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Students at commencement

Ministry in Context

For the 10,000th time

One warm July night Mrs. McKinley and I treated ourselves to a Neil Diamond concert at the local hockey-and-concert arena. We’ve seen Neil in action before and were quite eager to go again.

While there were some younger people there, most of the crowd was our generation, more twilight-side-of-the-hill than morning-side-of-the-mountain. But then Neil himself is 71. Nonetheless, the man radiates energy and performed for two solid hours without an intermission. Of course many of the songs were his familiar hits from over the years, so the concert became a sing- and dance-along.

As Neil directed the crowd into a third additional chorus of “Sweet Caroline,” I wondered how many times he has sung “Sweet Caroline” and “Crackling Rose” and “America” and his other hits over the years.  Thousands, I am sure. And yet when he sings them now in concert, it is with an energy and passion that can make them seem both familiar and new. Amazing.

Some would say that it is because he is a performer, and draws energy from the audience, and I know that is true, at least in part. But I think it is also true that the audience draws energy from him, from the performer. If he were to come out one night and “mail it in,” give half-hearted performances with less energy, I am sure that the energy of the audience would not be the same. That isn’t going to happen, because as an entertainer he is a professional in the best sense of the word.

So it is a Sunday in August, with the temperature in the mid-80s and headed upwards. The church air-conditioning, if in fact the church has air-conditioning, isn’t working. Most of the worshippers have shown up dressed as empty pews. You had vacation in June, and that seems forever ago. The liturgy is the same old liturgy. It is a “B” year in the lectionary, you’ve been preaching on the Bread of Life from John 6 for weeks and weeks, and you’ve told every bread story you know. A new program year is peeking over the horizon. Church finances are in their typical summer slump. In other words, it is the kind of Sunday that calls on the pastor to be a professional, in the Neil Diamond sense of professional.

Forty years ago there was a debate about attaching the label of “professional” to the pastor. Some believed calling the pastor a professional de-spiritualized the calling. Whatever. I do believe that pastors can and should be professionals in the best sense of the word, delivering their best on all occasions, leading worship with as much enthusiasm and care on that dull August Sunday as on Easter morning. Like it or not, we as “professionals” bear serious responsibility for the climate of worship around us. As I look back on my own years in parish ministry, I realize that usually when I complained after worship about the congregation being dull, I was the one who was dull in the first place.

I am conservative enough to be turned off by the idea of worship as performance. When a congregation “shows its appreciation” by applauding, usually occasioned by either a spirited performance by a children’s choir or a lachrymose chunk of cotton-candy spirituality presented in the cocktail-sacred manner, I’m turned off and do not join in. Nonetheless, a community at worship is influenced by the manner and style and attitude of those who lead the worship. If we want enthusiastic worship, that enthusiasm needs to start with us.

If Neil Diamond can whip up an audience on a Wednesday night with “Brother Love’s Traveling Salvation Show,” we should be able to do the same thing with the real thing on a Sunday morning, even a hot one when we’d rather be at our air-conditioned home enjoying a third cup of Sunday morning coffee.

To interns still stoked with the enthusiasm of the young, this might be incomprehensible. Supervisors will understand. If you are in the former camp…when that Sunday comes for you, and it will come, just remember Neil.

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