Shortening the Divine Service

Many pastors have gone to mini-services during the shut-down. (10 people or fewer at 20-30 minute services with sanitation between services.) Obviously, the Divine Service is abbreviated in such a setting. We did mini-services one Sunday, and since then, we’ve been doing social-distancing services that are slightly abbreviated.

How does a pastor pick and choose what to leave in and what to exclude? The advantage of the church’s traditions is that they can help us with such a task – you don’t have to just guess at what stays and what goes. For members who may be wondering how it works, here’s the path I choose. (Other pastors may change this method slightly, but the basic concept will be the same.)

DISCLAIMER: Just because something is excluded does not mean pastors want it gone, or think it’s less important than other parts. I promise, this is a painful thing for us. That’s why the church’s history helps us – we can follow the lead of our fathers in the faith without having to agonize too much over what we’re doing.

The Post-Reformation Additions: This will take a 60-70 minute service and make it 45-55 minutes. After the reformation, some things were added to reflect the nature of the Divine Service as God coming to us with his mercy, instead of the Medieval understanding of us offering God a sacrifice to work atonement for our sins. (Seriously, the church was teaching that in the Divine Service WE offered a sacrifice to God to atone for our sins. Because apparently, Jesus sacrifice on the cross wasn’t enough. By the way, this is still a thing in some churches.) Getting rid of these does not make the focus of the service less Gospel-like. There is still plenty of Gospel in the entire service. These helped to teach specific disputed points during the post-reformation era. They are:

The Confession/Absolution. Technically, this has never been part of the Divine Service proper. It has always been a preparatory rite. It prepares us to enter the presence of God and hear his word. During the best years of the Reformation, this was actually done before the service one-on-one with the pastor (Private Absolution). Over the years, this fell into disuse, and the general/corporate confession replaced it. Along with the Communion sign-up, it is the last remnants of the old practice of regular private confession/absolution. A few of our congregations do offer private C&A regularly, but they are the exception, not the rule. Most Lutherans today are not even aware that Private Confession & Absolution is a thing. But it is. And the General Confession can be omitted – especially during festival seasons (like Easter!), or replaced with the Litany during penitential seasons (Like Lent, or during times of war or pandemic.)

Old Testament Reading. The historic lectionary has two readings: The Epistle and the Gospel. This is the largest weakness of the historic lectionary. It is easily solved – add an Old Testament reading. But in times of need, it can be omitted. For Easter, I’m shooting for about 500 words from the readings. So Easter & Easter 3 have all the readings, Easter 2 & 4 have two readings. It depends on the length. Trust me, I know how godless it sounds. When planning, it feels so ruthless. But the goal is a service that is about 45 minutes. Something has to go. It’s the same principle when I’m at the death-bed of a member. They can’t do the whole thing. A few words will have to do. That’s why in good times we do the whole thing – so that people are fed with the fullness of the Word of God for those times when they have to just have little bits.

Nunc Dimittis. This was almost certainly added as a confession of the real presence – not against Rome but against the Reformed. We have taken the body and blood of Jesus into ourselves, and now we sing the same words that the old guy sang after holding baby Jesus in his arms. It’s really a stunning confession of faith. This canticle was traditionally used for Vespers. Before bed we are essentially praying “If I die before I wake, I pray the Lord my soul to take…” which is what this song says. But it is such a wonderful confession of the body and blood that the post-Reformation church moved it into the Divine Service. On a personal note, this is one of the hardest parts to omit. It’s is absolutely sublime in its confession of both the real presence and the resurrection. It is one of the most comforting canticles in the church.

Shorter. Hymns, sermons, and prayers are shortened. Technically, congregational singing was a Reformation thing. But hymns are such a part of our life together after 500 years that they are only omitted entirely in the direst of circumstances. But I have removed longer hymns or done only select verses. To cut a sermon, you have to work hard to make it better. It can actually take more time to cut than it does to speak more fully. I keep having to not explain and expand on important points. Once this is over, I may start my sermon with “There’s a few things I’ve been wanting to say about the readings, but I haven’t had the time. So, remember on Palm Sunday when Jesus said…” (I’m kidding, I think.) As for prayers, I hit the highlights that cover the essentials for now. That doesn’t mean the other petitions aren’t in our thoughts, minds, private prayers, etc. It just means we aren’t saying those things aloud for now. We’ll get back to them once this is over. We’re in constant prayer in our homes anyway.

That gets us to 45-50 minutes. When we did mini-services (and for those who have had to continue doing them throughout) the next round of cuts can get you to 30-35 minutes.

Weekday Services. There are some parts that are normally omitted for weekday services – this allows for short-and-to-the-point celebrations before work, etc. (I’m not speaking here of Sunday services moved to mid-week, but of mid-week services as their own thing. eg. not “Or come on Monday nights!”, but “We also offer Divine Service each weekday at 6:30am…” sort of thing.) Few churches offer these mid-week services, but they do have their own traditions, and those traditions help us figure out where to go next:

Gloria in Excelsis, Creed, Hymns. You’ll notice that the communion liturgy is pretty much left intact. That is intentional. The service of the Word is shortened, rather than the Service of the Sacrament. The other casualty is usually chanting. It slows down the rate of speech. While Chanting makes the pastor easier to hear/understand, and is less taxing on the voice if done properly, it takes time. When that becomes the consideration, then we move to spoken services, with maybe a musical flourish for this or that part only as a highlight (ie. Sanctus, etc.)

Sermon. Never omitted, but to get to 30 minutes, you’re looking at no more than about 5 minutes of sermon. For a 20 minute service, you’ll have to cut the sermon to about 2-3 minutes. This is enough time for a useful thought or two, a brief consolation, or a quick reminder of God’s grace and mercy. If you’re at 20 minute mark, you may also be cutting the Introit to a couple of verses, doing one reading – and maybe only highlights of that, omitting the Agnus Dei, slashing the responses, etc.

20 minutes put you in “What can I not do without” mode. Pastors move from being informed by the traditions of the church to looking toward bedside communion for the dying. To give you an idea, the minimum I have ever done is probably: Single verse of scripture. One sentence sermon. Lord’s Prayer. Verba. Distribution. Nunc Dimittis. Benediction. (Notice that, in times of death, the Nunc re-appears!) It was under 5 minutes. That was as long as the person could stay awake. I’ve never attempted anything like it in a church building, and I pray I never have to.

I suppose this would have been helpful a month ago. But, as we’re now looking at re-including some omitted things, I thought it might be helpful to know, at least in retrospect, what happened, how choices were made, and what to look forward to as we prayerfully (May God grant it!) move into recovery and restoration mode.

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