This interview will be presented as part one in a three-part series.
Christ Seul: You’ve been interested in worship practices for a long time. What stimulated this interest?
Janie Blough: Back in the days when the Mennonites in Paris ministered through a hostel for foreign students, I led worship. I asked myself, “If the importance of preaching is naturally assumed, does that mean the rest of the worship service is simply icing on the cake, indeed, even superfluous? I met Robert Webber [founder of the Institute for Worship Studies, a nondenominational theological school] later on in Chicago. In speaking with him about some of my questions, he responded, “I have a school for you with a master’s and doctoral program in worship studies.”
After completing the master’s program, I began the doctoral program, and my passion for worship continues to this day. Comparatively speaking, it’s a bit like opening the proverbial bag of chips; that is, once you start eating them, it’s difficult to stop!
CS: You have given your students an assignment to assess the amount of time that is devoted to reading Scripture within the context of worship in their congregation. What have they discovered? What are their reactions?
JB: Without counting the reading of the sermon texts, the students reported anywhere from one to three minutes, while the time accorded for announcements was about 10 minutes. This exercise can serve as a wake-up call in the sense that we affirm the importance of the Bible, yet what place is it actually given in our worship services? Scripture must be the non-negotiable source of content for Christian worship. Scripture gives voice to the biblical narrative, our story. It depicts God’s love and redemption in Christ. As were other churches born in the Reformation period, the Anabaptists were steeped in Scripture, albeit in their perspective. Is this still the case? While announcements, as one expression of the communitarian life of the congregation, have their rightful place in the worship service, ways must be found to increase that amount of time devoted to the Bible.
CS: So, how can we restore Bible reading to its rightful place without sinking into monotony or giving rise to boredom?
JB: First of all, readers who have a gift for reading texts aloud in public must be discerned. Texts must be given enough time in advance to practice. If someone is asked to read a text right before the service, disregard is shown to both person and Scripture. In similar fashion, someone is not asked to sing solo only minutes before the beginning of the service. Readers need time to prepare the texts, to read what comes before and after, to pray. Different ways of presenting biblical texts can also be explored, i.e., through mime or drama, choral readings, or art. Songs can be introduced with biblical texts. Scripture words can be used as benedictions or as prayers. Psalms can be interspersed with songs or spontaneous prayers. The congregation can read a printed Scripture in unison, or respond with spoken refrain. A person can share a biblical story that they have committed to memory. If we take it upon ourselves to give priority to the Bible in worship, creative gifts can be unleashed in the congregation.