More About Tables and Music

Q. You recently wrote about the shape of the communion table. In our church the question is, "Where shall we put it?"

A. A few years ago RW carried an article, "Where's the Font?" We can now ask, "Where's the table?" Let me answer the question by relating what I have seen in a number of Reformed church buildings.

In some churches the communion table is nowhere in sight—except on "Communion Sundays." One church in the Netherlands removed the table because the consistory said it might distract people's mind from the Word and direct it to the sacrament—certainly a dangerous Roman Catholic tendency! A modern American church took the table out of the sanctuary "because the seekers we're trying to attract wouldn't know what it's for." I consider both of these reasons theological malarkey.

Another church I visited had pushed the communion table against the back wall of the pulpit area, where it was used as a temporary resting place for a guitar, a speaker (the electronic type), and the props for the children's sermon. Much as I appreciate guitars and children's sermons, it seemed an indignity to use the table as a storage area. We do not consider our place and objects of worship "holy," but we must treat worship vessels and furniture with respect.

In our own church (as in most Reformed and Presbyterian churches) the table remains in the sanctuary in a more or less visible place. Even though the Lord's Supper is not celebrated every Sunday, the table is a reminder that we take the sacraments seriously as "visible means of grace." The table and the font are important symbols of the grace of God.

Q. At the recent COLAM conference a speaker made a passing reference to "those churches that have made a sacrament out of music." What could that mean?

A. I cannot speak for the speaker, but if I understand his or her remark correctly, it may mean that in some worship services music takes on a role that has traditionally been played by preaching and the Lord's Supper. Perhaps the church mentioned in the previous answer was guilty of that. The Table with guitar was pushed to the back wall—partly because all the pulpit area was taken up by musical instruments, a sound system, and musicians. Does that mean that in this church music was more important than the Lord's Supper? Again, the musical part of the one-hour service was about twenty minutes long, while the service had neither a service of confession nor the Lord's Supper. Could it be that in reaction to the dominance of the sermon in Reformed worship some are now making music dominant?

I have generally found the "praise and worship" movement (in spite of its unfortunate title) a healthy one. But here again, we need the weight of Word and sacrament (and remaining in touch with our worship heritage) to preserve a balanced worship experience.

Q. Isn't it a matter of great concern that the Christian music industry churns out so many new hymns and choruses? Most of these are sung enthusiastically by some churches, but after a month or two many of them are forgotten. And many of them aren't worth singing even once!

A I am going to give you a "Yes. . . but" response. On the one hand, I share your concern about the flood of Christian songs produced by the Christian music industry. Certainly much of this is second- or fourth-rate stuff that does not merit serious consideration. One needs to be concerned whenever a (Christian) product seems market-driven. Moreover, if congregations limit their hymn repertoire to such music, they may lose their ability to appreciate "the great hymns of the church."

However, my concern is tempered by two considerations. First, we can also be grateful that so many Christian composers and poets are sharing their gifts with the church—even if not all the efforts are first-rate. Second, a historical perspective may help—especially in the case of Charles Wesley. Wesley has been canonized in nearly all hymn books with perhaps a dozen hymns. But he wrote nearly six thousand hymns, and my hunch is that most or all of these were at one time sung in worship services. Over the years the mediocre ones were filtered out and the better ones survived. And the church survived the process.

Of the large number of hymns and choruses produced today, few will survive the next one hundred years. And the church will also survive that winnowing process.

Harry Boonstra (hboonstr@calvin.edu) is former theological editor of RW and emeritus theological librarian of Calvin College and Calvin Theological Seminary, Grand Rapids, Michigan.