Wednesday, January 8, 2014

Telling the Story Part 3: Moving Beyond Words

The plastic flamingos that live outside of United Church on the Green in New Haven, Connecticut are a great example of telling the story without using words. The flamingos carry a humorous message on their bellies in case they are stolen. Their attire changes frequently, based on the season.
It is said that actions speak louder than words. Protestant churches practice two sacraments: Baptism and Holy Communion. Participation in these sacraments, according to tradition, involves offering an "outward and visible sign of an inward and invisible grace." Sacraments are the most important rituals that we practice, but other rituals commonly practiced in our churches also communicate our values. Some churches ask worshipers to stand during certain parts of worship as a sign of respect. Some congregations turn and face the cross while singing the traditional song known as the "Gloria Patri." In most churches, the offering is brought to the front of the church and prayers of thanksgiving are offered over it. While these rituals are not sacraments, for some church members it just "doesn't feel right" if these parts of worship are changed or omitted. This is because part of the power of a ritual comes from repetition. Doing the same things (or the same kinds of things, such as singing hymns) in more or less the same order on a regular schedule makes people feel good. It's just part of being human. Also, apparently the older we get, the less variation we like in our rituals. The problem is, the old rituals don't speak to younger people the same way they do to older people. And without younger members, churches die.

There is no easy way to deal with this conflict in the way churches worship and live out their faith commitment together in worship and in other aspects of the life of the church, but one thing I learned from my Church Administration professor as well as from several mentors is not to take things away at first, but rather to add things. One of the easiest places to add rituals is in the Children's Time. People like this part of the service to be fun, and kids love receiving stuff. When I pass out things in worship I like to have enough to provide whatever it is to the entire congregation. That is why this blog is called "A Time for All." For example, every St. Nicholas Day (the first Sunday in December) I would have the kids pass out little treat bags to the entire community. The bags included a few chocolate kisses, some gingerbread cookies, a candy cane and a clementine (a tiny tangerine) as a way of providing a magical foretaste of the coming season of Christmas. The adults seemed to love this tradition as much or even more than the kids. I believe that part of telling the story is doing things in worship (and in other aspects of the life of the church) that make us feel the way we felt when we were kids, and we snuggled up in our blankets and begged our parents to read our favorite story again. In the words of a popular hymn, 

Tis the gift to be simple, 'tis the gift to be free
'Tis the gift to come down where we ought to be,
And when we find ourselves in the place just right,
'Twill be in the valley of love and delight.

This is part of a series. Read the introductory post here:
Read Part 2, about Offering Hospitality, here.
Part 4, Talking about Faith, can be found here.

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