How Can We Keep from Singing

My inbox is filling up with questions from worship leaders and pastors who are newly struggling to understand what worship is—now that we can’t sing. For so long, we have identified the pattern of worship with a chunk of singing. And singing has become such a ubiquitous part of worship, that we no longer even think about the purpose it might serve.

In the face of our new reality—churches looking to re-open, but needing to address a new way of meeting together, a way that does not include singing—I want to begin with a few practicalities and ideas, and then simply invite you to share your questions in the comments. I do have some additional blog posts I would like to write—but would appreciate hearing from you re: which would be most useful:

  • I hope to offer a post re: the structure of worship (and how it can be fulfilled without music… in fact, working with the underlying structure without including congregational singing might enrich your use of music once we can return to sung-worship).
  • I hope to offer a post on the purpose of singing in worship and how we can fulfill that purpose in different ways.
  • I hope to offer a post on how to write participatory liturgy and prayer for use in your congregation.

But for now—perhaps you just need a few practical tips/thoughts and some ideas to get you thinking creatively. Because at this point, we are all exhausted from constant decision making, and creativity may not be easily accessible. So here goes…

Some initial thoughts:

  • Keep your services shorter. Partially, this is because a shorter time span leaves less time for the virus to spread. But also, when we don’t have singing—our temptation will be to fill that space with more talking at people. Try to resist that tendency. At first, the easiest way to do this will be to keep services shorter. As you begin to find your way, you can be more creative and find other ways for the congregation to participate rather than just receive (which is part of what congregational singing does for us).
  • Resist the temptation to simply do everything in the same way you always have. Without singing this will only work for a short time. Yes, keeping some level of familiarity is grounding for your congregation—patterns matter to us. But the reality is that we have already thrown normal out the window… and keeping the same exact pattern in your services actually robs the congregation of their primary participatory role (because congregational singing has always provided us that participatory response). The way in which things are not the same—is that the congregation doesn’t have that natural way into a service—so actually we need to push our creativity to make things more different in a way that helps our congregation to be worship participants rather than observers or consumers.
  • Explore resources: on this blog, go to the left column and click on the file folder, as you scroll down, you will see categories including a category called “liturgies” and one called “prayers.” You are welcome to use these resources in your own community (citations are nice!)—no need to ask specifically for my permission. Also, books like “The Worship Sourcebook” “The Common Book of Prayer” “The Celtic Book of Prayer” can be rich resources for you regardless of whether you are within a denomination that would typically use those types of books. Just choose which prayers/readings you use carefully—according to your tradition. Feel free to add additional resources you have found helpful in the comments below.
  • Your congregation needs your “professional polish” less than they ever have before. So expend less stress on producing a professional product (not that we want to be totally sloppy—it’s all about balance, people!). In fact, a few mistakes may make it feel more real… and real contact, real connection, un-mediated experience of each other is what many in your congregation are longing for right now. Don’t do a million takes of something to make sure it’s perfect. Get it close, and let a few mistakes stay in the mix so that they also know it’s real.
  • Expend most of your creative energy on thinking about ways to have your congregation participate in the service rather than simply observe. This is what we are missing in most of our streamed and recorded services right now—and there are ways to drive participation even there. I’ll include just a few ideas below to get your creative brains moving.

Some Initial Participatory Ideas to Play With:

  • Don’t just use the written prayers of others—allow space for others to fill them with their own prayers. I call this “populating a prayer” with words of your own, or with the words of your local church community. Most prayers—psalms included—can be broken into sections quite easily. All you need to do is find the transition points where the poet/pray-er is shifting from one type of thought to another. Between those two thoughts—add some space: perhaps a time of silence; perhaps a prompt to have people speak aloud sentence prayers; perhaps a prompt to have people share just a single word that expresses their response to the portion of the prayer just read. There are many ways to do this. An example of this type of prayer can be found here.
  • Consider adding moments for discussion. I know this isn’t something we have often done in our churches, but now more than ever we need to hear from each other. We need opportunities to share struggles and vulnerabilities and triumphs—so maybe give those moments to the congregation. Yes, we need to be distanced—but I can talk to 2-3 people across 6 feet of space. Or use break-out rooms in zoom (or on other platforms) for this.
  • Hum! Humming is less problematic for virus spreading than singing. I don’t mean just have people hum along to the band, and then continue to do everything the way you’ve always done it. Consider the strengths of humming and use them accordingly. This will work best with a well-known and beloved song. Especially if harmonies are also known. It will work best a cappella. Imagine coming out of a time of discussion, starting with one person humming “Amazing Grace”—others joining in until the sound, muted, still swells to fill the space.
  • Consider what other voices/gifts in your congregation might need to be pulled forward at this point in time.
    • I’m thinking of the poets among us. Words written by and for a particular community can be particularly powerful. We need metaphor and imagery and choice words to ignite our imaginations and keep pulling us forward toward the vision of the good life we are given in Scripture. Who are your poets? Call them out!
    • I’m thinking of the actors and dramatists among us. We need not just words written, but words powerfully spoken. Story-tellers who don’t just speak words, but make them live. Who are your story-tellers? Call them out!
    • I’m thinking of the painters and sculptors and artists among us. We need not just word but image to help us understand the biblical text, to help us understand our current moment. Image-makers help us see more clearly, and we need that desperately in our fogged and smogged world. Who are your artists? Call them out!
  • Have a poem, written by a member of the congregation, read out with care-ful expression—then take time to discuss the poem in small groups. To unpack lines, and word choices. To pull out personal connections that someone else might not see.
  • Instead of a simple Scripture reading, have a member of your congregation tell Scripture—it doesn’t need to be a big production, just some time taken to understand character, and think through tone so the text can be delivered straight out of the mouth of Paul. Or as a bystander at the foot of the golden calf. This will feel personal, so take time to pray in small groups in response to the story told. Talk through where you each saw yourself in that story.
  • Have a painter paint the text for the week—and place that text on the screen, or a scanned photo in people’s hands. Tell them what to look for. Let them pour over it as the text is read out. Let the image be a conduit for prayer.
  • Or have a potter bring their wheel and place it on the stage. Have them work, quietly, as you unpack one of the many biblical texts about the Potter, and the clay. Take time as a community to pray into what it means to be clay, unfired.

These are just a few ideas to get you started–and please feel free to share your own ideas below. Especially if you can tell a story of how it worked (or didn’t work–an even better way for us to learn together!) in practice.

Congregational singing is a wonderful gift—and there is a reason that we are not only instructed but commanded to sing in Scripture. But there are so many other ways and means of worship that we have forgotten. While I will miss singing with my sisters and brothers in Christ… I confess that I’m also a bit excited. What will we discover when the music we have made into an idol is stripped from us? What will we learn about ourselves? About God as the crutch is removed?

But it will not be easy. So please do feel free to place questions (or further ideas) in the comments. Or let me know which of the blog post ideas above would actually be helpful for you. Let’s share the load.

Listening in Two Directions: Listening to the Spirit During the Worship Service

Listening in Two Directions. Photo Credit: Mark S. Images, Flickr Creative Commons

Listening in Two Directions. Photo Credit: Mark S. Images, Flickr Creative Commons

Listening in Two Directions: Preparation
Listening in Two Directions: Listening to the Spirit
Listening in Two Directions: Listening to the Spirit While Planning
Listening in Two Directions: Listening to the Spirit While Practicing

It’s tempting, once we’ve planned, and confirmed or adjusted that plan in practice, to think that we are done listening to the Spirit – that everything is prepared, and now we can simply follow the plan. If the Spirit has been guiding us in our planning, then surely we can just trust that plan completely. No more adjustments necessary.

But our planning and practice are not only listening moments in themselves, they are also the preparation that frees up brain-space so that we can listen in the very act of leading – and adjust accordingly. Because rarely is the Spirit done at this point. He’s still moving, still refining, still longing to speak to us and through us.

And here that argument about spontaneity comes back. Because there is an element of dependence that we need to cultivate – despite good and thoughtful planning. A willingness to move with the fluidity of the Spirit. A willingness to abandon some of our preparation, no matter how prayerfully and carefully it was done, and to move in step with a Spirit that is always doing something new.

Now, I will say this: never have I felt that the Spirit has asked me to completely abandon the preparation we made together. Often, however (although not every week), there are small adjustments that are necessary in a given moment.

Recently, for example, having planned and practiced the service with my ears open – in the very act of playing “O the Deep Deep Love of Jesus” the last line of the second verse jumped out at me: “how for them he intercedeth, watcheth o’er them from the throne.” I continued with the rest of the hymn, and moved on to “The Same Love” in which we sang of Jesus calling us to the cross – in which we learned of the strength of his love to get us to that uncomfortable place. And that one line kept tugging at me. So, somewhat clumsily (and with no warning to the person putting words on the screen), we moved back to that one line about Jesus’ intercession for us. And ending with that one line, somehow became beautifully enabling. The love that is calling us to the cross, is the not only the same love that set the captives free, but the same love that is interceding, is praying for us, even as our hearts are stirred to answer that call. It was something I missed in my planning. Something I missed in my practice. But I’m so thankful that my planning and practice enabled me to be awake at that precise moment when the Spirit needed to gently push my preparations aside and do something new.

I’m not sure if anyone other than myself was moved by that moment. But I suspect that at least one person was. I have often found that those moments when things have necessarily needed to change at the last moment, there is something going on under the surface. Your other ear, of course (as we will learn in the next few posts) should be open your congregation – but they might not tell you everything. Sometimes the deepest struggles are those unspoken. So, no matter how carefully you plan and no matter how wide open your ears in both directions as you do so, sometimes something needs to happen at the last minute: to comfort, to reassure, to challenge, to empower, to simply transmit God’s love more clearly.

Sometimes I have brought back a song we sang earlier, rather than singing the closing song we had planned. Or I have skipped a planned repeat and moved on – or I have added a repeat in a different tone. Or there is the simple (and, for me, the most clearly heard) command to “pray now.”

Those weeks that I am most attuned to the Spirit as I lead are inevitably the weeks I have prepared well and thoroughly, and the weeks I hear the most from those worshipping with me.

Listening in Two Directions: Listening to the Spirit While Practicing

Listening in Two Directions: Preparation
Listening in Two Directions: Listening to the Spirit
Listening in Two Directions: Listening to the Spirit While Planning

Listening in Two Directions. Photo Credit: Mark S. Images, Flickr Creative Commons

Listening in Two Directions. Photo Credit: Mark S. Images, Flickr Creative Commons

The idea of listening to the Spirit during practice may seem silly. After all, you’re simply figuring out who plays what, when, and making sure everything will go smoothly when it’s time for the real deal.

But practice is more than rote learning, or getting our musical ducks in a row (if only we all had musical ducks!). It’s also a moment of confirmation and adjustment. Either practice confirms that I’m following the Spirit’s voice or it is another opportunity for the Spirit to interrupt the “me-show” and re-align my plans with his calling and purpose.

We may have planned well and thoroughly, and tried our best to listen as we did so, but sometimes our sin-selves still get in the way. As we, with prayer, enact the prayer-soaked plans we made, we hear we feel the places that are “not quite right.” The spots where my pride, or my agenda, or my selfishness got in the way of my service to the Spirit.

Listening during practice is also essential because it is at this point we invite others to enter our conversation with the Spirit, adding richness and diversity. It is often in practice that I realize someone else should lead a certain song. Sometimes a band member will offer a Scripture passage that completes a transition – or a band member’s sharing of their spiritual journey through the week will subtly and beautifully transform the shape and flow of the service. Sometimes it becomes very apparent that a certain song simply does not work, or needs to be placed elsewhere.

Again, there is no set way in which the Spirit speaks during practice: except that your practice should lead you (and your band, if you have one) to Jesus. If that happens, you can assume you have heard the voice of the Spirit. If that happens, you can assume that you are serving this part of your “audience” well. That you are offering a gift to the Spirit by joining in his work.

Listening in Two Directions: Listening to the Spirit While Planning

Listening in Two Directions: Preparation
Listening in Two Directions: Listening to the Spirit

Listening in Two Directions. Photo Credit: Mark S. Images, Flickr Creative Commons

Listening in Two Directions. Photo Credit: Mark S. Images, Flickr Creative Commons

It is sometimes assumed that spontaneity (interpreted as a complete lack of planning) is the only way to be truly dependent on the voice of God as we lead. This assumption, however, is not an accurate reflection of God’s movement throughout Scripture.

It’s a strange leap of logic, at best, to assert that the God who planned out the tabernacle in intricate detail and provided complex plans for tabernacle worship would want us to lead his people in worship of him with absolutely no planning or forethought.

New Testament worship also seems to have been quite structured and thoughtfully planned. While we don’t have a lot of details regarding  the planning of gathered worship in the early church, many of Paul’s instructions (including some of his most troublesome and debated instructions) are concerned with order in gathered worship, and reflect a thoughtful working through of what gathered worship should and shouldn’t look like. So I would suggest that we need to employ the same level of thought as the early church – we need to plan carefully but we need to do so while actively listening for the Spirit’s voice.

Setting that debate aside, however, even those who argue for complete spontaneity in worship at least recognize the need for prayer as preparation. And prayer is the primary means of listening to the Spirit during planning, so that you can serve the Spirit as you lead.

So whether you like to plan every detail, or whether you prefer to leave things loose – pray. And don’t fill your prayer up with words, either. It’s the Spirit’s job to point us to Jesus – so ask the Spirit to point you to Jesus in the text or, if there is no text, in the topic for the week. When you begin to see Jesus in that text/topic, ask what needs to happen in order for you to point the congregation toward Jesus. What needs to happen for them to be prepared to see Jesus in the week’s text/topic. How will they need to respond to Jesus when they find him there? Spend time in silence. Read the text. Ask the Spirit to speak to you, be silent again, then re-read the text. Keep praying as you choose songs, as you order them, as you consider your transitions.

I realize that this isn’t earth-shattering advice. But it’s very, very easy, even tempting, to rush ahead and “get planning” without silence, without cocking your head and tilting your ear.

Listening in Two Directions: Listening to the Spirit

Listening in Two Directions: Preparation

Listening in Two Directions. Photo Credit: Mark S. Images, Flickr Creative Commons

Listening in Two Directions. Photo Credit: Mark S. Images, Flickr Creative Commons

I began my series on Listening in Two Directions a couple of weeks ago, with a post about the importance of preparation, and how preparation enables attentiveness during delivery. This week I want to begin talking about the sound toward which our right ear should swivel. If we think about leading worship as serving our two-fold “audience,” God being one part of that audience, what does it look like to serve the Spirit, to listen to the Spirit, through the whole process of worship leading – and what are we missing when we fail to be attentive in this way? Before we dive into the three parts of worship leading – planning, practice, and delivery – I want to offer two caveats and give a general picture of why it is important to listen to the Spirit in every stage of our preparation and delivery.

First caveat: there are no hard and fast rules regarding how the Spirit speaks. In fact, as with all conversations, we each interact with the Spirit differently. So please don’t take the examples I lay out in my next few posts as the one way in which to hear God’s voice while planning and implementing a worship service. The corpus of Scripture shows us, intentionally, a variety of individuals and groups who hear from God in a variety of ways. We should never foist the ways and means of our own relationship with God on someone else.

Second caveat: my underlying assumption in this series is that the Holy Spirit always points beyond Himself. My husband calls the Spirit the shy member of the Trinity – because the Spirit always points to Christ. So, to phrase a complex concept simplistically, we know that we have heard from the Spirit when we are pointed toward Jesus. And we serve the Spirit best by doing the same – by pointing beyond ourselves to Christ.

To some extent, then, the reasons we listen to the Spirit as we lead worship are obvious and hardly need to be stated. Of course we need to pay attention to God – the whole point of worship is to pay attention to God. In fact, everyone should be listening for the voice of the Spirit, not just worship leaders. Worship leaders (and pastors, for that matter) are not super-hero Christians who take people and bring them to God. God always reaches toward us – every one of us – first. Every single one of us needs to be attentive to this reaching. To learn to hear the Spirit’s voice, to see the Spirit pointing toward Jesus as we enter in to gathered worship, and as we worship during the week through our work, in our homes, and through our relationships.

As worship leaders, however, we do have a sacred task to perform. By the power of the Holy Spirit we are invited into the process of God’s constant calling; God’s constant drawing of his people toward himself. If we don’t actively listen for the Spirit’s direction and respond in service to the Spirit we will miss this invitation. Worse, we may become an obstacle to others hearing and responding to that invitation.

The tendency of worship leaders is to drift toward one of our two audiences: God or the congregation. If we fail to listen for the Spirit, we will forget who we worship and our gathered worship will no longer be spiritually formative. If we fail to be attentive to the Spirit then we are leading nowhere and to no one – we will simply follow our own preferences and thoughts and hope that the Spirit will use them. And he very well may use them – but how much deeper, how much richer would the worship of the Church be if worship leaders actively listened for the Spirit’s voice, and joyfully accepted the Spirit’s invitation to join God’s work in his congregation?

Listening in Two Directions: Preparation

Last summer my husband and I took a class at Regent College on public speaking. Like pretty much every course Regent offers it was carefully researched, thoroughly prepared, and well delivered… in this case by Dr. John G. Stackhouse, Jr.

Stackhouse describes public speaking as a gift: the goal is to serve the audience to which you are speaking. To give to them the knowledge, the motivation, the passion, the change you have to offer. Thus your audience must be the focus of your preparation, of your practice, and of your delivery.

Listening in Two Directions. Photo Credit, Allan Old, Flickr Creative Commons

Listening in Two Directions. Photo Credit, Allan Old, Flickr Creative Commons

My brain has a secret “worship theology” setting that is always at a low hum in the background, so this started me thinking about the two-fold “audience” in worship leading. What does it mean to focus in two directions – to focus our preparation, our practice, and our delivery on our congregation and on our God simultaneously? I’ve often described a worship leader’s primary task as one of intense listening – to the congregation and to the Spirit, but the idea of this listening being present throughout the process of preparation, practice, and delivery – while not entirely new to me – has caused me to consider the idea more deeply.

In my next two posts I will explore what it looks like to listen to the Spirit and to your congregation, respectively, but I want to introduce this idea with a further word about preparation.

One of Stackhouse’s key points is that preparation frees up brain space during presentation. If you prepare well, then you can adjust to your audience as you present, shifting to better engage their attention, sensing and responding to difficulties they might be perceiving in your material.

Now, in the world of worship leading, I’ve heard and read a lot of arguments for and against preparation. Usually these arguments pit careful and rigid preparation against the spontaneous and loose leading of the Spirit. On the one hand we have those who meticulously plan every chord, every note, every word. On the other hand we have those who don’t know what song they’re going to sing until they start singing it. This, of course, is a false dichotomy.

You cannot listen to the Spirit without preparation. And the Spirit should be present in every step of your preparation. Also, both a complete focus on the Spirit during delivery and a rigid understanding of preparation as controlled by the worship leader ignore the roll of the congregation in gathered worship. The helpful truth, I think, lies (as it so often does) somewhere in the middle.

Stackhouse’s point regarding public speaking is apt. We prepare because being well-prepared, well-rehearsed, frees up brain space during delivery, giving us the capacity to engage in active listening even as we play and sing and speak. So we prepare well – not so that we can do everything exactly as it has been prepared – but so that we can be free to adjust as the Spirit or as the congregation needs us to adjust.

Think about it. If you’re playing a new song – or if you’re new to an instrument, or to leading itself – isn’t it true that your brain is mostly scrambling for the next chord pattern, the next progression, the next string or key or note? You don’t have the capacity to think beyond the immediate mechanics of the moment. Now, there will be some weeks that are simply like this. You will need to introduce new songs. You can’t mentor a new musician or leader and not expect them to begin with a training period during which the majority of their thought life is taken up with the mechanics of what is happening.

But, as we mature, as we become comfortable with a corpus of music and familiar with the mechanics of leading a band or playing a solo instrument, as we grow in our knowledge and interpretation of Scripture, our weekly planning and preparation should be such that when we get up to lead, we are able to focus not on mechanics – but on the voice of the Spirit, and the movement of the congregation. We should be able to serve our two audiences more fully – ensuring that our worship leading is not just music, not just words, but a gift.

A Season of Thanksgiving

This Sunday, September 22nd, our little church entered a “season of thanksgiving.” Every Sunday from now until Advent, several members of our congregation will stand up, before our congregational prayer time, and name some of the things they are thankful for at this point in their lives. Nothing fancy. Just simple thanks. This is my introduction to that season.

Thanks and HopeMy parents moved recently. This, of course, means that all the boxes that I have stored, out of sight and out of mind, in my parents’ attic for x number of years have come to light – and have come home to roost in my garage. As we sifted through some of their contents, I came across a small disco ball with a tiny pair of Japanese shoes attached to it.

When I lived in BC – 3 years before I moved back to BC to attend Regent College—I went through a deep period of depression. There were a number of circumstances involved, but chief among them: I had just returned from a two and a half month trip to Ethiopia. I returned on an incredible high – sure that God was going to move in my life, sure that big things were going to happen. And they did. Our house burnt down, my childhood home. I had to resign from my job in a very messy set of circumstances – without a safety net. I was unemployed for more than six months, living in my friend’s parents’ home, with no idea how to move forward in any aspect of my life.

It was winter changing to spring at that point. In the Lower Mainland of British Columbia, Canada, this means grey, grey, grey, grey, grey. The weather was no help at all.

I can’t remember how I ended up with my little disco ball. Did someone give it to me? Did I see someone else with one, and track one down for myself? I don’t remember. But I hung it from the rear-view mirror of my little Subaru. Not, I think, with any real purpose; I may have thought it made my car look cool.

And then – one day – the sun broke through the screen of grey. And my car was filled with all these little dancing points of light. And I was so thankful. So thankful just to see the sun. Thankful every moment the sun shone. That little bit of thanks, those little points of light, kept me going through a very dark time.

Then I went to Japan for a year. Again, when I came home I was convinced I would participate in big things. Momentous things. I didn’t. I ended up living back at home with my own parents. With minimal employment. In the middle of a long, cold Albertan winter. Again unsure of how to move forward.

I hung up my little disco ball again – this time adding to it a little cell-phone charm I had purchased somewhere in Japan. A little pair of shoes: a little pair of Geta – Japanese flip-flops (although they are usually made of wood, and so are neither flippy nor floppy) – summer shoes. They reminded me that all I had to do was to keep putting one foot in front of the other; they reminded me – spring will come, darkness will end, winter cannot last forever.

Thanks and HopeThese two things – the disco ball, my little pair of flip-flops – were the only two things that came out of those boxes immediately. Much to Andrew’s annoyance I hung them in our new car immediately, realizing that I need that message again: thankfulness, hope.

I wondered if others might need the same message: simple thankfulness, quiet hope. So we will spend some weeks together, in Bon Accord Community Church, simply telling each other the little things – and sometimes the big things – that make us thankful. Maybe there is some small item, some reminder that can hang in your room, sit on your bedside table, or hang from your rear-view mirror to prompt you to thankfulness, and to keep you putting one foot in front of the other.

We want to be a church, we are a church, that is honest with each other – that lets the cracks show – a church in which the answer to “how are you?” does not always have to be “fine.” Because sometimes you’re not. Sometimes I’m not. But sometimes the darkness that we face, and even the little annoyances we deal with on a daily basis, can become so overwhelming that we see nothing else. We lose sight of the good. We can’t see any more that the sun is shining. But it is! And taking the time to notice that little good might push the darkness back a bit and help us to refocus.

It may be that some of the things others are thankful for are things that you lack. Things you want – maybe desperately. I know that will certainly be the case for me. That’s ok. Because we all, every single one of us, have something, somethings to be thankful for. And if we can be a church that both cries with those who mourn and laughs with those who rejoice – then we will always be a place of welcome. And you might find, maybe you will find, that by taking a moment to celebrate what someone else has, and you don’t have, some of that darkness lessens in you as well. Because it’s out there. There is hope. And even if the sun is not shining over you right now. It’s there. And it’s as bright as ever.

I am thankful for sunshine.
I am thankful for my body:

it will never be on the cover of Vogue, but it works—in a basic kind of way—well enough for me to function and to get things done. I can walk, and run, and jump, and almost reach the highest shelf in my kitchen. I’m kind of happy about that.

I am thankful for my friends and family:

Too many people to mention. None of them are perfect. But they are all a joy – at least some of the time.

I am thankful that I am greeted with joy, exuberance, and great hairy wagginess every time I come home:

Finn (our dog) is pretty great too. ;) Andrew and I have walked through some pretty dark moments together, but somehow we still find the time and energy to be silly with each other. And we still find the time and energy to get out and walk with our dog. I’m so grateful.

Finally, I am deeply thankful for this church:

for the warm, generous, and occasionally raucous crowd we have found ourselves in. And that they have graciously allowed us to lead – even experiment. I am humbled and so very grateful for the opportunity to be here in Bon Accord.


How about you?

300 Quotations for Preachers/400 Prayers for Preachers: A Review

Logos Pastorum Series

Every worship leader should be actively looking for resources. Some of us, however, are better at this than others. I am not one of those “better” people, which is why I have a blog that pushes me to find worship resources that will be of use to others as well as myself. While I write many of the liturgies and prayers for our church myself, I currently have a number of good books on my shelf to which I refer when I’m looking for a prayer or a quote that I can use to frame songs or provide food for contemplative or congregational prayer. When I want to use one of these books, however, it means embarking on a long hunt through indexes of various qualities. Enter Logos Bible Software. Logos has recently released a series of e-books in its Pastorum Series that provides quotations and prayers “for pastors.”

I’ve been asked to review the first two resources in this collection 300 Quotations for Preachers and 400 Prayers for Preachers, but it should be noted that there are five additional volumes in the collection that provide quotations from different periods and groups in Christian history: the early church, the medieval church, the reformation, the puritans, and the modern church. These give you an additional 1500 quotes to peruse.

300 Quotations for Preachers spans hundreds of years of church history. You can search by author, theme, or Scripture reference. 400 Prayers for Pastors contains written prayers by mothers and fathers of the Christian faith, as well as prayers found in scripture. Prayers may be searched by theme, type (intercessory, confessional, etc.), Scripture reference, or author. Both resources contain bibliographic information for each quote and prayer, making it easy to track the excerpt back to its source.

What I like about these resources is how easy they are to use. This Sunday, for example, the message at Bon Accord Community Church will be from John 6:1–15, the healing at the pool. A search for this scripture passage pulls no result. I can, however, also search for “healing.” Among other results, this yields: “A Prayer for the Sick in Hopes of a Recovery, by Richard Baxter; a beautiful prayer by Clement of Rome entitled “Be Our Help and Relief”; an excerpt from Psalm 30; and a quote by John Newton about how assurance grows through repeated conflict. If I hadn’t already written a prayer to read this Sunday (in addition to asking a member of our congregation to write a prayer for mother’s day), I would definitely consider concluding our service this Sunday (perhaps I still will) with “Be Our Help and Relief.” I will mentally file away the John Newton quote for future use—perhaps when we come up against the inevitable question: why do Christians suffer. My experience with these resources thus far is that your difficulty when you choose to use it will be which quote or prayer to use—not whether you can find one.

Most of the quotes and prayers included in this collection are over a hundred years old. G. K. Chesterton is, as far as I can tell, the youngest of the bunch. This is probably my main criticisms of the series. It may be more difficult to find “enduring” quotes and prayers in current times, but it would be helpful to have some current options available. I would encourage Logos to pursue “300 Quotations from the Post-Modern Church,” if they have not begun work on it already, including authors such as Frederick Buechner, Corrie ten Boom, Mother Teresa, Billy Graham, Annie Dillard, Henri Nouwen, Elizabeth Elliot, John Stott, Anne Lamott, and N. T. Wright (I’m going to think of at least twenty additional people for this list as soon as I post this review).

This is not to say that the quotes and prayers included in the collection are not pertinent for today’s congregations—you just might have to work at it a bit. Although archaic language has been somewhat updated, many of the quotes and prayers are still quite dense and will be difficult for the average congregation to grasp in a single reading. For example, for the season of Easter (the seven Sundays between Easter weekend and Pentecost Sunday) I have chosen to begin each service with the lighting of a “Christ candle” and a congregational reading of the following prayer:

Almighty God, who by the death of your dear Son Jesus Christ has destroyed death, by his rest in the tomb has sanctified the graves of the saints, and by his glorious resurrection has brought life and immortality to light; receive, we ask you, our unfeigned thanks for that victory over death and the grave which he has obtained for us and for all who sleep in him; and keep us in everlasting fellowship with all that wait for you on earth, and with all that are around you in heaven; in union with him who is the resurrection and the life, who lives and reigns with you and the Holy Ghost, ever one God, world without end. Amen.

A. A. Hodge[1]

It’s a beautiful prayer. A rich, dense prayer. However, the first time we used it my mother cornered me after the service and asked if we couldn’t change the punctuation to make it make more sense. You see, congregations tend to read quite rhythmically, and there are a few phrases that become confusing without clarifying punctuation (i.e. when read congregationally, it sounds as if Christ has obtained a grave for us—a somewhat disturbing idea, to say the least). As we have adjusted the line-breaks to ease the reading, and as we have repeated this prayer over seven Sundays (our final reading of it being this Sunday), it has become a weighty and meaningful entrance into worship. One would do well, however, before using a prayer congregationally, to attempt to read it aloud in that sing-songy voice that congregations inevitably slip into. Some prayers will work. Others will not, and may need to be parcelled up between the congregation and a lead reader.

My advice should you use these resources (and I do recommend them), is to give your congregation time to absorb them. Use the slides Logos provides and put quotes and prayers up on a screen so absorption can happen through ears, mouth, and eyes. Embrace repetition. Take denser quotes and tease out their meaning by feeding them to your congregation line-by-line, interspersing congregational response, musical response, or congregational prayer. Be creative. A quote can be more than a simple sum-up of thought. It can be a prayer, a response, an invocation. A prayer can be more than a stiff congregational reading. It can be a song, an antiphonal rejoicing, a layered text that is uncovered bit-by-bit.

If you already use Logos, I would encourage you to explore this series further. If you don’t use Logos – you might want to think about doing so. And keep your eye on additional offerings by Pastorum. It’s not just for pastors anymore.

A. A. Hodge Adapted from Hodge, Manual of Forms, 76–77.

[1] 400 Prayers for Preachers, ed. Elliot Ritzema (Bellingham, WA: Logos Bible Software, 2012).

Silencing Worship (Q&A)

Q: Corrie Gustafson asked me to reflect on silence as worship, silence in worship, and why we aren’t so good at it.

I started taking Suzuki piano lessons when I was four years old: a method that emphasises the importance of listening as a means of learning and expression. Within the first few years of my training, as I blundered through a piece as quick as my chubby fingers would go, my teacher stopped me. “Listen to the silence,” she said. You have to listen to the space between the notes – pay attention to the rests – before you can hear where the notes need to go. This is one of the skills that separate a good musician from a great one – the ability to play the silence as well as the tones. To actually heed the rests – considering them not simply as empty space, but as giving shape to the music.

It’s hard to listen to silence in a world that surrounds us with noise. Every store, coffee shop, restaurant we enter will inevitably have music blaring. Many of us turn off our home stereo or TV before leaving the house and switch on the radio in the car. We walk from place to place with ear buds in our ears and iPods in our pockets. I have a theory as to why our culture is obsessed by constant noise: I think that we equate silence with stillness, and we equate stillness with death – of which our culture is pathologically afraid. In order to push death back, we surround ourselves with noise and keep moving.

But it’s not just our culture… Hands up if there’s music playing when you enter your church; hands up if once the band starts they transition musically or with words from song to song; hands up if you hear more words during the sermon; hands up if the music then plays you out into a crowded hall or entry way…

Even in gathered worship we sometimes forget what the music is doing, because we can’t hear the silence between the notes. Our music can become noise if we don’t pay attention to the rests in the score. Corrie asked about silence as worship – and I love that phrasing. What we’ve done by taking silence out of our worship is remove preparation. “Be still before the Lord and wait patiently for him” (Ps 37:7). Remove stillness as an active response to God. “Be still and know that I am God” (Ps 46:10). Remove the awe from our approach to God. “But the Lord is in his holy temple; let all the earth be silent before him” (Hab 2:20). Silence can prepare your congregation for worship. Silence can give them time to ingest the word of God. Silence can provide times of confession. Silence can be a way of letting go. Silence can be a means of rest.


Silence without attentiveness is worse than noise. We cannot just throw silence into our worship services and expect that our congregation will follow (remember we’re all fighting against our culture here). We cannot simply observe silence without – as in music – carefully attending to its length, and its intention. So here are a few things to remember as you add intentional silence to your gathered worship.

  • Consider the length of silence very carefully. You might have to build up your congregation’s tolerance. Most congregations can handle about 30 seconds comfortably. Definitely push beyond this, but don’t push too far too fast. There are times when a silence as long as 5 or 10 minutes may be appropriate, but this must be carefully instructed, and will probably be seldom.
  • Always let your congregation know it’s coming. Whether it’s in an order of service, or on a screen, or a verbal instruction – the congregation must be warned. Otherwise, all you will accomplish is several minutes of uncomfortable rustling while everyone wonders who dropped the ball on the next service element.
  • Always let your congregation know the intent of the silence. If you want them to prepare themselves for the worship service – tell them that on paper, on a screen, or verbally. If you want them to simply rest – let them know. If you want them to spend time in confession, or praise, or digestion of God’s word – give them a heads up.

Despite my lengthy instructions, it’s not difficult to incorporate silence into a gathered worship service. It just takes some intentionality. It takes viewing silence as a valid means of worship. It takes a counter-cultural push against cultural fear. It takes attentiveness to the space between notes – so that carefully crafted silence can bring to life the music that surrounds it.

Summing-up the Liturgical Year Experiment

Joan Chittister, “The Liturgical Year”

This past year (liturgical year, that is) I (Stacey Gleddiesmith – SG) have been walking through the Christian seasons with Ian Walden (IW) and Andrea Tisher (AT) – and we have all been walking with Joan Chittister, as we read through her book The Liturgical Year. For the conclusion of this series, I posed a number of questions to Ian, Andrea, and myself about the experience of walking very intentionally through the liturgical calendar this year. I know that some of you have been tracking with us throughout the year – even reading with us. We would love to hear your own answers to some of these questions – so comment away!

  • Is there one moment or event that stands out to you when you think back on walking through the church calendar/liturgical year with Joan Chittister?
    • IW: Advent, particularly the early stages, which bind up all our tiredness from months of following an invisible Jesus in ordinary time, and restore our hopes by uniting them with Israel’s. Joan confirmed Advent as my favourite time of the year, especially by highlighting that it is… the “beginning” of our year. We start by placing the “end” of Israel’s hopes (and ours), the coming of Jesus, right smack in front of our eyes. It sets a very different tone for the year than “New Year” party loneliness, excess, and regret!
    • SG The memory that crystalizes this past liturgical year for me is singing “Christ the Lord Is Risen Today!” and “He Arose” for weeks, rather than one single, solitary time on Easter morning…. Being able to let loose and celebrate fully (and at length) the resurrection of Christ (and therefore our resurrection to come) gave me hope and strength during a dark time in my life. It was an unexpected blessing.
    • AT: For me… Advent was the most memorable because it was also my first Advent in First Baptist Church (Vancouver) and so I was exploring both what Advent means, and what it means to this community, and how we might engage more deeply in the season… Looking back, I’m excited about how we learned to dig deep – and looking forward, I’m excited to do it again and with a little more awareness of who we are as a church and with a little more confidence that they trust me to lead them in new ways of doing things.
  • What did you find difficult about following the liturgical year?
    • AT: … Practically, it is really hard to live the story during Holy Week, when on the Wednesday night, you gather to rehearse all of the resurrection songs for Sunday morning. It’s a bit like skipping through scenes of a movie and then watching them in the wrong order and trying to stay “in” the story… it is a challenge for me on a personal level, but also on a pastoral level as I lead the 60+ musicians involved through that kind of week. I don’t want any of us to miss out on the week, but I also want us to be prepared.
    • IW: My own lack of preparation. Most events (the beginning of Lent, and even Easter day) caught me unawares, despite this advance reading and anticipation with Joan Chittister. By the time I’d realised the significance of the day, it had already passed, and I wasted the season in regret and never-really-getting-started.
    • SG: Being a worship leader, I need to plan for the next liturgical moment while I am both in the midst of the current moment and evaluating the previous moment. It is exhausting to walk this line… and it has caused me to think significantly my planning process (I’m going to try to write a basic plan for the coming liturgical year over the summer). At the same time, this blurring of lines enabled me to not only see, but experience, the connections between the liturgical seasons in a new way. Connect to the accompanying blog post.
  • What practice(s) will you take with you into the following year?
    • SG: Honestly, I don’t think we, as a church, will celebrate every little day and season… We will, however, preserve the seasons of fasting (Advent and Lent) and try to hold back on celebration, taking time to really prepare for it. We will also hang on to the extended seasons of celebration. Now that I’ve experienced an “extended Christmas” and an “extended Easter” I’m not sure I can go back to a one day “pull-out-all-the-stops” kind of celebration…
    • IW: Fasting / conscious preparation in both Advent and Lent (and figuring out the nature of those fasts, and making practical preparations for them [like clearing out the fridge] a week in advance). A “big” Easter (featuring, at least, communal worship times and personal reflections spanning Thursday, Friday, and Saturday, as well as Sunday)
    • AT: The main practice I’d like to take with me is one of “liturgical awareness” that is contagious… I found Chittister to be so inviting… Her descriptions of seasons and practices have such a winsome and attractive way about them… If I could live the seasons a little more the way Chittister describes them, perhaps there would be less need to convince anyone that participation and awareness of the seasons is a good idea.
  • Having walked intentionally through the liturgical calendar, how would you describe its meaning and purpose in the life of the church?
    • IW: It is a continual reminder of our purpose beyond this life. It insists that our lives aren’t just week-by-week, year-by-year survival, but they are witnesses and pioneers of a transposed life, of years after years that will one day (a day that starts now) be lived in a different, higher “key.”
    • AT: The liturgical calendar ensures that the church celebrates the WHOLE story. We don’t spend a whole year in lament or celebration, but follow the cycles which will allow for them both in the context of a story that is central to who we are. The calendar means that Jesus will have to be the focus for much of the year, which hopefully would be true anyway, but it also means that we’ll have to explore some of the less “popular” aspects of His life and ministry – including the idea that we are waiting for him still (Advent) – and to walk a little more slowly through the “death and resurrection” part of the story (Holy Week).
    • SG: After this past year, I understand what Chittister says near the beginning of her book. The slow, cyclical, plod through the life of Christ and the life of the church through the Spirit works as a spiral calling us ever deeper into the life of God. Humanity is designed for repetition. We need to hear the big story over and over – and the liturgical year is a great tool to guide a congregation through and into this meaningful repetition.
  • What would be the value of introducing some of these practices to the “non-liturgical” church, and how would you go about introducing them?
    • SG: The liturgical year is a key way in which you can work to deepen the spiritual life of your congregation. You don’t need all the bells and smells, but I would encourage “non-liturgical” churches to consider how they can rehearse the story: drawing on the liturgical traditions – but reapplying them in a way that suits the personality and character of their specific congregation.
    • IW: Church unity. However much we may disagree about doctrine, it’s harder to distrust and despise one another when we’re all consciously participating in the same acts at the same time. It gives us something in common we can talk about, for starters! Most “non-liturgical” churches plan preaching series in advance and cherish scripture, and so I would start there, consciously aiming to start a new series on the first Sunday of Advent, on Epiphany, in Lent, in Eastertide, and in Ordinary Time…
    • AT: I’m not really in a completely “non-liturgical” setting, so I think for me, it’s about adding strength and depth to our current practices and possibly adding to some of the seasons/days that we tend to treat more lightly. This next year, I’d like us to engage more in Eastertide, with a sense of heading towards Ascension and Pentecost…. I’m also thinking about ways that we might engage in a day like All Saints. Some of my key volunteers have been thinking with me about some creative ways to engage the day, but in a manner that will be more familiar…
  • How did the experience of walking intentionally through the liturgical calendar impact you personally?
    • AT: I found it very special to walk through the seasons thoughtfully and reflectively WITH you two. And my thinking and reflecting with you spilled over into other conversations and relationships too. I think it helped me feel more of a communal engagement. And the beauty of it is the way that the events of our lives match or completely miss-match the season. It means that sometimes we’re in a depression on Easter Sunday. And that’s okay. Or sometimes we’re in the euphoria of relational bliss during Lent. Or we’re experiencing some other life situation that feels “liturgically inappropriate”… as we gather week by week, there are those in our midst who are full of joy, anger, happiness, despair, excitement, anxiety … and so the calendar helps us to engage the whole gamut of human experience. (A bit like the Psalms, really!)
    • SG: Walking intentionally through the liturgical calendar in the company of Joan Chittister, Ian Walden, and Andrea Tischer gave me a fresh understanding of Jesus. The slow intentional plod of the liturgical year, and its focus on Christ, made me feel that I was matching my footprints (along with the others journeying with me) to Jesus’ footprints in the dust.  Stories I have heard all my life, accounts of Christ’s life that I have read almost yearly, came alive in a new way as I tried to walk my congregation through them… the liturgical year awakened in me a desire to measure my life in a new way.
    • IW: It convicted me! Mostly of how I live for deadlines, not for eternity. I time my life by accomplishments, not seasons, or character growth. This year re-awakened me to the scale of transformation I want to see in my life and goals. I don’t want to forget the height of purpose and depth of character that the various seasons call us to. I want my to-do list constantly reduced, effectively, to “walk with Jesus.”