When does a service of worship last too long? What a subjective question!
A squirming toddler will experience eternity in the first five minutes; a teenager might be able to survive for close to 30 minutes, and the adult who has made dinner reservations for 12:30 p.m. may begin fidgeting like a 7-year-old at approximately 11:57 a.m.
And that’s just the tip of the iceberg.
To determine when a service slips from happily appropriate to torturously lengthy also depends on the energy level of the service, whether there is a special occasion, the timeliness of the sermon and what’s customary for any given worshiping community. In some faith settings a two-hour service would be disappointingly brief, while other congregations would disapprove anything habitually lasting longer than an hour.
The seeds for this column were sown last Sunday in worship ... but not because I was bored. I have been retired from the active ministry for a month now and am enjoying sitting in a pew next to my wife, an event I’ve rarely been able to experience.
I have decided to leave two things at home on Sunday morning: my smartphone and my wristwatch. Of course, a younger generation finds wristwatches redundant for the person with a smartphone, but people in my age group remember when a person’s coming-of-age was tied, in part, to receiving the first wristwatch.
For 36 years I carried that infernal timepiece into the pulpit with me, striving hard — as much as it was in my power — to dismiss the worship service within an hour if possible, motivated in part by my own Type A personality, in part by infrequent comments by church members and even in part by stale and corny jokes about preachers who lose track of the time. It was important for me get the congregation out of church promptly.
Now from the vantage point of the pew, I see things very differently. Although I know that some worship services drag on longer than it might take to release the prisoners from Guantanamo, I can happily report that leaving my wristwatch at home each Sunday has been a small, but quite liberating, experience. Every service has been inspiring and I’ve never once hungered for the closing benediction.
I have begun to wonder if maybe I overreacted when I was in the pulpit. I doubt that I could ever trust myself to preach a sermon without a wristwatch — there is this matter of getting carried away! — but one of the elements of appropriate worship is timelessness.
Charles Wesley’s hymn “Love Divine All Loves Excelling” describes a worshiper as being “lost in wonder, love and praise.” Perhaps one small way to cultivate such a feeling on the Sabbath might be to leave wristwatch on the dresser and cell or smartphone in the car when one goes to church.
Creede Hinshaw, of Macon, is a retired Methodist minister.