“The Work of the Usher” by Alvin D. Johnson A Book Review by Bryan E. Walker
The tone of the book is displayed on page one where the context of ushering is placed firmly in the secular world: “The host or hostess in the restaurant is the efficient and gracious person who knows where there is a readied table…The usher at the concert glances at a pair of tickets and quickly leads the purchasers down the aisle…The elevator operator in the lobby of a tall office building tells visitors not only the desired floor but also whether to turn to the right or the left…Railroad conductors, guards in sports stadiums…airplane flight attendants…all are charged with getting people to the proper location at the right time…The church usher is a part of such a tradition as he or she leads individuals into the atmosphere of the church service.”
Normally I would agree with linking the church usher with other ushers in secular venues, other authors have done so. But with this book there is no effort whatsoever to give a biblical basis for ushering. In fact, not one scripture reference was given in the entire book, other than an uncited quote that appears in the Preface and in the Appendix, “Doorkeeper in the House of the Lord” (which comes from Psalm 84:10).
Johnson gives the role of the church usher, thus distinguishing him/her from the secular ushers, on p.2 “They are, first, persons to be respected and appreciated. They are the embodiment of the gracious spirit of the religious group. And they are more than this: Often unknowingly, they are friends who share in making the lonely feel cared for, the bereaved see hope, the sinner feel forgiveness, the discouraged feel cheered, the rich feel generous, the poor feel rich, and all feel enjoined to unselfish love for their neighbor. In short, ushers are instruments who introduce individuals to every practical expression of the church’s mission, and to the presence of the Almighty.” This is the best part of the book, and is well stated, with the exception of the first sentence which, while valuable, should come elsewhere.
Johnson is correct when he states that “No person is born an usher. One becomes an efficient, practicing usher only by means of training and experience,” (p.3), and properly tells us that “The foundation of the usher’s preparation, as in any Christian service, is prayer,” (p.4). Johnson’s discussion on the usher being a person who thinks is helpful, “In their own church ushers are ever on the alert to spot any signs of awkwardness and to discover better ways of performing the ushering functions. They want to maintain a living and intelligent approach toward certain desired results and thereby guard against thoughtless repetitions of movements that are lacking in dignity or good taste. One of the greatest temptations of any regular position is that of getting into a rut, but dedicated ushers will seek to remain creative,” (p.5). That quote is worth the reading of the book despite its other failures.
Johnson makes a case for ushers needing to not be hearing impaired, unless their hearing aid is sufficient to allow the usher to carry on a conversation with a guest without requiring the guest to repeat themselves or shout.
According to Johnson, the usher should have a “lively sense of stewardship” and be dependable, regular and prompt. The usher’s personal appearance should be neat, conservative and with good grooming.
In chapter three, “Organizing for Action”, Johnson again roots the need for organized ushers in our democratic society, not the Scriptures. He warns against autocracy, anarchy and lethargy. “Too often a board, a society, or a fellowship group becomes so highly organized that its members lose sight of its real reason for existence,” p. 10. He makes a very good case for having regular usher meetings, though he does not state how often they should meet: “Three aims should be kept in view as the reasons for holding meetings of the ushers. First, many minds are better than one, and the sharing of ideas is important and productive. Second, the ushers themselves should devise and set forth the specific plans and procedures of their work, always under the advice and guidelines of the pastor. Third, a desirable team spirit is fostered as individuals learn to know each other better and feel more at ease in each other’s presence,” (p.11.)
Johnson brings out an excellent point when he speaks of “Deployment”: “If left to themselves, individuals who are supposed to usher are tempted to gather in a sociable little group in one spot, unaware of the clock and the assembling worshipers.” I have personally observed (and participated in) such groups of ushers!
Chapter three closes with a discussion on keeping records, including attendance and weather, or even at times, a special count of a certain age group. Here is where his writing gets a little bit weird, “The number present is acutely related to the date. Christmas, Easter, and anniversaries, for instance, are usually seasons of the greatest attendance. The location of the church also has a marked bearing upon attendance. If the church is in a typical town or city within two hundred miles of a popular resort area, the attendance may be expected to diminish during the resort’s big season…”
In chapter 4 “The Church Service”, Johnson explains greeting and seating, manner and deportment, and tending the congregation when the unexpected happens. He writes, “…ushers must be conditioned to respond to any crisis, even a disaster. People will look to them for leadership in such occurrences as a fire, bomb scare (bomb scare? This was published in 1966?) a riot or other civil disturbance, a sudden death, or the severe illness of someone present.” This is particularly appropriate in our post 9/11 era.
Johnson closes ch. 4 with some good practical advice, “Not everyone who enters desires the personal attention of an usher, and care must be taken not to embarrass such people by forcing them to receive the usher’s well-intentioned courtesies,” (p25.) Personally, this is the most challenging aspect of being an usher. Serving in a young church, many younger people do not seem to desire or need an usher as much as in a more traditional church setting with an older congregation.
Chapter 5 “Before and After the Service” speaks to preparing the place of worship and cleaning up afterwards. It is in this chapter that I learned a new word: sexton. This is a church word for the custodian/janitor. I like this word because it adds some depth of meaning to the job of church janitor; the person who is committed to cleaning and caring for the house of the Lord should be special. Johnson’s point is that the ushers need to work together with the sexton to keep the sanctuary clean and comfortable. This would have been a great time to point back to the ministry of the Levites in the Old Testament. On p.28 is another odd passage though: “If the sanctuary requires artificial light, an usher should decide how much light is needed and adjust the amount …” Granted this was published in 1966, but were there really that many churches back then without electricity? The churches I attended in the early 1960’s all had electricity.
In his sixth chapter, “The Usher’s Church”, Johnson brings up a good point about ushers assisting special guests, guest speakers and such, by obtaining needed supplies for them and helping them with their equipment. And in chapter 7, “Recruiting”, he balances the need for experienced ushers with bringing in new, inexperienced ushers.
While there were certainly several good points in the book, the overall tone of the book, while helpful and respectful, lacked a gospel centeredness and a biblical basis. While any usher could profit from reading this book, it is generally out of date and not as useful as the others I have studied.