Aside from trying out new theology in my sermons, I have also been very excited about liturgical innovation. A mainline church in decline cannot afford to just keep doing the same thing. Mainline worship is generally safe and pleasant, but at best quietly stirring. I get the sense that mainliners are embarrassed or afraid to take worship too seriously.
Some pastors long for staid, white mainline congregations to catch the spirit of Christians of color. They would like their congregations to be able to sing spirituals and to show exuberance. I love congregations of color and struggle who worship this way from within their own experience of the Spirit and from their own heritage. I’ve spent some formative time with such a congregation. But we underestimate the deep workings of God with people who know struggle if we think that congregations from a heritage of comfort can simply pick up this spirit. I’ve never seen it work; instead, it feels awkward, forced, and inauthentic.
But that doesn’t leave white congregations without resources of their own. In my view, what they do well is solemnity. They are good at silence and introspection. They are good at deep searchings of the conscience. That’s why I’ve often heard mainliners express that their favorite worship experiences occur at Ash Wednesday, Maundy Thursday, and Good Friday. That’s not ideal, but it’s something.
So I’ve been striving to create worship that plays to our strengths. Our Maundy Thursday service has evolved into a tradition involved the celebration of the Lord’s Supper followed by tenebrae (gradual darkness) readings from the Passion narrative. Eight readers would sit at the table and one by one extinguish a candle after their reading.
My administrator and I cooked up the idea to integrate the supper with the readings. So congregants will come up to the table in groups of 8 or so, and receive the elements sitting around the communion table. For the first group, my co-celebrant and I will have the words of institution. For the next group, the first reading from the passion will take place, and 8 more will be served. With each group, another candle will be extinguished. There will be brief musical interludes between servings.
To that I am adding a hand washing station at the sanctuary entrance, bringing in tradition from the Gospel of John. People will be greeted and can chat in the narthex, but then be directed through the sanctuary doors to a hand washing station. That will mark the transition into an atmosphere of quiet and self-awareness.
My hope is that a solemn intensity will be present as a vehicle for the Spirit.