The Problem of Literate Worship

nose in a book
This doesn’t seem like a title that I might put on a blog post. After all, I am a minister in a tradition that values literacy. The magisterial Reformation in Europe was a Reformation of learned people, educated people; instead of listening to others sing for them, instead of accepting what others told them that the Scriptures said, the Calvinians and Lutherans were reading the Scriptures for themselves and talking together about them. Instead of listening to the members of the cloistered communities chant in the ancient modes, they were singing the psalms (and, among the Lutherans, the hymns), with common texts printed in books by Mr. Gutenberg’s wonderful invention.

I am also a musician, trained to read music myself, and I firmly believe that even those who consider themselves musically illiterate can figure out that the melody goes up or down, that some notes are held longer than others, based on the printed score. I happen to like singing hymns in parts from time to time, dropping down to sing bass or tenor—but never on Genevan Psalm tunes, as they were meant to be unison.

Last, but not least, those who have been in worship I have led know that I like it to be participatory; I use lots of spoken responses and, to avoid too many unneeded announcements, I encourage people to follow along in the worship leaflet. There are lots of things to read in worship when I am leading.

So I am not opposed to literate worship; I kind of like it. But there are problems that come with it, and that is where my concern comes in. One of these, of course, is that not everyone is an aural learner. This is something which, I suspect, John Calvin knew intuitively, even though there was no concept of such things in the sixteenth century. His insistence that the Lord’s Supper should be celebrated as often as the Word is preached, that the two are complementary means of grace, indicates a knowledge that our minds don’t only respond to verbal input. Thus, the importance of colors representing the liturgical seasons, of art, of symbolism—including the symbolism of how we dress and where we stand for different parts of our worship celebration.

Clearly, verbal worship by itself is not enough. But there is another problem: a potential, I think, for the words, especially the printed<a words, to themselves get in the way. Think about how at many large board meetings, classis meetings, synod meetings and the like, the text of a leader’s report isn’t passed out until after the report is given. Why? Because, by having everyone listen, the report giver decides what receives emphasis, and everybody gets the same emphasis at the same time. It is a communal experience—which sounds like what we are supposed to be doing in worship. When the story is told, our imaginations present pictures to our minds’ eyes. When we all have access to our own Bibles in the pew racks, and we all grab those to read along while the lector reads from the pulpit, we now have a roomful of individual experiences, all well on their way to individual interpretations before the person proclaiming the Word has a chance to say a thing.

Recently, I watched John Bell, Church of Scotland minister and song enabler from the Iona Community, demonstrate what happens when a song leader tries teaching a song she doesn’t really know. Bell sat down at the piano and stared at the score, while everyone else in the room also looked down at their printed music. What had been a communal experience—we had been looking at one another, teaching tunes with voices and motions—became two-dozen individual experiences. The communal spirit, that we were all in it together, and the strength of the singing that came with that, were lost as, quite suddenly, we were each trying not to embarrass ourselves with wrong notes. The music stopped.

This is the problem with literate worship. We move very quickly from collective activity to individual actions, from a body of Christ greater than the sum of its parts to a collection of disconnected, smallish parts. And screens with PowerPoint don’t solve the problem, as it simply makes a roomful of individuals staring at the words in a different place; indeed, if some studies are correct about the effect of looking at video screens, they are all acting individually while parts of their frontal lobes are being shut off.

I am not advocating for the elimination of hymnals and printed liturgies, but we do need to get away from them when we can. We worship leaders need to know as much of what we are doing as we can by heart. We are telling stories when we lead liturgies; we are calling people into song as we pray psalms. Sometimes, there are many words, and it is time to look at the books. But we need to watch how much our tools are using us.


3 thoughts on “The Problem of Literate Worship

  1. James! I love, love, love this post. You put your finger on a tension I have been struggling with for some time. A couple of years I did a seminary internship at an inner city RCA church here in GR. It was a fantastic experience seeing people who were homeless, jobless or underemployed come to the food pantry or Wednesday night community soup supper and then see them eventually make enough meaningful connection that they checked out church on Sunday morning. But I often struggled with how the very literate, liturgical services came across to undereducated, illiterate or people with reading or cognitive disabilities who would make that transition. That is one reason I appreciate traditions where the liturgy is the same from week to week and only changes seasonally, according to the liturgical calendar. People have the opportunity to memorize words that maybe they cannot read or read well or comprehend on the first 10 listens. On the other hand, I absolutely love going through books of liturgy, online resources and crafting/ writing liturgy pieces that flow with the week’s lectionary passages. The tension still exist for me. But all I can say for now is thank God we are formed in various ways by various parts of the service that speak to different people differently: the presence of community, the music, the sermon and most importantly (to my mind) the Eucharist.

    1. And I think we need to keep the tension, Wayne. I don’t change all the liturgical bits every week; in fact, some things in Blooming Grove’s worship hardly ever change, which gives those who pay attention the chance to ponder why they do on special occasions.

      No, many things in worship need to change very slowly, and some need to change more often, and we need places for both literate entry and intuitive entry into worship. This is why liturgy cannot be slapped together in half an hour.

      1. “This is why liturgy cannot be slapped together in half an hour.” Love it. I wish more understood this. We prepare meticulously through prayer and planning during the week for Sunday, and the worship of God on Sunday cannot be rushed either. “Oh, but it’s been an hour! Time for you to turn into a pumpkin!”

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