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A Letter from the General Minister to Pittsburgh Presbytery

Boilerplate Church
September 13, 2018

Unlike Orthodox, Catholic, Anglican, and Lutheran traditions, Presbyterians do not have the same set liturgy prescribed for all churches. The “Directory for Worship” in our Book of Order does offer a suggested order for worship, which many of our churches follow. Yet, as I travel from congregation to congregation, I find that no two have exactly the same worship pattern. We use a variety of hymnals and Bible translations, and arrange the elements of the worship service in various ways.

This variety is not merely a manifestation of our Scots-Irish forebears’ resistance to being told what to do. Rather, it reflects our conviction that the Gospel ought to be proclaimed in the language of the culture in which the church resides. According to our “Directory for Worship,” worship language proves authentic when it is faithful to our biblical roots and heritage, and appropriate when its hearers recognize and receive it as their own.

The universal church is always local in its expression. Every community in which the church resides has its own unique language. Yinz know what I mean. And when we understand “language” as forms of expression, and not just words used, we recognize that it is always a moving target. It shifts at least as often as popular styles change, from year to year and from neighborhood to neighborhood. Advertisers know this well; billboards vary significantly from one part of town to the next.

Every new congregation anchors itself in the linguistic and cultural vernacular of its primary community, translating as faithfully as possible the timeless Gospel into its very particular place and time. Then, all too easily, it gets so comfortable in those forms of expression that it fails to adjust its language when its surrounding culture changes. It settles into a routine that is utterly predictable, keeping the same language regardless of shifts in the surrounding world. We take great comfort in church being perhaps the one place in our world where things don’t change, where the worship order, the hymns, the message, and the cast of characters stay the same week in and week out, year in and year out.

And thus each congregation tends to develop its own de facto boilerplate. We pretty much know each week how worship will go. We work hard to keep Sunday surprises to a minimum.

I got to thinking about Sunday surprises after what happened to me last Sunday. I was asked to bring a musical offering, and chose to play a piano medley I arranged of the hymn “What A Friend We Have in Jesus” with Carole King’s “You’ve Got A Friend.” I was having fun playing it, and the people seemed to be enjoying it, when, as I neared the end, the church’s fire alarm sounded. I soldiered on to the end of my piece, but nobody noticed when I stopped playing. If today we asked those present to tell us what happened in church, almost nobody would mention my piano offering, while virtually everyone would mention the fire alarm.

Utter predictability in church may be of great comfort to longtime members, but it is a sure sign of decay. The psalmist repeatedly urges us to “Sing a new song unto the Lord!” (Psalm 96:1, Psalm 98:1, etc.) Why? Because in every place and time, God is doing new things. God keeps up with the changes in the world, even if the church won’t. This is what we learn from Jesus; God’s saving way always begins with a move into the neighborhood. (John 1:14, The Message) Neighborhoods change; do the churches within their precincts change along with their neighborhood, or do they stand as monuments to what the neighborhood used to be?

Our characteristic Presbyterian boilerplate is not one liturgy for all congregations. Rather, it is each congregation finding its own way of expressing itself that remains constant and static, regardless of the changes in the neighborhood. Each Sunday we fill in the blanks of a long-established boilerplate.

Church ought never be so predictable. Wherever God is at work, anything is possible. God breaks in to established worship orders often in Scripture, such as Jesus interjecting into a perfectly good synagogue service an unwelcome act of healing, (Luke 13:10-17) or a stirring apostolic sermon being interrupted with an outbreak of tongues-speaking. (Acts 10:44-46) The cloud of God’s presence brought the worship service to a standstill at the dedication of Solomon’s Temple. (2 Chronicles 5:13-14)

Aside from the rude intrusion of a fire alarm, I must confess that I have seldom been surprised in worship in recent memory. Do we have enough courage to pray that God would be so present among us that anything is possible on any given Sunday?

Ready for a new song,

The Rev. Dr. Sheldon W. Sorge, General Minister

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