Reading the Proclamation, Missing the Holy Spectacle

I couldn't help but notice something odd as I watched President Obama address the joint session of Congress back on February 25.  You see, for the past several years I had listened to such addresses on the radio, as we didn't have cable or satellite television, and the reception through our rabbit ears antennae was awful.  But I watched this time, and was impressed by the grandeur of the event.  The President of the United States, the members of the US Supreme Court, the Cabinet, members of both houses of Congress, and other guests.  Quite a spectacle. 

Reading in Congress

But I was also surprised to see so many members of Congress, gathered there for this grand event, reading the President's address provided to them in fancy little booklets (look closely at the picture above).  Why not just look up, listen, and take in the event?  Why read?  You're in the House chambers, the President is speaking, and you're reading?  Surely these members of congress have staffers who are drawing up talking points, so there's no need to study the text at that moment.  Couldn't they have just listened to the President's speech?

I ask this question because I notice how so many folks read along in their worship bulletins at church.  I know that until a few years ago I used to read along, too.  But I fear that the printed word detracts from our ability to hear the spoken Word coming to us from outside of us, from the church, from God.  You see, reading and listening are different tasks, they happen at different paces, and they impact the individual differently.  For example, if I'm reading along as the lector is reading the first reading in worship, I find my eyes and my brain moving foward, racing ahead of the lector.  Inevitably I finish reading before the lector does.  So as I'm waiting for her to finish the reading, perhaps I move to a different part of my worship bulletin – the next reading, or the prayers, or the announcements . . . so that by about the second reading or the Gospel, I have read through the whole worship folder!

But meanwhile, I have missed out on hearing the articulation of God's Word.  I have clouded out the proclamation of the Word with my own visual consumption of the printed word.  I have failed to fully participate in the communal proclamation.  I may even have given short shrift to Paul's wisdom that "faith comes from what is heard" (Romans 10:17), for I was listening with my mind's ear to my own reading rather than listening to the Word proclamed before me and in community.

So too with the sacrament.  In the worship bulletins of many of our churches we print the text to the whole liturgy of the table, including the words of institution.  For many years as I sat in the pew I found myself reading along rather than taking in the spectacle of Christ's promise of real presence unfolding before me, missing out on the gestures, the words, the shared experience of Christ's sacramental presence.

Or to take an example from the classroom: When I teach lessons or offer workshops, I try to minimize my use of paper handouts or worksheets . . . for I find these to be a distraction for the students who are busy reading and wondering how these papers are going to connect to the class rather than listening to me.  If I do use these tools I distribute them not in advance, but only at the time when I need to use them.

And so I wonder if our Roman Catholic and Evangelical friends have a bit of wisdom that many of us in the Main Line are lacking.  I can't remember the last time I walked into a Roman Catholic or Evangelical church and was handed a 16 page worship folder.  Rather, I walk in and my mind, my ears, my heart, my attention is drawn to the spectacle that is unfolding before us, in proclamation, in prayer, and (in the Roman Catholic churches) in sacrament.

Yes, I know the reasons for printing a bulletin – to be welcoming to visitors, to reduce page-turning in a worship book, to help follow the service if the lector or presiding minister has a weak voice or if the worshipper has poor hearing, and to provide worshippers with a "take-home" piece . . . But I wonder if the costs – yes, the costs to the church of paper, staff time, photocopying, but not just that – I wonder if the costs to worshippers who might be distracted by the 16-page, self-contained, worship booklet that is resting in their hands might be too high for the sake of "convenience."  I'm not sure if I'll say that the proclamation of the Word is at stake, but I will get close to that line . . .

If our worship books are too complicated to use perhaps we should teach their proper use or, alternatively, ditch them.  If our worship service is too complicated, perhaps we should teach its pattern and prayers or, alternatively, simplify it.  It seems to me that teaching would be the way to go . . .

Published by Chris Duckworth

Spouse. Parent. Lutheran Pastor. Veteran. Jedi. Political Junkie. Baseball Fan.

2 thoughts on “Reading the Proclamation, Missing the Holy Spectacle

  1. I have a negative feeling about worship “folders” due to the expense of the paper, ink, copy machine, and secretary time. Are we so stupid that we can’t use the books? So let’s be sure to be user friendly/good hosts (hostesses) when leading the worship service. The worship leader should say where they are in the book. Or don’t get so fancy that we have to jump all over the place.
    I’ll admit that it isn’t always easy to remember to do that. But the pastor that I’ve experienced who had the best results getting new people into the pews was very welcoming in this respect. We don’t want new people to experience that Out Crowd feeling.
    We don’t use worship folders in our church. But I will say, that it would make a lot of sense to put the one line responses in the bulletin because people just can’t look that up in the hymnal in time to follow along.
    OTOH, our church uses about 3 – 4 different liturgies within a few month period, so there is reason to be concerned about people following along.
    BTW, our very competent (extraordinary, really) musician says that the new ELW musician’s edition is very user UNFRIENDLY. She is constantly having to switch those big books back and forth. Her page numbers don’t match those of the congregation/choir. And the harmony/accompaniment lines in the musician edition don’t match those in the pew hymnal.
    Regarding people reading along with the lessons, I’d rather see them opening the Bible and reading along. Some people are oral learners and some are visual learners, so different people need different input to get the messages. But your points are valid.

  2. Here’s the deal: no one experiences worship the same way. You might be the kind of person who can hear something and have it resonate deep in your bones, while Juana needs to read it to have it embed in her cells. Mary Sue over here, though, must touch something before it becomes a part of her and while you’re busy preaching that beautiful sermon you refined over many hours to reach people, she’s bored spitless and wants you to shut up now so we can sing the next hymn (singing being a kinesthetic activity due to the coordination required between breath, eyeballs, vocal cords, and both halves of the brain).
    The thing about spectacles, the thing about circuses, the thing about good theater is that there is always multiple levels of things going on, and with enough levels, you catch the attention of everyone.

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