Almost full in Greece

There have been fewer available seats lately in our church building in Greece.  (This has nothing to do with the Euro or Athens’s economic crisis:  our building is in Greece, New York.)

What’s happening to cause the bursts at the seams?  Well, lemmetellya….

We have this great, new addition going up.  Not an addition of people, as in Acts 2 or Acts 4, but rather, a structural addition made of concrete and wood and siding and paint.  It’s going to make the whole meeting house look different, and there are definitely improvements all ’round — to redeploy the Rom. 16:16 “hearty handshake” colloquialism of J.B. Phillips.

  • We’ll have the entrance on a different side, with a covered drop-off point.  This is particularly welcome, in view of the frequent precipitation — of all sorts — in this part of the country.
  • We’ll have an actual gathering area instead of a cramped, lobby-ette compromised by stairs and two doorways.
  • There will be new restrooms that don’t gross you (or visitors) out when you enter them.
  • … and much more (I’ve lost track of the developments and redevelopments of the building plan).

All this building stuff creates excitement and draws people.  New members have been quietly moving our direction from churches across town.  A new family moved in and never visited anywhere else, just staying put with us.  People are coming together and volunteering and getting excited and staying excited.  Leaders (pastor-elders, preacher, and deacons, all) are asking for extra money and extra time and extra understanding of certain inconveniences during the building process, all the while affirming  the good communal efforts well underway.

Basically, there’s a lot of energy, and this energy surrounds the immense project that is our building addition is necessary in order to see the project through.

I remember a guy I met years ago in Beaumont, upon visiting a church for a special event.  This church had just completed a building addition and was all gussied up and excited about itself.  The man confessed that he enjoyed moving around to different churches when there were building projects going on.  He got excited by construction projects, but I wondered what he himself was built of.

And I still wonder … despite the nice conveniences and esprit de corps that a building addition can bring to a church … whether the good energy can be sustained after the project is complete.

Will the new folks, and some of the old, “let down” after it’s all done?

Will they become distracted and disenchanted by the core of the church — which of course is not made of building materials?

Will the church grow spiritually, as the building proponents seem to think is a given, long after the visible, constructed growth is complete?

What role can the new and renewed spaces be expected to play in the drawing of outsiders to Jesus?  Given that they do play some role, can we put that role in perspective, making adequate, sustaining plans to bolster those new folks spiritually?

When all is said and done, will the spaces currently brimming with apparent energy and life still gush and bustle, or will the excitement and newness of the project ultimately leave the church high and dry?

Printed programs and spontaneity (3)

The classic/progressive rock band KANSAS will soon be on my college’s stage with my orchestra.  A set list was sent to me a couple weeks ago; the program is pre-planned to the Nth degree.  Yet some room is left for spontaneity (“rap, applause, etc.”).  This kind of programming, I think, represents the best of both worlds:  detailed structure and forethought born of experience on the one hand, and also, room for things to occur in the moment.  KANSAS knows something.  After all, they’re like 55 years old, and three of them have been doing this together for more than 30 years!  They know how to plan a successful show.

In planning worship times, assembly sequences, and other events, I often arrive at a similar conclusion — and for this I have my father to thank:  a balance of a) planned-ness and b) “room to breathe” is best.

[Please see here and here for background for this post.]

Sometimes, planning and programming can get in the way of the goal(s).  Too much polish and too many detailed, strict requirements … these approaches lead to a bothersome, stifling scenario.  Besides the quietus that may be put on authentic needs and God’s moving in a situation, the need to “get the order ‘down'” can lead to anxiety around rehearsing and reviewing a sequence.  In my particular current, more traditional church setting, this situation is manifest in, e.g.,

  • the call for the order to be printed in the bulletin
  • once every few weeks, the accompanying, gracious looking-down-the-nose at someone who just couldn’t get it together enough to get his set list in to the office in time for printing in the bulletin
  • the absolute waste of time perpetrated in reviewing, three minutes before things officially begin, all the names and responsibilities (“serving at the table, we have Brother Larry, Brother Peter, Brother Lou, Brother Rick, … and the opening prayer is by Brother John, and leading songs is Brother Brian,” etc., etc., ad nauseam . . . all with good intention, but about 92% unnecessary)

For me, all this emphasis on sequence can end up as an analogue of the down side of marching bands and show choirs:  too much focus on the presentation, the glitz, the strict sequence and performance of it all … all this tends to cheapen the program, downplay the content and decrease the educational value, in my opinion.  Of course, if the content is lacking, glitz and showiness may be the program’s only salvation!  [Aside:  I once taught at a place where my predecessor was actually in the process of considering having the show choir lip-sync instead of singing at all (much less singing in harmony).  That, friends, was WAY too much emphasis on glitz, sequence, costuming, and the visual aspects, considering it was supposed to be a music program!]

Here’s a special challenge to those church leaders who think we really need to spend all this time, and more, in getting the sequence and set list “down”:  get a critic (like me!) to make notes of every time there’s a foul-up or glitch in your little sequence.  This will be a humbling experience, because you will find that there’s something that goes wrong pretty much every week.  Someone forgets this aspect or that.  Someone forgot to let someone know he’s out of town.  Someone shows up late and messes things up because he wasn’t available for conferring.  I do know that things have to be planned, and someone has to take charge to make sure things go reasonably orderly.  I do this very thing!  But we do obsess over details sometimes, letting the more important content go without as much attention as it needs.

Those recognized as “entertainers” (I think here of Carol Burnett and the guys on the Drew Carey show “Whose Line Is It Anyway?” and late-night talk show hosts and such) can keep people’s attention with spontaneous reactions and witty repartee.  Many popular “artists” depend on canned accompaniments and tracks played in their “live” shows, and this indicates some rigidity in the planning and sequencing.   It’s also true that most art/cultivated music (a/k/a “classical”) concerts are rigidly programmed, not only with printed orders, but with supra-structures that govern programming from a macro level, as well:  three or maybe four works make up most classical orchestral concerts:  an overture, a concerto, and a symphony–often performed in that very order.  (Rarely is an overture played last, for instance.)

There are certain conventions in Christian gatherings for worship and study, too, that deserve to be followed–at least most of the time.   The problem, siblings, is when we overemphasize the sequence without enough emphasis on the content.

Printed programs and spontaneity (2)

Caveat lector brevis: I’m trying to think through something here (beginning with the last blogpost), and I’m not really ready to present it, but I’m presenting it anyway.  What follows may well sound confusing, and confused, because I have conflicting observations and feelings.

~ ~ ~

Speaking pragmatically, I have concerns with worship “set lists” in terms of the preparation timetable.  Recently, the Lawson Road church where we worship (Greece, NY) finally got with it and changed the timeline so that the group involved in preparing for the assembly is working 12 days in advance instead of 5 days.  Consider this with me …

The old timeline:

  1. Tuesday noon:  conference call bringing everyone to the table in knowing any special considerations, sermon topic, etc.
  2. Tuesday pm and Wednesday am:  scramble to prepare (or, in my case, revise, because I’ve nearly finalized thematic and sequential planning by this point) a set list based on new information received
  3. Wednesday noon:  deadline for church office receiving set list, for printing in the bulletin
  4. Thursday & Friday:  finalize PowerPoint slides and send to the tech deacon (or, as some prefer, send set list to tech deacon and let him prepare slides)
  5. Saturday:  receive PowerPoint presentation back from tech deacon, with his added pretty backgrounds, transition & announcement slides, etc.

Aside:  step 5 is always wasted for me, because I print the slides no later than Thurdsay, 6 per page, punch holes, and put them in a loose leaf binder for my own use as I led, and I never refer to the new version at all.  If I’ve learned one thing in my 15-or-so years of leading worship using PowerPoint, it’s that you can never trust the tech people to change slides on time.  While our particular tech people are pretty good at this, I always want my own printed hard copy, so I can surmount as many word/memory lapses as possible, and so I can read ahead in order to enhance my leadership in the moment.

The new timeline:

  1. Tuesday noon:  conference call bringing everyone to the table
  2. ALL THROUGH THE NEXT 7-8 DAYS:  prepare/revise a set list based on new information received (I rarely do well at being flexible here, because my thinking and planning has already been crystallized by step 1, but at least I have more time to try to process and make some adjustments)
  3. Wednesday noon, 8 days after the conference call:  deadline for church office receiving set list, for printing bulletin
  4. Thursday & Friday:  finalize PowerPoint slides and send to the tech deacon
  5. Saturday:  receive PowerPoint presentation back from tech deacon

The new timeline works much better, allowing for other things in the lives of volunteer leaders.

Don’t miss the word “volunteer” above — and the significance of it in this equation.  “Clergy” (I have trouble using concocted, abiblical words and ideas to talk about biblically based things, thus the scare quotes) folk, take note:  when volunteer leaders are involved, you need to do things on a timetable that suits THEM, not you. Stop making proclamations from your holy chairs and desks that say “Pastor” or “Minister.”  Wrap your schedule into the schedules of the volunteers.  They are spending significant time they don’t have for the betterment of corporate assemblies, and in some cases, they are working a lot more hours than you are, so don’t take advantage of them.

Now, back to our story (and questions).

Does printing a worship “set list” present an organized, “we-got-it-together” face?  Or does it acknowledge death in the Christian gathering?  Or both?  Is “we-got-it-together” requiring too much out of your congregation’s energies on a weekly basis?  Is the business model (think CFOs and CEOs and VPs and budget-drivenness in academia instead of deans and principals and teaching) driving churches to more organization than worship and teaching, or are all the technological and administrative tools helping us?  To what extent?

How can the Spirit (or the spirit) live and breathe in us when things are programmed to the Nth degree?

For churches that use instrumental worship bands, a cappella “praise teams,” etc., what are the implications of the “set list”?  (Do remember that bands and teams and PowerPoint and amps are not necessaries; they are just methods.)  Is there more time spent in rehearsing transitions between songs — getting the sequence of the set list “down” — than in experiencing the textual content of the songs, scripture passages, dramatic presentations, etc.?  The mechanics of transitions and who starts what, how, and from where–all these things are important, but I’ve focused too much on them, on many occasions.  In fact, I’m guilty of this very thing in this very week of my life.

The content is what it’s about.  The words.  The concepts.  The musical ways and means, and other peripherals, must support the content.

Printed programs and spontaneity

Caveat lector: Sometimes, I have a conclusion in mind, and I write in support of that conclusion.  Often, I write when I feel (or know) something uncommon is better or right.  This time is different.  I’m really not sure what I think yet, I’m trying to think through something, and I’m not really ready to present it, but I’m presenting it anyway.  What follows may well sound confusing, and confused, because I have conflicting observations and feelings.  Some cherished, long-term experiences exist in opposition to some more recent observations.  My opinions are definitely still in development.

~ ~ ~

Thinking recently about PowerPoint use in church gatherings, I think I came off as somewhat one-sided.  While presentation software is not the end-all, and while genuine worship is clearly possible without it, I do think PowerPoint is useful.  Such software applications, combined with projection capabilities from computers, allow for possibilities that were never previously considered.

I’ve written before about printed lists of leaders in church bulletins/programs.  I’m not sure, however, whether I’ve ever blogged on the printing of “worship set lists.”  I think these lists can definitely have value and can remember, when I was young, that a marginalized but deep-thinking leader used such printed programs in my “low” church on occasion.  I thought that was pretty cool back then, but these days, it’s old hat.  Lots of churches print orders these days.

“Set list” is terminology I first learned in jazz combos, big bands, etc., where the content is comparatively light and temporal.  As worship music gravitates more and more from “Shepherd of Tender Youth” and “Holy, Holy, Holy” to more contemporary, populistic expressions, the label “set list” seems more and more apt.  People now think in terms of their music stands and a sequence of songs all printed and ready for them to refer to when pulling music out of their “books” or folders.  While “set list” is realistic and not a bad descriptor of the status quo, it strikes me as pedestrian and shallow, not worthy of the God the music and other worship activities are supposed to be calling attention to.

Sometimes the set list is called “order of service” or “worship service.”  Blecchhh.  The term “worship service” is neither biblical nor helpful.  The observation (the “neither biblical” part) and the opinion (the “nor helpful” part) are no passing fancies for me; I’ve emphasized moving away from calling a worship gathering a service–with little to no fluctuation–for about 20 years.  “Service” connotes a ceremonious ceremony with a set order and no life.

In fact, besides the context of those horrid academic commencements (which I suppose have a hint of a promised resurrection after the death-knell of pompous processions, presumptuous presentations, and brittle boredom), a more appropriate use of “service” is in the context of funerals. Using “service” to describe what Christians should do when they are together is misled/misleading at best, and spiritually stultifying at worst.  When trained, reasonably intelligent, biblically literate leaders perpetuate labeling the assembly a “service,” it’s like force-feeding barbiturates to all the saints.¹  Okay, maybe it’s not that bad.  After all, people aren’t likely thinking about the label “worship service” when they’re in the middle of what’s going on in the assembly/gathering.  But I really hate it, and I enjoyed finding some new expressions to tell you how much I hate it.  🙂

“Prayer service” and “song service” are no better; these are just offspring-offenders … children of the offending parent “worship service.”  This terminology rubs me raw and calls me to make a run to the local Walgreens or CVS for soul salve.

Next … the intersection of “set lists” and weekly preparation


¹ This is infinitely more eternally significant than the use of mild performance-enhancing drugs by sports figures (I’ve never used them, of course, but I’ve never understood why congress and courts have been involved in investigating … it all seems like more a matter for, e.g., the MLB commissioner’s office), but that’s beside the point.

Make it more an “us” thing

Some years ago, in my younger, more brash days, I took a complete stranger to task.  Well, at least that’s how it ended up going.

The impetus was a simple article in a church bulletin — not my church, but one in my college town that I have connections with.  The subject was missing tables and chairs.  Apparently, several of these items had been borrowed and had not been returned in a timely way, and the church office/ministerial staff was taking a hard line.  Lots of “we” vs “you” language was used, and it … shall we say … piqued my interest.  The staff was assuming and asserting authority over tables and chairs and people–strongly suggesting that they be returned.

Now, it’s fine to remind each other to be courteous and considerate, but the wording and assumptions can belie something unbiblical in terms of church hierarchy.  If we’re not careful, in making it a “we”-must-remind-“you” thing, we may be perpetuating an authoritarian, institutional model of the church.  Never should any church “officer” assert himself as dictator over the fellow subjects of our monarch, Jesus.

So, after writing an inquisitive, challenging letter to the church, I got a handwritten note back from an underling staff minister in which he took a condescending tone, didn’t answer any of my questions, and invited me to call “at my expense” if I were “indeed concerned.”

Well, pardon me, but I was obviously concerned, or I wouldn’t have taken the time to write a full-page letter.  I think that spoke for itself.  Yeah, I was a little out of line and apparently completely unwelcome in my epistolary “outreach” to this church that wasn’t even my church.  I still think I was right, but I could have just left it alone.

Just a couple of weeks ago, a note about a similar problem appeared in our church bulletin at Lawson Road.  I’m happy to report that this had a much better tone than the one from 1991 in Searcy, Arkansas:


Somehow, that sounds better to me.  It sounds like “we’re all in this together” rather than “we are telling you what the rules are, and we are the boss of you.”  Bravo, Tina and Lawson Road.  Let’s all make church more of an “us” thing than a “we” vs. “you” thing.

Sunday music

As music is so much a part of my life, and as Sunday corporate worship is also so much a part of my life, it seems appropriate that the two should merge in this (unoriginal) blogpost.  Here are some worthy words from today’s worship–to be experienced in community, where I’ll lead the Lawson Road church in Greece, NY:

Jesus, Jesus, Jesus.  There’s just something about that name.
Kings and kingdoms will all pass away, but there’s something about that name. . . .

Jesus, Jesus, Jesus in the morning.  Jesus at the noontime.
Jesus, Jesus, Jesus when the sun goes down. . . .

My faith looks up to Thee, Thou Lamb of Calvary, Savior divine.
Now hear me while I pray.  Take all my guilt away.
O let me from this day be wholly Thine. . . .

I see the Holy Lord there with the Living Word–glorious view!
Lord of eternity, Alpha, Omega be.
I come on bended knee to worship You. . . .

Hail, hail, Lion of Judah!  How powerful You are!
Lord God, strong and mighty, how wonderful You are!

When my love to Christ grows weak, when for stronger faith I seek,
Then in thought I go to thee, Garden of Gethsemane.
There behold His agony, suffered on the bitter tree.
See His anguish, see his faith–love triumphant still in death.

Your most awesome work was done in the frailty of Your Son. . . .

Jesus is Lord.

Jesus, You’re my Firm Foundation.  I know I can stand secure.  I put my hope in Your holy word.

Wonderful, merciful Savior, precious Redeemer and Friend, who would have thought that a lamb could rescue the souls of men?  You are the One that we praise.  You are the One we adore.