During my years in the parish I have spent much effort to teach my board of elders their duties. Of all congregational offices, elder is most misunderstood. It is probably that way because elders must assist the pastor with spiritual issues. These are not so easily said and done as balancing the church checkbook or replacing a burnt-out lightbulb in the sanctuary.
The good news is that most congregation constitutions and bylaws spell out the duties of elders very clearly and faithfully. This was the case in my first congregation, and it is also true where I serve now. In fact, the duties listed are essentially the same, probably adapted from a template most districts suggested for member congregations. Your congregation’s constitution very likely contains the same list of duties as the congregations which I have served.
One elder duty stands out for me this day. It reads, “See to it that all services are conducted in such a manner as to avoid needless disturbance and to foster an attitude conducive to worship among those in attendance.” I have always tried to emphasize this duty with elders because it is easy to take for granted. It is easy to assume the pastor has control of the reins when it comes to worship, but elders are not off the hook. They should see to it that services start on time, a competent organist is procured, parents maintain proper discipline with their children, etc. As a pastor I take much comfort when elders take this job seriously. Worship without needless distraction is essential to the care of souls.
This doesn’t mean everything is perfect. Children cry and occasionally misbehave. Organists make mistakes. Some people may sing off key. Maybe the air conditioner broke down right before the sermon. Pastors make mistakes too. The point is that there is a concerted effort among congregation leadership to do the best we can in fostering an environment conducive to worshiping our God. Laziness does not cut it.
While in the past it has maybe been easy for elders to take this duty for granted, Covid-19 has forced us to consider this duty in a whole new light. Unprecedented innovation has sprung up within our churches. Pews have been taped off. Handshaking has disappeared. Pastors and parishioners are wearing masks. Members must sign up for church attendance. Pastors have significantly altered the regular administration of the sacraments. Live-streamed services make it so a pastor can’t actually see the entire congregation to whom he is preaching. Most congregation members have never witnessed such measures, nor could they have predicted such things.
It is not my purpose here to go into detail and question the effectiveness of such measures one by one. I only want to raise the question: According to the duties spelled out for our elders, do such practices introduce “needless disturbance”? Do these practices “foster an attitude conducive to worship” for those who are attending? Do these practices pacify anxious hearts, or do they actually have the unintended consequence of reinforcing ungodly fear? These are the types of questions we need to be asking, especially the types of questions which our elders must be considering with their pastors.
In the past months we have heard plenty of calls to “be safe,” to “love your neighbor,” and “obey the 4th Commandment.” These are all true, but they are generic calls which can be answered in a myriad of ways. In challenging times our congregations must be skilled to act with surgical precision. The world is watching. Our children are watching, and their tender hearts of faith are being formed. Never before in my lifetime have we had such an opportunity to make witness of our faith with our public worship. Neither have we had such an opportunity to fail. The stakes are high, and so I find the precise language to which our elders are duty-bound to be so useful. Our worship must be “without needless disturbance,” and the environment of our churches must “foster an attitude conducive to worship among those in attendance.” This is a high bar to keep, but we owe it to our congregations, the precious souls redeemed by the blood of Christ.
No doubt we may derive these wise words from what our Lord Jesus said to the woman at the well in John 4: “God is spirit, and those who worship him must worship in spirit and truth” (John 4:24). They are profound words which should be on the heart of every worshiper of the Triune God. I think of how we sing the Song of Zechariah from the Lutheran Service Book’s order of Morning Prayer: “free to to worship him without fear, holy and righteous in his sight all the days of our life.” Indeed, these words remind us that worship and fear are absolutely incompatible. While we are sinners and have moments of struggle, we know how the worship of God and ungodly, carnal fear cannot co-exist. One must finally squeeze out the other.
We are profoundly blessed to have congregations structured in ways which are so faithful to the Bible. For me, Covid-19 has not been fun in many ways, both looking at the church and the broader culture. But at the same time it has been a tremendous opportunity to remember who we are and share what hope we have to offer. Our public worship is our best opportunity to put that on display. So let’s think critically about what is needed, what is needless disturbance, and give thanks for the tremendous privilege we have to worship publicly the God who has created, redeemed, and sanctified us.
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