Let’s return to having worship services each morning, Tuesday to Thursday…They can be held from 8:30-9:30 or thereabouts…. Each evening General Assembly could host a concert. Choirs, soloists, and musicians all across the sacred music spectrum could perform. These concerts could be held from 7:00-8:00 or thereabouts. I might dare to hope that this two-pronged approach would make everyone happy.
An Open Letter to the Stated Clerk:
I have been commenting on the worship services for decades now, to the pleasure of some and the irritation of others. I believe the discontented perspective I bring expresses the outlook of a substantial portion of the PCA. We are a 50/50 denomination on many issues. It may be that we are regarding worship as well. I have a modest proposal to make, prefaced by the negative, what the discontented don’t want, and the positive, a brief description of what we do want.
What we don’t want is worship as performance. We don’t want grand productions by choirs, virtuosity by musicians, or stage-effects by singers. Yet the earmarks of performance are everywhere. The minister may announce that the focus is to be on God. That helps. Then we proceed: the musicians overwhelm the congregation (all 3000!) so that we are not able to hear ourselves sing; the singers lead even the most traditional of hymns with idiosyncratic rhythms so that the congregation struggles to sing along; the jumbotrons (2 of them) zero in on the musicians and singers faces, magnifying their every expression (eyes closed, semi-pained, semi-pleased look, and frankly, overwrought earnestness) further accented by constantly changing camera angles. Whatever is intended, it is clear that the folks up front get top billing; God plays second fiddle. Frequently the congregation responds with clapping. Of course, they do. They have been treated to a performance. This is not what we want.
What do we want? Please: turn off the big screens, turn down the instruments, and remove the “worship leaders” from the stage. We want to hear ourselves sing. We want to feel the power of a thousand voices lifted in praise. We want to meditate upon God and not be distracted by well-intentioned but bigger-than-life electronic images. We want musicians and singers to be told that they have one job: support the congregation’s singing; do nothing to confuse the congregation; do not drown out the congregation.
We want substantial Scripture reading. We want a full diet of biblical prayer (praise, confession, thanksgiving, intercession, illumination, benediction). We want a faithful exposition of Scripture and not a rhetorical performance. What we want is not exceptional or unusual. We merely want a simple service of the word read, preached, sung, prayed, and displayed (in the sacrament). We want services which model what can be done in all of our churches, from the smallest to the largest, those with tiny budgets and those with massive budgets, those with abundant musical and theological resources and those with little.
I offer this proposal. Let’s return to having worship services each morning, Tuesday to Thursday. This was the pattern years ago. I can recall a particularly memorable sermon by Chuck Green on one of these mornings. These occasions can be the scaled-down services described above. They can be held from 8:30-9:30 or thereabouts. We have two official PCA songbooks the use of which is more likely to ensure general familiarity: Trinity Hymnal and Trinity Psalter. The services might consist of two hymns and a metrical psalm, prayer, Scripture reading, and an exposition. The host presbytery can organize the services and feature its most gifted preachers.
Each evening General Assembly could host a concert. Choirs, soloists, and musicians all across the sacred music spectrum could perform. These concerts could be held from 7:00-8:00 or thereabouts. I might dare to hope that this two-pronged approach would make everyone happy. Those whose preference is the current services lose nothing by participating in the reconstituted morning services. Yet they still can experience what they enjoy about the current services at the evening concerts. Likewise, those currently unhappy with the typical General Assembly worship service will have a suitable alternative.
Sincerely in Christ,
TE Terry L. Johnson
A Minister in the Presbyterian Church in America and Senior Pastor of Independent Presbyterian Church in Savannah, Ga.