From First Thessalonians:
We have been approved by God to be entrusted with the message of the gospel, even so we speak, not to please mortals, but to please God who tests our hearts. As you know and as God is our witness, we never came with words of flattery or with a pretext for greed; nor did we seek praise from mortals, whether from you or from others.
(From the Daily Office Lectionary – 1 Thess. 2:4-6 (NRSV) – December 4, 2012.)
I would like to have a word with the clergy, music directors, musicians, choir directors, altar guild mistresses, sacristans, choristers, Sunday School superintendents, lay readers, acolytes, and a score of others about all the things many of us are doing to get ready for Christmas.
I’m sure that you, like my colleagues and me, are planning liturgies, choosing music, decorating sanctuaries, casting church school pageants, rehearsing anthems, laundering vestments, practicing readings, learning how to swing thuribles, and doing dozens of other preparatory tasks as the special events of the holiday loom every closer. Your looking forward to your Sunday School Pageant, to the Christmas Cantata, the Christmas Eve Family Service, the Midnight Mass, or whatever the “big event” may be in your congregation. You’re hoping, expecting that there will be a large turnout of appreciative people, probably many who only show up at Christmas (or maybe also at Easter), but you’re really hoping that a big crowd of parishioners will be there.
Last Sunday evening my parish’s choir did a wonderful job of offering a service of Lessons and Carols. It was the shorter version of that model of worship: six lessons each followed by a hymn or choral offering. Other music included a prelude, a couple of additional hymns at the beginning and end, an offertory anthem, and a postlude. A chanted vesper responsory and a few chanted collects were thrown in for good measure. The music was beautifully performed. The six readers of the lessons had obviously practiced and all read very well. Members of the choir had provided, and some non-choir volunteers had laid out, finger food and snacks for a reception in the parish hall following the service.
Barely 40 people attended. Not even a quarter of the Nave was filled. Those who attended all praised the choir’s, the officiant’s, and the readers’ efforts; they said it was a lovely experience. A couple of people said something to this effect, “It’s too bad more people weren’t here.” The spouse of a chorister was rather more critical and wondered why everyone had even bothered with all the planning, all the rehearsals, or the offering of the service when so few parishioners turned out.
Why? Paul directly answers that question in this bit from his first letter to the church in Thessalonika: “We [do it], not to please mortals, but to please God.” We do it for an audience of One.
A service of worship has many of the elements of a dramatic presentation or a musical concert, and much of the preparation we do for worship is the same as is done for those sorts of events. In many ways, worship is a drama . . . but in one important way it is very different. There is no difference between performer and audience; there is, in fact, no human audience. Every man, woman, and child who participates is an actor, not an observer.
For generations the church has acted as if these were roles of worship: The worship leaders (clergy and liturgical assistants, choir, liturgical musicians) are the performers of worship; the congregation is the audience; and God is the prompter of worship, i.e., God tells the worship leaders what to do. My favorite theologian-philosopher Soren Kierkegaard in the 19th Century wrote that that was all wrong. In corporate worship, he suggested, the people should be the performers, the worship leaders are to be the prompters, and God is the audience.
It doesn’t matter that only a few people turned out for the service of lessons and carols, or for any service. If we do all these things we are doing, all the liturgical design, all the musical rehearsal, all the polishing of silver and decorating of the church, and no one shows up on Christmas Eve but ourselves, it will not be for nothing. We do what we do, not to please mortals, but to please God.
So clergy, music directors, musicians, choir directors, altar guild mistresses, sacristans, choristers, Sunday School superintendents, lay readers, acolytes, and the scores of others doing all the things we are all doing to get ready for Christmas . . . do them to the best of your ability. We are doing them for the audience of One.
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Father Funston is the rector of St. Paul’s Episcopal Church, Medina, Ohio.