The Welcoming Presence of Christ
This article is the first of a series featuring churches that highlight the intersection of worship and ministry. RW is grateful to the Calvin Institute of Christian Worship, Grand Rapids, Michigan, for funding this column with support from Lilly Endowment Inc.
It’s tempting to look to the large, “successful” church in your neighborhood or denomination as a resource for worship renewal. But there’s more to a good model than glitz, size, and a desirable location. The best role models are churches who have found a good fit between their worship and their ministry, vision, and personality.
Ask Mark and Mimi Bush, copastors at Covenant Community Church (Reformed Church in America
—RCA) in Muskegon Heights, Michigan. Their challenges as a church are many: a small, predominantly Anglo congregation in an African-American neighborhood; far-flung membership; aging facilities; and limited financial resources. Yet their worship is warm, vibrant, welcoming. As one regular attender from the community puts it, “I’m drawn by the energy and spirit in the worship.”
“In the City ‘As One Who Serves’”
Covenant Community’s identity was formed during challenging times. Founded in 1920, the congregation weathered the Depression, a world war, and later a changing neighborhood. In the suburban flight of the 1960s and ’70s, Muskegon Heights shifted from a predominantly Western European population living in small, newer homes to a neighborhood with aging homes and 99 percent African-American families. Covenant struggled to keep up with these changes. Minutes from a consistory meeting in the early 1960s record an intense discussion of whether to stay or
leave. At the end, the minutes also record this statement of affirmation: “This church belongs to Jesus Christ!” Through the following decades, the church has held to this affirmation. Covenant has become a worshiping presence “in the city ‘as one who serves’”—a theme echoed on each worship bulletin and carried out in the church’s neighborhood ministries (see sidebar).
A Strong Family Flavor
Coming to worship at a Covenant service feels like coming home: it is hospitable and accepting, with a strong family feel and a sense of the welcoming presence of Christ. Friendly greetings and hugs—for members and visitors alike—are common in the narthex and spill into the small, whitewashed sanctuary.
At the entrance to the sanctuary stands the baptismal font from which five generations of believers have been baptized. Wooden pews reflect the warm light of the simple stained-glass windows. A pipe organ claims one wall. At the front of the sanctuary a wooden cross with curved arms reaches toward the congregation.
During the service the most revealing welcome is the passing of the peace—an extended time when worshipers greet not only those around them but leave their pews to greet every other worshiper as well. This flows into a time for prayer requests and testimony, leading into the congregational prayer. “This is the time when worship and ministry intersect,” says Mimi. “Our church family is geographically far-flung. We span sixteen school districts, and members drive in from as far as thirty miles away. Worship is the one time in the week that we are all together and can minister to each other.”
This “family” factor is key in drawing and keeping people, she adds. “Many who join our church have come to us as dropouts from other churches, or from a place of hurt. This place feels safe and accepting to them.”
“According to Their Gifts”
Covenant’s warm, eclectic worship is shaped in large part by the gifts God has provided. Mark and Mimi share one full-time position. Each has strong interests in worship, and both work according to their gifts—Mark in music and Mimi in liturgy.
Mark plays acoustic guitar, directs the choir and congregation, and selects most of the music. He also develops musical talents in the church family, leading a small band of instruments that accompany worship. “I’m as passionate about music as I am about preaching—or about mission,” he says.
Mimi’s strengths lie in finding worship themes in Scripture and the lectionary, then weaving these into each service through responsive readings, prayers, and liturgies for communion and seasonal services. Both share preaching duties equally.
Covenant’s worship draws from many traditions; it is rooted in the historic pattern of worhship in the RCA, with both old and new songs and freshly crafted responses for the people to say and sing (see sample liturgy, p. 19). The choir sings every week (except during summer months), processing from the back of the sanctuary as they sing the introit. Choir members help lead the singing and usually sing an anthem. Most singing is accompanied by organ or piano, often supplemented by bass and acoustic guitars, drums, ukulele, saxophone, clarinet, drums, keyboard, trumpet, and tambourine.
The children remain in the worship service through the congregational prayer; Covenant has deliberately placed that prayer before the sermon so children can participate in that significant part of the worship. The children are then dismissed for the Children in Worship program, which goes through the rest of the service and on into the church education hour afterward. This is a strong program at Covenant. Many of the children’s songs have been incorporated into the church worship as well.
Infant baptism occurs throughout the year, but adult baptisms are usually reserved for Easter Sunday, following a twelve-week Discovery Class. This course, based on the catechumenate model, was developed by Mark and Mimi and is offered during each Lenten season to anyone interested in learning more about Covenant and the Christian faith. Many participants go on to become members—this past year a dozen people were baptized on Easter morning.
Resources from Around the World
Mark and Mimi’s team approach is vital in planning the services. They hold quarterly and seasonal day-long planning retreats to look at resources, figure out themes, and decide whether to use the lectionary. Other resources that have shaped Covenant’s worship and music include
- •the Roman Catholic renewal movement, especially some of the early folk music.
- songs and prayers from John Bell and the Iona Community as well as other world music.
- African-American hymnals.
- Sing! A New Creation and Songs for LiFE.
- Taizé-style liturgy.
“We look for simplicity in melody and simple profundity in text,” says Mark.
Following the lectionary is the norm at Covenant, and Mimi develops the themes for preaching and worship from its texts. “Using the lectionary forces us to wrestle with passages we’d just as soon leave alone,” notes Mark with a smile. “But we love being on the same page with Christians around the world.”
“We don’t always go with the lectionary either,” adds Mimi. “For the summer season, Mark and I often sit down and ask, What do we need to be talking about as a family? and we go with that.”
Enhanced by the Arts
Covenant members are strong supporters of the arts, involving neighborhood children in arts programs and supporting both visual and performing artists at their church-sponsored coffee shop, Barney Maffett’s. This carries over into the worship as well.
“Worship should be artistically rendered,” says Mark. “The arts are very important in worship; they have the ability to transcend reason and emotion and get to the soul better than anything else.” This may happen through a well-told story, a painting, a song well done, a well-written litany in the Sunday bulletin.
Part of the visual element in Covenant’s worship is the wearing of robes—white for celebration and resurrection—and liturgical stoles that reflect the colors of seasons in the church year. A magnificent wood carving at the front entryway is one of Covenant’s treasures.
A Contemplative Presence in the City
Covenant places a strong emphasis on reflection and renewal as an antidote to burnout in the urban setting. Influenced by the Church of the Savior in Washington, DC, and the book describing its ministry (Journey Inward, Journey Outward by Elizabeth O’Connor), Mark and Mimi set aside a day each week for quiet study and prayer, Mark on Mondays and Mimi on Wednesdays. They incorporate times of silence into worship and encourage members to participate in Renovare groups, which pray regularly together.
“Prayer is everything,” says Mimi. “Even ministry should be a time of worship. We are working toward becoming a contemplative congregation.”
Though the congregation includes African-American neighbors in both worship and ministry, the membership remains predominantly white. Mark and Mimi are realistic about the fact that not many neighbors join. “They know our roots are in the white European culture,” says Mimi. “And most of the families on our streets have some connection to another church or denomination, even if they do not attend.”
“Our goal is to establish relationships,” adds Mark. “If those result in church membership, great—we dream of a fully integrated worship and church. But we are simply seeking to be the face of Christ to our neighbors—unconditionally, even when they don’t respond.”
“Our platter is full—but it all begins and ends with our worship together,” Mimi says firmly. “This is the catalyst for all we do. None of the neighborhood ministries would exist without worship.
“At Covenant we have a wide continuum of social perspectives, but we stick together on the foundation of God’s grace. Whoever comes in the door is welcome. We will not settle for anything less.”
- About 100 worshiping families (1 Hispanic, 2 biracial, 8 African American, the rest Anglo).
- Close to 40 children and teens; some young couples and families; many members in the 50-80 age range, only 3 shut-ins.
- Wide range in income and level of education.
- Mostly suburban families, spread out over 16 school districts.
- Summer Recreation Program. Offers sports and art programs for neighborhood children. Employs two people (with some grant funding) and requires 6-8 volunteers each evening.
- Barney Maffet’s Coffee Shop. Run by Covenant employees and volunteers who seek to establish
relationships with neighbors. Displays work of local artists and hosts live music.
- Hygiene Pantry. Provides necessities like paper goods and toiletries that are not covered by food stamp programs.
- Public school tutoring.
- HealthCARE. Established by Covenant to organize health care providers in outreach ministry.
Lenten Order of Worship
Come! Worship the Lord
Declaration of God’s Presence
Call to Worship
In Christ, the God of heaven has made his home on earth.
Christ dwells among us and is one with us.
Highest of all creation, he lives among the least.
He journeys with the rejected and welcomes the
Come now, all who thirst,
and drink the water of life.
Come now, all who hunger,
and be filled with good things.
Come now, all who seek,
and be warmed by the fire of love.
Processional Hymn of Praise: “Come, Thou Fount of Every Blessing” PsH 486, PH 356, RL 449, TH 457, TWC 45
“Meekness and Majesty” SNC 109
“Bless His Holy Name” PsH 627, TWC 36
“Step by Step” SNC 17
Passing the Peace of Christ
Prayer of Confession (from Psalm 51)
“Create in Me a Clean Heart” SNC 49
Words of Assurance
Ascription of Praise: “Holy, Holy, Holy Is the Lord of Hosts” SNC 251
Come! Hear God’s Word
Prayer for Illumination: “Sanctuary” (More Songs for Praise and Worship, Word, 2000)
The Word of the Lord: Matthew 5:8; 15:1-20; 23:25-28
Sermon: Purification: A Celebration of Lent
Come! Receive God’s Grace
Offering Song: “Give Thanks” SNC 216, TWC 496
Sacrament of Holy Communion
[Covenant Community celebrates the Lord’s Supper monthly, alternating each month between coming forward and being served in the pews. During Lent they received the sacrament in silence. At other times, they sing.]
For additional material from the Calvin Institute of Christian Worship, click here.