Too Many Words…Too Little Reverence… Duane W.H. Arnold, PhD
Too Little Reverence…
Evangelicals love words… lots of words. This of course is to be expected. Evangelicalism arose up and through the great preaching events of the First and Second Great Awakenings, before becoming ensconced in the preaching palaces of men like D.L. Moody and Charles Spurgeon. The sermons from these eras could easily extend to an hour or more. These were eras in which the “Princes of the Pulpit” reigned. In time, the instructions for an evangelical sermon were – “Tell them what you are going to tell them; then tell them (preferably in three points); then remind them of what you just told them…” Although among modern evangelicals the length of the sermon has been somewhat reduced to 30 or 35 minutes (interestingly about the length of an average college lecture) the idea of didactic repetition has remained.
Such didactic repetition has, in recent years, also been adopted by some liturgical and semi-liturgical church service orders. Here I am including Presbyterians, Lutherans, Methodists and Anglicans as well as some other smaller groups. In such orders of service, rather than relying on the lectionary selections of Scripture – Old Testament, Psalm, New Testament and Gospel – along with the collect (or prayer for the day) and using other parts of the liturgy to establish a unified message, something different takes place. At the beginning of the service you are told the “theme” of the day. Thereafter in the service, every part of the liturgy is prefaced with how whatever is being said or done fits into the “theme”. The sermon, of course, provides an extended opportunity to expand upon the “theme” of the day. Finally before being dismissed, you are informed as to how you are to take this “theme” out into the world. After such didactic repetition, the people’s final response at dismissal (“Thanks be to God”) is usually heartfelt.
Now, apart from painful memories of high school proms (“the theme for the senior prom this year is ‘goldfish’”) I think there are other difficulties with this approach, or at least there are for me.
Firstly, I attend a Sunday church service to worship. Now my understanding of worship may be different from others. For me worship is not a portion of the service, such as singing hymns or choruses. It is not dependent upon a worship leader or a worship team. Instead worship begins the moment I enter the sanctuary and continues until I leave. In worship, the words that are of the greatest importance are not the ones explaining to me what the theme of the day might be, but rather the words that I say – to God in my prayers, to my neighbor in the pew as I share “the peace of the Lord” and the words I say in response to the priest at the altar or as we pray together for the Church and the world. In the words that I say and in those that are said to me, I am seeking a place of worship and reverence, not a classroom with repeated explanations.
It strikes me that we are bombarded by words. If you are active at all on social media, words scroll past your eyes at a dizzying rate. We’ve all had the experience of being busy with other matters and, at the end of the day, finding we have received dozens of emails that we must consider, delete, save or respond to in a timely manner. This is not even to mention radio, on demand programming and/or cable news outlets. We have words in abundance, with countless people telling us something that they are certain we need to hear. What we lack, however, are times for reflection, prayer and reverence.
Worship comes from the Middle English word, “weorthscipe”, and it is rooted in the concept of what you consider to be of worth or valuable, that is, what you consider worthy of reverence. It is not about the words that you hear, as much as it is about the words that you say and the turning of your heart in worship. It is not as much about what someone is saying to you in an attempt to instruct you. It is more about what you say to God as you turn your heart and mind to him in reverence.
This is just one of the reason why I value the Book of Common Prayer. I do not have to find the “right” words to pray. They are provided for me when I am at a loss. When it is properly used by a pastor or priest, the words that he says are not his. That is, the words are not his opinion or explanation. Instead, the words are our “common prayer”. It is not about a “personality” who is perhaps in love with the sound of his own voice or impressed by his own cleverness in setting out a repeated theme he wants me to learn. Instead, it is for me “to hear… read, mark, learn, and inwardly digest…” the Scriptures and prayers appointed for the day. Moreover , the point of it all is worship. Yes, we can have times for learning. Yes, we can have times for explanations. Yet, let’s be honest. In our world today, we probably already have too many words being thrown our way. True reverence, however, is in short supply…