North Suburban Evangelical Free Church, 200 Lake Cook Road, Deerfield IL 60015
Phone: (847) 945-4630, Fax: (847) 945-0097, Email: email@example.com
Office Hours: Monday-Thursday, 9:00 a.m. – 4:30 p.m.
Service Times: Worship at 9:30 a.m.
In this article, I am going to compare the Sunday worship service at North Suburban Evangelical Free Church (While American congregation; EFCA) and the English service at North Shore Chinese Christian Church (Asian American-based multi-ethnic congregation; no denominational background) with the Mandarin service at North Shore Chinese Christian Church (NSCCC; Chinese-speaking immigrant congregation; non-denominational).
Fearing that there might not be enough varieties in these samples, I also did some web research on the churches nearby with ‘higher’ form of worship style, such as Church of the Redeemer (Anglican), St. Gregory’s Episcopal Church, Holy Cross Church (Catholic), reading their bulletins and watch videos (if any) of their Sunday morning services. I also attended the ‘online’ worship service at Duke Chapel (Methodist) at Oct. 10, when they had Rev. Dr. N.T. Wright to speak at the pulpit. I will draw on these experiences in this paper for illustration when needed.
To begin with, each of these worship services consists of the announcement, hymns, several public prayers, a sermon message, the offertory, doxology, and the benediction. An analysis of these components cannot be properly performed without looking at the people, hardware, and traditions with and within which the service is taking place.
Introduction of service
I have been attending the Mandarin worship service at NSCCC for the past three years. It begins every Sunday at 9:15 with a convocation scripture reading, typically from Psalms, by the announcer. Then a piano prelude will prepared the congregants heart for worship, followed immediately by a convocation prayer led by the announcer. As I have been serving as the announcer regularly, I used to write down the prayer in prose format featuring Trinitarian doxology formula put in separate paragraphs, weaving our praise and thanksgiving in them. Some others may not prepare them as intentionally as I do.
But different churches have different ways to begin the ceremony. English NSCCC starts with some brief words greeting from the worship leader, who then will invite everyone rising up for singspiration. North Sub, differently, starts with greeting messages and church announcements by the announcer. They displayed the promotion video for the youth ministry and welcomed first time visitors before the full-fledged worship coming unto stage for singspiration.
It seems that low-church worship will lean more on words than liturgical formality. Duke Chapel starts with about five minutes of choir terzetto with organ that fills the entire sanctuary with a sublime air, and then comes the announcer to introduce bulletin items and the worship program.
Music plays a vital role in all the church services I attended. They stir people’s emotions and set up the service in the tone the organizers want it to be. There have been debates over the appropriate function and style of music. Some who champion a ‘relation-centered worship’ would say that it must cater to the congregants’ taste, whereas those pulpit-centered worshipers contend that songs have to serve the sermon in a coherent way.
Mandarin NSCCC leans more to the former side, in my view. Typically after the convocation prayer we sing four songs, three being tender (or feminine) and the concluding one being majestic (or masculine) which the congregation will stand and sing. (Then our pastor will come up and lead a lengthy public prayer (largely intercessory) followed by everyone reciting the Lord’s Prayer.) Our sanctuary is rectangular; a PowerPoint projector puts lyrics on the screen board descended from above at the center stage, so everyone sits and fixes their eyes on the screen. Two vocalists (typically a male and a female; occasionally two females; rarely two males) stand at the left side of the stage by the piano.
The fact that English NSCCC shares the same physical condition with Mandarin NSCCC does not mean that the worship music will be the same (even though the part that everyone stares at the screen is similar). It should be noted that they are a young and small congregation (of 50-60), and they always have kids and small children worshipping together with the adults for singspiration. After singspiration they are dismissed to Sunday schools designed after their age groups. I believe this is a quite unique feature with good intentions. Mandarin NSCCC is not doing this, not least because our Mandarin congregants are sizer, and more so because they either have no young kids or their school age kids don’t speak the same language to them and are in the English NSCCC. During the summer when the college kids are back to town the English NSCCC would have a fuller band, such as an additional guitarist, a bassist, and a drummer. This time I took note that the worship team consists of only a vocal guitarist and a pianist. They sang to those Chris Tomlin style contemporary gospel songs (as always), but the music is very flat and the congregation tended to hold back their voice rather than contributing to it. The little kids were not well-behaving, either, even disturbing. I don’t want to say that their worship failed, but these are perennial problems as some participants observed. On the side of Mandarin NSCCC, being there for quite some years, sometimes I hope to see innovations in their singpiration.
North Sub has more organized contemporary worship. Their fan-shaped sanctuary serves well their congregation of about 300-400. Vis-à-vis rectangular sanctuary in which people sitting behind are inadvertently disinvited, the fan embraces all crowds. The dual screen allows both left and right sectors to see what is being projected, without overshadowing the giant cross sign hung on the center back wall (NSCCC’s way of screen projection does). Their contemporary gospel music is led by a full worship team with guitar, drum, bass, and piano. Instrumentalists are behind five vocalists. So no matter where people choose to sit one can always see the worship band on the stage and one of the two big screens. On the one hand, the space design facilitates a contagious atmosphere for the worship leaders. On the other hand, seizing the full space of the stage makes what is seen like a performance, about which I am not too sanguine. To soften the “dramatizing” effect, they put their pastor in suits at the center around the full band of young worshipers on stage. Standing on where we typically recognize the leading vocalist would stand, the pastor apparently does not sing with as professional voice as his younger peers, who have American evangelical contrasty and bright colors on, but I am see he is trying.
Scripture Reading and Sermon Message
Unlike NSCCC (and Duke Chapel)’s big wood podium on the stage, North Sub uses a light music stand for the preacher’s Bible and notes. This feature is pretty much in conformity with their worship style, allowing the music band a dancing singspiration and the preacher more freedom to move.
Duke Chapel uses lectionary (2 Kings 5:1-3, 7-15, 2 Timothy 2:8-15, Luke 17:11-19) to guide their topic of preaching. This makes pretty hard to deliver a coherent message with exegetical depth, and the preacher (Rev. Dr. N.T. Wright) only has 20 minutes to relate to all these three passages.
The sermon at English and Mandarin NSCCC usually takes 30 to 40 min. long. At Mandarin NSCCC, our pastor is the preacher almost all the time. His messages also are not grounded in exegetical labors but are geared more toward Max Lucado-like encouraging life lessons.
English NSCCC is at the interim for a new pastor. At the service went my friend James (ThM OT student at TEDS— the bulletin mistakenly typed ‘PhD OT candidate’, an ABC who spent half of his in Taiwan and half in the US) is the guest preacher (but he is from this congregation). It is his first time preaching this congregation. So they introduced an ‘anointing the speaker’ prayer offered by a lay elder, and they had another person to read the Scripture passage, and then the announcer came up to introduce the speaker’s background. Somewhat repetitive.
North Sub is interesting. I have something fun to write here. I had visited this church before and I work for this church now so I know it is a very white church. The past Sunday, however, they had Dr. Lau from Trinity as the guest speaker. They are in the midst of their 1 Peter series and will have various speakers to cover the sessions. As I wondered how this congregation will celebrate the racial diversity among them, the long-haired middle age white gentleman greeted me, ‘Hi, Dr. Lau’.
This happened not long—but not immediately either—after I sat down; I looked at his face, responding ‘I’m not Dr. Lau.’ And I knew he was joking. But my immediate thought is: how rare do you see Asians among them that they feel it is natural to make fun of my skin color (harmless they thought and I know) as an icebreaker.
Content-wise, the message is good. Dr Lau’s Singlish accent won’t hurt.
Offertory and Doxology
Both North Sub and English NSCCC put the ceremony of tithes before the sermon and after singspiration. Mandarin NSCCC does it right after sermon. I feel better not to be asked for money ‘upfront’, maybe because this is also what my churches back in Taiwan do not do. NSCCC uses red cloth bags for tithes service, but North Sub uses pans.
For North Sub, the good thing is that right after sermon, the pastor (not Dr. Lau) calls people to stand to receive benediction and sing Trinity doxology to conclude the service. Simple and clear, so people dismissed can quickly engage in conversion with their next door neighbors despite the relatively big size of the congregation.
English NSCCC has no pastor right now. Therefore they will slip the benediction if the guest speak is not an ordained clergy—just go to Trinity doxology.
Mandarin NSCCC put the offertory after sermon, and every time the announcer has to offer a public prayer for the sanctification of this money. Then on the first week of the month we have communion. On other Sundays, we go to pastor’s benediction and sing Trinity doxology, followed by church announcements.
I have three reflections.
First, People like regularity and consistency. Worship service, once formalized, tends to stay that way for a long time in spite that if we learn from other churches, we may know better ways to improve the quality of the service on a God-honoring trajectory.
Second, the amount of church resources matter significantly in the quality of worship service. But it would be an undue practice to blame poor quality of worship to the lack of resources. Worship means we give our all and our best to God, and I think if we do so the worship will be contagious and God will take delight in it. He sees our heart.
Third, recently there are some literatures dedicated to expounding the theological significance of liturgical practices. They are not just obsolete customs. Rather, they shape us as a community of faith in unity with God. Too rashly we raise the slogan ‘unity but not uniformity’, while failing to first be appreciative of the forms that grant us the privileged forum to talk about unity. I mean, Jesus shed his blood and sacrificed his body in a concrete form in accordance with the Jewish practice and understanding of ‘sacrificial atonement’. Today, this should lead some protestant free churches to reexamine some of the over-contextualized worship practices in terms of our apostolic linage.