On Memorial Day Sunday, I attended worship in a Grand Rapids church which was not United Methodist. Walking up to the entrance, I observed dozens of American flags lining the sidewalk. The pastor opened worship with a touching prayer remembering those who gave up their lives for our country in the armed forces. After that, the service followed a different theme based on the scripture chosen for the day. Unfortunately, there was absolutely no acknowledgement that May 27 was Pentecost, one of the most important Sundays in the Christian year. I came to worship expecting to be set on fire by the power of Holy Spirit but left feeling empty.
It caused me to reflect on what we do in worship. Did you sing patriotic hymns last Sunday around the Fourth of July? Did you honor mothers on Mother’s Day? Did you reflect on the importance of dads on Father’s Day? I confess that I have always struggled with appropriate ways to recognize national and secular holidays in worship. My tendency has been not to build entire services around these holidays but rather focus on the scripture and theme for the day and find other ways to acknowledge the holiday. I have been careful to separate the worship of God from the worship of mothers, fathers, Hallmark or country.
My concern, however, goes deeper than whether the Christian flag should be displayed in the sanctuary on the Fourth of July or whether mention should be made of Veteran’s Day in November. Whenever we celebrate specials days in worship, whether specifically Christian or secular, I find myself wondering who may feel alienated by the attention we bestow on others.
- How do men who are struggling with infertility feel when we highlight fathers on Father’s Day?
- How do couples who have just experienced a miscarriage react when we baptize babies?
- When we honor our mothers on Mother’s Day, what do people think whose mothers were not caring, nurturing or encouraging?
- What must citizens of other countries think when we bring patriotism into the church?
To go a step further, how do we as pastors embrace the expectations and baggage that parishioners bring with them to worship every Sunday? After all, the purpose of worship is to connect people with God and open their hearts. In worship we come before God as we truly are. We may be able to hide our vulnerabilities during the week, but when the Holy Spirit begins moving, hearts break wide open, emotions rise to the surface, and the pain of our losses can become overwhelming.
Now that I am a worshipper most of the time rather than a worship leader, I am more attuned to “the view from the pew.” Because I no longer tend to the details of worship, I am more free to come seeking grace and hope, and looking for deeper meaning. When we encounter the living Christ in worship, we come face to face with our brokenness, and tears can flow freely.
We are most effective in leading worship when we have intimate knowledge of our congregation. Proverbs 27:23 says, “Know well the condition of your flocks, and give attention to your herds.” Know your parishioners well enough that you are attuned to their hopes and fears, joys and sorrows, pain and passion. Be attentive to who will have a rough time at Christmas and who may be tempted to stay home on a baptism Sunday. Be aware of who will be deeply affected on Memorial Day Sunday and who will not be able to make a pledge on Stewardship Sunday because they just lost their job. Identify who is going through a divorce and which parents may feel alienated on Youth Sunday because their teenager is in a drug treatment center. Know who has just been diagnosed with cancer and who has a son or daughter in Iraq and lives in fear of that knock on the door. Holding those names and faces in your heart as you prepare will shape your preaching.
Some will say that if we take everyone’s sensitivities into account, we’ll become consumed by political correctness and will end up saying nothing of significance. Certainly, we are called to preach boldly and prophetically, which at times offends and convicts. However, I would claim that when we intentionally discern the needs of our congregation, preaching also becomes pastoral care. The result is that not only will we be better pastors, we’ll be better preachers as well. In this way, pastoral care and preaching are two sides of the same coin.
Our preaching, teaching and writing will affect people in ways we will never be able to anticipate. Anytime we faithfully connect the gospel and our faith with the world, we touch raw nerves and delve into matters of the heart. At times, people will feel hurt or angry at what we say, leave unsaid, or don’t acknowledge publicly. My prayer, however, is that by knowing well the condition and needs of our flocks, our worship and preaching will be transformative, healing and grace-filled.