-tactile act!

  4. Thanks for the article and the comments. I, too, make a distinction between the gathering time and the beginning of worship. We put announcements at the beginning of the gathering. Once all are finished, worship begins with "God is Good, All the time," the congregation responds with "All the time God is Good" and then prelude and the processional of pastor following acolytes. Peoples minds, bodies, and voices seem to be centered upon worship. Simple, yet appears to be effective.

  5. I simply say (over the general babble of various conversations) "The grace of the Lord Jesus Christ be with you!" -- which is just what's printed in the Hymnal on page 6.

    Conversations cease, eyes go forward toward the cross that hangs on the back wall, and a few people scurry to their seats, as everyone enthusiastically answers, "And also with you!"

    A quick announcement of the hymn number and we're off.