Our Sunday evening worship service has experienced a mini-revival.
Though Sunday evening services are part of our church tradition, it appears they’re on the decline. At least, that was the case with our evening service several years ago. The numbers were down to ten or twelve people. And we wondered what to do.
We started trying different approaches to worship. We did this not so much to draw in the masses—that felt gimmicky to us—but rather to see what would be a fitting way to end the Lord’s Day for the folk who did come.
After experimenting with various liturgies and litanies, we tried lectio divina. I was introduced to this practice by Steven Chase of Western Theological Seminary in the summer of 2005. It struck me that it might work well with our evening worshipers. And it has.
What is lectio divina? Well, first of all, it’s Latin for “holy reading.” It’s meditative. It’s Christian. And it’s ancient.
Lectio divina allows an individual or a group to contemplate a selection of Scripture in a meditative way. The intent is to leave worshipers collectively open to the leading of the Holy Spirit as God’s Word is heard. Sometimes lectio divina is called “listening with the ears of the heart.”
For us, it has become the Word section of our evening liturgy. Where there might normally be a Scripture reading and sermon, there is lectio divina.
Practicing Lectio Divina
Here’s how we’ve adapted the practice of lectio divina for our setting. First, we sit in a circle. This helps us remember that, through God’s Spirit, all of us can be open to each other. Honestly, the circle would intimidate me if I were new to it, but it attracts more people than it repels. One worshiper reflected, “The circle physically helps me participate, focus, and stay aware of listening to others, responding to their words, responding to the Spirit among us.”
The practice begins with an invitation. If there is even a single person in the room who has not previously participated in the practice, I talk through what will happen. Nothing needs to be a surprise. Then I speak Psalm 46:10 this way:
“Be still and know that I am God.” [pause for a few breaths]
“Be still and know that I am.” [pause]
“Be still and know.” [pause]
“Be still.” [pause]
Then I read the passage we’ll be focusing on. In general, lectio divina is meant to be used with short passages, often as short as one verse. However, our readings are often longer. The reason is that the passage we meditate on is the passage I will preach on the following Sunday morning. This has proven to be an immeasurably rewarding experience for everyone who participates. We all gain insight and are more deeply formed by Scripture through this practice that spans two Sundays. It’s a kind of communal exegesis. So what I read is usually the full preaching passage for the following Sunday morning, which is often 10-15 verses or less. If it’s more than that, I find a way to shorten it for our lectio divina (not for preaching).
I read the passage through twice, slowly. Reading slowly is important so that worshipers can listen well. Then there’s a time of silence, which I usually introduce by saying, “Let’s be in silence together.” Then after a time (I recite two Psalm 150s in my head; others who lead wait for a break in the busy traffic outside our downtown church building), I make an invitation to respond: “You are invited to respond with a single word that the Spirit has given you in the silence.” These single words that worshipers utter often excite my own spirit about the focus of the text and the homiletical possibilities.
Then I read the passage again, slowly, and again we observe a period of silence. I follow that with another invitation: “You are invited to respond with a phrase that has come to you in the silence.” Both the phrases here and the words following the first invitation are usually from the passage itself, though they do not have to be.
Finally, I read the passage a fourth and final time, slowly, followed again by silence and then a final invitation: “You are invited to share thoughts, feelings, and questions that have come to you in these times of silence.” Not once in eight years of doing this has the Holy Spirit left us high and dry. There have always been insightful comments of one sort or another, even when the reading has been as short as one sentence from Psalm 23.
I treat the comments people offer at the end like the “wondering questions” in Children & Worship (developed by Sonja Stewart and Jerome Berryman): I don’t respond. I may be the worship leader and the pastor, but I’m not there to provide all the answers. I allow the questions to float in the air; sometimes other people respond and sometimes they don’t. That’s okay. I don’t even prepare for the passage with any exegetical work. I want to be as open to a fresh hearing of the passage as all of the other worshipers are. All I do ahead of time is ensure that I’m able to read the passage clearly.
The eight years of practicing lectio divina in evening worship have been a blessing beyond description. Our attendance hasn’t increased much, but no one is concerned about that. This group of people, dependent on the Holy Spirit, is listening to God’s Word with expectation, humility, and joy, and the church is stronger for it. We have very frequently had visitors drop in on our evening services, ranging from homeless people to internationally known surgeons to construction managers. While some visitors have appeared a little uncomfortable with the practice, many have delighted in it—which is about what happens in morning worship in any church, as far as I can see. In fact, some visitors’ delight has turned into regular attendance and congregational involvement. One worshiper commented, “Participating in lectio divina has become a discipline for me. Weekly meditating and being silent with Scripture together with others brings me to be more involved with the text from week to week.” Another shared: “It puts me in a place of awesome peace and has me so connected to God.”
Sounds like revival to me. With nothing more than God’s Word, God’s Spirit, and listening with the ears of our heart.
Service with Lectio Divina
“Christ, Whose Glory Fills the Skies” LUYH 667, PH 462/463, PsH 481, TH 398
“As the Deer Pants for the Water (Psalm 42/43)” (st. 3) LUYH 332, PFAS 42B
Prayer for Illumination: “Blessed Jesus, at Your Word” (st. 2, 3) LUYH 763, PH 454, PsH 280, TH 303
Listening to Exodus 34:29-35 “Be still and know that I am God.”
[Read through passage slowly twice.]
Silence [Invitation to share a single word that has touched you in the silence.]
[Read passage through third time.]
Silence [Invitation to share a phrase.]
[Read passage through fourth and final time.]
Silence [Invitation to share any thoughts, feelings, questions.]
Song: “I Want to Walk as a Child of the Light” LUYH 730, SNC 77, WR 248
The Lord’s Supper
Song: “Lord, Bid Your Servant Go in Peace” LUYH 97, SNC 292
For more information on lectio divina, go to www.valyermo.com/ld-art.html.