Jesus Cleanses a Leper
The sermon ends and the organist launches into the “sermon hymn.” In many congregations this is where the service begins winding down. But at Eliot Presbyterian Church in Lowell, Massachusetts, the sermon hymn signals a worship practice that people look forward to all week.
As the congregation sings, several people move forward to sit in the front pew. Others join them. Two by two, they talk quietly and then pray together—with eyes open or closed, heads bowed or not, hands folded or clasped.
For the last fifteen years LaGrave Avenue Christian Reformed Church has welcomed children to the Lord’s table by means of a Table Fellowship liturgy.
In early 2007, Gabriel Surjana, 16, began reaching for the communion cup and the tray of bread as it was passed in worship. Before that he had shown interest, but now he was indicating in his own way that he wanted to eat and drink the Lord’s Supper like his parents, Pearl Shangkuan and Okke Surjana. So they explored with his Sunday school teachers the possibility of Gabriel professing his faith in Christ at their church, Neland Avenue Church in Grand Rapids, Michigan.
This column is the oldest continuing column in Reformed Worship. From the first issue (RW 1, Advent 1986, then named “Hymn of the Month”), the column guidelines set a goal that “one (or more) should be a psalm or a setting of Scripture.” That guideline has been followed more or less over the years, but in this issue, we’re happy to offer all psalm-based songs as a way of celebrating the 500th anniversary of the birth of John Calvin (1509-1564).
People often ask, “How can we improve or renew our worship?” My response is that we should restore the central things and practice them robustly, using contemporary forms rooted in the practices of John Calvin, a sixteenth-century pastor and liturgical reformer. Even though Calvin is most widely known as a systematizer (Institutes, 1536-1559) and exegete (Commentaries on almost all the books of the Bible), the twenty-first century church should not ignore his leadership in liturgical renewal.
On October 31, 1517, Martin Luther posted ninety-five theses on the church door at Wittenberg—an action that helped to spark the Protestant Reformation. Protestants of various backgrounds commemorate this act on the Sunday closest to Reformation Day (October 31) each year. In fact, all believers are indebted to the Reformers’ courageous stand for the purity of the gospel over against virtually all the civil and ecclesiastical forces of their day, armed only with an unshakable confidence in God and his Word. Many were persecuted; some paid with their lives.
Q After a few years of welcoming younger children to profession of faith, our church has reverted to the older pattern where only the young people eighteen and older want to profess their faith. That seems to be when they are ready. Isn’t that OK?
A Having eighteen-year-olds make profession of faith is indeed terrific. It is far better than in many churches where youth simply drift away!
In this article Bob Langlois addresses that critical period of time before the worship service: the sound check. This can often be a frustrating time with too many leaders and not enough followers, and it can turn pretty ugly if someone doesn’t take charge. Langlois suggests that that person needs to be the sound engineer. —JB
Sometimes my three-year-old daughter wants to join me for worship instead of attending her Sunday school class. On one such Sunday, I ran down the litany of things she would not be allowed to do during worship if she stayed. I told her she wasn’t allowed to walk around, crawl on the floor, or talk; she would need to sit still and listen. Innocently she looked at me and asked, “Am I in time out, Mama?”
We asked a variety of church leaders five questions about the formative practices in their churches; this article is a digest of their responses. After reading this issue of Reformed Worship, we encourage you to engage your church council, staff, or worship committee in a similar discussion, using these same questions to guide your reflections:
In her engaging introduction to Christian spirituality, Debra Rienstra describes her experience of church during her childhood years:
Resources for Worship and Faith Formation
Worship That Changes Lives
(Baker Academic, 2008)
A collection of wide-ranging essays on the theology of worship and the arts, including essays about drama, visual arts, film, jazz music, worship in Africa, the emergent church, and more. Each essay probes how exactly worship transforms, disciples, and shapes worshipers as apprentices of Jesus.
“In the future when your descendants ask their parents, ‘What do these stones mean?’ tell them, ‘Israel crossed the Jordan on dry ground.’ For the Lord your God dried up the Jordan before you until you had crossed over. The Lord your God did to the Jordan what he had done to the Red Sea when he dried it up before us until we had crossed over. He did this so that all the peoples of the earth might know that the hand of the Lord is powerful and so that you might always fear the Lord your God.”
Even Google knows about David and Goliath. Enter “five smooth stones” and “sling” in the search box and you’ll get thousands of websites about the well-known Bible story. Many explain the story as a tale of courage, which is how you may have learned it in Sunday school.
Sermons posted online ask listeners to name their personal Goliaths: things like cheating, using drugs, or problems as giant as AIDS and poverty.
Preachers describe David’s five smooth stones as the ammunition we need to face impossible odds.
Soul shaping takes time. Some people go to church a few times hoping for a dramatic encounter with God and an entirely new life—in six weeks! That does happen occasionally. As Jesus said, “The wind blows wherever it pleases,” a metaphor he immediately applied to the Spirit (John 3:8). But instant transformation is not the typical pattern. What with our own obtuseness and tendency to suffer from bad worship and all, most of us require years of churchgoing before showing improvements.
Congregations have always been charged with forming the faith of their members. Regardless of how well your church currently handles this important task, it is helpful to learn from the best practices of others. Of course, it would be difficult and probably unwise for any single church to try to do all of the ideas presented here. We hope you’ll use them to spark discussion and creativity in your own congregation.
OK, I’ll admit it. I’m not especially fond of those plaques with large decorative words, usually in capital letters made out of wood, that command us to PRAY or BELIEVE or IMAGINE. I’m not sure why. Probably because they are so popular. Or maybe I just wish they said EAT or SKIP or SLEEP instead. Who knows!
Having said that, I’ll also admit that the design of these baptism and profession of faith mementos comes dangerously close to those wooden words. I justify their use because these are events that should be shouted out.
In early September, many churches begin a new season of church education classes and a host of other programs with a special “kick-off” worship service. Most often these services focus on a theme of dedication, and there never seems to be enough songs with words like “Take My Life and Let It Be.” While this is a strong theme, it can also focus a lot of attention on the enormous outpouring of busyness the new year promises.
This service is full of worshiper participation, including lay readers, instrumentalists, lots of congregational singing, and the opportunity for congregants to write their own prayers of thanksgiving. Each bulletin includes one or two slips of paper printed with the words “I am thankful for . . .” Worshipers are invited to complete the sentence. These slips are gathered as a second offering, organized to avoid too much duplication, and then brought to the pastor, who incorporates them into the congregational prayer.