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How Are We Doing?: A conversation about celebrating the sacraments

WORSHIP COMMISSION OF THE CHRISTIAN REFORMED CHURCH

Members of the Worship Commission of the Christian Reformed Church who contributed to this discussion:
Victoria Cok, student, Calvin Theological Seminary, Grand Rapids, Michigan.
Lisa De Boer, professor of art, Westmont College, Santa Barbara, California.
Wayne A. Brouwer, pastor, Harderwyk Christian Reformed pastor, South Bend (Indiana) Christian Reformed Church.
David J. Diephouse, academic dean and provost, Calvin College, Grand Rapids, Michigan.
Joachim Segger, professor of music, Kings University College, Edmonton, Alberta.
Leonard J. Vander Zee, pastor, South Bend (Indiana) Christian Reformed Church.
John D. Witvliet, director, Calvin Institute of Christian Worship.

Sometimes worship leaders need to step back and take stock of current practices. What are we doing well? What areas need more attention? Recently, several members of the Worship Commission of the Christian Reformed Church asked those questions about the sacraments. In preparation for our discussion, we read The Sacraments in Protestant Practice and Faith by James F. White (Abingdon Press, 1999).

Consider reading these replies with your worship committee. Ask each other about the strengths and weaknesses of your own practices. In what ways can baptism and the Lord’s Supper be celebrated in your congregation with renewed vitality and depth?
—John D. Witvliet

Q. In what areas have we learned or gained the most in our practice of the Lord’s Supper or baptism in the past generation?
A.

VC: The greatest positive change has been the introduction of children to the Lord’s table. Other gains have included increased frequency, variety in the method of celebration, new (less didactic) forms, a changing emphasis (from funereal to joyful), recovery of the meal aspect of the sacrament, and an increase in the visibility of the elements. In general, we’re moving from being passive, almost fearful, recipients, to being joyful participants, and this is an important change.

LDB: Our practice has shifted from an emphasis on teaching to more of an emphasis on the communal aspects of these sacraments. The doctrinal teaching is still there, but the sacraments have as much “heart” as “head” now. For example, in some congregations, children come up to learn about baptism, witness the rite, and give a banner to the family. For communion, congregations might come forward in groups or pass a loaf and common cup.

JS: Our communion services are open to all baptized members regardless of denomination. Interestingly, our congregational invitation includes a statement that we welcome all baptized members who can accept us as members of the body of Christ. Discerning the “body” has come a long way in the past decade!

DD: In the Reformed tradition, we’ve been tempted to equate celebrating the sacraments with teaching a proper theological understanding of the sacraments. Hence those long, didactic forms many of us grew up with, which, despite their considerable dignity and power, tended to overwhelm actions with explanations. That seems to be changing. We are becoming more willing to learn by doing, as opposed to learning about doing.

LVZ: On the other hand, since the sacraments are not “explained” every time, there is a greater need for biblical preaching of the sacraments.

JW: We have a much more balanced diet of congregational songs for baptism and the Lord’s Supper. We have increasingly (though not uniformly) used more celebrative liturgical texts, with much more historical, theological, and literary integrity. Correspondingly, we have seen that the approach to the table and font should be marked more by prayer than by pedagogy. We have typically increased the frequency of celebrations of the Lord’s Supper. In some settings, we have witnessed a greater number of adult baptisms—and that’s one of the most profound and moving experiences a church can have!

Q. What areas in our sacramental worship leave the most to be desired?

ADD: We too often focus on what we do in the sacraments rather than on what God is doing. Many of us still tend to regard the sacraments as “occasional services” rather than part of the essential rhythm of worship. As a result we’re tempted either to make too much of them—to try to make every occasion unique or special—or else to treat them too casually—as expressions of personal taste.

WB: We need to develop Lord’s Supper practices to fit new expressions of large gatherings for worship. At the same time, I believe we need to encourage the celebration of the Lord’s Supper in house churches and small groups, confirming the religious commitments made in and through these discipling communities. In our baptism rites we need to develop practices that assume we will have adult converts to the faith (particularly as we move further into a post-Christian world), and that involve the participation of those who lead others to Christ in the baptisms of these new believers.

LDB: For my part, I miss an eschatological emphasis in our celebrations. Though some of the forms mention the sacraments in connection with the completion of God’s kingdom, I don’t think we pay enough attention to the transformative power of practicing the sacraments.

JS: The majority of children do not participate in communion. I’m reminded of James F. White’s perceptive comment: “Communion of children is becoming more and more an issue, as it seems ridiculous to baptize children and immediately excommunicate them.” Often our practice puts families and children through too many hoops.

Q. What are the greatest obstacles to richer, fuller sacramental practices today?

AWB: Formal liturgical rites that are arcane, and verbiage that does not communicate. In addition, there is an emphasis on strategy and programming technique in congregational leadership training that can treat theological reflection as unimportant.

VC: I sense in the younger generation a welcome move toward the communal dimension and the work of the Holy Spirit in the sacraments. However, on the flip side, the evangelical emphasis on a “personal relationship with Jesus Christ” has, for many of the younger generation, turned communion into a meal shared by “Jesus and me,” rather than a meal shared with the body of Christ. We’re fighting an uphill battle against the privatization of religion in all areas, including our sacramental understanding.

DD: One obstacle, I think, is an impoverished sense of “liturgical community.” Our culture encourages us to see the sacraments more as private experiences or spectator events than as communal actions of the body of Christ. I’m struck, for example, by how common it has become to have cameras flashing and whirring away at baptisms. What does this say about how we understand and experience community?

LDB: We have a hard time not letting our unworthiness cast a pall over our celebration of God’s grace. Even as we have begun to acknowledge the communal nature of these rites in practice, they can still have an overly individual, penitential tenor to them. A second obstacle to richer sacramental practices is fussiness about the elements. We don’t splash around in the water. We don’t handle and tear the bread. We don’t pass and drink from a shared cup. If we really believe in the sacraments as a means of grace, we need to take these physical objects more seriously and deal with their weight, textures, tastes, and potential messiness—and trust the community in which we do so.

LVZ: People have a hard time with the notion that God’s grace is actually communicated to us through material means, the water, the bread, and the wine. In the Lord’s Supper, for example, people are more likely to focus on their own mental or spiritual reflection on the meaning of the sacrament than on the bread and wine themselves. We need to help people understand that they can believe through trusting that in the poured water, broken bread, and shared cup, God feeds and renews us in his grace.

Q. How can we recover the full, biblical teaching on baptism?

A LDB: We could be challenged to take the meaning of “dying and rising with Christ” more seriously. Perhaps because we practice infant baptism, this aspect of the sacrament, which is mentioned in the forms, hasn’t gotten much attention.

JW: We haven’t given much thought to the relationship of baptism and ethics. In many communities, the link between baptism and baptismal living (which ties in with both sacraments) is not strong. Calvin believed that we should cultivate the sense that our whole life is lived under the shadow of our baptism. I long for a much clearer sense of this perspective.

LVZ: When I baptize people, infants or adults, after the baptism I make a sign of the cross on their foreheads and say, “You are marked as Christ’s own for