As I sat in church this past Sunday, I admit to checking my watch. It was baptism remembrance Sunday and each person in the sanctuary was invited to come to the front and be touched with water to remind them of their baptism (or in anticipation, if they had not yet been baptized). It was wonderful but did take a while for everyone to make their way down to the front and back to their seats. We sang the four hymns printed in the bulletin…twice. By the time the ushers were invited to come forward and collect the offering, it was already noon and people were slowly slipping out. I stayed for the remainder of the service but it got me thinking about the expectations about how long worship should be and why religious people have – or do not have – unspoken rules about lengths of services.
In my experiences of United Methodist worship, I can count on one hand the number of times a service ran longer than one hour. There seems to be an unspoken rule in many, if not all, mainline Protestant churches that if your service isn’t over when the clocks ticks past the hour mark, you can’t be surprised when people begin to quietly gather their things and slip out to make those Sunday afternoon plans. Roman Catholic and Episcopal churches often limit Sunday mass to an hour, unless it is a major church holiday like Easter or Christmas. Even Jewish synagogues tend to keep their Friday night worship to 60 minutes, though it doesn’t seem as common a practice as in Christian churches.
When was it decided that we can, no have to accomplish worship in one hour? Why are we surprised when we get out of church “early” or “late”? Not all communities of faith have these constraints on time during worship, in fact many traditions pay little attention to the length of worship and prayer. I’ll give you two examples from two very different sets of beliefs.
Our first example takes us to Arkansas: in college I visited a Pentecostal church on a Sunday morning and spent two hours singings, listening to the pastor, and hearing testimonials from church members who felt moved to speak. No one seemed hurried or impatient; this was just a normal Sunday morning.
For our second example, we simply look to our Muslim neighbors. American Muslims spend however long they need to in prayer throughout the day, and weekly community prayers at mosques around the country can last for 30 minutes or an hour or less or more.
What do both of these examples have in common? Worship and prayer lasts as long as the pastor or imam or congregants feel the Holy Spirit or God or Allah working among them. It doesn’t matter if the service or prayer lasts 30 minutes or an hour or three hours because these faith communities put their feelings of their divine being ahead of their watches and schedules. We sit through sporting events and movies and concerts that are more than an hour. We watch television shows and feel satisfied in less than an hour. So why do we continue to pack our worship into a specific amount of time? I think a lot of it has to do with how busy the average American is every single day. Jobs, school, families, sports, running errands…many of us use those weekend hours to get as much done as we can in our personal lives before the work week or school week starts back again.
But wait…don’t we go to the synagogue or church to slow down and be renewed? Isn’t it a time to step out of our over-scheduled lives and dwell in the sacred and the divine? Where we learn and teach and grow in our relationships with our faith communities? Should we really be annoyed when the service goes over an hour or excited when we get out early? Maybe 60 minutes is all we need to be renewed and replenished, but I wouldn’t bet on the Holy Spirit keeping time.