Take Time to Celebrate: How to plan for your church's anniversary

In December, 1990, our congregation—Neland Avenue Christian Reformed Church of Grand Rapids, Michigan—celebrated its 75th anniversary. Rather than trying to squeeze our celebration into a one-day program, we spread it out over the entire fall season, beginning with the Sunday in September when we kicked off our church programs and concluding with three very special Sundays in November and December.

On the pages that follow, I've answered some questions about the why's and how's of such a celebration, often using our experiences as examples.

Why Should We Celebrate?

Throughout the Bible, the Lord reminds people to tell all generations of their LORD'S wonderful works. Part of what that means for us as churches is that we must preserve the memory of how God has worked in our lives. A church that has a strong sense of its history will have a better sense of identity to build on for the future. Periodically, each congregation should take a look back to rediscover how their church came into being, what its early ministry was like, and how it has grown and changed over the years.

Such a celebration gives individual members the opportunity to join together in focusing on the church as a body of believers who have been blessed by the Lord. It can also be a wonderful time to benefit from the gifts of the people. And it's an occasion for church members of all ages to tell and hear stories of the past and present days of the church.

How Often Should We Celebrate?

Every church should celebrate its anniversary at least every twenty-five years so that each generation has an opportunity to learn about the church's history and to join in a celebration of the church on a grand scale. It may also be good to celebrate the anniversary more frequently in a smaller way, perhaps by using one or two elements of the major celebration on a yearly basis. For instance, a particular anniversary theme or song could be repeated each year on the Sunday closest to the anniversary date.

How Should We Begin?

The first thing a church should do is appoint a committee whose job it will be to plan and coordinate all the elements of the celebration. The anniversary steering committee should include members who have abilities and interests in worship, writing, publicity, finance, and organization.

When this committee first meets, ideally about eighteen to twenty-four months before the anniversary (see accompanying timeline), it should clarify its goals for the celebration, decide how the history should be recorded, choose which kinds of special activities it might like to plan in connection with the anniversary, and set a budget. The main committee should also appoint subcommittees to focus on researching, writing, and recording the history; planning special events (like banquets and pageants); fundraising and organizing publicity; and planning the worship.

How Should We Celebrate in Our Worship?

How should a church worship during its anniversary celebration? The possibilities are endless, but here are some suggestions to get you started; you can choose and elaborate on the ones that best fit your congregation and its context for celebration. If you've never before had anyone other than your pastor plan worship, now's the time to get others involved. It's too large a task for one person, and more creativity is possible when a group of people put their heads together.

Develop a theme.
It's a good idea to begin with a theme that can unify the other worship elements. If your church already has a theme or text, you could tie into that. The theme could also be a Scripture text or a line from a song that demonstrates God's faithfulness to your congregation over the years. At Neland, we considered possibilities like "This far by faith," "Great is thy faithfulness," "Now thank we all our God," and "To God be the glory" before settling on a paraphrase of Psalm 40:5: "Many, O Lord, are thy wonderful works . . . they are more than can be numbered."

Use members' gifts.
Perhaps the next step should be to examine the gifts of former and current members and look for opportunities to use them in special ways in worship during the weeks of celebration. You will certainly want to invite former pastors to return for the celebration to preach again. But don't stop there! Consider your musicians, poets, and artists, and provide ways for them to be creative and to be included in the special services.

Pay attention to the physical environment.
Think about the visual environment of the church too. Consider making a new set of banners for the anniversary. Using the theme, create a design that will fit that text, that will enhance some other visual elements of the sanctuary (such as stained-glass windows, brick colors, patterns in the wood furniture), and that will add to the air of festive celebration. Or, if your celebration occurs during a special liturgical season, such as Advent or Lent, create a new series of banners appropriate to that season (an anniversary gift to the church that could be used for years).

Once you've created a design for the banners, you might also find other places to use that design—for example, on bulletin covers. If the anniversary falls in the summer months, consider asking members of the congregation to bring vases full of flowers from their gardens to be used in the sanctuary and in whatever other places the celebration occurs.

Select and/or write appropriate music.
Be creative with your music while celebrating your anniversary. Choosing a theme song or hymn, whether it is original for the occasion or a favorite from the hymnal, is a good place to start. "God Is Here" (PsH 516, PH 461) is a great hymn for such special occasions. Other hymns that celebrate God's faithfulness include "O God, Our Help in Ages Past" (PsH 170), "Your Hand, O God, Has Guided" (PsH 509) "We've Come This Far by Faith" (PsH 567), "O God, Our Father, We Come" (PsH 450), and "Great Is Thy Faithfulness" (PsH 556, PH 276, RL 155, TH32).

If you have poets or song writers in your congregation, commission them to write something new for the anniversary. Ask them to consider the particular personality of the congregation and perhaps to incorporate the chosen theme for the anniversary. What they write could be as simple as a new verse for a familiar hymn or new words to a familiar tune. Perhaps your writers and musicians could collaborate on an entirely new song for the church anniversary or even, as one church has done, a new cantata for the choir to perform.

Our church chose "God Is Here" as our anniversary hymn, and we asked one of our poets to write a fifth stanza for it (see box on p. 31). We had that stanza printed on sticky labels that we inserted in the space under the hymn in our pew hymnals. The organists played it as part of the prelude to familiarize us with the music; the adult choir sang the first verse as a call to worship for a couple of weeks; and then the choir sang the whole hymn and invited the congregation to join in. As we sang the hymn often during the season, we grew to love it, and continue to sing it for special services.

The choir director also found a familiar choir anthem—'AH That Hath Life and Breath," by Rene Clausen—that worked well with our theme verse; during the three weeks of special celebration it was used as an introit or as a response to the litany in each service.

It's also interesting in an anniversary celebration to have the congregation hear the choir's favorites from years past. The choir director could search through the files (if good records have been kept) to discover which anthems were sung most frequently and at what times. Then the current choir could sing those favorites during the anniversary season; bulletin notes should be used to provide the details about those anthems.

If your congregation has especially gifted musicians among its members— or perhaps among members of the congregation who have moved away—consider inviting those people to share their gifts in a recital or in an evening service that features one or more musicians. If your church has a number of instrumentalists, use them to add flair and depth to the singing during the anniversary services.

Pay attention to liturgical details.
There are also other liturgical elements to consider. As you examine your usual order of worship, look for places to incorporate moments of celebration. Could your theme be used as a call to worship? Is there a good time to welcome and greet the people of God, including former members who may be visiting during these services? Is there a psalm of praise that could be used as a responsive reading in each service?

A special litany for the anniversary can be very meaningful to the congregation. Again, one of the poets or writers in your midst could create the text of the litany. It should include the theme of your anniversary, a reflection of the history of the church, and a sense of hope for the future. Use this litany early in the service each Sunday of your celebration.

Involve a variety of members in the service.
Try to find ways to use many members of your congregation—of both genders and of all ages—in the services during your celebration. We've already talked about musicians, but there are additional ways to include the people of your church. Ask an elder to take a turn with the pastoral or congregational prayer, and invite other people to read the Scripture passages, lead the litany or other responsive readings, or act as litur-gist for part of the service. At Neland we do most of these things on a regular basis, but during the anniversary we consciously chose members who had a special connection to the history and /or current life of the church.

Reflect on your congregations history.
During the fall season we also asked a few people to share their "Neland Memories" in some evening services. We heard about what the church was like in its early days, how wartime affected our congregation, what it was like to grow up at Neland, what attracted newer members to our church, and how the church family offered support through difficult days. We found that this was such a wonderful way to share meaningful moments with each other that we've continued that concept with a monthly feature we now call "Faith in Life."

It's also interesting to find copies of bulletins used in past decades. Especially when some of the former pastors visit, you might want to use one of the earlier versions of the order of worship for a service. You could even try to reenact an entire service from the early days of the church by not only using the order of worship but also recreating other details, such as instrumentation (or lack of it), lighting and sound, clothing, and seating arrangements.

Include children in the celebration.
Don't forget about your children during the anniversary season. The children's message can provide a good opportunity to focus on what memories are and why they are important, or you could let the little ones talk about what makes the church special to them. After all, the children are the members who will carry on the tasks of the church in the future!

In What Other Ways Can We Celebrate?

Prepare a book.
Our anniversary committee decided it was important to tell the story of Neland's history in words and pictures. So we commissioned a writer to begin work on an official book, and we appointed a group of people, especially some long-time members, to help in researching the facts and finding interesting stories and pictures of the early days.

The book was written in narrative style, with chapters organized by decades. We made a point of including more than the usual dates and statistics, adding interesting details about the world during each decade and major events in our church family. A photographer also spent a year taking pictures of special events and typical days at the church for a twenty-page photo spread on "A year in the life of Neland Church."

For those who were interested, we displayed memorabilia from Neland's history at a prominent place in the church so that people could view it throughout the weeks of celebration.

Create a church videotape.
We also used videotape to enhance our celebration. Over a year's time we recorded many special services, committee meetings, youth group activities, church picnics, and other events at Neland. A retired couple also recorded interviews with some of the elderly members of the church to enable the congregation to both hear the stories and see some of the people who are no longer able to attend services. The video was shown at our banquet, and church members were given the opportunity to purchase copies.

Plan a dinner or banquet.
As part of a church celebration, most churches have a dinner or banquet to which all current and often former members are invited. Sometimes this is a simple dinner for fellowship and celebration; at other times it is accompanied by a program.

Create a drama or pageant.
Some churches also include drama in their celebration. At Neland we put together a pageant that traced how the church began and recalled some of the major events and favorite incidents of its seventy-five-year history. Church members of all ages were involved in this pageant: writers, directors, actors, staging crew, adult and children's choirs, ushers, and audience. Other kinds of special events might include a children's musical, an all-church talent night, a musical extravaganza, or an art show created by members of the congregation (or maybe just the children), showing what the church means to them.

Use your church newsletter.
Your church newsletter is another good avenue for getting the stories out. You might want to devote an entire issue to memories of church life, or, as we did at Neland, focus on a particular theme—such as church activities, music, giving thanks, and Christmas celebrations—in each of several issues. You may get plenty of responses just by giving out a general invitation, or you might want to recruit writers or even some interviewers.

An Opportunity for Growth
No matter how you plan and prepare for your celebration, you will undoubtedly find it a wonderful opportunity for drawing closer together as a congregation. Seize the opportunity an anniversary provides to gather the members of your congregation to celebrate God's faithfulness to your church and together step forward in faith.



Neland's Anniversary Celebration Timeline

24-18 Months:
• form steering committee
• commission writer for book
• begin raising funds

18-12 Months:
• research history of church
• arrange facilities for banquet and pageant

12-6 Months:
• choose theme
• begin photo/video documentary
• contact former pastors
• commission song and script writers

6-3 Months:
•design banners and bulletin covers
•schedule musicians

3-1 Months:
• fabricate banners
• rehearse pageant or musical
• produce anniversary book
• schedule "memories" speakers
• arrange memorabilia display
• prepare special newsletter

Celebrate Anniversary!


Litany of Praise

Today we celebrate the 75th anniversary of Neland Avenue Church.

Many, O Lord, are thy wonderful works.

For 75 years God's Word has been proclaimed in this place.

Many, O Lord, are thy wonderful works.

For 75 years the sacraments have been celebrated in this place.

Many, O Lord, are thy wonderful works.

Countless children, parents, and grandparents have been part of Neland Church.

They are more than can be numbered.

Countless prayers of supplication, thanksgiving, and praise have been offered in this place.

They are more than can be numbered.

Countless witnesses have gone out from Neland to spread the gospel in this community and throughout the world.

They are more than can be numbered.

All of our activities,
all of our sacraments,
and all of our doxologies
we offer up in praise to God.

Many, O Lord, are thy wonderful works;
they are more than can be numbered.

With thanksgiving for the past,
with joy in the present,
and with hope for the future
we celebrate this anniversary.

Many, O Lord, are thy wonderful works;
they are more than can be numbered.

Neland's Stanza for "God Is Here"
(PsH 516)

In this time of celebration
we would offer special praise.
As we think of past and future,
vow anew to walk your ways.
Times of triumph, times of failure—
still this song keeps ringing through:
Lord, your works cannot be numbered,
Neland Church belongs to you.

Both the litany and the stanza were written by Henrietta Ten Harmsel, professor emeritus of English from Cabin College, Grand Rapids,Michigan, and member of Neland Avenue Christian Reformed Church.

For additional material from the Calvin Institute of Christian Worship, click here.

Reformed Worship 26 © December 1992, Calvin Institute of Christian Worship. Used by permission.