Liturgical Gimmicks (or why you maybe should not wear red on Pentecost)
By Andy James, Pastor of First Presbyterian Church of Whitestone, Queens, NY
May 29, 2015—This past Sunday, as I scrolled across my Facebook and Twitter feeds populated with what could best (and very lovingly) be described as “church geeks.” I quickly lost count of all the pictures posted by people of their red pants, ties, hats, and even shoes worn in celebration of Pentecost. We do it in the church I serve as pastor, too—in the announcements in worship and the weekly e-newsletter, we dutifully encourage our members and friends to wear red to worship on Pentecost Sunday to join in the celebration.
But what good does all this red do one Sunday out of the year? Is it a way people really began to internalize the coming of the Holy Spirit? Or was it an excuse to pull some otherwise-ignored clothing out of the closet once a year? Is wearing red on Pentecost really a helpful way to get people engaged in the cycles of the liturgical year, or is it just another liturgical gimmick?
In recent years, as the church has welcomed creative worship planning and thought about a variety of new ideas to enliven worship, I think we have seen a parallel rise in what could be called liturgical gimmicks. These gimmicks are often rooted in something helpful and meaningful, but these good intentions all too often move into the realm of meaningless displays of mediocre value. For example, a few years ago, I decided to preach a sermon series on the Sermon on the Mount. Thinking that it might be helpful to have a reminder of this plan for me and the congregation, I cut out a “mountain” from brown banner paper and taped it to the pulpit for the duration of the sermon series. Between the less-than-stellar artistic talent involved and the gimmickry of it all, the meaning was lost on me and everyone else by the second or third Sunday (although my pride required that I leave the “mountain” in place for the whole series!)
There is a very fine line between helpful embodiments of our belief and practice and liturgical gimmicks. What seems to one person to be a silly action to celebrate a holiday can bring new meaning to a tired festival for another. Defining that line is difficult for all of us, but here are a few things to think about when considering doing something in public worship that might be viewed as a liturgical gimmick.
- Is the meaning obvious or easily explained? It may seem obvious, but so many liturgical gimmicks aren’t clear to people in the pews. If it takes more than a sentence to explain or can’t be remembered after the service, the people you were trying to reach might have missed the point.
- How would a guest respond? What would happen if a guest walked in? Would they be able to feel like they are a part of the event, or would they feel left out?
- Have you done this before? Sometimes even the best ideas can lose their meaning over time if done too often. Maybe it is time for a year off from encouraging everyone to wear red on Pentecost so that the idea can have new meaning next year.
- What else is going on at the same time as this idea? Sometimes the fastest way to detract from something good is to place it alongside too many other good ideas. The same Pentecost you introduce the idea of wearing red to worship might not be a good year to bring in reading texts in multiple languages (or vice versa).
- Does the added value and meaning of doing this match the effort involved? Sometimes a very good idea can take a lot of time to implement, time that might be better spent on other things. If a creative worship idea is going to take away from time spent on a good sermon or the like, then it might be wise to reconsider.
As carefully as we might consider questions like these when thinking about whether to try a particular new idea for worship, worship planners will inevitably choose incorrectly. Some good ideas may be suppressed as liturgical gimmicks, and some liturgical gimmicks may slip through the cracks of thoughtful questioning. Some ideas may work well in some places while being clear gimmicks in others. Nonetheless, it is a good use of time and energy to bring the creativity of all our senses to worship—and to make sure that we embrace it as more than just a gimmick so that our whole selves are engaged in worship and praise.
Do you have any experience with liturgical gimmicks? What are the dividing lines between helpful ideas to enliven worship and liturgical gimmicks in the community where you worship and/or serve? Are there other helpful questions to ask when considering such new ideas?
Andy James is the Pastor of the First Presbyterian Church of Whitestone, Queens, New York, and the Stated Clerk of the Presbytery of New York City. He is one of the founders of LiturgyLink, an online collaborative space for sharing liturgy, and wore red on Pentecost Sunday this year to root on his beloved New York Red Bulls soccer team. Find and follow him on Twitter and Facebook and at www.bluedrift.com.
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