Tuesday, 31 May 2011

Escaping the lowest common denominator

One of the problems with Methodism arises from the way that preachers operate, moving round a Circuit. There are 14 churches in my Circuit, and of course I'm in a different church every time; churches have a different preacher every week. It's not easy to lead worship in a congregation you only know superficially, and see once in several months!
The result is we drift to the lowest common denominator, the one-hour hymn sandwich, and it's extremely hard to break away from it. I vaguely remember the odd attempt by one church to maintain some continuity by giving preachers texts to preach from, but it didn't last long. One church went all charismatic for a while, with masses of choruses, but there were a lot of tensions, and it fizzled out in the end. There's only one church in the Circuit which has tried to maintain its own distinctive style for the entire 24 years I've been in Birmingham, and that's my own.

It started simply enough. We shared a minister with another church with a 9.30 service - I think; it was very early anyway - and it was hard for him to get to my church for eleven. So we started with a few minutes of choruses, led by the stewards. Eventually, we decided it wasn't right that leading worship should be restricted to the few, so we opened it up to everyone. Some of the people who screwed up the courage to take it on went on to become stewards themselves, and bit by bit we reached a situation where most people get involved with leading worship.

At the same time, the makeup of the church was changing. When I arrived in 1987, there were slightly more white people than black. As time passed, the number of black people increased, as did their influence in the church. When a volcano erupted in Montserrat, a lot of the refugees were housed locally, and the church suddently became about 80% black; this has remained roughly the same since. A significant number of Caribbean people are from Pentecostal backgrounds, and we have a fair few Africans. They're used to longer, noisier services, and like the service to be a bit more than a one-hour hymn sandwich. We've also made a practice of stopping for a cup of tea and buscuits after the service, which has made a big difference. A church is a community after all, and if we don't spend time talking to each other, we can't function.

Unfortunately, our slightly longer service sometimes causes conflict. Of the four ministers we've had since I've been here, one didn't want us to have choruses at all when he was taking the service - he once told me he didn't feel it was  'really worship' - and another always wanted us to start before eleven, and only have a very few, so that he could finish at twelve. There have been occasional conflicts with Local Preachers as well. One once wanted to take over the choruses himself, as that it could be 'part of the service', and never mind the person who'd prepared to do it. I was stewarding, and didn't let him; it would have been gross discourtesy, and it's already part of the service anyway! Then there's the odd one or two who think we should finish exactly on the hour; one once stopped for a cup of tea, then started a row with us about it. This is, of course, the problem. There will always be those who want the short, easy service, and will try to impose it on others.

The service is becoming more of an issue as one member's children, now in their 20's, have moved to another church because it has livelier worship. So how do we liven things up more, with all the drawbacks of the Methodist system? Naturally, it's landed on my plate for the moment. We can't start the choruses earlier, since we've asked about an earlier service, and only two people wanted it. The only option I can see is to tell the preachers that while the service starts at eleven, we want them to start at quarter past. Their hour would then end at quarter past twelve, and that would at least give us a slightly longer service without - hopefully - anyone wanting to hurry us up. We could then talk about where to go next.

We're not going to solve this in a day; we're also starting a Sunday School soon, and so one question is how to involve the kids in the service. I know from experience that they can do far more than just take the collection round, despite the efforts of the odd one or two who - inevitably - want to keep them in 'their place'. Bit by bit, if we keep going, I think we'll continue to make progress. It comes back to basic principles. The church is the people, not the minister or the preacher, and the peoples' will must prevail, or the congregation will fade away, and the church end up closing.


  1. One of the churches that I ministered to in the Midlands had what they called "pre-worship" (no, not a great name, but don't let it distract you) that started 15 minutes before the scheduled worship. It was led by church members, the majority of whom were neither stewards or Local Preachers and consisted mainly of singing and a few prayers by the leader.

    The "official" service started at 10:30 (in this instance) and the minister or Local Preacher was expected to begin at that time rather than during the pre-worship time. A number of church members didn't like the pre-worship and simply timed their arrival at church for about 10:27.

    Expecting the minister for 11:15 sounds reasonable.

    Can I also give a perspective as a minister? A lot of times I had three services on a Sunday in three different churches and other house-bound folk expected me to do visits with them as well. I think that, just as a general principle, it's courteous to let people know when a service might end so that they can plan accordingly even if you have to tell them to expect the service to end a half-hour "late".

  2. Some preachers think being in charge of worship means they can do whatever they want on that day.They're only invited to lead a worship, and therefore they must respect the protocol and traditions of the local church. If all aspects of the worship has been agreed at the Council Meeting then the preachers must adhere to them.

    You could also send the structure of your service to the LP Meeting so that preachers are fully aware of what they must expect when they come to your church.

  3. This reminds me of the issues which came up when Worship Leaders were first introduced. The problem is that there has been a tradition for generations that the preacher appointed is responsible for what happens in worship - the result is too often that the preacher alone will decide what happens in worship. In the circuit I was in at the time, some preachers were willing to use Worship Leaders, others were happy to let them actually lead, and some refused to co-operate at all. It took time for trust and teamwork to develop.

    As a preacher, I am responsible for what happens in worship. That doesn't mean I have to do it all. On the other hand, it also means that others seeking to take part in leading worship must do so with a sufficient degree of competence. My particular bug-bear is churches who like to provide readers, but do not then ensure that the readers can actually read the scriptures. Having suffered a few weeks of incoherent and inaudible renditions which killed my selected readings stone-dead, I refused to co-operate and returned to my usual practice of reading them myself. The local ringleaders were furious, and I heard myself called a control-freak; the vast majority of that congregation thanked me repeatedly - "Now we can hear and understand..." they said.

    Surely worship is the shared activity of the people of God, enabled by those who have particular gifts and skills. It must not simply be a performance by the preacher or the choir or worship band. Or a platform for a local pressure group to have their way.

  4. Some good thoughts from all participants here.

    Owing to a change of Circuit boundaries, I've moved from a Circuit with a large number of Worship Leaders to one where there are rather fewer. I believe that I have a good track record of working with Worship Leaders, though I might do this even more readily if I didn't feel that their training is rather minimal.

    The church at which I am a member has its themes decided by the housegroup leaders and the preachers seem perfectly happy to preach from a text selected by others. I certainly am. Nobody is forced to do this but, if you don't want to take part, you won't be planned at that particular church. Sounds fine to me.

    The suggestion of having choruses for 15 minutes before the 'official' start of the service is an excellent one. Also, I'm happy to include choruses during the service proper, as long as old and new hymns aren't frozen out.

    Finally, may I endorse the suggestion that there should be liaison with the Local Preachers Meeting. We do take note of what congregations say to us!

  5. This is where things can get snarled up. Like any preacher who doesn't know us - and one or two who do - you see the choruses as being a preliminary to the 'official' service. We see them as an important part of the service, which is why we're not comfortable to start earlier and have them as people come in.

    Things have moved on a bit since I posted this, and and I'm now effectively doing the Plan for my church. Most services will be taken by our own preachers and Worship Leaders, so we'll have more freedom to develop our own style, while still giving enough services to preachers from round the Circuit, as we certainly don't want to lose that.

    I agree with what you say about Worship Leader training, up to a point. I think leading worship, or preaching, are things which any person of normal ability can do, with a bit of assistance when they're starting. That's been very much borne out by our policy of getting everyone involved in leading choruses. Everyone can do it, including the kids if they're left to get on with it. Basic training is OK as a beginning, but I think there should be more emphasis on ongoing training, for preachers as much as Worship Leaders.