August 7, 2018

In The Eye of the Beholder

There is never “one right way” to lead the followers of Jesus in worship. Worship is a three-dimensional activity and needs to be viewed from all sides

I have led worship, either from the pulpit or from the organ bench, for nearly four decades. I have taught and mentored other worship leaders for a good portion of that time. Like any critical thinker in an area about which I’m passionate, I have some well-established ideas and preferences—clearly (in my mind at least) the “best” practices of liturgy and liturgical leadership. Of course it should go without saying that these carefully-formed and dearly-held ideas and preferences have come about through years of experience, trial and error, stealing from the best, chuckling at the less-than-best, and informed by significant theological reflection—or so I’d like to believe. But let’s get real. Like anyone else, I also like what I like what I like.

Take, for example, the practice of communion distribution.

I grew up in a traditional mid-20th century congregation where the unquestioned method of communing the community was polished silver handed through the pews. Heaps of little bread squares came first, followed by heavy trays, each with 36 shot glasses of Welch’s best (the center rings being left unoccupied for some reason). I watched them go by when, as a very young child, I sat next to my choir director father in the pew below the choir loft. I learned the churchly art of balance-and-pass when, as an older child, I was allowed to “partake.” There was always something “special” about those sacramental Sundays, even for a little kid: the gleaming silver that managed to catch and reflect the rich colors of the stained glass windows and the organ façade, the aroma of grape juice that mingled with the smell of books, old wood, and assorted saintly perfumes, the care with which the stewards handled the trays, and the pseudo-military precision with which the distribution was executed—it was a beautiful thing.

In my adolescence, I was part of a much more “hip” little neighborhood congregation that grooved on the latest and greatest fads of liturgical deconstructionism. We sang Avery and Marsh songs, we did cute little 1970s worship-y things, and we were always up for experimenting with a different way of “sharing” communion. The most memorable Sunday was when I sat watching the squirrely guys in the bass section of the choir (think the Chicago Cubs’ bullpen with robes) shove huge chunks of communion bread in each other’s mouth as we dutifully explored the “rich potential of Eucharistic community.” Needless to say, the beauty quotient had faded even in the eyes of a teenager.

In my late twenties and thirties I was cutting my teeth on the theology and practices of the liturgical renewal movement. Studying the worship practices of the church throughout history, I came to appreciate the importance of coming to the Table—relinquishing our “place” and anonymity as spectator/consumer of worship to receive the bread and the cup. The amazing hesitancy of some people in the congregations I was serving to be “on display” in the communion line, re-enforced for me how radically counter-cultural this simple bit of movement seemed (to small town Midwesterners at least). Our communion celebration often weren’t polished or pretty but, over time, most people found it deeply meaningful—or so it seemed from my view as the guy holding bread.

In a later season of my life when I was worshiping in the pew rather than the chancel, I came to personally value the practice of a communion line even more. I didn’t care what we did when we got to the chancel steps—kneeling or standing, intinction or small glasses—the point was the act of “coming forward” in the humility of confessed sin and assured grace rather than the privileged posture of “being served.” I’ll never forget one particular summer Sunday. I was experiencing the deep stress of running a challenging para-church ministry. I found myself kneeling at the communion rail, emotionally spent, staring up at the descending dove centered in the chancel rose window. I was holding the cup like it was what it was—the New Covenant in Jesus’ blood, and I was hearing the choir pray for me the beautiful words of Psalm 51 (Create in me, O God, a pure heart…) set to the haunting music of Johannes Brahms. It was a moment I’ll not soon forget—the beauty of a deep and profound theological reality that became embraced my reality in an intensely personal way just when I needed it most.

So it is that, for the past two years in my current call, I’ve done almost nothing but processional lines for communion by intinction. And the congregation has gone along with it. A few traditionalists have quietly asked if it would be possible to use the pew trays every once in a while and we have, but the challenge of elders and deacons who have become accustomed to doing things one way trying to adapt another method has made the switch seem hardly worth the effort. Don’t get me wrong, our Eucharistic celebrations are lovely. We bring people forward in two lines (no center aisle). Elders and deacons serve the elements and my colleague and I are available for healing prayer and anointing. And there is singing—always lots of singing! It is a beautiful thing.

But yesterday caught me up short. For many reasons, we had opted to celebrate a midsummer communion “the old way” as my colleague called it. Out came the trays—gleaming silver that reflected the sun-lit stained glass. And out came the stewards, all of whom happened to be people who remembered well how this type of communion was supposed to work. I was worshiping in the pews this week—a vantage point from which I had not seem this practice in at least half a century, and I got to observe firsthand the beauty, the sincerity, the gentility, and the joy of a ritual I had long since relegated to “things I’m glad we don’t have to do too much anymore.” And suddenly I remembered another component of this method—the deep community experienced as we held the bread and held the cup until everyone in the room could communes together: “the body of Christ” and “the cup of blessing.”

Two takeaways:

  1. There is never “one right way” to lead the followers of Jesus in worship (although there are many wrong ways—and stuffing bread in the mouth of the person next to you is likely one of them!). Personal preferences are fine, but they are just that—preferences, no matter whether they are the expressed sentiment of the elder chairing the worship committee, outspoken congregant, or (gasp) the pastor and the worship leader.
  2. Worship is a three-dimensional activity and needs to be viewed from all sides. The practices we adopt for whatever worthy reasons need to be experienced from the chairs as well as the chancel. Every worship leader / shaper of the liturgy / mentor of the liturgists needs to continue to be an active worshiper in that community. There is beauty in the simplest actions and the most time-worn practices. It’s all in the eye of the beholder.


Rev. Dr. Paul Detterman is an author, composer, and conference speaker who is pastor of First Presbyterian Church of River Forest, Illinois, and a blogger at He is a former associate for worship on the national staff of the Presbyterian Church (USA).