Lifelong Learning: A service celebrating the educational and discipling ministry of the church

This service, with multiple options, is intended as a celebration of what God is doing in the educational and discipling ministry of the church. It can be used at any time during the church year, not just when kicking off your education program. It concentrates on the lives of young people and especially encourages their participation—for which advance preparation (especially musical) may be helpful. Consider using young people as leaders throughout the service in every appropriate way and at every appropriate place. But the service also lifts up to God in praise and prayer all those who strive both to teach and to learn, every day, what it means to follow Jesus Christ. It was adapted from Learning for Life, a set of resources published by the Reformed Church in America (see review, p. 47).

The Approach to God

Call to Worship

Note: Choose one of the following three options:

1 John 4:7-8

Note: A leader might point out that this text highlights one of Jesus’ most important commandments and one of our most critical learning tasks: knowing God. In coming to know God as Love, we strive to love one another. Could lead into a song about God as love or knowing God: “Knowing You”/“All I Once Held Dear” (More Songs for Praise & Worship 30); “God Is Love” (SNC 137, Gather 629); “Love Divine, All Loves Excelling” (PsH 568, PH 376, RL 464).

Psalm 96:1-2

Note: May be read by a young person or spoken antiphonally by leader and the congregation. For a world-music flavored opening (with youth leading on guitars and Latin percussion), use with “Cantad al Señor/O Sing to the Lord” (SNC 224).

Psalm 100

Note: Could be spoken as a choral reading and then combined with the well-known “He Has Made Me Glad” (SNC 13) as a child-led call to worship. This song leads seamlessly into a number of praise hymns that could follow.

Opening Prayer

Note: Could be prayed in unison or on behalf of the congregation.

Great God of wonder and truth, hear our prayer, for we want to be better students of your will and ways.

Expand our capacity for love, that it might be wider and more durable.
Stretch our imaginations to envision greater possibilities for trusting you.
Draw out our hopes, that they might not be hidden away undared.
Educate our spirits to seek serenity and strive toward service.
Grant us the devotion to be disciples, the discipline to be devoted.
In the name of Jesus Christ, Amen.

—Adapted from Words of Worship, Glen E. Rainsley. New York: Pilgrim Press, 1991, p. 49

Penitence

Call to Confession

Matthew 11:28-30, followed by “Let us ask God to forgive us.”

Notes:

  • Have a child assist with the invitation to confession by signing this as it is read. (You can sign almost any part of a service, thereby adding a wonderfully visual and kinesthetic element to worship. For an online ASL dictionary, visit http://dww.deafworldweb.org/asl/.)
  • A worship leader could invite confession by reminding the congregation that one of the other things we need to learn, again and again, is who we are. We’re sinners. We’re lost, least, last, losers. We need God. A prayer of confession would follow (silent, spoken, sung, or any combination thereof) and then a word of assurance (see Assurance of Pardon), which would point out not only who we are, but whose we are: we belong to God. We are God’s people, God’s forgiven people.
Prayer of Confession

Gracious God, you give us the gift of faith,
and then call us to follow you,
to obey your word,
to love your people.
You invite us to learn from you and then to teach what
we have learned.
We confess that we often regard faith with
indifference.
We fail to apply ourselves to learning its scope,
and we feel smug about what we do know.
We are reluctant teachers,
mediocre mentors,
indifferent disciples.
Turn us toward wisdom, accepting its humility.
Give us hearts eager to know you, to love you,
and to share our knowledge with others.
In Jesus’ name we pray. Amen.

Notes:

  • Could be prayed in unison or on behalf of the congregation. A worship leader might point out that we all bring our gifts to worship. Young people bring energy, enthusiasm, passion, and a willingness to do new things. Older people bring experience, steadiness, faithfulness, and earned wisdom.
  • Don’t underestimate the use of silence in a prayer of confession to invite the congregation to search their own hearts and bring the details of their sins before God.
  • Many young people know and could lead the congregation in singing the songs “Create in Me” (SNC 49) or “Refiner’s Fire,” both based on the penitential Psalm 51.
  • A Kyrie—“Lord, have mercy”—is a wonderful way to add depth to a prayer of confession. Two beautiful folk Kyries (Russian Orthodox and Ghanian) are found in SNC (52 and 53).
  • “Lord God, Your Love” (RL 503) is a beautiful and comprehensive prayer of confession that could be read or sung.
  • The children’s song “I Will Put My Law” (SFL 39) is a good song to use in the penitential section. You may sing stanza 1 before the assurance of pardon and stanza 2 afterward.
Assurance of Pardon

Jeremiah 31:33-34

Note: A worship leader might provide a word of grace by reminding the congregation that while we can try hard to learn how to love and how to obey, we’re slow on the uptake. What’s more, as a famous preacher once said, our problem isn’t instruction, it’s iniquity. It’s not schooling, it’s sin. Praise God, then, that God unilaterally gives us a new covenant that only requires us to sign on the dotted line, to assent to God’s gracious yes!

Law

Note: Choose one of two options:

•Summary of the Law: Matthew 22:37-39

Note: The leader might introduce the reading of the law by reminding the congregation that though we are learning, we aren’t working for the grades, we’ve already got an A. But now we don’t want to slough off, we want to work hard to make the teacher proud of us!

•The Ten Commandments for Kids

  1. You may not love anyone or anything more than you love God.
  2. You may not worship, or put more importance on any person or thing, other than God. You must worship only the Lord, not your parents, not a friend, not a movie star or a sports hero, not a car or boat or skateboard. Nothing.
  3. You may not swear. Use God’s holy name only in a loving way, never to express anger or frustration.
  4. One day of your week should be set aside for rest and the worship of God. Work six days of the week only. You need a special day set aside to relax, to enjoy God’s world, and to meet with other Christians.
  5. Be respectful to your parents. Love them, and the Lord will reward you with a long life.
  6. You may not hate other people; don’t ever think of hurting someone else in any way.
  7. Keep your thoughts and actions pure. Sex is a gift of God to married couples.
  8. You may not take and keep anything that doesn’t belong to you.
  9. You may not tell lies, especially when that lie will hurt someone else.
  10. You may not be jealous of what others have. You may not be jealous of your friend’s new toy or clothes or the big house your neighbor lives in. Be satisfied with what you have.

—Adapted from the NIV Adventure Bible, Zondervan

Song of Response

Note: You may wish to sing a song of response either here, in response to the Law, or before the Law, in response to the assurance.

The Word Is Spoken

Prayer for Illumination

God our helper,
show us your holy ways and teach us your paths.
By your Holy Spirit,
open our minds
that we may be led in your truth
and taught your will.
Then may we praise you
by listening to your Word
and by obeying it;
though Christ our Lord. Amen.

—Book of Common Worship

Children’s Time

Notes:

  • Call the children forward and have the pastor or worship leader teach them some standard liturgical responses: The Lord be with you/And also with you. The last response (or perhaps the only one) would be: The Word of the Lord/Thanks be to God!
  • A worship leader might introduce the reading of Scripture by explaining the Greek word mathetes, which means disciple. To be a disciple means to learn at the feet of the teacher and to imitate the teacher in everything. So when we read the Bible, we are figuratively sitting at Jesus’ feet to learn from him, and then we are to go and try to do what he says. Bringing the children to sit up front at the feet of the Scripture reading would be a good visual reinforcement of this message.
Some Songs of Illumination

“Thy Word” SNC 86
“Open Our Eyes, Lord” SNC 80, TWC 536 (especially good signed by children)
“Be Still and Know” SFL 225, TWC 516 (especially good signed by children and taught to the rest of the congregation!)
“I Love to Tell the Story” TH 478, TWC 498
“Teach Me, O Lord, Your Way of Truth” PsH 276

Scripture Lessons

Note: Have all the Scripture readers be young people. If using only two of the passages, they could be read by a mentor/child pair from the congregation.

Old Testament: Deuteronomy 11:18-25

Gospel: Matthew 28:16-20 (The Great Commission)

Epistle: Ephesians 4:17-25

Psalm: 1 or 19 or 34 or one of many appropriate sections from 119 (see SNC 85-87)

Sermon

Note: Pastors often scour the newspapers, watch TV, read fiction, even surf sites on the Web for sermon illustrations. Perhaps for this week the pastor could give sermon texts and themes to the youth of the congregation and solicit stories from them. Stories that illuminate the texts, that speak of instruction and wisdom, that speak of mentoring and discipleship. Narratives of the sort that begin, “One day in October, about two years ago, a friend of mine and I went ice-fishing. . . .” There are few better ways for young people to feel that their voices are heard and their lives valued than to hear their own stories woven into the Word as it is proclaimed from the pulpit.

Old Testament

This famous passage from Deuteronomy articulates the primary theme of that book: obedience to God’s law. A sermon on this passage might well deal with the importance of the law not only being on our doorposts and on our foreheads (an explanation of Jewish phylacteries might be in order), but that it dwell in our “heart and soul” and that it be lived out. That is how we best teach it to our children. Not so much by memorization, but by imitation. By speaking of it, by living it, by walking in God’s ways and holding fast to God.

Gospel

The Great Commission is seen properly as a call to evangelize—to baptize others, to initiate them into the kingdom of God. But there is more to the commission than that, and more to initiation than the act of baptism. Jesus commands his disciples not just to get more people in the club, but to make disciples, “teaching them to obey all that I have commanded you.” We fulfill this component of the Great Commission when we engage in the educational and discipling ministry of the church. A sermon based on this passage would want to give God thanks for all that the congregation is already doing in these areas.

Epistle

This epistle lesson resonates with the language, images, and themes of education. Jesus didn’t just speak the truth, he is the Truth. New life is in Jesus, new life that includes putting away the old life and putting on a new one patterned after his true righteousness and holiness. Part of that new life is speaking truth to each other, teaching in humility what we have learned.

Psalm

Any of the psalm selections is appropriate, expressing delight in God’s law and an eagerness to learn how to live a God-pleasing life.

We Respond to the Word

Creed

Notes:

  • A fitting response to a sermon on making disciples is to speak what we believe together, what we have learned from the Christians of centuries past. Saying the Apostles’ Creed together is a fine way to accomplish this.
  • Another option is to sing a creedal song, such as “I Believe in Jesus” (More Songs for Praise & Worship 7), “Lord, I Lift Your Name on High” (SNC 157), or the commonly sung version of the Nicene Creed (PsH 520).
Peace

Note: Have children—even very young children—come forward after the sermon and receive the “peace of Christ” from the pastor. Then have them pass that peace to the rest of the congregation by saying, “God’s peace.”

Prayers of the People

Notes:

  • Almost every church currently has, or has recently had, an education class or unit on some aspect of prayer. Lift up the educational ministries of your congregation by encouraging individuals who have participated in such classes to lead the congregation in prayer.
  • If your congregation shares requests during prayer time, consider using a child to carry the microphone from person to person. The more young people are involved in the service, the more valued they feel, and the more we are able to appreciate the inclusion of their gifts.
  • It’s especially meaningful when the prayers of the people are offered by a young person, or by a group of people who represent the congregation.
  • Choose one of the following prayers.

One

O God, for life lessons learned, we give you thanks. For the perception of possibilities, we express our gratitude. We come to you in prayer as students of the Spirit and attenders to your Word.

We recognize what a wondrous gift you have given us in creating us able to become wiser in your ways. It is the gift of discipleship that you have placed in our keeping. As we have opened it, it has opened us as well.

How grateful we are for the growth in faith that we have experienced—for opportunities that have allowed our spirits to stretch and reach. We acknowledge that our learning has not been the result of easy insights and ready adaptations. Often it has come at the expense of strained sensibilities, compressed egos, burst preconceptions, restructured values.

As we reflect on our faith history, we remember teachers who have guided us, challenged us, cajoled us, and supported us. Through them, our basic learning has come to fruition and our course of future learning has taken shape. We pray that our hopes—the imaginings of our hearts and minds—will not remain vague or dreamlike. Instead, by your grace, let our hopes take on definition and form. As lifelong learners, may we practice hopefulness as a vocation and turn hope into practice and mastery. We offer our prayer in the name of Christ, whose disciples we are, today and always, Amen.

—Words of Worship, pp. 105–106

Two

Structure a prayer as follows:

  1. Pray first for those who are explicitly charged with teaching the congregation what it means to follow Jesus and obey his Word—pastors, elders, and Sunday school teachers.
  2. Then for all those who teach by example what it means to be a disciple—especially for mentors, parents, grandparents, older brothers and sisters, and so on.
  3. Then for all those who learn (that’s everybody)—those who learn by listening, those who learn by seeing, those who learn by doing. Ask for God to teach us the lessons we most need to learn.
  4. Then for your congregation’s community, nation, and our world, emphasizing those who look to us to learn who Christ is, and those who teach us what it means to be compassionate, peace-makers, and so on.

Three

Make your congregational prayer a “bidding” prayer led by a youth. Follow the organizational pattern listed above, and after each section, have the leader say: “Lord, in your mercy,” to which the congregation responds, “Hear our prayer.” You may teach this response during the Children’s Time (see p. 30).

A bidding prayer often works well with a sung response or refrain, such as “Let Us Pray to the Lord” (SFL 51, SNC 202) or “Lord, Listen to Your Children Praying” (PsH 625, SFL 54, TWC 629).

Offering

Notes:

  • Have young people collect the offering, or else have them present the offering. Invite the youngest member of each family to bring that family’s gift and place it in the offering basket in the front.
  • Take up an offering explicitly for educational ministries—for the young people’s service project, for their spring break mission trip, for new curriculum materials, and so on.
  • The offering of musical gifts by young people is one of the very best ways a congregation can embrace its youth. Musical groups are wonderful tools for mentoring. At exactly the age when they are discovering who they are and yearning to belong, to be needed, it is powerful for a congregation to lift them up—to need them and the musical gifts they offer. Make the most not only of budding guitarists, but also flautists, percussionists, cellists, and so on.
Some Concluding Songs

“In the Secret” More Songs for Praise & Worship 38
“Step By Step” SNC 17
“Here I Am, Lord” SNC 268
“Thuma Mina/Send Me, Lord” SNC 280
“Be Thou My Vision” PH 339, RL 67, TH 642, TWC 532
“He Leadeth Me” PsH 452, RL 161, TH 600, TWC 635
“May the Mind” PsH 291, SFL72, TH 644, TWC 560

Sung Blessing

“Go, My Children, with My Blessing” SNC 284
“My Friends, May You Grow in Grace” SNC 288

Charge

Engage daily in Christian education.
Take note of the Creator’s love.
Study Christ’s style of service. Practice prayer.
Apply yourselves to the great test of living by faith.
And always, be led by the guidance of God.

Benediction

The peace of God, which passes all understanding,
keep your hearts and minds in the knowledge and
love of God,
and of God’s Son, Jesus Christ our Lord;
and the blessing of God almighty,
the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit,
remain with you always. Alleluia! Amen.

Ron Rienstra is associate professor of preaching and worship arts at Western Theological Seminary and co-author of Worship Words: Discipling Language for Faithful Ministry (Baker Academic, 2009).