When I was a child, my father served on the sacraments committee of our church. That sounded like an important job to me: the sacraments were the most awe-inspiring actions I had yet experienced. No wonder I was surprised and disappointed to discover that "sacraments committee" was just a fancy name for the people who cut bread, washed dishes, and filled the font before baptism. I expected more, I guess.
Today, sacrament committees have been replaced by worship committees in many congregations, but in most cases their task has changed little. In a recent survey of 250 Reformed Church in America congregations, 72 percent of those who responded indicated that they have a worship committee, but only 7 percent of those congregations use that committee to plan worship.
Menu of Possibilities
How can worship committees authentically participate in the worship life of a congregation? How can they begin to carry out the functions that their name implies? The suggestions offered in this article are shared more as a menu of possibilities than a checklist of requirements. Each congregation should carefully examine the current mandate of its worship committee. Perhaps some of the possibilities listed below could challenge that group and make their work a more meaningful contribution to the congregation.
Education. Worship committees can provide an important forum for worship education. As the Reformed family of churches begins to understand and embrace the insight that worship is more than preaching, it is critical that both pastors and congregations understand the historical and theological foundations of our worship. The Reformed Church in America has just published a simple but complete educational study of a Sunday morning service. The liturgy is laid out parallel to our Directory of Worship and illustrated with drawings. Understanding Worship in the RCA (Available from the Distribution Center, 3000 Ivanrest SW, Grandville, MI 49418.)
Environment. It's important that worship committees spend time looking at the physical context of their worship. While pews are often immovable, the position of pulpits, fonts, and tables in the sanctuary communicates a great deal about what a congregation believes is important.
Most Reformed worship is conducted from behind the pulpit—but perhaps it shouldn't be. That's an issue for the worship committee to look at. Some congregations have begun to divide the service into three parts, switching the focus of the congregation from the font to the pulpit to the table. Others invite a member of the congregation, often a deacon, to pray in a loud, clear voice from the midst of the congregation instead of from the pulpit or lectern.
Music. No one told me as I was going through seminary that the most explosive issue I would face in planning congregational worship was the choice of hymns and anthems. New hymns and anthems need to be carefully and graciously introduced and, like all the music incorporated into the liturgy, should relate to the biblical lessons and the season. The worship committee can assist the pastor, organist, and choir director (all of whom should be at least ex officio members of the committee) in selecting hymns and anthems for the coming season.
The committee should also have some say about the role of the choir as leaders in worship. Questions regarding processions and recessions, vestments, and seating need to be discussed thoroughly.
Study. As the lectionary begins to guide more and more pastors and congregations in their worship, the worship committee can serve as a forum for discussing and reviewing the Scripture lessons. Through prayer and discussion, the worship committee can help the pastor perceive the Word at work in the lives of his/ her congregation. As the lectionary begins to guide more and more pastors and congregations in their worship, the worship committee can serve as a forum for discussing and reviewing the Scripture lessons. Through prayer and discussion, the worship committee can help the pastor perceive the Word at work in the lives of his/ her congregation.
Prayers. Worship committees can be encouraged to become creators rather than spectators of worship. Although it's important to be cautious about committee-written prayers that lack the harmony and texture of a single hand and heart, committee members can become involved in writing and reciting prayers in worship—especially prayers and litanies that will be used repeatedly during a liturgical season.
More and more congregations are beginning to understand that it is neither necessary nor helpful to have different prayers and litanies each week. Seasonal prayers and litanies that are recited by congregations for a series of Sundays allow worshipers to begin to own and embrace the words. Worship committees can oversee and contribute to such parts of the liturgy.
Seasons. Worship committees can become very involved in planning services for special liturgical days or seasons. For example, the worship committee in a congregation I pastored played a major role in planning and reviewing worship during Holy Week—an eight-day week in which we gathered for four very different services. The week began with a procession of people and palms from one part of the building to another. On Maundy Thursday we gathered for a candle-lit service and received communion together around the table. During the three hours of Good Friday, worshipers came and went as we remembered Christ's crucifixion through candle-lighting, music, and the reading of Scriptures. Finally, on Easter morning, we announced our Lord's resurrection through the singing of the "Hallelujah Chorus" and the lighting of the great Pascal candle.
All of these services—and many during other seasons— were planned and implemented by the worship committee. We discovered that each liturgical season and day opens up new opportunities for worship committees to share in the joy and responsibility of creating worship that has theological and historical integrity—worship that inspires the congregation to offer sacrifices of praise.
Symbols and Color. The worship committee (with the help of artists, who may or may not be members of the committee) can become the critical source of wisdom needed to enhance the worship space. While respecting the simplicity and dignity of a sanctuary, a committee can use paraments, banners, and appropriate scenes and symbols to help the worship space speak without words. Symbols and color become important nonverbal communicators of the gospel story.
Verb and Noun
Worship should never remain static. As the congregation changes, so do its needs. The worship committee should take responsibility for assessing those needs and suggesting appropriate revision of liturgy and sanctuary.
As you perceive, worship is a verb as well as a noun. The actions of pastor and people working together are critical in creating dynamic worship. After all, the word liturgy means, quite simply, the "work of the people." If our liturgy, our worship, is to be corporately offered to God, then it is important that worship committees be at the forefront of its corporate creation.