Ritual In Reformed Churches--A Guided Tour

Some months ago the Reformed Worship staff asked a sampling of subscribers a few questions about worship rituals. RW wanted to find out about new rituals that congregations have developed in the past few years—rituals that have enriched their worship life together. In the previous article you'll find an author reflecting on "the way we were" as worshiping congregations. But this article, incorporating responses from those contacted, offers a flavor of "the way we are."

"The way we were" reflects one Christian Reformed congregation as the "we." "The way we are" reflects a "we" consisting of a variety of Reformed and Presbyterian congregations in Canada, Australia, and the United States (see sidebar on page 10). This article will survey some of the results, then consider what we're looking at. Although the original question made reference to "rituals," perhaps what follows falls more into the category of congregational "traditions." We'll talk about that later.

Seasonal Traditions

As might be expected, the Christmas and Easter seasons find many churches initiating activities that are different from the usual Sunday fare.

■ A Presbyterian church produces its own devotional guide for Advent and Lent. After discovering how much work creating their own guides entailed, they considered discontinuing the practice and using commercial guides instead. But the congregation protested. They had found the locally developed devotional guide more fitting than commercial guides and wanted it continued. The devotionals "are quite modest compared to commercially available guides, but they are 'ours' and that seems to make a great deal of difference," writes the respondent. "These guides offer readings for each day during the season along with full-blown prayers, readings, and hymns for each Sunday."

■ Another congregation spreads the Christmas celebration around several churches. Following the 7:30 Christmas Eve service and a potluck meal, many members of this Reformed church join the congregation of the nearby United Church of Christ for an 11:00 Candlelight/Communion Service. Then on Christmas morning members of these two congregations join worshipers at yet a third church (Presbyterian) for a Christmas Day celebration. The pastors of the three congregations work together to create unity within the three services. The final service always features soloists singing "Silent Night" in several languages. This "reminds us not only of our heritage but also of the diversity of our urban setting and the universality of the message of Christ."

■ A Christian Reformed congregation always concludes a service on the Sunday before Christmas with a singing of the "Hallelujah Chorus." Music is provided for members of the congregation to join the choir on the front platform. No one knows exactly when this practice started, but it has been a meaningful part of this congregation's Advent worship for at least ten years.

■ For the past eight years a Presbyterian congregation has celebrated communion on Christmas Eve. The attendance has grown to the point where the church now offers two services, with full participation of children and youth choirs at one service, and the Sanctuary Choir at the other.

■ One congregation begins the Lenten season with an Ash Wednesday service of communion. Members sit around tables in the church's fellowship hall. Following a short devotional, the minister leads in a simplified liturgy for the Lord's Supper as bread and juice are shared around the tables. Then follows a simple meal of soup and the remaining bread. "Since its inception twelve years ago, it has become a meaningful tradition for people of all ages in our church."

■ Another church prepares for Thanksgiving by setting empty baskets, around the communion table. At the beginning of each service in November, adults and children fill the baskets with new hats, mittens, socks, etc. After the Thanksgiving Day service the church distributes the offerings to local helping organizations.

■An unusual tradition takes place every summer in an Iowa congregation. They observe a "Don't Come to Church in August . . . and Sit in the Same Place" exercise. Church leaders decided that sitting in the same pew every Sunday meant that members always greeted the same people and failed to meet others. "The obvious benefit of this [August] seating arrangement is increased fellowship and more cohesiveness for the congregation ... not to mention the comfort of sitting in the same old place come September."

Weekly Rituals

Turning now to weekly traditions, we begin to approach what might be more properly called "rituals."

■ The apostle Paul makes a passing reference to the 'Amen" sounded by the congregation: 'And so through [Christ] the 'Amen' is spoken by us to the glory of God" (2 Cor. 1:20). One respondent writes about the minister closing his benediction with the words, 'And let the people say Amen.'" The practice began seven years ago; it took about a year for the congregation to add its own hearty response. The respondent writes, "It has become a unifying conclusion to worship in which people of all ages and abilities can participate."

■ A church in Virginia has begun observing a ritual with roots in the early church. They have instituted the "passing of the peace." From the beginning church leaders made it clear that this was not a time for casual greeting or conversation; the people were expected to use specific words— "The peace of Christ be with you"— as a reminder to one another of the peace God grants through the forgiveness of sins.

The passing of the peace takes place immediately after the Assurance of Pardon on most Sundays and also becomes part of the preparation for the celebration of the Lord's Supper. An explanation of this ritual was printed in the bulletin every Sunday for 3 to 4 months to fully inform the people as to its rationale.

This congregation also found itself quite naturally and spontaneously responding to the minister saying, "The peace of Christ be with you," with the words, 'And also with you." It is worth noting that in that simple exchange, the congregation is connecting with millions of Christians who make this response every Sunday as part of the ritual of worship.

The respondent from this church writes that most members were not reared in a "liturgical" church, and that the services are "quite Tow-church' evangelical in character, so that acts of liturgical drama are very much outside our normal mode." Yet this same church, since the early 1980s, has also engaged in kneeling during the confession of sin. "This practice is consistently mentioned as an attention-getter for newcomers, and its meaning seems only to grow for those who have been here a long time."

Many worship services include a prayer for illumination before Scripture is read and proclaimed. Usually the minister offers this prayer. A congregation in Australia has lay members offer this prayer and then read the Scripture lesson for the sermon. In the prayer the lay member not only asks God to open the minds and hearts of the hearers but also asks God's presence with and blessing on the one who will preach.

"For a number of years," writes the respondent, "we had been having gifted readers from the congregation lead the reading of the Scripture passages chosen by the minister. One Sunday a very caring member of the congregation asked me whether he would be allowed to lead in the prayer for illumination; he felt that the preacher should be prayed for publicly, not just in the session room before the service."

The practice soon became a tradition. A visiting pastor commented, "We are always praying for others, and it is so refreshing to be prayed for, especially just before preaching."

On the other side of the world, in Halifax, Nova Scotia, a layperson offers the prayer immediately following the sermon. "This prayer is prearranged in that the participant knows that he or she will be leading in prayer that day. The person stands and prays from his or her place in the congregation, and [the prayer is] usually based on the things in the sermon about which the Spirit leads that person to pray."

■ To encourage its members in the work of evangelism, a congregation in Baltimore has placed an "evangelism candle" on the communion table. The candle is lit only when a member or friend of the church has led someone to Christ during the past week and then informs one of the pastors. When no calls are received, the candle remains unlit. "The candle has created an atmosphere of surprise and expectation; people wait to see if it will be lit when the choir and clergy come into the chancel."

■ This same church has an elder lead the choir and clergy into the sanctuary as he carries a large Bible that he opens and places on a stand. This action tells the congregation that "Once the Word of God is brought in and opened, then worship can begin." The action of the elder also recaptures for the congregation the Scottish Presbyterian tradition of the "beadle," a minor parish official whose duties included ushering and preserving order at services.

Rituals for Special Life Moments

We've looked at some annual rituals or traditions and some weekly actions in the worship service. Respondents to the questionnaire also described other rituals or traditions that take place at significant life moments for people in the congregation.

■ One church announces the birth of a child by placing on the pulpit a carnation with a pink or blue ribbon. The new parents then receive the carnation following the service.

■ Respondents wrote about traditional hymns used at the time of baptism too. One church opens every infant baptism ceremony with the hymn "Lord Jesus Christ, Our Lord Most Dear" (PH 496, TH 410). Another always concludes baptism with "You Are Our God; We Are Your People" (PsH 272).

■ Some churches invite the children of the congregation to the front to witness the baptism.

■ Profession of faith by a baptized member or reaffirmation of faith by an adult seeking membership in a new church become times when congregations find fitting ways to enhance the occasion. In one congregation an elder introduces those persons making profession of faith. The elder gives a brief outline of the person's faith journey focusing particularly on how God has used the people or ministries of the congregation in that person's life.

■ When reaffirmation of faith takes place in another congregation, the elders and deacons come forward to lay hands on the new members. The congregation is asked to reach out and lay hands on the person's shoulder next to them. The entire congregation becomes physically connected as prayer is offered for the new members. This reaffirmation ceremony follows eight weekly classes in the basics of church membership. "You can't slip in quietly here without being noticed," one member said. "It's a very personal and spiritual experience that has strengthened my faith."

In this church (and elsewhere) profession of faith or reaffirmation of faith also includes personal testimonies from the new members.

■ Another church encourages the testimonies of its regular members. The second Sunday of each month is "Friendship Sunday." Members are encouraged to invite unchurched friends to the service. The service then includes a "Moment of Lay Witness." A member gives a 3-4 minute presentation of who Jesus Christ is and what Jesus means for his or her daily living. This respondent notes that "sometimes these unchurched visitors can 'hear' the gospel better in the form of an authentic from-the-heart talk by a layperson than they can from a 'professional Christian.'"

■ Other rituals or traditions accompany the Lord's Supper. For one congregation, where silent meditation had been the practice during the distribution of the elements, an innovation involved congregational singing during selected celebrations of the sacrament.

■ Another congregation always sings Psalm 23 (from the Scottish Psalter of 1650) to the tune EVAN as the Lord's table is being prepared. The final verse is sung following the communion.

■Still another congregation has begun to sing parts of the Lord's Supper liturgy specifically the Sanctus, Memorial Acclamation, and the Lord's Prayer (John Weavers setting).

Some Questions and Reflections

I find the responses to these questions about ritual interesting for a number of reasons. They reveal the varied life of congregations, the concerns congregations have, the ways congregations choose to worship. These responses might well stimulate your own imagination to consider ways in which you might enhance the worship in your congregation.

It's also interesting to note the differences in "the way we are" in our places in the Reformed and Presbyterian tradition. For example, in my own congregation it has been the custom for many years for the congregation to sing as worshipers take their turn sharing Holy Communion at the front of the sanctuary. Meanwhile, as indicated above, another church experiences singing during the distribution of the elements as an innovation. Still another congregation has members kneeling during the prayer of confession, a practice unlikely to be found in the vast majority of Protestant churches.

I wonder, too, about our understanding of ritual. The questionnaire sent to the selected churches asked for practices that "could be called rituals." Do we know what rituals are and what part they play in worshiping God? Do we have a sense of ritual, but call it by some other name? Is ritual something for "liturgical" churches, but not relevant for "nonliturgical" churches? Is there such a thing as a "nonliturgical" church? Is there such a thing as "nonritualized" worship? Is ritual a bad word because it's associated with Christians from Roman Catholic or Eastern Orthodox traditions? Do "rituals" have any place in Protestant worship?

Another question comes to mind. Are the examples from various congregations listed in this article rituals, or are they traditions or customs? A ritual, according to the dictionary, is an "established form for a ceremony"; specifically "the order of words prescribed for a religious ceremony." Or, a ritual could be "a ceremonial act or actions." May we speak of "rituals" and "ceremonies" when it comes to our worship?

Further, if a ritual consists of words or actions prescribed for a religious ceremony who does the prescribing? In every example presented here, it seems to be someone in the local congregation—perhaps an individual or a committee—who has decided to initiate particular words or actions for that congregation. We seem to have a kind of ecclesiastical individualism by which each congregation does what it finds interesting or effective or enhancing to its own worship. By what criteria, I wonder, do such congregations decide to use such rituals? How do the actions and words of one congregation relate to what goes on in another congregation? Is there any relationship? Should there be? And furthermore, this raises in my mind the larger matter of the catholicity of the church, and ways in which an individual congregation relates to and reflects in its practices the wider church of Jesus Christ.

I noted above the practice in one congregation of following the minister's words, "The peace of Christ be with you" with the congregational response, 'And also with you." Christians from a variety of traditions would immediately identify that exchange as an essential part of the worship of the church of Jesus Christ. It is something we would find in liturgies from early in the church's history Although it's interesting that one congregation has recaptured this ritualized means of greeting among the people of God, I wonder more at where this practice was lost in the worship of most Reformed and Evangelical congregations.

The same goes for kneeling during prayer. Were we Protestants so scandalized by the fact that Roman Catholics knelt for prayer that we threw out the practice as unfitting for God's people? Yet vast numbers of Christians for almost two thousand years have knelt for prayer when coming into the presence of God in public worship. Upon what basis do we decide whether such a gesture may be used by members of our congregations?

The Introduction to the Psalter Hymnal of the Christian Reformed Church mentions four liturgical motifs that should be "present in all worship": the biblical, the catholic, the confessional, and the pastoral. It then goes on to apply those four motifs to one element of the church's worship—-the element of music. For example, "the music of the church should be catholic. Our music should express not only the unity of a single denomination or congregation but also the unity of the church throughout the world and from all ages." And also, "The music of the church should be confessional... Since our music must reflect our confessional and doctrinal understanding of Scripture, the emphasis is on the communal rather than on the individualistic. ..."

What applies to music should probably apply to everything done in worship. But as I read over the various responses to FWs questions, and when I visit various churches to worship or lead in worship, I find such diversity of worship styles and liturgical expression that I wonder if there is any sense left of belonging to a worldwide reality called the church of Jesus Christ, or to a tradition that defines us as a particular part of that body And if we do have that awareness, how does it come to expression in our worship services?

I do not mean by these comments to be critical of any activities and practices described in this article. On the contrary, all of the activities noted here give evidence of churches seeking to be responsive to their faith in Christ, their concern for members, and their compassion for the world. I only wonder if we have a sense of the rituals of worship that have characterized the Christian church through the ages. And I wonder what standards we use to decide what is right and fitting to take place in the worship of the Almighty God.

And finally I simply find myself wondering what sense to make of all these varied activities in the worship of these churches. Is there any way to evaluate these activities? Or are we left simply to conclude that if a congregation finds something useful, then it's acceptable for that congregation but irrelevant to another? The questionnaire made reference to rituals "that your church members identify as 'their' way of doing things." How much freedom do congregations have to do things "their" way? Can a minister, a worship committee, or a consistory simply decide how it will do its worship without reference to either a wider denominational identity, or to the traditions and practices that have characterized vast thousands of Christians throughout the ages?

I grow weary of my own questions. But as I look at other churches, and as I take my place in my own congregation, I often find myself asking, Why are we doing all these things? Why are we doing this, and not that? Upon what basis do we decide what ought to be done when we gather in God's presence, as his people, to recognize his worth in this activity we call worship?

In this issue of RW we have an article on "the way we were" and this article suggesting "the way we are." Perhaps it would be profitable for Christians in the Reformed and Presbyterian tradition, in the middle of the evangelical mainstream in a post-Christian culture, to discuss "the way we ought to be" as a worshiping community.

Excerpt

The following churches sent in their ideas and reflections:
All Nations Christian Reformed, Halifax, Nova Scotia
Associate Reformed Presbyterian, Bartow, Florida
Blacknall Memorial Presbyterian, Durham, North Carolina
Central Presbyterian, Baltimore, Maryland
Central Reformed, Sioux Center, Iowa
Chelwood Christian Reformed, Albuquerque, New Mexico
Dearborn Christian Reformed, Dearborn, Michigan
Eastern Avenue Christian Reformed, Grand Rapids, Michigan
First Christian Reformed, Calgary, Alberta
First Presbyterian, Meadville, Pennsylvania
First Presbyterian, Pascagoula, Mississippi
Grace Presbyterian, Dover, Deleware
Reformed Church of Willetton, Willetton, Australia
Trinity Reformed, Newark, New Jersey

Robert A. Meyering is assistant director of marketing and admissions in the accelerated program for adult degree completion at Calvin College in Grand Rapids, Michigan.