Tuesday, January 15, 2008

The Morning After the Night Before

Last Sunday, we had one of the best congregations, numerically, we have had. We normally get a good turn out on Sundays, but this was especially good and especially for a January, which, after Christmas, can be a quieter time of the year. In fact, we had the highest number of communicants Christ Church has had at a service in January since 1966. (This is as far back as I have registers for. I am not sure where the older registers are – if I have the time I’ll try to find them and let you know!) In fact, the last time we had this many at a service was in September last year, which was also the highest for a September since 1966.

Numbers have to be taken cautiously and do not mean that the congregation is spiritually healthy, but it would be a brave Vicar who said they meant nothing and most of us being human are rather glad when people decide to come to Church rather than choose to stay away. I took them to mean that at least people were enjoying the services and finding something in them that met a need as well as giving them a way to worship God.

Last night, we had our first Church Council meeting of the New Year for which we also had a good turn out. During a fairly general discussion, at one point, the comment was made that there wasn’t ‘enough variation in the services’. This is church speak and code for: ‘they are boring’. I got the distinct impression that the person who voiced this comment wasn’t alone in his opinion. He felt we always said the same prayers in the same order. I explained that this was inevitable to an extent if you have a set liturgy. The music, the hymns, the readings, the intercessions, and even the sermon, however, are different. But what he meant, of course, was that the services feel the same irrespective of the reality.

I can’t pretend that this observation hasn’t got to me. Unusually, I was allowing myself a little optimism about how we were progressing here, but this comment is a cause for some concern. For me, the Sunday Eucharist is at the heart of what we are about as a Church: coming together as God’s people to offer him our worship, to bring him our needs, and to seek his strength to serve him both in mission and in our daily lives.

Clearly, this comment calls for proper reflection and prayer and not an immediate and, inevitably, defensive response, but if I can’t be allowed a few instant thoughts here, then where can I be allowed them?!

The dilemma for me is the tension between worship as service, the word liturgy after all means service, and worship as entertainment. We live in an entertainment culture. This is inescapable. People expect to be entertained in any free moment they have. This is why they walk around with wires dangling from their heads and with their ears glued to mobiles. Boredom is the one thing we won’t allow ourselves and why should we when there is so much out there to entertain us twenty-four hours a day?

All of which does not mean that our worship and church services should be boring. I remember many years ago a fellow member of the Youth Fellowship commenting that the way the choir sang the canticle, Te Deum, meant it should be renamed Tedium. Worship certainly shouldn’t be tedious. Our worship should be the best it can be. At its best, our worship should inspire us and lift us to heaven to join the heavenly choirs. But I still think there is a difference between being inspired and being entertained. Inspiration should lead us to take part, to join our prayers and praises with angels and archangels and with the whole company of God’s people. This is very different to entertainment, which is self-centred focusing on what I want and where the only thing that matters is whether I like it or not.

So are our services here becoming boring? Given the number who are coming to them, obviously not everyone thinks so, but it is worrying if committed people feel this way. Does it matter, or rather, should it lead to a change in our services? I know that we must constantly strive to do better and to give God our best. I am also sure that we need to avoid the temptation to change the services into entertainment. Quite what this means for our services, I don’t know and need to give it some thought.

I do know this morning that more than anything, I just feel a bit sad.

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