I’m posting a few thoughts on how we put together our Sunday gatherings in The Crowded House in Sheffield. The previous posts I’ve looked at the aim and shape of our gatherings. Here I turn to one of the principles that guides how we select the content.
Familiar and responsive
We want the shape and much of the content of our meetings to be familiar to regular attenders. This is because we want people to focus on God and not on the service itself. We do not want people wondering about what is going to happen next. This is how C. S. Lewis puts it:
Novelty, simply as such, can have only an entertainment value. And [people] don’t go to church to be entertained. They go to use the service, or, if you prefer, to enact it. Every service is a structure of acts and words through which we receive a sacrament, or repent, or supplicate, or adore. And it enables us to do these things best — if you like, it ‘works’ best — when, through long familiarity, we don’t have to think about it. As long as you notice, and have to count, the steps, you are not yet dancing but only learning to dance … The perfect church service would be one we were almost unaware of; our attention would have been on God.
But every novelty prevents this. It fixes our attention on the service itself; and thinking about the worship is a different thing from worshipping … A still worse thing may happen. Novelty may fix our attention not even on the service but on the celebrant. You know what I mean. Try as one may to exclude it, the questions ‘What on earth is he up to now?’ will intrude. It lays one’s devotion waste …
Thus my whole liturgiological position really boils down to an entreaty for permanence and uniformity. I can make do with almost any kind of service whatever, if only it will stay put. But if each form is snatched away just when I am beginning to feel at home in it, then I can never make any progress in the art of worship. (C. S. Lewis, Letters to Malcolm: Chiefly on Prayer, Mariner Books, 2002, 4-5.)
For us this means two things.
- Our gatherings normally have the same shape as outlined above: (1) call: we come to worship, (2) confession: we confess our sin, (3) word: we hear God’s voice, and (4) response: we respond in faith.
- We choose from a fairly small stock of confessions and creeds so the wording becomes familiar to people. For other aspects of the meeting (such as the call to worship or response to the word) will draw widely on the words of Scriptures, either read or responsively, as appropriate for the themes of the meeting.
We also want our gatherings to be responsive. That is, we to gather with the expectation that God will speak to us and that we will respond. So our meetings are planned, but with response built in and with a commitment to adapt, especially after the sermon. We expect God to be at work during our gathering and we want our meetings to facilitate that work. As those leading the meeting sense the congregation responding with conviction of sin or joy in Christ or wonder at God’s glory or resolve for mission, we want to ‘steward the moment’ by allowing people to express their response or expressing it on their behalf.
Again the principles of familiarity and responsiveness may sometimes be in tension. But a familiar shape which includes time for response in familiar forms means that this tension need not normally be a problem.