Worship Wars4: A Sign of the Times

Posted on January 1, 2008. Filed under: Bi-vocational Ministry, Worship Wars |

Tuesday, January 1, 2008– In this series of posts I am discussing the issues pertaining to worship that I experienced as the pastor of a small, elderly, bi-vocational church that had a traditional Southern Baptist style of worship.In my last post I addressed a reader’s question about “What Is Worship?” and the post prior to that dealt with issues in worship surrounding the public reading of the Bible. Today I am going to discuss some of the physical/material issues of worship.

The physical structure of our church was of fairly recent construction due to a devastating fire in 1981. The church was of an off white brick construction with white wood trim and a white steeple. There was no paved parking, just gravel and grass, when I arrived in 1992 but we did construct a concrete parking area for about 20 cars alongside the street in 1995 I think. The first major renovation I instigated however, was a new church sign.

The old sign was a simple metal sign, painted with the church’s name, address and phone number along with the preacher’s name. The sign was old, rusty and faded; it looked terrible. I recommended that since we had gotten the new hymnals in 1993 (my first big, expensive project that I discussed in a previous post) that for 1994 we ought to purchase a new, lighted sign that allows you to place a message on it every week. The church loved that idea and, being a very giving people, they quickly raised the $4-5,000 needed for the sign. We looked at a few options that fit within our finances and chose a sign that a local company installed very quickly. It looked great.

Here is where the problem happened though: I had failed to adequately talk through with the deacons and the church a philosophy of what to put on the sign every week and assign the duty to any particular person. This was a major problem.

Being a servant leader, instead of recruiting someone to take care of the sign, or getting a sign committee together, I just started doing the sign each week. This was a real chore and a time eater. It took a couple of hours each week to do the sign. And being bi-vocational I was at work 40-48 hours a week, and I had three sermons and a Sunday School lesson to prepare each week, plus a multitude of other duties as well as a family that needed some attention once in a while.

To do the sign required that I 1)plan out what I wanted to say on the sign, 2)make sure I said it within the constraints of the number of letters I had available and insuring that it would fit on the 4 lines per side of the sign. 3)I would get the box of plastic letters out and lay out the message on the floor, double check all spelling, and then 4) stack the letters in proper sequence and finally, 5)carry them outside and place them on the sign using a long pole with a suction cup on the end- a very cumbersome process.

My philosophy of what to put on the sign was to emphasize my sermon titles for the morning and evening services on Sundays. I would put the Bible reference and the title to the morning sermon on one side, then the evening title and text on the other side. When we had special events I would place that message on the sign, inviting the community. I really did not, and still do not, like the cute sayings approach to church signs. Things like, “Need A Faith Lift?” really turn me off. I wanted the emphasis to be on the Word of God that we were studying each week.

One problem was coming up with good sermon titles to go with my texts. Of course coming up with titles that were attractive sounding was difficult and frequently they sounded no better than the cute sayings I despised. Another problem was keeping the sermon title short enough to actually fit on the sign and not having enough of the right kind of letters was a constant problem. Another problem with using my sermon titles on the sign had to do with timing. I had a pretty good sermon plan that would extend for several weeks, but the actual main idea of the sermon, and, hence, the title, often would not come to me until I started studying the text which was the week before I preached. If I wanted to do the church sign on Monday or Tuesday so that the public driving by could see the sign all week in preparation for Sunday, then I had to have my text and title ready by Monday or Tuesday. As a bi-vocational minister, this was not always possible. This too caused the congregation some anxiety. If I had not changed the sign by Wednesday night, people would be asking me why I hadn’t.

But the bigger problem was that the outspoken people in the congregation simply had a difference of opinion with what ought to go on a church sign. These folk wanted to have the cute sayings on the sign and constantly criticized whatever I put on the sign. Even after I gave up doing the sign in 1996 and allowed the youth to do the sign (and their method was to put Bible verses on the sign, a very good choice) the older adults criticized the sign. Finally, in about 2001, the youth gave up the job and the older adults started doing the sign with their cute sayings. And everyone said “amen!” End of the sign controversy.

Another physical aspect of the church grounds that assisted in worship was the flower plots. A couple of senior saints who were talented in this area planted some flowers and took excellent care of them all year long. In the hot summer the planters were facing the south and west, so they would get the full heat of the sun all day long. They would usually plant a tough desert rose kind of a flower that looked nice and did not need quite as much water as other flowers. In the spring or fall they went with something like begonias, marigolds or mums. And in the winter they would stick with pansies. Everyone who came to church was greeted with some of God’s beautiful flowers as they walked up, and this was a genuine act of love and worship towards God by this older couple. The first church met in the Garden of Eden as Adam and Eve worshipped God in the midst of all the beauty of nature that God had provided. Flowers then, can be a useful part of the physical surroundings for a worship service, inside or out.

The church had a large yard where once stood the two story education wing that burned down in 1981. By the time of the fire the church had already declined from its height of about 300 in 1968 to about 60 in 1981. So when the church rebuilt they went with a smaller structure, paid for completely by the insurance which paid off the building debt, rebuilt the new, smaller facility and left the congregation with some money in the bank as well (more about all that sad story later). This large yard, about 1 acre, had to be mowed. The church hired one of its members back in the 1970’s to be the janitor and he volunteered to mow the yard and tend the grounds for no charge. He was a workhorse! He kept that church yard looking very nice. (Again, there is another sad, dark story along these lines that I will have to tell later). The bottom line is that the church provided a fairly attractive environment for worship as you drove up and walked to the entrance.

Once inside the church sanctuary a visitor would see a very simple but attractive place for worship. With plain white walls, deep blue carpet and very nice wood work at the front the sanctuary received many compliments from visitors. The only two areas that could be faulted were the pews, leftover from the fire and were still in good shape but the gold upholstery looked a bit old, and the stained glass windows that were cheap, simple colored panels that did nothing for anyone. The lighting was attractive and adequate and the ceiling was a slight A frame so it was not too close nor vaulted. With a grand piano and nice organ the interior worship setting was very nice, pleasant and soothing.

Let me close this chapter with a brief discussion on church architecture. I believe that the church is the people and the church can meet in a home, a barn, outside, in a tent, or wherever. But the Tabernacle and Temple in the Bible show us that God does enjoy using His talented, artistic servants to construct a beautiful place to house the church. I believe that all the arts can be used for the glory of God, including architecture. I love the old cathedrals and basilicas of the ancient and medieval church. I have worshiped in the National Cathedral in Washington DC and loved it. One of the most beautiful churches in Fort Worth is Broadway Baptist Church. Just walking inside that church gets me in an attitude of worship. Our architecture speaks of our souls and tells what our values are. To be merely functional and utilitarian just does not quite satisfy me. I long for beauty that speaks of the truth of God. If a church can afford it, building a beautiful facility with classical architecture and utilizing the fine arts should be a priority.

In my next chapter I will look at how we sit, stand and do worship in the physical sense.


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