Ralph R. Van Loon’s “Usher Handbook” A Review

Posted on August 6, 2011. Filed under: Book Reviews, Church Ushers |

Usher Handbook by Ralph R. Van Loon, published by Augsburg Fortress in Minneapolis, Minnesota in 1990 (48pp.), is a good little book for ushers of the Lutheran persuasion. www.christianbook.com/usher-handbook-ralph-van-loon/9780806624846/pd/24841

Van Loon places the role and jobs of the usher within the context of worship…wait…excuse me…of the liturgy (perhaps the most frequently occurring word in the book). While the concept of explaining the usher duties within the context of the liturgy adds a fresh insight into ushering, the book is so Lutheran focused that I cannot recommend it to anyone who is not a Lutheran, unless the reader is, like me, a serious student about all things usher.

The overwhelming positive aspect of this small volume is the sincere effort to place ushering in its rightful place as, not just a job, but an act of worship and ministry that helps lead the congregation into an encounter with God. The reverence that Van Loon has for ushering as part of worship is contagious! Oh that my Baptist brethren had this attitude towards ushering! My heart was heavy with conviction as I read this book with my background as a Baptist usher. Van Loon’s emphasis on the liturgy will certainly scare off many who might begin this book, but if you are serious about cultivating your ushers as worship leaders you should read this book.

In the opening paragraph of chapter 1 (p.6) he teases the reader with, “You have been asked to serve as an usher. That means that you are being given a very special ministry in your parish, a ministry that can trace its origins back to the earliest moments of religious history.” He states his thesis-“Ushers are ministers of hospitality. Their task is to serve all those who have come together to worship- to serve them with quiet efficiency and authentic hospitality, enabling them to offer reverent worship to God and to enjoy Christian community. That’s the kind of ushering that complements and advances the mission of the congregation, for it makes both visitors and members feel welcome and wanted,” (pp.7-8). Well said!

One of the joys of this book is Van Loon’s brief, but excellent, history of ushers. He refers back to 1Chronicles 9 and the gatekeepers, established by David and Samuel to care for and protect the worship of Israel. They would open the Templeevery morning and guarded it [granted, the Templewas built after both David and Samuel had passed on]. Van Loon writes, “By the time of Christ, they had become known as the ‘TempleGuard’….” “Very early in Christian history, it was determined that persons were needed to serve as ‘porters’ (overseers of the doors) during the celebration of the liturgy. It was their responsibility to guard the doorsThis was especially important during the days of the persecutions….” (p.9). To understand the historical context of ushers we need to think of worshiping our Lord under the threat of persecution. Ushers were the guardians of God’s people, the “lookouts” who would risk all in order to protect those who were worshiping. And yet it is here that Van Loon stumbles, “happily, the military character of the temple usher has disappeared. The usher as ‘lookout,’ to keep certain persons out of church, disappeared with the ending of the persecutions in A.D.313.” Van Loon could have perhaps profited by studying the persecuted church of today in places likeChina orMalaysia, or theConfessingChurch under the Nazis inGermany. Written in 1990, he had no concept of 9/11 and theWedgewoodBaptistChurch shooting of 1999 had not occurred yet either. The Daingerfield, TX. church shooting of 1980 was an obscure event. Church shootings have become not uncommon in the last 20 years.

Van Loon considers ushers to be a ministry of hospitality that is essential for worship. “It’s just not enough to put a service bulletin in the hands of arriving visitors and members. Nor is it enough to gather the offerings with efficient precision. Robots could perform such tasks. What is needed instead is a warm, genuine, authentic, dignified, reverent expression of Christian cordiality that shows itself through honest efforts to be unobtrusively helpful, caring, and accommodating,” (p.10).

Perhaps my favorite line in the book is, “As people approach the church building for worship, ushers should regard them as pilgrims in procession toward the very presence of the almighty and all holy God,” (pp.10-11). That sentence places a whole new light on the tasks and calling of the usher for me.

Ushers are liturgical ministers, says Van Loon, they are worship leaders. Though he just touches on this subject in his opening chapter, he devotes an entire chapter (ch.2 “Basic Information”) to describing the Lutheran worship space, furnishings and participants/leaders. This was excellent information for someone like me who has only been inside aLutheranChurchonce or twice. There is a whole vocabulary of worship that the Lutheran usher needs to know that is quite foreign to this Baptist usher! But this chapter also clearly limits the scope of the book to his fellow Lutherans.

Chapter 3 “Before The Liturgy” gives the tasks of the usher prior to the worship service (alright,- liturgy) beginning. Van Loon expects the usher chairpersons to attend the parish’s liturgy planning meetings. “No usher should have to wait until just moments before the service to discover what will be happening,” (p.22). The author then goes into some of the details the ushers should be involved with prior to the start of worship, things like cleaning up, checking the sound system and lights, unlocking doors, etc. He brings up an excellent point in regards to seating worshipers: “Some worshipers seem determined to cluster always in the rear seats, leaving the front rows looking a bit like a lumber yard. This creates a wide chasm between the chancel and the worshipers, and that’s just not very friendly or conducive to good worship….There is no easy solution to the matter of seating distribution,” (p.25). This brings up not-so-fond memories of the days when I was pastoring a cantankerous church that seated 200 but was averaging about 70. Van Loon is particularly helpful in his discussion of Seating Latecomers on pp. 27-28. He jealously guards the liturgy by insisting on not seating late worshipers at inappropriate times. This practice properly places the emphasis on God as the object of our worship instead of on the convenience of those whom we delay seating until the appropriate time.

I disagree with Loon on where to sit parents with small children. Loon writes, (p.26) “Reserving the rear rows for parents with small children is usually not a worthy practice. Being so far back denies children the opportunity to see what’s going on during the liturgy.” Perhaps it is his lack of a definition of “small children” that causes me a little discomfort. I tend to think that parents of children ages birth to 3 years will worship better in the back as an option. Certainly we should not require then to sit in the back. But if he is referring to 4-7 year old children, then I would agree with him.

In chapter 4 “During the Liturgy”, Loon gives us a line by line breakdown of how Lutherans worship and what the role of the ushers is during each part of the liturgy. What I found most useful is his detailed explanation of how ushers are to take up the offering describing how to carry the offering plates and how to time your movements. Then there is this jewel (p.33): “Gathering the sacrificial tithes and gifts of the people of God is a significant time within the liturgy and should not be trivialized by careless, casual, chancy procedures. It needs to be remembered that worshipers are responding to the gospel and to their Baptism in a very profound and personal way; they are offering themselves and their tithes to God. To gather and present those signs of sacrifice and commitment are very priestly acts, deserving of the greatest care and highest reverence.” That is worth the price of this book!

In ch.6 “Organizing and Training” he again places the emphasis on ushers as worship leaders, calling for the head usher(s) to be a part of the worship committee and involved in the planning of worship. In an example he uses he does casually mention a woman’s name as a head usher, but does not ever get into a conversation about gender roles and ushering. In regards to recruiting ushers he writes (p.41), “Where ushering is done well, where a cadre of trained ushers demonstrate an awareness that they are involved in ministry, it is seldom difficult to recruit persons to become ushers. On the other hand, if church ushering is presented as a kind of necessary evil, a ‘somebody’s-got-to-get-stuck-with-it’ sort of chore, then only a few will respond to recruitment efforts.” This is so true, not just in ushering but in everything in life. If we serve as unto the Lord, serve as the royal representatives we are, and train and serve with excellence, then others will want to serve with us. We are not just doing a job at the church, we are serving the living Lord of the universe and His called out ones- the Church.

Loon gives us a good summary of tasks for the ushers to be trained in on p.43. On page 44 he touches briefly on another controversial topic: “Dress Code”. While notes that “Each parish decides what is appropriate apparel”, he adds, “A conservative style of clothing is usually the choice for church ushers, one that achieves a kind of uniformity.” Clothing for ushers has been a controversy in both churches I have served in during the past 19 years. In one church the controversy was that some of the younger ushers were dressing down too much, and my current church had a minor tiff when I suggested the ushers needed to dress up a bit more!

Loon concludes ch.6 with an “Order for Installing Church Ushers’ that is very nice and again demonstrates loon’s view that ushers are ministers and this ministry should be recognized for its value for the Church.

Although this book, Usher Handbook, is very specific for theLutheranChurch, the overall message and many of the items mentioned are much needed for Baptist ushers. The focus on ushering as a part of the worship of the Church has really gladdened my heart and given me more passion for the ministry of ushering.

Bryan E. Walker, August 6, 2011

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