March 3, 2017

On Giving and Receiving Blessings

How do you end a worship service? It’s not a simple question, is it?

In the first days of our congregation, ok, in the first years of our congregation, we ended services with a version of “see you all later.” Some of our attendees, with church background in a certain slice of evangelicalism, wanted us to end each week with an altar call—to invite people to pray a prayer that invites Jesus into their heart. I’m sympathetic. If a worship service leads a person from interest in faith to commitment, why not guide them further along the way?

Even in those early days, I found myself wanting something more than “See you later.” But I wasn’t convinced that ending the service with a “come to Jesus” moment was what we wanted. At least not every week. So eventually, like with other worship elements, we looked back to the beginning for our ending—to the time-tested liturgy of the church.

It’s no wonder the historic church service ends worship with a blessing. Who doesn’t want to regularly experience the smiling face of loving approval? Don’t we spend most of our lives working or earning or esteeming our way toward getting a blessing, even as it seems to elude us?

Like everything that happens before it, the blessing can seem strange to new guests. In our tradition the pastor often raises her hands to symbolize the moment of blessing. Even this simple gesture can seem awkward. How often and where in life do people raise their hands over us in blessing?

A pastor friend from another church said his custom was to offer the benediction with one hand that he held straight and outward from his body. He thought one hand made the moment more intimate and unassuming. But when his neighbor attended his congregation as a guest the pastor got unexpected and alarming feedback. “The service was all fine,” reported his friend. “But why do you raise your hand in that somewhat Nazi salute at the end of the service? That really surprised me. Why do you do it?”

Framing it

In this blog I’m not going to offer suggestions for benediction gestures. But I do want to suggest we clearly frame the blessing as a moment of sending and grace. To do that in our congregation we think carefully about introducing, or “framing,” the benediction in a way that makes sense to spiritual novices like the pastor’s neighbor. Let me offer a few suggestions, hoping they might lead to a conversation. Maybe after reading this blog, you can offer something especially fitting and useful from your context. To start the conversation, here are some of our “frames,” see what you think:

“All through this service you’ve received God’s grace, grace in the music, grace in our praying and liturgy, grace (we hope, knowing this is often the weakest link) in the sermon, and grace in communion. Now, God gets the last word, and it’s one of grace. Would you receive his grace?”

Or, here’s a frame that states the same idea more simply:

“In worship we believe God gets the first word and the last word. We began the service receiving His opening word of grace, now we end with His “last word” before we are sent. Would you receive His blessing?”

Or another version,

“Of all the things God might say to us as we go, imagine this, that because of Jesus’ life and work, He sends us out with his love. Receive His blessing.”

We are Sent People

Sometimes we like to frame worship elements with a nod to their use in churches of all times and places. And it’s not just because some people really feel like they’ve “been to church” when we quote an old language. We want to remind us all we are sent people. To give the final blessing this historic framework we sometimes say:

“The ancient Latin mass ends with these simple words:  itta missa est. The phrase means “Go, you are sent.” God has given us his grace in the music, in the liturgy, in the sermon, and in the Eucharist. He now gives you a blessing so that you can be a blessing (and live as an agent of grace) all during this week. Would you receive it?”

To accent the sending without the Latin, and when the theme of our service especially accents the brokenness of our world or the depths of human foibles and misdirection or woundedness, we sometimes say:

“Our world is thirsty for people of good news. You’ve received good news. You’ve been called and equipped to embody good news. Would you receive a blessing so we can be people of good news in a world desperate for grace?”

I’ll be curious to hear which of these you think might work best in your context, or to hear what you and your fellow worship leaders might be doing in your setting.

Blessings to you!

Kevin Adams is the author of Living Under Water: Baptism as a Way of Life150: Finding Your Story in the PsalmsThe Book That Understands You, and The Gospel in a Handshake: Framing Worship for Mission. In 1991 Kevin and his wife Gerry began Granite Springs Church, a congregation that has helped inspire a movement of church planting in the Sacramento area. He was Director of Formation at the Newbigin House of Studies in San Francisco, and has taught at Calvin SeminaryWestern Seminary, and William Jessup University. Besides serving as senior pastor, he is writing a book about living our baptism. Kevin is fascinated and intrigued by how worship forms and shapes individuals and contagious communities of faith. His special interests are in the missional depth and wisdom of the psalms, sacraments, and preaching.