God's Word for today

Sunday, 20 January 2008

The things we do at church

I recently put up a post concerning some of the strange traditions that we have in our churches - particularly those that we do without even knowing why. But having just returned home from our morning service at St Andrews Methodist Church in Eldorado Park, I started thinking about some of the elements that we include in our worship.

Now stay with me for a few moments - I'm not about to criticise. In fact, many of the things that we do in our worship services reflect a deep spirituality, and I'm not about to chuck the proverbial baby out with the bathwater.

But having transferred my membership at the beginning of this year in order to take up my post as a part-time pastoral assistant, I have become aware that each local church "does things differently".

For example, after only three weeks at a new congregation, I am still trying to learn the words to "The Welcome Song", the piece that is sung after the offering, and various other bits of music that are interspersed throughout the worship service. Judging by the volume of song that is around me, I feel like I'm the only idiot in the place that cannot sing along.

Bear in mind that both my old and new Societies conduct their services largely in English. They both sing pretty much the same hymns, and the order of service has much in common as well. So culturally there is not a huge difference between worship services in what would historically be referred to as "white" and "coloured" communities.

So why am I confessing my ignorance for all of cyberspace to see? Because someone walking into the service for the first time must feel, if you would excuse the analogy, like a lost fart in a perfume factory. When do I stand up? When do I sit down again? Why should we be standing up when reading from Matthew, Mark, Luke or John, but not when reading from other books in the Bible? And my hymnbook must have a few pages missing, because I can't find "We Bring Thee But Thine Own" or "Now Unto Him" anywhere. Why can't they announce the numbers?

And what is that box for that stands in the front of the church every morning? When the offering is received, some people go to the front and place envelopes into the box. Are these prayer requests, or a means of communicating with the church? Or is it like a golf club, where you have to submit your score cards?

If you have been a member of your local church for many years, you will of course know what all these things mean (I assume - perhaps, like the stewards who dutifully hand out the hymnbooks each week and collect them again at the end of the service without really knowing why, you are just "going with the flow" so as not to look stupid).

But spare a thought for the newcomers - these rituals that are such a form of unity for us can make a first-time visitor feel SO excluded when venturing into one of our churches for the very first time. Such a person may decide never to come back. Who knows - that could have been this person's day of salvation!

At the very least, let us explain to the congregation why we do the things we do, and what the purpose of each element of worship is. In some cases, we may need to find out ourselves first...

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