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Worship Math: Healthy Practices Add Up

3 minute prelude.  
+4 minutes for announcements and call to worship.  
+6 minute section of confession and assurance.   
+6 songs in the service x 2 minutes each = 12 minutes.  
+24 minute sermon.  
+7 minute morning prayer.  
+8 minutes for deacons announcement, prayer and collection
+15 minutes Lord’s Supper
+10 minutes Baptism 
______
≠ 60-75 minutes for worship

Time flies. 

When I sit down to plan a worship service, it can feel like I’m trying to channel the entire contents of the Chesapeake Bay into the narrow stream that trickles through our neighborhood. I have an upcoming sermon text and theme mulling in my mind throughout the week as I’m out for a morning run, loading the dishwasher or driving the carpool to school. Ideas percolate as I’m paging through the newspaper or reading a seminary textbook. So when it comes time to sit down and engage the actual planning process, I approach that clean, empty google document or planningcenter.com page with many ideas that will never make it into the service. Worship planning (and preaching) involve a certain amount of time management. We have all of the elements that need to be included, with extras that accompany liturgical seasons or general church life and activity. Time is precious. We only spend 60-75 minutes (give or take and double for those of you still doing evening services) out of our 10,080 each week worshipping with our brothers and sisters in Christ – so we have to make the most of each one of them.  

Lost Habits: When the Math Doesn’t Work

I was working on a service several weeks ago and was having an exceptionally difficult time pulling it all together. We had the joy of celebrating a baptism as well as the Lord’s Supper which makes for a liturgically rich and beautiful service. It was also a week where a congregational reading of the Ten Commandments would have been a great fit. But I was having an impossible time incorporating all of our normal elements as well as both sacraments. It could have beautifully weaved together God’s covenant promises and reminders of his grace. It also could have been an overcrowded mess. As I glanced through everything on the page, the 10 Commandments reading was removed with several easy keystrokes on my laptop. It would add a few extra minutes. The congregation was already doing several other responsive/unison readings including the Apostles’ Creed. Not enough time. Not enough corporate lung power to cover reading all ten commandments with corresponding responses. Maybe if there were only five…

Later that week, I was doing some assigned reading for my Church History class and spent time with Martin Luther’s Small Catechism. Luther wrote this small manual for the Christian faith in 1529 with intentions of having the document serve as an aid to family worship. In the preface he urges preachers and households alike to teach the Ten Commandments, the Creed, the Lord’s Prayer and the like. They should “follow the text word for word so that the young may repeat these things after you and retain them in their memory.” And once these words have been put to memory, teach them what they mean. The act of memorizing, reciting and learning helps lay the groundwork and a firm foundation for being able “to distinguish between right and wrong according to the standards of those among whom they live and make their living.”

These words struck a chord as I remembered worship planning and my concern about time and congregational stamina. When was the last time we read the Ten Commandments in worship? What about the Creed, the Lord’s Prayer, the Catechism? I guiltily realized we had fallen out of the habit of incorporating these on a regular basis. They were there…. but under-used and under-recited.  

The Power of Repetition: It All Adds Up

I thought about my five year old son and the way he puts things to memory: repetition. He did not learn the name of every single Thomas and Friends train engine by picking it up and reading the bottom of it. He learned through repetition. He learned by hearing it time and time again until it was set like stone in his memory. I thought about high schoolers studying for SAT exams, pouring over flash cards and notecards, learning the material through the repetition of flipping the cards as many times as it takes to commit it to memory.  

Part of developing healthy worship practices needs to be committing to memory the things that ground our faith and help us identify as vital participants in our worshipping communities. Think about your congregation’s heart songs and other liturgical elements that you have memorized and internalized. Maybe it’s a song sung during the passing of the elements every time you celebrate the Lord’s Supper. Maybe it’s a Scripture passage read at every funeral, whose words, in their familiarity bring comfort when other words cannot be spoken. Maybe it’s a simple responsorial litany before the children leave for Sunday school or children’s worship. These healthy worship practices take time and they take work. But this is time and work that presents opportunities to learn, opportunities to remember, opportunities to edify and to grow. As you plan your services, here’s a reminder to be mindful that each element of the liturgy is active communication with the living God and is helping to form our faith and identity in Christ.