Friday after Pentecost 22
November 17, 2011
I guess just about every congregation has at least a few members who are “watch watchers.” They seem to feel that the time they spend Sunday morning in the sanctuary should fit into a discreet time segment, typically an hour. God help the poor minister if the worship “hour” lasts 70 minutes. Tongues can start wagging and the ministry of the Lord can be undercut.
Who decided that Sunday worship should only be an hour long? That certainly wasn’t the sentiment for the first 1500 years of the life of the Church. That means it is a development of the modern era.
Perhaps we can blame large churches that have multiple services on Sunday morning. Clearly they have to finish one service before they can start a second service. Therefore, there is a time limit looming over them. Perhaps we can blame television, which tends to neatly wrap things up in half-an-hour or an hour (with time to spare for commercials, to boot). Perhaps we can blame professional sports, or other things that are scheduled for Sunday afternoon, that create a feeling that the worship of God is cutting into time reserved for other activities. Perhaps we can blame the invention of watches, which can turn each person into a timekeeper. What is a timekeeper if there is no specific designated time to watch over? When I raced as a child, the question was, “who finished first?” Nowadays, it is “who had the best time?” Perhaps we can just blame the general trend of modernity, which marginalizes Christianity. Perhaps the growth of the accent on the individual in modernity is to blame. This is “my” time. Whatever the source of the idea that Sunday worship should be limited to an hour, for many it is something of an unchallengeable fact.
Such self-appointed timekeepers can have a wide range of suggestions for how the time spent in worship by the Body of Christ can be reduced to its “proper” length. If the minister announces such things like the hymn name and number, or some other rubric (we confess the Apostles’ Creed found on page …, let us join in the Kyrie on page …, etc.), you might hear that such information is superfluous. People can read it in the bulletin or find the information on the hymn board. If the pastor takes verbal prayer requests, it can be suggested that these should be written down before the service. If the pastor greets the congregation with more than five words, this can be considered a waste of time. General announcements about upcoming activities of the Body of Christ may be deemed unnecessary as people who want to know “should” read them in the bulletin or newsletter. Hymns are evaluated by how long they are, not by content. Sermons are subject to the same standard. Choirs, soloists, prayers, and just about anything else can be subject to the same tyranny of time. It can even be suggested that services that last longer than an hour hamper a church’s outreach activities as people certainly couldn’t imagine inviting someone to a worship service that lasts more than an hour, and people who are not regular attendees at worship certainly would not stand (or sit) still for a worship service that lasted longer than an hour. They might do so for a movie or football game, but never for the worship of God.
I suggest that focusing on the time spent in the worship service is not appropriate. As we gather on Sunday morning, it is not because we simply need to fill an hour in our day. You can stay home and watch the talking heads on television if that is all you are trying to do. “How long is your worship service?” is simply the wrong question and leads down paths that are not pleasing to the Lord.
The question we should be asking is, “Why do we gather?”
I suggest that we gather as the Body of Christ, as it is expressed in this or that local congregation. As the Body of Christ, as the expression of our Lord in this locale, we manifest who we are through what happens on Sunday morning. That is expressed in prayer, sermon, song, scripture, sacrament, and so on. If the congregation greets each other on Sunday morning, perhaps “sharing the peace,” this is an expression of the love Christ has for us. The sermon, the hymns, the choir pieces, are all words of Christ; it is the Lord’s voice in the Body. Announcements of upcoming events are expressions of the life we have as the Body of Christ. Even a car wash by the youth or a Christmas party by the women are expressions of who we are as the Body of Christ. To artificially limit the time for announcing such expressions of our identity is to say the most important aspect of our life together as the Body of Christ is time. It is to say that we may be the Body when we sing a hymn or hear the sermon, but not when we hear about a new Bible study that is beginning or learn of the upcoming Christmas schedule. It is to say that nothing of value can happen beyond a certain time limit.
Others may answer the question “Why do we gather?” differently. However, if they are asking that question, and not the question of time, then they are asking the right question, at least in my opinion. The more we can get the members of our congregations to ask the right question, the better their time will be spent on Sunday morning as the Body of Christ, no matter how long or short that time is.
Blessings in Christ,
Pastor John Rickert