A little while ago I visited the Newton & Cowper museum in the little village of Olney (about 10 miles from where I live). Olney is beautiful and well worth a visit if you’re in the area. You can get a nice bite to eat or a coffee, see where John Newton lived, go into his church and see his pulpit, then visit the museum. Two highlights of the museum for me were seeing the little wooden shed where Newton, Cowper, and Bull would smoke their pipes, and picking up a facsimile copy of the first edition (1779) of Newton’s Olney Hymns. Newton would write a hymn regularly to accompany his sermon, and the first section of the book contains hymns that cover a significant amount of Old and New Testaments. The hymn pictured below covers the story of Cain and Abel. I love the last verse:
‘Thus Jesus fell – but oh! his blood
Far better things than Abel’s cries:
Obtains his murd’rers peace with God,
And gains them mansions in the skies
I’ve recently enjoyed reading Eugene Peterson’s Working the Angles: The Shape of Pastoral Integrity. Peterson is a brilliant writer and while I don’t agree with everything he says he is always stimulating, insightful, and thought-provoking. In Working the Angles he argues for three main areas of pastoral work: prayer, Scripture, and spiritual direction. I’m not sure I understand or agree with what he means by the third of those, but his stuff on prayer is particularly good. Here’s a quote on prayer I really liked. Enjoy!
One of the things I get to do here at Grace Community Church with reasonable regularity is lead church services. This is one of those areas that I didn’t think much about at theological college, and I guess many of us don’t spend too much time thinking about when we’re in the busyness of pastoral ministry. Yet the more I do it the more important I think it is. I’ve benefited from great instruction and example from the guys who lead services here at Grace, and I’ve also been privileged enough to witness thoughtful examples of service leading in other contexts. So with that in mind, and for what its worth, here are some reflections on things I’ve picked up from others. None of what follows is particularly original. I’m a bit of a magpie stealing jewels from others, or a beggar telling others where there’s some bread. So take which ever metaphor you prefer and see if any of what follows helps:
- It takes time to prepare to lead a service well. Thinking about how to introduce, close, or link the various parts together requires me to set aside some time to think slowly, and carefully. Is there a psalm, or a verse, or a section of one of our songs that can help us think, meditate, reflect, and reinforce what we’re doing.
- I need to capture a sense of both transcendence and immanence, formality and informality. This is one of the biggest challenges. Where two or three gather Christ is present in a special way, yet appropriate reverence isn’t captured by stuffiness or sobriety. I’ve much to keep thinking about and learning in terms of striking this balance well.
- The concept of ‘flow’ is a helpful word-picture for me. Various traditions talk in terms of movement through the service from adoration, confession, the word of grace, thanksgiving, and commission. Thinking about the movement and flow of the whole service helps me consider where I want people to be by the end.
- One of the things I’m working on at the moment is ‘structured flexibility.’ So I have a pretty tight outline of where I’m going but I need to be prepared to react, particularly off the back of the sermon to help the preacher and the congregation maximise the moment.
- Be neither brusque nor overly wordy. Craft good pithy transitions that enable engagement, but don’t give sermonettes at every other opportunity.
- Most people come distracted and just want to get on with it. That provides a couple of challenges. In one sense you do need to get on with it. You can’t artificially create ‘atmosphere.’ That said you do want to try and slow people down to ‘get into the moment.’ That’s not easy and I’m not sure I’ve figured out any obvious answers yet.
- I need to be aware of the different people present. Different circumstances of life, different ability levels in terms of reading, writing, or comprehension. Most significantly I need to be aware of people there who aren’t yet Christians. I mustn’t presume they know where to find Lamentations or the toilet. They may not know who I am or what ‘atonement’ means. I don’t have to explain everything, but I do need a sensitivity to where people are coming from. I want the service to be accessible without dumbing everything down.
- Minimize notices. We’ve taken to referring people to the meeting guide and only announcing from the front things that affect the whole church. Otherwise the flow of the meeting gets easily disturbed by half a dozen different things. If you let one group give their notice it’s difficult to say no to the rest. Put notices in a bulletin and refer people to that.
- Little things can make a big difference. Avoiding ‘ums’ and ‘ers’ helps avoid unnecessary distraction. We also try to avoid saying things like ‘hopefully you’ll have been given a meeting guide/notice sheet on the way in.’ Don’t say ‘hopefully’ – trust its been done. If tech doesn’t work draw as little attention to it as possible and explain with words like ‘we’ not ‘they’. Make sure you’re at the mic before you speak, and a brief pause enables the sound guys to make sure you’re turned up and ready to go. Little things I know, but they can really help minimise distraction.
I know I’ve still got lots and lots to learn and, thankfully, have a lifetime to do so. What would you add to the above.