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Concise Lexicon of Christianity

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Congregational Mumbles

Quite a lot of churches write their own responsive readings, as well as prayers that the congregation is supposed to read in unison. The problem is that the people don’t stay together and it comes out as a hesitant congregational mumble.

When this happens, it is because the person who wrote the text didn’t pay attention to their word choices, the length of the text, or the natural rhythm of speech. For example, suppose the bulletin asks the congregation to say:

There is a tragic event in our community…

This phase can be stressed in more than one way, and since each group will choose a different way, the outcome sounds like a mumble:

THERE is a TRAgic eVENT in our comMUnity…
There IS a tragic eVENT in OUR comMUnity…
THERE’S a tragic eVENT in our comMUnity…

Each group chooses a different way of stressing the syllables. Two groups are still on the first sentence, while the third group has already moved on to the second sentence, because their sentence has fewer syllables. The response sounds bumpy and disorganized. The congregation becomes aware of this, so they lower their voices and mumble.

If the bulletin had there’s in the first place, it would come out better and sound right, because everyone reads that sentence with the same rhythm. Even better is to change congregation to church or town. That puts the congregation in sync and makes it more specific:

There’s a tragedy in our church…
—or—
There’s a tragedy in our town…

Let’s play optometrist; the doctor who asks you which is better, number one or number two, only we are going to be dealing with ears, not eyes. Write down these two protest chants on paper and give them to two groups of people. Have them read the texts in unison. Which one sounds better, number one or number two?

Number one:

We would really like to have fairness and equal treatment from our governing authorities, and we want them to pass the necessary legislation as soon as possible!

Number two:

What do we want?—Justice!
When do we want it—Now!

Learn from football games and protest marches. You would never, ever hear protesters chanting anything like number one, so don’t write like that. The people wouldn’t be able to speak with the same rhythm, the text is too long, and it contains very long words and complicated phrases. With number two, which means the exact same thing, they keep together, as if they were speaking in one voice.

You want your responsive readings and congregational prayers sound like number 2, not like number 1.

How do you write good responsive readings and congregational prayer? The responses have to be metrical and short. Metrical means that a group of people would all stress the syllables the same. Here are two tricks:

For example, instead of writing:

We are are sincerely remorseful that we have violated your commandments and ask for your forgiveness.

Write this instead:

We confess our sins and ask your forgiveness.

It means the same thing, but if more than one person reads it together, it sounds much better.

Writing good responses and good congregational prayers takes practice, because when you write them, you have one stress pattern in mind and you can’t see the others. It is best to begin by testing your text by asking two or three people to read it together to see you get the results you desire.