Lanie Yaswinski is the former assistant archivist at the Moravian Archives in Bethlehem, Pa. This article is a result of research comparing modern church practices with those of 18th-century Moravians presented at workshops for the Eastern District’s “Heart of Ministry” conferences in 2009 and 2011. A longer version of this article appeared in the Summer 2012 issue of The Hinge.
In 2011 I was asked by our District President, Dave Bennett, to consider what a modern Moravian choir system might look like. The result is a proposal for a new choir system that is really dependent on the revival of the small-group prayer bands that delivered pastoral care to all church members through highly active lay leadership.
As assistant archivist I was privileged to investigate our church’s history on a daily basis. What I found most fascinating was how 18th-century Moravians “did” church in the past. Eighteenth-century Moravians were highly effective Christians; historian Hans-Walter Erbe likened them to an evangelistic “volcano.” Successful modern churches often employ techniques used by 18th-century Moravians, especially in terms of lay leadership and pastoral care.
The renewed Moravian Church evolved as part of the Pietist movement that stressed the development of one’s personal relationship to Christ. Our current church continues to stress this. However do they offer consistent opportunities for members to articulate their spirituality, the state of their souls, and specifically their personal relationship with Jesus Christ?
Our church has many positive aspects: sound theology, rich liturgies and music, etc., but what’s missing is a system of ongoing spiritual care for all members or many opportunities for members to articulate their spirituality.
Today many of us are timid expressing our feelings about Jesus. This is in stark contrast to the 18th-century church. Members verbally expressed their relationships with Christ in weekly prayer bands and during monthly self-examinations known as “speakings” with their choir leaders in preparation for communion, as well as through correspondence, art, hymn writing, and composing a spiritual memoir, or Lebenslauf, which would be read at their funerals.
Through a highly developed system of pastoral care provided through the prayer bands and choir system, Moravians of old were kept on their spiritual “tippy toes” through constant spiritual self-examination, which ensured individual spiritual growth as well as congregational vitality.
Church structure and leadership
By examining 18th-century structure and leadership—and comparing the difference with our modern church—we gain a better understanding of how prayer bands and the choir system served church members of the time. Our modern church essentially operates as a “top down” ministry. Jesus serves as our Chief Elder. Trustees and Elders act like advisory boards. The minister is often the only person in the congregation directly responsible for ministry and spiritual care of members. Many church members today believe that the minster is the only one in the church “qualified” to minister to others.
In terms of spiritual enrichment, participation in Sunday school, prayer and/or fellowship groups is not required and only a small percentage participates. The result is a congregation comprised of perhaps hundreds of people with vastly differing spiritual needs and experiences—all shepherded by one person (the minister).
The minister simply cannot meet the spiritual needs of every single member, and consequently individual pastoral care from the minister is often limited to those in crisis, or sick and shut-in. They are the only ones who get a time of personal introspection with a spiritual counselor, who will also try to address their physical and emotional needs, pray with them and perhaps offer communion.
The highly-evolved system of lay leadership formed through the “bottom up” ministry provided by prayer bands and choirs in the 18th-century church made this type of regular pastoral care possible. This system of leadership functioned in stark contrast to the “top down” model of today.
Although Jesus Christ was established as Chief Elder and Trustees functioned much the same way as in today’s church, Elders played a very different role in church life. They served not as a general advisory board, but instead as a group comprised of lay spiritual mentors known as the choir helpers, each one responsible for the pastoral care of everyone in their choir.
The 18th-century church divided membership into choirs according to age, gender and marital status; each choir had a leader that cared for the spiritual welfare of the group. The choir helpers served as acolytes: lay leaders officially recognized and anointed by the church to be responsible for a specific ministry. Eighteenth-century Moravians believed strongly that everyone was endowed with spiritual gifts, and these gifts should all work together in the name of Christ.
Furthermore, each choir was divided into smaller prayer bands of 5-10 people ensuring that each member of the congregation “had the goal to confer in mutual sincerity about all things of life and faith in order to encourage each other to follow the Lord.” Prayer band activities were restricted to those that provided spiritual enrichment only: prayer, singing, reading scripture, and heartfelt conversation, in an atmosphere that was above all honest, humble and without pretense. Prayer bands were always conducted among groups of peers as peer grouping naturally provided an authentic space, where people of like circumstances could comfortably open their hearts to each other.
Proposal for a 21st-century choir system
How can the church deliver quality pastoral care to all members in a way that is palatable to our modern sensibilities? Based on this research into 18-century choirs, here are some suggestions to consider:
- Acknowledge that the spiritual care and growth of our members must be our first priority in maintaining congregational vitality, and commit to ensuring that there is an opportunity available for individual and small group pastoral care for each man, woman and child in every congregation.
- Rather than depending on the minister to provide pastoral care for everyone, acknowledge the spiritual gifts in our own congregations and empower lay leadership to engage in prayer and spiritual conversations with others.
- Like the 18th-century choir system, a modern choir system would encompass smaller prayer groups (or “bands”) composed of 5-10 people led by a peer lay leader. This pastoral care should be delivered by peers in an “authentic space”—one that is honest and entirely without pretense so that people can completely bare their souls. What defines a “peer” group these days? Natural divisions in our congregations—perhaps according to gender, age, those with or without children/spouses, geographic divisions according to neighborhood, or simply natural groups of friends.
- A new choir system should serve as a strictly spiritual activity that is purely reflective and non-judgmental. Meetings should only involve prayer, devotions, personal witness, and perhaps singing; no work, learning, committees, or fundraising involved.
- The prayer bands should encourage conversation using spiritual vocabulary, so that members can practice articulating their spirituality and noting spiritual growth.
- In the 18th century prayer bands met at least once a week for about an hour. Band leaders were encouraged to keep sessions brief and focused on spiritual matters. In recalling the old Moravian concept of acting as spiritual “yeast,” these small groups of people would grow in their spirituality and serve as the leaven to invigorate the rest of the congregation.
Ed. Note: To read more about the idea of a 21st-century choir system, check out Lanie’s complete piece and the commentary from others presented in The Hinge, available at www.moravianstudies.org.
From the November 2013 Moravian Magazine