"You do realize that the way we do worship is completely alienating if you can't read?"
I made this statement at the end of Bible study yesterday. We had been discussing corporate prayers that we use in worship, all of which require a fairly high level of literacy if you're going to participate. I made the comment when we had already run a little over time. It was sort of a throwaway line. I assumed that this was something they had considered before now.
Well, you know what happens when you assume. The looks that were reflected back to me were a mix of confusion, surprise, and maybe a little insulted. Was I insinuating that are worship was insensitive? Unjust? Well, no. I didn't insinuate. I pretty much said it.
Presbyterians rarely think about how much we like words. We're guided by the written word. Our Order is in a book. Our Confessions are in a book. Our worship is as centered on the word as it is on the Word. Not only that, but we value education. We value an educated clergy and traditionally we've been able to rely on an educated laity. Both of those things come with a price.
Now before I move on let me say our emphasis on words is one of the things I love. I happen to be very fond of the written word. I love books! I feel that we need educated clergy and I'm personally grateful for the education I received.
Our emphasis on words has closed some doors to us. If I walked in to the average PC(USA) congregation, I would be lost if I didn't know how to read. I wouldn't be able to follow along with at least 90% of the service. It's alienating to the young. It's alienating to the illiterate. It's alienating to those who are probably most in need of the healing power of the Gospel.
We're also closing the door in the faces of minorities who are pursuing ministry. I have $30k in seminary debt. That's a choice I made. I had the luxury of being able to take the time out to study full time while my wonderful wife kept us afloat. If I were an immigrant, a single parent, a working parent, etc... I may not have been able to avail myself of such a luxury. It's the educational hurdle, I believe, that keeps many qualified minority candidates from pursuing ordained ministry in our denomination. It's not that they can't handle the work load. It's that life situations make taking the kind of risk I took seem foolish. Hell, it might have been foolish for me. We'll see where I am when I pay off that loan.
I don't think there is anyway around the issue of educated clergy. I for one want seminary trained pastors. I think seminaries can make the training more affordable. I think churches of means could take it on themselves to sponsor minority candidates. I think that is a solvable problem. But what do we do about worship services that alienate people with reading requirements? Well for one, I think we have to have some awareness. Second,I think we have to have some humility when thinking about our worship services? Why do we do many of the things we do? My guess is that for most churches, even young ones, the answer is something akin to "we've always done it that way". A second answer might be to maintain order. One of the things that having all of the words in front of you does, is it maintains order and power dynamics. The prayers don't go off the rails, because we have the words in front of us. If we open the door to wider participation, the probability of chaos (or the appearance of chaos) increases. The problem is the Holy Spirit often works through what appears like chaos (see Pentecost). If we break down the barriers from people having a voice in worship, it may be a little out of hand, but we may see God work in surprising ways.
I think we can start to think about how do we make worship accessible and intelligible to the largest number of people; that includes literate people who haven't been inside a church in years or ever. What's the value of a prayer read in unison? Do we ever take the time to explain that in worship? Why read an ancient affirmation of faith? Why do a responsive call to worship? So much of what we do goes unexplained.
I think there is an innovation waiting to be made, that being in more fully multi-sensory worship experience. I'm not talking about our same wordy worship only with the words projected over pastoral images. I'm talking about worship where the people are lead by images, smells, tactile experiences, and, of course, tastes. What if the prayer of confession is replaced with a penitential action, picking up something heavy that represents the weight of our sin (with a corresponding assurance of pardon that releases us of the weight)? What if more of worship was like the passing of the peace (you know, in a friendly church)? What if more was like communion by intinction? The ability to draw, mold clay, smell incense, taste salt.... at various points in my life these things have all added to my worship experience. What if instead of making this about being hip and trendy we made this about being welcoming and equitable by allowing people instant access to worship and breaking down barriers that may alienate some.
Anyway, I know I'm not suggesting anything new here. I'm just needing a shock to my system so I don't get complacent in my current worship environment. There are rituals out there, some ancient some new, that can create a worshipful atmosphere far better than can words.
Oh the irony of a long blog post about moving away from wordiness. Hypocrisy, thy name is Weston.