NOT EVERY church holds its divine service at eleven o'clock on Sabbath morning. Some, of necessity, must choose a different time. But in this division it is reasonable to say that, in the home unions at least, 95 percent of our church services are held at the eleven o'clock hour.
How important is this hour of worship? We believe it is the most precious, the most important in the whole week. It is the time when God's people draw nearer to Him as a body of worshipers than at any other time in the week. Karl Barth, acclaimed by some as the greatest theologian of the twentieth century, has said, "Christian worship is the most momentous, the most urgent, the most glorious action that can take place in human life." And we believe you will agree that one doesn't have to be a top theologian to know that.
Welcome, silent prayer, hymn, prayer, choral music (if the church has a choir), offering, second hymn, sermon, last hymn, benediction. With minor adjustments and amendments, that is the pattern of worship in all our churches. When a minister circulates among our churches, he is seldom embarrassed because of an unfamiliar liturgy; all that differs is which elder does what. This has much to com mend it, of course, though there is something to be said for a touch (at least) of originality.
On the other hand, it is seldom that one finds two churches exactly alike in their order of service. This, too, is good; we should have some flexibility.
However, the order of service is not the all-important thing in itself. That which is pre-eminent in every worship service is surely the worshiper. Not the worshipers (plural), but the individual. For we do not come as a group for spiritual blessing; we come as our individual selves to feed upon the Bread of Life.
The worship hour (which is the only hour of the week that does not necessarily have only sixty minutes) is divided into two well-defined segments. First there is the portion where every worshiper actively participates. This includes the silent prayer, the singing of hymns, the giving of the offering. The question that prompts itself here is: Is this enough active participation? Lumped together, it would be but a small fraction of the time spent in worship. Even at that, some of it is wasted. The singing of certain hymns for instance.
Ah, yes! Those hymns! Some ought never to disgrace the interior of a hymnbook. Lest we of fend, we shall not supply a list of numbers, but we beg the minister who chooses his hymns to do so carefully. Many a hymn (even in our own hymn book) must rightly be regarded as sentimental froth. A pity. In Christianity Today of December 8, 1967, we came upon this rather startling pronouncement; it so thoroughly agreed with our own concept that we rejoiced in our own perspicacity. "By definition a hymn is a musical and poetic offering of praise to God; but between the covers of every Protestant hymnal are many compositions that should never be dignified by the word 'hymn.' They are 'songs,' couched in sentimental language, introspective in gaze, and horizontally projected. They do not lift us up to God and His glory; they bid us look inward or out ward to our neighbor. To be sure, there is a place for personal affirmation of faith and aspirations after God, such as the psalmist knew (Psalm 42); but these, in a healthy religion, are God-oriented, not introvert."
The second portion of the worship service is that in which the worshiper participates passively. That is, he listens and does nothing in an active way. Or he may switch off, either voluntarily or in voluntarily, and his participation level may actually sink to zero or even a minus quantity. When the main prayer is offered, he may be miles away. He may elect (shame on him!) even to sit in his seat gazing about him (and this is not as uncommon as you may think, either). And during the sermon he may choose to take in little or nothing of what is said.
What a responsibility devolves upon the one who has to preach the sermon! And how we, whose responsibility it is, often fail the high office of our calling! We noticed a letter in Christianity To day recently, which painted a picture-of this part of the worship hour (not in an Adventist church, fortunately) as seen through the eyes of Jean M. Jackson of Croswell, Michigan. She wrote: "For the past forty years I have been puzzled by one characteristic of the usual sermon. . . . We enter the church building for our religious service. The sanctuary is adorned ... to put us in the proper frame of mind for worship. Religious symbols meet our eyes. Music is being played to evoke an emotional response. We sing a hymn. There is prayer, Scripture reading, and often special choir music.
"Then when we have carefully been brought to a peak and are ready to respond to a discourse concerning the Deity the preacher arises and makes a crack about baseball. Or it might be about football, motoring or television, but it is guaranteed to put us back to where we were Saturday night. . . .
"The opening sentence follows the pattern of the commercial that comes in the middle of a baseball or football game. But let us be logical. The situation is different. During the break for the commercial, the audience tunes out men tally. . . . Their minds must be caught and held. . . . The preacher's congregation is not in front of the television with their mouths full of fried chicken. They are seated in pews where they can't get away without violating the mores of two thousand years. In stead of being let down for the commercial, they have been built up for the sermon.
"So please, preacher, spare us that crack about baseball, save it for when the congregation is get ting restless. Or, better still, for get it, and when the congregation is getting restless, announce the closing hymn."
Ellen White might not have put it in such a colloquial manner, but the underlying thought is one to which she would have given hearty approval. Mrs. Jackson's letter is actually a heart-cry from every congregation, which may be epitomized thus: "Feed us with the Bread of Heaven. We do not want your jokes or your pleasantries. Give us strong meat. That is what we have come to get; do not send us away empty. And do not send us away, either, with a chuckle in our throats, we would rather have a sob of contrition there. Do not dismiss us with hearts that are light and gay; we would rather feel the pang of con science. And do not give us your finespun theories; we would rather have the solid doctrine of the Word."
It is all too true that the sermon has become the focal point of the worship service. The pity of it is that this major portion of the worship service is recognized as a passive segment, where the congregation is completely (all too often) at the mercy of the preacher. We believe that, with prayer and earnest study, this apparently passive piece of the service could well become one of quiet (cerebral) activity.
If sermons were thought-provoking; if preachers would not do all the thinking for the congregation, and leave them some loose ends to tie up; if they would involve them in Bible study; if they would compel them to listen by the very dynamism of their presentation; if they would speak from the heart and not from the head; if they would hold them with the very urgency of their message, the sermon could well become a most active part of the hour of worship. But it will take much thought and prayer to accomplish this.
Reprinted by permission from Light (Northern Europe-West Africa Division), Vol. 24, No. 3,1974.