Worship Wars5: Stand Up, Sit Down, Fight, Fight, Fight
Wednesday, January 2, 2008— This series of posts deals with my misadventures as a bi-vocational pastor of a small, elderly, traditional Southern Baptist Church from 1992-2007. I am attempting to think through some of the goofy things that happened and see what my mistakes were, what stands I properly took, and provide some guidance to any young ministers out there who are taking on a similar burden. Last time I looked at the physical property and how it related to worship by providing an inviting appearance and welcoming in the visitors. I discussed the fights we had over the church sign due to different views of the purpose of a sign. Today I want to examine some of the physical things we do in worship and how even something as simple as sitting down in the wrong seat can cause a problem.
“Pastor, if you rope off those back 4 pews we will leave this church and never come back!” the woman said angrily after storming into my office minutes after the conclusion of a surprisingly “hot” business meeting in my 3rd month as pastor. All I had done is offer up an idea that I thought would make our worship setting more attractive and appealing to the visitors whom the Lord sent our way. I had not told the congregation to do this, I merely offered it as an idea for them to consider. Yet the backlash was instantaneous and ferocious. I had caused an uproar.
Picture the worship setting: our sanctuary held about 200, yet we were averaging about 65 on Sunday mornings, and those 65 were sitting all spread out with about 10-12 in the choir and the others sitting from the back row to the second row, piano side and organ side. I explained to the church that from a visitor’s viewpoint the way that we sit communicates a lack of warmth and interest. I suggested that we rope off the back 3-4 rows of pews as I had seen done in some other churches and sit a little bit closer to the front and closer together. What was I thinking? I must have been demon possessed (or so some of them say).
One objection was that one or two people may sit on the back row due to a health problem, like a bad prostate, and need to get to the restroom quickly. I can understand that, but the main reason voiced was that people had sat in the same pews for years and did not want to change. And it was these folks who were threatening to quit the church. This mode of thinking was so alien to me that I almost choked, laughed out loud, and cried all at the same time. To threaten to quit a church over a position on a pew seemed a bit…I dunno…juvenile? infantile? I have heard of saving seats before, but here I was wondering if the occupants were saved. Welcome to the ministry!
The problem with where to sit extended into Sunday School. My mother came to live with us in 1992, a couple of months after this episode in the business meeting. Her first experience in my church was to sit down in a chair in the older ladies class, and then be told to move because that was somebody else’s chair. After she had moved over to the next chair, somebody else told her to move because that one was not her chair. She stood up and asked where she could sit and somebody told her that nobody sat on the pew in the back of the classroom so she sat there. Everybody, let’s welcome the preacher’s mother to our church!
Lest you think this only happened because she was my mother, a few years later we had another family visit the church for a few Sundays. It was a young lady, her mother and step dad, and eventually, after much prayer and witnessing, the young lady’s husband. The young lady came to my class for Sunday School and the mom went into the older ladies class, once. She sat down in a chair and, you guessed it, was summarily asked to move as that was not her chair. She never came back to Sunday School, and they quit coming to our church after a few more weeks. They ended up at the big church on the highway. The mom told me this story when I asked her why they had quit coming to our church.
The son-in-law started coming to church and did get saved due to my old car. Initially he would not come to church at all, he would just drop off his wife and children and leave. His wife said that he didn’t trust preachers because they were all in it for the money. One day I was just getting out of my car when he pulled up to drop off his wife. He saw me getting out of my old beat up ’86 Pontiac and he turned off his car and came to talk to me. I kid you not, this is what he said, “Are you the preacher?” I answered yes I was and shook his hand, introducing myself. He asked, “Is this your car?” I said, “Yeah, it looks like a piece of junk and drives like it too!” He came into the church that Sunday evening for services and his wife told me later that he had said “Any preacher that drives a beat up old car must not be in it for the money so I can go and listen to what he has to say.” After a few weeks, he prayed to receive Christ and repent of his sin. Shortly afterwards is when they left for the other church where he was baptized.
This problem of knowing where and where not to sit extended to the choir robes. My wife had joined the choir immediately after we started pastoring in 1992. The choir did not wear robes except for the Easter and Christmas Cantatas and even then, sometimes the choir would choose to not wear the robes. Easter of 1992 they did not wear the robes because we did not do a choir cantata, we had no music minister. Although I or one of the deacons could lead the singing, I certainly could not direct a choir. The deacon could a little bit, but that story is best told another time. We got a music minister in time to do a Christmas cantata and the choir wanted to wear the robes. A choir member had graciously had the robes cleaned at her expense, I think a couple of other ladies chipped in too. Notice the emphasis on outward cleanliness- a good trait.
After many rehearsals the big day arrived and the choir members all left Sunday School early to “robe up” and warm up. My wife and mother were by the robes and asked one of the ladies which robe should they each wear. They were told just choose any robe. They both picked robes that seemed to be the right size when another lady came up and said, “You can’t wear that robe, that is my robe!” taking the robe out of my wife’s hands. A second lady did the exact same thing to my mother. 0 for 2. My wife and mom told me the story after church and stated how hard it was to worship that morning.
With an elderly congregation, the act of standing in worship can be problematic. One of the early complaints I received was that we stood in worship too much. The church wanted to stand up only for the offertory hymn and prayer, then again at the invitation. Many of the elderly faced the ravages of arthritis and it was quite painful to stand up or sit down. The less movement the better. Thus we would sometimes sing “Standing on the Promises” while “sitting on the premises” (I’m sorry, I just couldn’t resist that one.)
I had an elderly deacon who was a gifted and trained musician with a Masters Degree from Baylor. He played the organ when I first came to the church (more about that sad story later), then, when his deteriorating condition prevented him from operating the pedals on the organ, he moved to the piano. In his last years his hands were so bad that he had to give up the piano and he moved to the choir with a fine bass voice. He had sung for a few years in the Oratorio Chorus at Southwestern Baptist Theological Seminary. Finally he could no longer stand up. One of the other men in the choir literally carried him into the choir loft every Sunday. When the choir sang, they all stood. But this fine man, who was giving his all just to praise his Lord, could no longer stand. He sang in the choir while seated.
This irregular behavior highly irritated the older ladies of the choir. Even though his voice remained strong, unaffected by his disease, they wanted me to tell him not to sing. I refused. I couldn’t care less if he sang while standing on his head. The man could sing, and he was singing with a smile on his face though suffering much pain. Eventually he gave up the choir because he was afraid the man carrying him up the stairs into the choir loft would be injured while carrying him. He moved down to the congregation in his electric cart and sang from the middle aisle.
A similar situation in the choir happened in my last couple of years at the church, but this time it was the youth. One of the teenagers who occasionally sang in the choir was going through a time period of not feeling very well, but we did not know what was wrong with him. He reached a point that while singing in the choir he, at times, did not even feel well enough to stand. So he sat. That was not the problem. The other 2-3 youth sat with him too, as an act of support for their ill friend who felt a little bit embarrassed about it.
Well, as you might imagine, a delegation of older women came to me complaining about how disrespectful the youth were in not standing while singing in the choir. I was unaware of the problem since I sat on the stage facing the congregation, so I told the ladies I would investigate the situation to see what was going on. The youth told me what they were doing and why. My answer to them was that I appreciated their support for their sick comrade but that they all needed to stand even if he could not. It turned out that the young man had diabetes and it really took a long time to get it halfway under control. The youth all left the choir, but for various other reasons besides this one.
On many occasions I asked the congregation to kneel with me in prayer. It was my custom to kneel in prayer during our Wednesday night “Prayer Meeting” (more on prayer later). Maybe one or two of the younger folk would kneel with me, but not one of the older folk would. Very few times on a Sunday morning I would ask people to kneel in prayer as we prepared for a revival or faced some other big spiritual crisis. Not one would kneel. Ever. I was not used to this. Every church I had ever been in since I was a kid would kneel in prayer at times. I had grown up seeing my elders kneel in prayer. The thought never occurred to me that this request was too hard or strange.
Nobody ever complained to me about my requesting them to kneel. No deacon came up to me and told me to stop asking this of the congregation. I heard a few joke about being too old or too crippled with arthritis, etc. But nothing mean or critical came my way on this issue. I would see the same older people working around the church on a work day climbing ladders, on their hands and knees cleaning the Lord’ s house, doing all kinds of hard work to keep the place presentable. Notice the emphasis on outward cleanliness- a good trait. But to never once kneel in prayer? To this day I am perplexed by this.
At my present church where my family and I are just members, not ministers, we kneel frequently in prayer. During worship the whole congregation stands for every song and many of the readings. I have never been told “Move, that’s my seat.” But then, this congregation’s average age is around 30 I think. There are a lot of young couples and children. At 49 I am one of the older 10% of the church I think.
One final story about physical placement in the worship service. This story is both sad and funny. I tell it not to be cruel or to make fun of anybody, but to let any young ministers out there who may read this blog know that weird stuff will sometimes happen in a worship service and you have got to keep your cool. We had up to two or even three of our elderly folk in wheelchairs or these electric scooters at any one time. These scooters are a great convenience to people who can no longer walk except for a very short distance. One day we had a lady in a wheelchair in the back center aisle, organ side, and in front of her in the aisle was another lady in a scooter, piano side of the center aisle. Services had already started, I was giving the announcements I believe. The doors swing open and a visiting family comes in, but the dad, who appears to weigh in the 6-700 lb class, is riding one of those electric scooters. Now this was no ordinary scooter. It looked to be as big as one of those 4 wheelers hunters use these days. It may have been street legal. It was massive.
He hesitated at the beginning of the center aisle and checked out his options. I kept on giving the announcements, then proceeded to begin reading the morning Scripture. He gunned his 4X4 forward, swerving around the wheelchair. In my mind I was saying, “Oh no! Don’t do it!” But he did it. As he accelerated past the stationary wheelchair he ran full force into the corner of a pew. There was a loud crunch, the pew was rocked, shards of wood from the crushed pew went hurling through the air like so many grenade fragments. No blood was shed, but people within the bursting radius had wood chips in their hair and on their clothes. I finished the Scripture verse and said, “Let us pray.”
As I prayed I could hear this electric armored personnel carrier moving down the center aisle towards the pulpit. I hoped he would stop. He turned to his right (my left) and proceeded to back into position complete with the beeping that comes with placing this vehicle in reverse. I finished my prayer. The visiting family was all seated now, no further incidents.
Oddly, I received no negative comments about the incident. It turns out that the damage to the pew sounded worse than it was. After church I was able to laugh out loud about the situation.
Lessons learned: People become possessive of the darnedest things, like pews or chairs. We hold on to things that are not ours to begin with, that are temporary and not all that valuable. Then we let those things, like a seat in a classroom, get in the way of the Kingdom of God. People become rude when they are possessive of what is not theirs, and hurt those around them, inhibiting any potential growth, spiritually or numerically. I have talked with several people who visited a more formal church where they were always standing up and sitting down and then kneeling as if on cue. The newcomer felt strange, not knowing the cues. But even in a simple, traditional worship service, knowing when to sit, when to stand, and when to run away, is very important.
Though we long for genuine worship, to worship the Father in spirit and in truth as Jesus told the Samaritan woman at the well, the physical will always intrude into the spiritual while we remain in this sinful world.
If I had it to do over again, I would not try to rope off the back pews without first talking it over with the deacons and the older ladies. I would try to raise a point from a visitor’s perspective about how it looks from a newcomer’s eyes and then ask for their suggestions. Somehow though, I don’t think things would have changed.