Can you ever have too much of a good thing? Even for those of us who love church and experience a kind of timeless flow in worship, are there times when there is just too much—when someone needs to take a pruning shears to next Sunday’s worship outline?
Maybe you’ve had an upcoming Sunday like this. You’re in a large parish with weekly eucharist. It takes a chunk of time to commune everyone. The senior pastor’s sermons always clock in at 15 – 20 minutes. You have scheduled several instrumentalists to accompany the choir anthem. The choir always sings at the offering and this particular anthem is six minutes. You find out from the secretary that a last-minute baptism has just been scheduled. You remind him that there is already a stewardship temple talk on Sunday. The Director of Christian Formation, standing nearby, chimes in that it’s been down all along to install Sunday School teachers. You realize that it’s the beginning of the program year and sometimes the announcements take ten minutes. The associate pastor—whose children’s messages seem full-sermon length—is up this week. It is also the handbell choir’s debut Sunday and they were hoping for a prime spot for their anthem. And you glance at the service planning document and not only notice that Confession, Kyrie, Canticle of Praise, Nicene Creed, and an offertory response are scheduled, but that two of the hymns (coordinated well with the readings) are five-stanza versions of LASST UNS ERFREUEN and ABBOT’S LEIGH.
You know some people could remain in the Lord’s house for a three-hour service like they did in Bach’s day. But you’ve been hearing complaints. The first service gets out late—which delays Sunday School. Folks are in a hurry to get to watch football after the second service, if they come at all.
I’m finding myself needing to take a breath. But before I go on, only use any of these suggestions if they are helpful in your context. It’s all about context: knowing a particular place and congregation. The below are simply things to consider if you find yourself frequently (or nearly always) dealing with some variation on the above “liturgy of abundance.”
1. Remember the essentials: Scripture readings, psalm, sermon. Great thanksgiving (including thanksgiving at table/eucharistic prayer). These are really the non-negotiables. Most everything else can be modified when necessary.
2. Who looks over the entire Sunday service, noting the all the various elements and their lengths? Who gathers, plans and coordinates all the extras that need to be scheduled, such as receiving new members, installing council members, temple talks, and baptisms. How can you plan far enough in advance that these items don’t all end up on the same Sunday?
3. To do some pruning back it takes the efforts of all: pastors and church musicians. Does the sermon need to be ten minutes or fewer on occasion? Will the choir anthem need to be during communion if it’s particularly long? Could the procession of gifts occur during the offering music rather than during an additional offertory song? If there is a baptism, can the children’s sermon be omitted and the kids gather around the font as a special way to participate in the service? Can the person making the announcements merely call attention to what is already printed in the bulletin, limiting those highlights to a couple minutes?
4. If there are multiple musical ensembles to schedule on a Sunday it creates special challenges. In a eucharist the primary spots for anthems are at the offering and communion. Perhaps communion distribution could include more than one musical anthem or piece. Sometimes anthems get scheduled in place of a psalm or the Gospel Acclamation. Not ideal, let’s admit. Yet, I’ve served in a large church and know the challenges. Perhaps it is a matter of varying choices like these. Could a choir piece occasionally serve as the Canticle of Praise? Are there times an anthem might need to be the last piece of a Prelude? These decisions need to be made in light of the scope and flow of the entire liturgy. Again, better to plan in advance, looking carefully at all the unique pieces of a particular liturgy, including length of readings, psalm, hymns, and other special items.
5. Remember the items that include “may” rubrics. These are the items that could vary with days and seasons, and could be omitted on a given Sunday: Confession, Kyrie, Canticle of Praise, Creed, Offertory Prayer, Post-Communion Canticle.
6. At times there may need to be shorter versions of things. Rather than leaving out the Thanksgiving at Table entirely, as is sometimes done, use one of the With One Voice seasonal eucharistic prayers (still available at http://www.sundaysandseasons.com). Or you might consider breaking up a particularly long hymn, and singing some stanzas as the Gathering and the remainder at the Sending.
Don’t let the liturgy or hymn police come after me! These are merely ideas in particular situations that call for something to be done! I admit: I have a less-is-more approach to liturgy, preaching, and sometimes, life. I would rather not rush and leave time to savor words, music and silence. Some of these suggestions might lead to some delicate conversations between pastors and church musicians. Perhaps they will invite mutual dialogue and experimentation. Sometimes we get in ruts and don’t realize other options we have. In any case, be gentle and patient. Remember to let the essential things have central place in any given liturgy. We all need to get out of the way at times. Grace is abundant.