Ministerial Decorum in Church Services
Life is made up, and its influence is largely , measured, not so much by the college or university degree hung on the wall, as by deportment and demeanor in life's everyday "little things." The habits formed in early life, during childhood, in the home and in the school, follow a person through his entire life. If bad habits are changed in more advanced life, it takes a very determined effort and fixed purpose to do so.
There is nothing of small importance in the life, influence, and work of a gospel worker. Those things which might pass as quite insignificant and unimportant in the life of the ordinary citizen cannot be so regarded by the -ambassador for God." He is not only a citizen, but an ambassador for Christ. He is God's representative at all times ! Much light and good everyday counsel are given to us in the Bible and through the Spirit of prophecy, covering the most minor details of our lifework and deportment as servants of God. We as workers are looked to and observed more than others, sometimes more than we think.
Conducting Sacred Services.—First I shall speak of the importance of the demeanor and decorum of workers in conducting special services of the church, such as baptism, communion, the sacred marriage ceremony, and the burial service. In all these services, the greatest care should be taken to conduct them in a dignified and sacred manner.
Especially in the funeral service the minister's voice, and every move and act, should be quiet and reverential. Certain gestures, loud speaking, and moving about, which might be proper on some other occasions, would grate upon the sensibilities of mourners and friends at a funeral service. This is the last act performed for the one about to be laid to rest. It should not be conducted as an ordinary service. Let the minister or the one in charge of the funeral service stand erect, directly behind the pulpit, reading and speaking in a clear, distinct, resonant voice.
The minister of God should ever remember that the eyes of a whole congregation are fastened upon him. This is especially true in the special services already mentioned. How carefully and intently even the children watch his every move and act, and listen to every word. The shepherd of the church is known and observed by the lambs as well as by the sheep. Children are too often overlooked. They are sensitive when passed by unnoticed. Many a child has been disappointed and grieved as the minister has been careful to shake hands with all the adults, but missed the hand of the "little parishioner."
Appearing in the Church.—In small churches in which there is no minister's study room, on coming into the church the minister or leader should come in quietly and reverently, and on taking his seat bow the head, as do the members, in a moment of silent devotion. This is a beautiful custom universally observed and followed in the West Indies in all churches. One who does not observe it is considered very irreligious. After this moment of silent prayer with bowed head, if the minister begins at once to gaze about and talk to those near him, it will be observed. If the minister wishes "the people of the pew" to be quiet and reverential in the house of God, he himself should set the example. Better for him to open his Bible and spend those brief moments before he goes to the rostrum in quiet study and meditation. "Like priest, like people" applies to these solemn and sacred moments of time.
In smaller churches, it may be permissible, and indeed at times quite becoming, for the minister on entering the church to pass quietly about and with a pleasant smile shake hands with the early comers, thus making all feel welcome. Especially will the visitors appreciate this from the pastor. It will serve to put them at ease and at home. But never should he stop at this time to engage in a long or loud conversation. Just a pleasant "Good morning," and a kindly, quiet word, not to be heard all over the house, would be helpful as a welcome to the Sabbath school and church service.
When the congregation witnesses the reverential attitude of the minister, they will fall in line with that same quiet attitude. When this program is followed, it will never be necessary for the minister to get up, turn around, and shout out in a loud tone to the congregation, "More quietness, please. This is the house of God." Here is where example is always more effective than precept. Often the minister makes more noise and causes more disturbance than the people in the pews.
Conduct in the Pulpit.—On entering the pulpit, whether it be from the floor of the congregation or from the minister's study, the minister or ministers should bow, as is our denominational practice in all lands. Kneeling should be the universal custom in all the regular church services. And when I say kneel, I mean really kneeling, not merely squatting, or getting down on one knee, unless there is a physical deformity that makes proper kneeling impossible. ""0 come, let us worship and bow down : let us kneel before the Lord our maker." Ps. 95 :6. The minister should set the example by kneeling before God and the congregation on both knees, never on his Bible or hymnbook. The children, out of the corners of their little eyes, know whether their minister kneels properly or not.
Now let us make some other observations regarding proper decorum on the platform. After the ministers or local elders enter the pulpit, they should not indulge in any whispering and talking. All arrangements for announcements, songs, and prayer should have been made before they came onto the platform. A leader, whether he be pastor, conference president, or local elder, who does not have his preliminary arrangements all made before going into the pulpit, is a poor organizer.
Another and a most intolerable thing is for those sitting on the platform to be conversing, sometimes laughing, while the speaker is addressing the audience. It diverts the listeners from the message the speaker is endeavoring to give, and public speaking is always hard enough at best. Babies crying and other disturbances either within or outside the church, do not disturb me as a preacher, but to have my associate ministers on the platform carrying on a "whispering campaign" behind me is more than I can endure. It completely unnerves me and so disturbs me that I can hardly hold any continuity of thought while trying to preach.
Recently at a special service in a large church there were six instances of ministers on the platform whispering one to another. It was a large gathering—a thousand people were in attendance, and many visitors were present. I can imagine how the people felt, what they thought of their ministers' acting in this rude way. Such conduct is improper and unkind. Usually it is a result of thoughtlessness. but the platform is not the place for thoughtlessness.
Before leaving the subject of the pulpit, allow me to mention one other intolerable and altogether too common attitude. Never sit cross-legged. Such a position even in a social circle is unbecoming in the eyes of people of better. class. To sit cross-legged in the pulpit of the house of God is certainly out of place. It distracts the attention of those of finer and more cultured taste. Let every minister and worker watch himself in these matters.
"Hats Off!"—This brings me to still another matter of importance. To some, it may seem of minor significance, but again I say that there is nothing of minor importance in connection with the Lord's work, and especially as regards the habits and influence of workers. May I approach this topic by saying, "Hats off." The man who keeps his hat on his head indoors any time, any place, gives evidence of ill breeding. A man does not do it if he was not allowed to do it as a boy in the home. I have more than once been mortified to see some of our officers and other workers stand around or sit around in their offices with hats on.
Just recently I was visiting in a certain local conference office, and both the president and the treasurer were seen sitting at their desks with their hats on. Soon they got up and stopped at other departmental desks as they were leaving, talking with secretaries (including women), and all the while their hats remained on their heads. How I wanted to cry out, "Hats off !" How can a man with any sense of proper culture stand or sit in the presence of a woman, or any one of his other associates, with his hat on, when he has two perfectly good hands with which to remove it? No man should walk about in his office with his hat on, stopping to talk. The threshold of the door of exit is the proper place for men to put hats on and off the head. Common courtesy demands it. Should not we as Christian workers be as observant of the common rules and codes of life as is the man of the world ? To see and observe some of our men, one would think that they had been reared out of doors, in the "woods" or in a cornfield, rather than in a Christian home.
The story is told of Abraham Lincoln that he was once walking down Pennsylvania Avenue in Washington, D. C., in company with a Senator. They met a colored man, probably a former slave. The colored man tipped his hat to Mr. Lincoln. The President responded by tipping his hat to the colbred man. At this, the Senator gave him a mild rebuke by asking why the President should stop to tip his hat to a man like that. The President answered, by asking, "Would Mr. Lincoln allow a colored man to be more polite than the President of the United States?"
Common Courtesies.—Perhaps it would not be altogether out of place to mention some other items of common courtegy, such as table etiquette. Observation should be our great teacher along these lines. Custom demands that when dining, especially on boats and at public functions, gentlemen rise when a lady conies to be seated. Perhaps it would be quite in order for every Adventist minister and missionary, especially when traveling, to limber up a bit, enough to let people of the world know that we are not wholly ignorant of proper table decorum. Workers for God should be comfortable and at ease, whether in the presence of a king or of the lowliest peasant. Everyday observations will help in knowing how to adjust ourselves to the customs and manners of the times in which we live.
I have enjoyed much, and profited somewhat, I hope, by reading tr hook "Courtesy," recently recommended by the General Conference Missionary Volunteer Department. Its perusal might help all of us as workers. Let the rule always be never to allow ourselves as workers to do anything that would be offensive to a person of refined taste and social standing. It is not so much a question of what a person "must do," but what he "should do" wisely, and in gentlemanly fashion. Each one should know what is proper for him to do on all ordinary occasions of life. Any and all of these -little things" may mean much in our larger service and influence as ambassadors for God.
That we are not reaching many of the better class of people in some of our mission fields is very evident. Perhaps some of these little things may be standing as a barrier in making proper contacts. May we always so relate ourselves to courtesy and decorum that none need be ashamed to come into the immediate presence of the Eternal One who inhabiteth eternity, and who is holy in all His ways.
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