The pew talks back to the pulpit:

Thoughts on the church service

Niels-Erik Andreasen, PhD, is president emeritus of Andrews University, residing now in Helena, California, United States.

Before retirement, I generally sat in church near the front or even stood in the pulpit. Now I sit in the middle, surrounded by others who, like me, occupy their seats in the pew. That is as it should be, and my wife and I are blessed to have a welcoming pew in a church not far from our home and we arethankful to have a pastor occupying the pulpit. That transition from pulpit to pew has reminded me vividly that the pulpit is for speaking and the pew for listening.

I am surrounded in church by worshipers who, like me, have come to listen. Of course, I have noticed that some worshipers express themselves from their seats with raised hands or, at times, calling out “Amen!” or another exclamation. However, that does not change the fact that the pulpit is for speaking, just as the pew is for listening. The apostle Paul would be proud of us for maintaining such good order in church (1 Cor. 14:40), and I would not wish to change that.

However, I do sometimes wonder what the pew would say if it could talk back to the pulpit, not in a rude and disruptive way—but quietly and thoughtfully. Here are some thoughts I believe the pew would share with the pulpit about the sermon, prayers, hymns, and the rest if it could talk to the pulpit.

The sermon

Most sermons are prepared in the pastor’s study one or more days before the service during an intense period of study, prayer, and meditation. Meanwhile, the worshipers make their way to church on Sabbath morning expecting to hear a word from God. How can the pastor’s preparation meet the worshiper’s expectations?

The best answers to this question are obtained by visiting those who occupy the pew and listening to them. So, I have concluded that sermon preparation begins with getting to know the parishioners. Most of them sitting in the pew from week to week look very much like me, next to my spouse, dressed up (or down as the custom may be nowadays), respectable, and generally attentive. Some are younger and perhaps giggle a bit now and then. Others are older and apt to close their eyes for a minute now and again. However, we all are where we want to be, and we do listen.

“When you preach about important issues in the life of the church, society, and the world, we are benefited; but when you preach the gospel, we are blessed.”

A visiting pastor would soon learn that the daily life of a Christian, appearances notwithstanding, is not always easy. College students and young adults face huge pressures from studies or work or dealing with big student loans on top of other expenses. Then follows the struggle to keep up with friends or colleagues who are better off or smarter or better looking or more popular.

Parents always worry about their children, whether they are young or grown. Spouses watch their first honeymoon happiness vanish under the daily grind at work and home, or over budgets or job security. And the older members see life slipping away gradually under the burden of age and illness. Underneath all the respectability, good manners, and pleasant appearance, the comfortable homes we live in, the fine cars we drive, prosperity and achievement on display, lurk the familiar fears, uncertainties, and disappointments or just worries of which we all have our share.

So, what to preach about? The gospel is a winner every time. Once, after an especially good sermon, I complimented our pastor and added this: “When you preach about important issues in the life of the church, society, and the world, we are benefited; but when you preach the gospel, we are blessed.”

If the sermon is for preaching the gospel, it cannot be built upon personal experiences or anecdotes, no matter how charming and sweet. These may serve as illustrations, but the sermon is to be built upon Scripture.

The first step in preparing such a sermon is visiting and getting to know the worshipers. The next steps are reading, prayer, and meditation in the pastor’s study. Many a time while preparing a sermon, I stopped, looked over my sermon notes while recalling conversations with church members, and then asked myself: Is that really what Mr. Smith and Mrs. Brown need to hear tomorrow? Is this my sermon or theirs? The brutal answer to that question ended up in the pile of misguided sermon notes at the bottom of my wastepaper basket! The pew would say to the pulpit: “Get to know us, preach the gospel; let us hear the Word of God.”

The prayer

Once, when I was attending a church with several other visiting church leaders, the local pastor distributed assignments to each guest, and I landed the pastoral prayer. It would be better for a local elder who knows the congregation to lead it in prayer, I thought. The concern is not that the morning prayer is a prayer for the people, so the one who leads out must know their needs. Rather the morning prayer is a prayer to God by the people, spoken on their behalf. During the morning prayer, the leader makes the congregation’s innermost thoughts to be spoken to God from the pew.

Therefore, the morning prayer should be prepared carefully to express the people’s thoughts toward God. They include praise and adoration; thanksgiving and joy; confessions and forgiveness; and, of course, petitions and commitment. But they have to come from the heart of the worshipers, express what they really feel—things they have talked about, shared, worried about, felt sorry for, and been glad of. Some public prayers have become very personal and specific. That may be embarrassing and unnecessary. It is far better to pray in such a way that individual worshipers quietly and invisibly nod their hearts in recognition and agreement, thinking, Yes, that is my prayer too.

When the morning prayer is formal—either because it is simply read from a prayer book or because it is improvised on the spot with all our familiar prayer clichés—it easily degenerates into a mere interlude in the worship service. Thereby a particularly important part of it is lost, namely a moment to speak with God honestly and collectively. Thus, what the pew says to the pulpit is: “Prepare the prayer, make it our prayer (you know us), speak honestly—and not too long.”

The hymns

It is probably impossible to find an agreement on music. For starters, it appears that, by and large in churches I have attended, the people in the pew have stopped speaking about the use of hymns. It is just too complicated and divisive, and many worshipers read the bulletin while the music is playing.

Nevertheless, a few comments on this subject are heard from time to time. Traditional hymns in the hymnal are used infrequently in many places, and when one is selected, it is generally sung off a projection screen, indicating that the screen, not surprisingly, has replaced the book. Participation is generally good if the hymn is an “old favorite.”

However, I have found that there is a growing resistance to traditional hymns. Some have noted that since the hymnal was published, we have seen a variety of new Bible translations to make it easier for new generations to read Scriptures with understanding. We have not seen a similar effort to renew the hymn book and hymn singing in church. Newer hymns in the traditional style, using contemporary wording with newer, updated hymn tunes, do exist but are rarely chosen, with the result that the best older hymns are also omitted. In their place, more popular praise songs are chosen and generally “performed,” nearly always with amplification and accompanied by a variety of instruments, often but not always led by younger members.

However, in many places, relatively few worshipers participate by singing along. It could be argued that our hymnology has failed our churches, leaving a vacuum, and the praise songs have simply filled it with something new and appealing to many. The words of the praise songs, for the most part, are familiar and direct, and they belong to the everyday discourse they communicate. The lyrics tend toward the emotional, sentimental, deeply personal, sensual, or even seductive but are full of grace, passion, friendship, and love. They are set to simple melodies and harmonies, repetitive, easy enough to sing. Even so, they have not penetrated all the way back to the pews, even in churches with a strong band of musicians up front driving the singing forward. Is that because of resistance on the part of some worshipers to this type of music? Or do many of the songs lack the spiritual depth they are seeking? Or is the ubiquitous presence of background music making us casual listeners? I do not know whether we have ever asked the “pew” about it.

Christian worship has always included singing. It is participatory. That does not exclude performed music, of course, but it always includes participatory singing. Therefore, both words and music must be suitable for congregational use, even if that requires a little instruction to get started. Christian churches throughout the centuries have drawn from good music belonging to its own age or even written specifically for worship. No period in the long Christian history has a monopoly on church music. Instead, each period has contributed hymns and music of lasting value. Our hymns must connect with worshipers so that they can readily participate. That goes for the music, but the words also must convey their meaning clearly for our time and not simply be carried forward by a fetching or familiar tune. So, yes, music in worship must be renewed and revived in every generation.

Also, singing in church is designed to make us “fellow travelers.” Worshipers sing together; in fact, it is the only communal activity during worship. Hymns and songs bind the worshipers to one another and to God. The words should describe what the worshipers do and think or hope to do when they arrive at their destination or describe what God has done or promised to do for them. They should have action words, whether physical (working, guiding) or spiritual (believing, longing) or the like. It may take some education on the part of the minister of music, but what the pew says to the pulpit is: “The singing in worship should be community-building, faith-affirming, and motivating in our Christian life.”

Scripture, offering, fellowship

The Scripture the sermon is based upon should be read during worship. The passage, whether read responsively or by a solo voice, should be spoken clearly so that the listeners can understand it without looking it up in a pew Bible or following it on the screen. Either way, the Scripture should be read clearly and beautifully in a strong voice. After all, it is the Word of God.

Meanwhile, although a growing number of members return their tithe and give offerings online, many, perhaps most, continue to place their gifts in the plate during services. That practice has linked the financial support of the church with the weekly service, and church leadership knows that. It is hard to prove this, but it is likely that the level of church support, therefore, is related to the degree to which the worshipers feel connected with and blessed by the worship service. It would be reckless for church leaders to assume that in our time, church members, especially the younger set, simply support their church on principle and percentages alone, no matter what happens in the church service. An uplifting service inspires church support in this generation of believers.

Finally, there is fellowship during the worship hour. Meeting fellow believers, greeting them, having a brief conversation, enjoying spiritual family fellowship—these are all important to those who occupy the pew. I especially have found that senior worshipers always participate in an invitation to meet and greet members in the pews nearby, although it does interrupt the service. Inviting members to come early and meet and greet in the church lobby (narthex) or even outside over a cup of juice or tea seems to work well and be more inclusive of all generations, especially the children and young adults. Eating together before or after the service is a millennia-old Christian practice that can provide good fellowship, especially if the meal includes everyone.

Above all, the entire worship event is to be enveloped in a spiritual experience that lifts us out of the daily life with all its mixture of joy and sadness, assurance and fear, into a higher experience that will cast a glow on the whole week to come. These, then, are a few things that, I believe, the pew would say to the pulpit. Thus, I end with this question: Pulpit, are you listening?

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Niels-Erik Andreasen, PhD, is president emeritus of Andrews University, residing now in Helena, California, United States.

September 2020

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