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Let the words sink in: advice for weary worship committees

"I don't know if we can keep it up I much longer."

We were having a discussion about worship; she was the chair of another church's worship committee. I'd always admired the energy she poured into each service, but it looked as if she was approaching "worship committee burnout."

"I wonder if we are reinventing the wheel every week," she said. "We find it harder and harder to make our services fresh and new."

A new litany new words—every week? I was weary just hearing about it. But why?

"Think about it," she said. "New words surprise you. You ask 'how are you?' I say 'fine.' You don't bother to pay attention. But if I announce 'terrific' or 'disgusted,' I've got your attention. We are likely to have a real exchange. Same thing with worship. We work hard to keep people's attention. We want the words to leap off the page. We want people to think about what they are saying, not just mouth the same tired old phrases."

"So you are working hard to present the old truths in a new way—every week."

"Exactly. It can be frustrating though. You write something really good, and the next week you have to start over. I don't know if I have any more new litanies in my head."

That must be how ministers sometimes feel, I thought. "Why don't you repeat them?" I asked.

"We're afraid to. We're trying to keep our worshipers excited. Everybody talks about how short people's attention spans are these days, and I think it's true. We don't want to bore the congregation."

"It sounds to me," I replied, "that you don't even give the words time to sink in".

Novel or Familiar?

Do words sink in? Can the same old phrases touch us and shape our souls? Or, in these "sound-bite" times, does the church too need new words, new phrases, new prayers, new images to move our hearts and minds every Sunday? I found myself wondering about our need for both the novel and the familiar as I worshiped recently.

"The peace of God be with you."

"And also with you."

Turn around. Shake hands. Pass the peace to my neighbor. Have I done this one hundred times? One thousand? Do I mean what I'm saying? Do I know what I'm accepting? I think about the man I knew who complained that no one ever wished him well at church. What about passing the peace? I wondered. Should I invent a new phrase just to be noticed? Something like "May God's peace overwhelm you this week"?

This simple act, along with its repeated words, has had its effect week after week after week. IVe had to think about my words. I've had to look my neighbors in the eye, and pray for peace for them. IVe had to swallow my pride and let God's grace run over me as I've wished peace to a family member toward whom I'd been nursing a grudge. My prayerful effort, God's ready Spirit, and the wonderfully familiar words bend to fit the varieties of experiences that I bring to them. The words sink in.

We come, not because we ought,
but because we may,
not because we are righteous,
but because we are penitent,
not because we are strong,
but because we are weak,
not because we are whole,
but because we are broken.








These words remind us that we are not joining the Lord's Supper because of our worth, but because we need Christ. The words are unique to our church's Lenten liturgy, and on the first Sunday of Lent they arrive with special force. We are in a season of special self-examination. We are broken. But we may come to the table. By the end of Lent the words are familiar and full of comfort. God takes us just the way we are. There is no pretence at God's table. The words sink in.

O Christ the Lamb of God, who takes
away the sin of the world, have mercy on us.


O Christ the Lamb of God, who takes
away the sin of the world, grant us your peace.


These words, sung in the somber tones of the Lenten liturgy, are also unique to this season. But I have been taught enough about liturgy to know that when I sing them, I am praying with words used by Christians all over the world and from all ages of history. I join my voice with the voice of the larger church, and worship not alone, not even with just one congregation, but with the saints of all times and places. The words—precisely because they are not new—move me past individual experience and into the Christian community.

A Liturgy for Each Season

Much has been written about "the consumer church," the "McChurch" of the 90s, where worshipers are like cus tomers searching for the easiest spiritual nourishment, and worship committees turn into fast-food marketing strategists. This article isn't about the strengths and weaknesses of such an approach. But the dangers inherent in the consumer approach to worship are relevant to our consideration of the words of worship.

Committees who struggle week after week to provide a "fresh approach" that will elicit a "powerful experience" often grow weary and burn out. Congregations who get used to change for the sake of "grabbing their attention" never get a chance to let the words sink in. In teaching, we are often warned against doing all the work for the student. Unless the student struggles to add a bit of herself to the material, the lesson will not be a lasting one. In worship, the committee should not be doing all the work for the worshiper.

As worshipers, we live with tension. At times we need fresh words, and at times we need familiar ones. We fear phrases muttered without thinking, and we fear experiences that change so fast that we never have time to be shaped by them. In fact, as individuals we vary. Some of us long for exciting change, others for comforting continuity. What is a wise worship committee to do?

Seasonal liturgies are one answer to the need for balance between continuity and change. A consistent liturgy used throughout Lent, another for the Easter season, another for the Pentecost season, and so on, provides both challenge and relief for the worship committee.

Church of the Servant (Christian Reformed Church) uses separate liturgies for Advent, Christmas (the shortest season—only one or two Sundays), Lent, and Easter. (The liturgy for Lent that Church of the Servant uses is included with mis article, pp. 24-25.) What has traditionally been "ordinary time" in the liturgical tradition is divided into Epiphany season (from Epiphany to Lent), Pentecost season (from Pentecost to early September), and Trinity season (from early September until Advent). The liturgies follow the same order of worship, but the words and the tone change from season to season. We also celebrate the Lord's Supper each Sunday.

Seasonal liturgies allow the words to sink in. They foster the sense that a church season has arrived that one will "live in" for a while. The words take on a deeper meaning as the season progresses, and set the stage for the season to come. Toward the end of Lent one can feel the ache for Easter. When the Easter liturgy returns, it simultaneously feels new and like an old friend. When seasonal liturgies are used year after year, their phrases and cadences develop a wealth of past associations and mark the passage of time, the way a chain of Christmases help us look both backward and ahead.

Seasonal liturgies provide significant challenges for worship committees. It is a challenge to provide a wonderful seasonal liturgy—built from the words of both the larger liturgical tradition and the unique identity of the individual congregation. It is a challenge to know when and how the liturgy needs revision. It is a challenge to be thinking ahead to Advent while still in the Easter season. And it is a challenge—a very important one—to teach the congregation the strengths of the seasonal liturgy.

Seasonal liturgies are also a relief for the worship committee. The carefully crafted words are no longer "disposable." The seasons can be savored, and the pressure for new things every week is no longer present. It is a relief to share the work of worship with the worshiper.

We must be taught to "let the words sink in." We must be taught that we are joining, at a certain point in a liturgy, with the "church at all times and in all places." We could be encouraged to take parts of the liturgy home, to make the words part of our family worship or our individual prayer time. We must be taught—again and again it seems—the thinking behind the order of worship. In these ways we learn to add ourselves to the liturgy.

 

A SEASONAL LITURGY FOR LENT

Opening Hymn
[The people rise.]

Come to the LORD, who is rich with grace; approach our God, who is full of mercy.

We will praise God with all our hearts, and glorify the name of the LORD forever.

Grace and peace to you from God our Father and the Lord Jesus Christ, who gave himself for our sins to rescue us from the present evil age, according to the will of God, to whom be glory for ever and ever.

Amen.

As we have received God's peace, let us share the peace with each other.

[The people pass Hie peace to each other, saying "The peace of God be always with you" and responding "and also with you"]



Hymn
[The people are seated.]

Brothers and sisters in Christ, our God keeps covenant with us and shows mercy to those who love the LORD and seek to follow the law. We have sinned and done wrong; we have acted willfully and rebelled against the LORD our Maker. Yet to our God belong mercy and forgiveness. People of God, let us confess our sins.

[The people sing: "Lord, Hear Us When We Pray" (see box, p. 23)]



Silent Confession
[The people sing st. 2 of the above song:]


Create in us, O Lord, willing obedience.
Renew us with your Spirit, grant us peace,

and fill us with the joy of salvation.

Who is a God like you, who pardons sin and forgives the offenses of your people? You do not stay angry forever but delight to show mercy. Once again you have compassion on us. You tread our sins underfoot and hurl our transgressions into the depths of the sea.

[The people rise.]



Hymn: "Christ, the Life of All the Living," st. 1
[PsH 371; see p. 26]

As forgiven people, let us now hear God's law for our lives.
[Leader proclaims the Law, concluding with "This is the law of our God"]

Write your law upon our hearts, O God.

Let us pray for the presence of the Spirit.

Send your Spirit among us, O God, as we meditate on the sacrifice of Jesus Christ. Prepare our minds to hear your word. Purify our hearts to accept what we hear. Inspire our steps to obey in joy and faith. This we pray through Christ our Lord. Amen.

[The people are seated.]



Old Testament Lesson
[Read by another worship leader. The reader concludes with "This is Hie Word of the Lord"]


Thanks be to you, O God.

New Testament Lesson
[Read by yet another person, and again concluding with "This is the Word of the Lord."]

Glory be to you, O Lord.

Childrens Processional

Hymn or Psalm

Sermon

[Followed by meditative silence]

Hymn: "Breathe on Me, Breaili of God," st. 1-2

I PsH 42ft PH 316, TH 334]

[The people rise.]

Let us express our unity with the church of all ages by professing our faith in the words of the Apostles' Creed.

[The congregation recites the Apostles' Creed in unison, after which they are seated.]

Intercessory Prayer

[Led by a member of the congregation]


The Lord's Supper

[The people rise.]

Brothers and sisters in Christ, the gospel tells us that on the first day of the week, the same day on which our Lord rose from the dead, he appeared to the disciples in the place where they were gathered and was made known to them in the breaking of bread.

Come to the joyful feast of the Lord. Let us prepare the table with the offerings of our life and labor.

[The worshipers come forward and place their offerings in the collection baskets on the communion table. Then a family brings forward the bread and wine for the communion.]

Hymn: "What Shall I Render to the LORD?" st. 1,4

[PsH 178, TH 637]

The Lord be with you.

And also with you.

Lift up your hearts.
We lift them up to the Lord.
Let us give thanks to the Lord our God.



It is fitting for us to give thanks. It is right and fitting, our joy and our salvation, that we should at all times and in all places give thanks to you, O Lord, Holy Father, almighty, everlasting God, through Christ our Lord.

Jesus Christ is the servant of the Most High, who remained obedient even to death by crucifixion. Whoever serves him
is liberated for life.


Lord, lead us to true obedience.

Jesus Christ is the Lamb of God, who takes away the sins of the world. Whoever accepts his sacrifice is forgiven before God.

Lord, move us always to receive this gift.

Jesus Christ is the bread of life, who came down from heaven to give life to the world. Whoever eats this bread will live forever.

Lord, give us always the bread of life.

For his sacrifice the saints and angels praise you, dominions worship you, and powers stand in awe. With their song we join our voices in one proclamation of your praise, and sing:

Hymn: "Heavenly Hosts in Ceaseless Worship" st. 2
[PsH 233]

[The people are seated.]

We give thanks to God that our Savior Jesus Christ, before suffering, gave us this memorial of his sacrifice until his coming again.

On the night of his arrest Jesus took bread, gave thanks to God, and broke it saying, "This is my body, which is for you; do this to remember me."

In the same way he took the cup after supper and said, "This cup is the new covenant sealed by my blood. Whenever you drink it, do this to remember me."

Your death, O Christ, we proclaim.
Your resurrection we declare.
Your coming we await.
Glory be to you, O Lord.


In your love and mercy, O God, grant us your Spirit, so that through these gifts of bread and wine we may be united more fully with Christ and with each other. Lift our hearts so that in all the troubles and sorrows of this life we may continue in hope for the new life of your eternal kingdom.

[The people sing:]

Hymn: "O Christ the Lamb of God"
[PsH 257]

The bread which we break, is it not a sharing in the body of our Lord Jesus Christ?

We who partake of one loaf are one with our suffering Lord.

The cup for which we give thanks, is it not a sharing in the blood of our Lord Jesus Christ?

We who partake of the cup are one in Christ, who bled and died and arose.

[The people rise.]

Hear the words of our Lord: "Come to me, all you who labor and are heavy laden, and I will give you rest. Take my yoke upon you, and learn from me; for I am gentle and humble in heart, and you will find rest for your souls."

Come, then, for all is ready.

Christ our Passover is sacrificed for us.

We come not because we ought,
but because we may,
not because we are righteous,
but because we are penitent,
not because we are strong,
but because we are weak,
not because we are whole,
but because we are broken.






Blessed is the one who comes in the name of the Lord. The gifts of God for the people of God.

[The people come forward and are served in groups. As they pass the bread and wine, they say to each other, "the body of Christ for you" and "the blood of Christ for you" or other appropriate words. Throughout, hymns are sung]

Congregation in Jesus Christ, since the Lord has fed us at his table, let us go in peace to love and serve the Lord.

We offer you ourselves as a living sacrifice, to live to your will and die to our own.

People of God, go forth into the world in peace. Be of good courage, hold fast to that which is good, help the afflicted,

honor all people, and love and serve the Lord, rejoicing in the power of the Spirit.

Hymn: "Lift High the Cross" st. 4,6
IPsH 373, PH 371, RL415, TH 263]

excerpt

Bulletin Note

Lent is the season of spiritual preparation for the celebration of Easter. It begins with Ash Wednesday and continues for forty days until Palm Sunday. In Lent we remember Jesus' forty days of fasting in the wilderness prior to beginning his ministry. We are called to participate in forty days of discipline and reflection.

Historically preparation for Easter involved penitence; instruction of converts, who were then baptized on Easter; and a focus on Christ's redemptive zuork through meditation and prayer. This liturgy reflects the penitential character of the season with a more somber tone in music and text. We recall the period of inshtiction by stating the Law of God and by using the ancient baptismal (or Apostles') creed. Throughout the liturgy we focus on the suffering and the redemptive work of Christ.