Our Reformed tradition suffers from a tradition of didacticism in worship, going back all the way to John Calvin. His earnest desire was that the congregation understand what was taking place, a noble aspiration for his time and circumstances. However, worship is far more than a teaching opportunity. Worship is doing, not just hearing, and it is in the doing that it becomes possible for the whole self, in company with others, to meet the holy God. The person presiding is the catalytic agent whose work it is to enable this “doing.”
A basic premise of Kimberly Long’s book is that “Worship is full of symbols, and the presider is one of them” (p. 65). The issue is not whether the presider decides whether she or he wants to be a symbol, because it is not a matter of choice. Nor is the presider’s symbolic role one that needs to be explained to the congregation.
The presider functions symbolically as a representation of God, a role that may be terrifying and unwelcome to the presider, but one that is inescapable and necessary, and therefore needs to be shouldered, however burdensome. In fact, the presider’s discomfort as symbol for God may explain why many presiders do everything in their power to signal to the congregation that they don’t take that role seriously, sending the unintended message that neither the assembly’s worship nor its God need be taken seriously. The presider whose demeanor and language are calculated to suggest that she or he is “just plain folks” inadvertently takes center stage, with God as One who is talked about rather than an active agent.
Worship is not about the presiding minister, who can distract the congregation from its worship of God equally by excessive charisma as by dullness, indifference, or distraction. The effective presider exercises a disciplined attentiveness to detail for the purpose of directing attention away from himself and toward the triune God.
Long very gently coaches those whose privilege and responsibility it is to serve the people by presiding in the worshiping assembly. She writes about embodied worship, use of the eyes and ears, the mouth, the hands, the feet, and the engagement of the heart. “What we do with our bodies,” she writes, “has the capacity to bear meaning beyond what our words can articulate” (p. 21).
The church is in a time of crisis, as nearly all agree, but the crisis is not only about numbers, styles, music, or the differences between generations. The crisis is about meeting God in worship, and the responsibilities of those who have been commissioned with the task of handling holy things for the sake of God’s people. Read this book once, and then read it and ponder it again, please, for your sake and for mine.
RONald p. BYARS is Professor Emeritus of Preaching and Worship, Union Presbyterian Seminary, Richmond, Va.