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.
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 . . .