Returning to Sunday parish ministry for four months has given me both a fresh appreciation of the basics and one caution to share with all who care about healthy churches.
First the caution:
I think many congregations expect too much from Sunday. They want Sunday to do all of their work, from welcoming the new to serving the old, from teaching to pastoral care, from community-building to business meetings.
Sunday cannot bear that much weight. For one, there's not enough time; 60 minutes on Sunday can barely handle corporate worship. The rest feels like frenzy and lost focus.
It's also the wrong venue. Sunday is for welcoming strangers, not holding business meetings in the lobby. Sunday speaks to corporate identity, not one-on-one friendships or family connections. Sunday worship is time given to God, not to sampling a smorgasbord of religious goods and services.
And Sunday is just too orderly. Even in non-liturgical traditions, Sunday worship has a formality that is necessary for time management, for accomplishing some key objectives, such as preaching and singing, and for focusing the faith community's attention.
The rest of a congregation's work needs to happen outside that orderliness: chance encounters, random acts of kindness, conversations that bridge church and world, in-depth dialogue with clergy, study groups, mission work, personal spirituality.
Those fundamental needs get stifled when they are loaded onto Sunday worship. Clergy feel fragmented.
One successful church puts it this way: Sunday morning is for guests, and Wednesday evening is for members. That is, Sunday takes us outside ourselves, and the rest of the week nurtures our community and draws us deeper.
With that in mind, the basics:
First, more chatting and greeting, less last-minute "party management." The "table" must be set before the first guests arrive, so that everyone's attention can focus on quality of greeting. Last-minute dashing about says, "We weren't prepared, and we don't care."
Second, Sunday worship is communal time, not a venue for silence or private prayer. We need silence and prayer, but trying to carve out silence on Sunday morning by shushing those who talk or sending children elsewhere violates community.
Third, let the children come near. Raising up the next generation of worshipping Christians matters far more than preserving solemnity in the pews.
Fourth, Sunday is a time for singing, not music education. Sing hymns that people want to sing, not ones that will enhance their musicality. Sing hymns that stir hearts, set toes to tapping, elicit tears, draw people close, speak in many accents. Ignore religious hierarchs who insist that only "official hymns" are appropriate. The most tone-deaf element of church life tends to be its official hymnals.
Fifth, Sunday is a time for preaching. Serious preaching. Preaching with an edge. Preaching that looks sinners in the eye and says, "God loves you, now get it right." Preaching that looks the complacent in the eye and says, "God loves you, now get outside yourself." Preaching that looks the lost and lonely in the eye and says, "God loves you, now get up, take heart, he is calling you."
I mean preaching that ventures outside the safety of pulpit and manuscript, stands among the people and says, "Here is what I believe we need to hear today, and I need your prayers to say it." Preaching that risks offending the proud and privileged. Preaching that risks transforming the preacher.
When we get these basics right, our congregations will burst the seams on Sunday and demand together-time on Wednesday.
(Tom Ehrich is a writer, church consultant and Episcopal priest in Durham, N.C. He is the author of "Just Wondering, Jesus: 100 Questions People Want to Ask," and the founder of the Church Wellness Project. His Web site is www.morningwalkmedia.com.)
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