Looking at many churches in the PCA it’s fair to say that singing and preaching seem to be promoted above everything else, and I think that this is a potential problem. Maybe you are thinking “how are they promoted?” The answer is that we give the most time to the things we think are the most important, and in many churches the most time is connected to the sermon and the singing from the congregation.
Just consider the following break down of what I would consider the average PCA church (there was no formal study, I’m simply compiling the services I have seen on the last several years):
- 20 minutes of singing
- 30-45 minutes of preaching
- >5 minutes of Scripture reading
- 5 minutes of prayer
- 10 Minutes for communion (but in most churches only once a month.)
We also need to understand that most churches have a spoken or unspoken social contract regarding the length of the service. Don’t believe me?, I dare you to decrease or increase the service by 30% and see what kind of responses you get. Either you’ll hear jokes that the sermon prep must have been short this week, or you’ll hear grumbling (from youth and adults alike) that the service seemed to drag on forever. Because of this loosely set length, there is only a certain amount of time that any element can receive.
Before making a decision about the value of this pattern, however, it might be good to examine some of the possible reasons that this happens.
First of all, much of the average church service is conducted by the pastor, and this means that he becomes the defacto time keeper. (While the pastor planed to only preach for 30 minutes, he included an extra illustration and all of a sudden the sermon is 35 minutes.)
Other times, pastors reemphasis the same idea several times, often in result of negative nonverbal feedback. This often causes us to stutter out toward the end of the sermon as we begin to hit deeper application. As a fellow pastor says we “had trouble landing the plane.”
I need to be honest here, I am guilty of every one of the above habits, but it’s something that I see as a major problem.
Secondly, I’d also wager that because the pastor is often the time keeper, when special elements arise (maybe a baptism, or a missionary giving a update), the sermon is the last thing to get trimmed down, and so while other elements shrink the sermon is still taking up 40-60% of the time.
When it comes to singing, it is often seen as the primary way that members of the congregation are actively participating in the worship. Because of this when a church is setting up their worship patterns, singing is given a lot of time, so that the people might have enough participation in the service.
So is this heavy emphasis on preaching and singing a bad thing? I’d say yes.
And it turns out so do the Westminster Divines. In fact, in the directory of worship in the section on public reading of Scripture they say the following about the importance of balancing of elements in a worship service:
“How large a portion shall be read at once is left to the discretion of every minister; and he may, when he thinks it expedient, expound any part of what is read; always having regard to the time, that neither reading, singing, praying, preaching, nor any other ordinance, be disproportionate the one to the other; nor the whole rendered too short, or too tedious.”
While this part of the Directory of Worship is not binding in the PCA, it is still helpful and “is an approved guide and should be taken seriously as the mind of the Church agreeable to the Standards.”- Preface to the Directory for Worship, Book of Church Order
I’d take from this statement the idea that when preparing a worship service, care should be taken to balance all of the elements of worship. Practically what this means is that, the sermon has to be tightened (not cut), and the singing reduced so that prayer, the reading of scripture, the giving of offerings, and the celebration of the sacraments can find their proper place in the church.
I must push a bit further here and say that if we truly take the above guidelines from the DOW to heart, many churches infrequent celebration of the Lord’s supper would need to be reexamined. It is entirely fair to say that the average church only gives the Supper two minutes on any given Sunday (10 minutes once every 4 weeks, means 2.5 minutes per week).
I know that there are some questions that arise out of my line of thought and let me try to address some of them.
Whats wrong about having a high view of preaching (It sounds like you are talking about demoting preaching)?
Nothing is wrong with preaching being one of the ordinary ways that God blesses his churches. But I’d suggest that if we rightly connect singing as well to the ordinary means of the Word, than that one mean wrongly demotes the sacraments and prayer. My concern is no removing preaching from its proper place but putting prayer and the sacraments back where they belong. I also understand that some people might argue that in an age where preaching is seen as unimportant it’s all the reason to spend more time emphasising it. To that I would argue that if you were sick from a lack of a vitamin C, the solution would not be to begin a vitamin C-only diet.
Whats wrong with a lot of singing?
While nothing is wrong with singing, I would argue that it is not the only way that members of the church should participate in the worship of God. There are other appropriate places where members of a congregation can participate, this includes both prayer and Scripture reading, the giving of offerings, and public professions of their faith.
Now I know that some readers might be offended by what I’m saying, while others are simply putting me into the “weak” camp in the PCA. Some of you are saying to yourself “my preaching takes as long as it takes.”
Let me say: I absolutely believe that preaching is a vital part of the life of the church, and the call to preach is a fire in our gut, that makes us say, “Woe to me if I do not preach the gospel!”. But I wonder if we often defend our preaching for less noble reasons. Deep down sometimes we preach longer for the sake of being seen as wise, or authoritative. We preach longer to calm the imaginary objections to our ministry. Some times we preach long because we haven’t been disciplined in the preparation or our text.
I’d also say that I doubt music leaders are guiltless when it comes to some of the less noble reasons why they increase their time in front of the congregation. We are all effected by sin.
When we elevate preaching and singing with tell our pastors that their sermons is the sum of their ministry, and we might even be subtly promoting the idea that bigger is better. It tends to reason that if a bigger church is preferred over a smaller one, and greater influence is preferred over lesser, then a long sermons is preferable to a short sermon, (After all are you gifted enough to preach for 45 minutes?). This puts damages pastoral ministry, It’s like saying that we are in shape if we can bench press 200 lbs while at the same time we are not able to stand on our own strength.
From a congregational perspective, I’d go as far to say that when we only have members sing (and give offerings) we in effect rob them of their full participation in the worship of God.
One Possible Way Forward
Without trying to suggest that I’ve solved the problem, let me share how we ended up trying to bring together the idea of not having one element out way the other elements.Our elders made the decision to have members more actively participate in the different elements of worships. Rather than having one time of singing ,or one time of reading , we’d have a number of shorter times which each element. We decided that the service should be around an hour long, and that prayer, scripture reading and the sacraments should have a larger role. To start the sermons length was shortened by 15-20 minutes, to be around 20-25. We also capped the amount of singing to four songs (a fifth is sung during communion). This allowed more time for the other elements, like (which the congregation actively participates in). We also set the goal of having one Old Testament and one New Testament reading each week (and we have different members read these passages). Often each reading is at least 15 verses in length. Including the call to confession and promise of forgiveness, we have increased the amount of Scripture, to at least 10 minutes of reading. In addition we have the Lords supper on a weekly basis. This has given us, what I think is a more balanced time of worship.
- Greeting (Read between the people and the leader)
- Call to Worship (Read between the people and the leader)
- Prayer of invocation (extemporaneous prayer by leader)
- Song (All)
- First Scripture Reading (Member of congregation)
- Song (All)
- Call to Confession (Introduced and read by the leader)
- Prayer of Confession (Read between the people and the leader)
- Silent Prayer (Hopefully all)
- Promise of Forgiveness(Read by leader)
- Song (All)
- Offerings, Greetings,and Petitions (People move around to greet each other and at the same time put offerings and prayer requests in a basket at the back of the space)
- Song (All)
- Second Scripture Reading (Read by a member of the congregation/or the pastor)
- Prayer of People/Pastoral Prayer (Prayers are read between the people and leader with pauses for silent prayer between each request. End with a short pastoral prayer that includes and public petitions from the congregation)
- Sermon (Pastor)
- Communion (Christians invited to come forward)
- Song (Sung as the people come forward for communion)
- Creedal Response (Read in unison)
- Doxology (Sung by all)
- Benediction (Explained and performed by Pastor)