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Talking It Through

A Group Discernment Exercise on Faith Formation

We asked a variety of church leaders five questions about the formative practices in their churches; this article is a digest of their responses. After reading this issue of Reformed Worship, we encourage you to engage your church council, staff, or worship committee in a similar discussion, using these same questions to guide your reflections:

  1. Which attributes of God is your church especially good at naming, celebrating, and savoring in worship? (Consult the list in Belgic Confession, Art. 1.)
  2. Which attributes of God go unnoticed or are underrepresented?
  3. What one or two long-term worship habits or practices would be most helpful for your church to learn in order to strengthen the formative dimension of worship?
  4. Given the cultures that shape worship in your context, what are the most significant new opportunities for faith formation in worship?
  5. Conversely, given the cultures that shape worship in your context, what are the idols or temptations that need to be resisted?

Consider asking participants to e-mail some basic impressions about each question to you first. In your discussion, compare their answers with these responses from several church leaders (a sampling of their answers is provided here; a more complete version is available at www.reformedworship.org). The comparison may lead you to discover new themes and to appreciate the strengths of your own context.

We are grateful for the thoughtful responses to our questions from the following people in diverse worship contexts:

  • Marco Avila, New Horizons Christian Reformed Church, Clifton, New Jersey
  • Michael Borgert, First Christian Reformed Church, Muskegon, Michigan
  • Paul Detterman, Presbyterians for Renewal, Louisville, Kentucky
  • Christopher Dorn, Calvary Presbyterian Church, Milwaukee, Wisconsin
  • Sam Hamstra, Living Hope Church, Palos Heights, Illinois
  • Paul Hansen, First Christian Reformed Church, Hull, Iowa
  • Paul Janssen, Pascack Reformed Church, Park Ridge, New Jersey
  • Gregg Mast, New Brunswick (New Jersey) Theological Seminary
  • Denise L. Posie, Immanuel Christian Reformed Church, Kalamazoo, Michigan
  • Angela Taylor Perry, Faith Christian Reformed Church, Holland, Michigan
  • Paul Thé, The Bridge, Chino, California

1. Which attributes of God is your church especially good at naming, celebrating, and savoring in worship? (Consult the list in Belgic Confession, Art. 1.)

Paul Janssen: The following attributes from that list are most likely to be named by parishioners, which means that they would be among those most lifted up during worship: God is unchangeable, infinite, almighty, and the overflowing source of all good. I certainly preach plenty on God’s justice as well, but I’m not sure that members of the church would have that attribute spring to mind.

Marco Avila: Eternal, almighty, just, good, wise.

Gregg Mast: The church in the last decades is quite consumed in celebrating God’s goodness—a quality that is sometimes used as a weapon against God’s justice.

Paul Detterman: As for naming and celebrating, the following come to mind: God as eternal, invisible, unchangeable, almighty, source of all good. But savoring? That is not so prominent. Savoring God for who God is (rather than hanging around with God because of what God can do for us) falls very short in worship life.

Angela Taylor Perry: We all believe in our hearts and confess with our mouths that there is a single and simple spiritual being, whom we call God—eternal, incomprehensible, invisible, unchangeable, infinite, almighty; completely wise, just, good, and the overflowing source of all good.

Paul Hansen: One that is comprehensive and included in all that are listed is the sovereignty of God, which we attempt to portray each week through song, prayer, rite, and sacrament.

Sam Hamstra: The mercy and grace of God.

Christopher Dorn: God’s saving justice—God’s “preferential option for the poor.” Also the theme of God as source of unending life and love, to which God is continually inviting people, so that they may live in self-sacrificial love for neighbor and in genuine community with their brothers and sisters in Christ. These themes also find expression in the prayers of confession. In them sin is conceived as selfishly turning to sources other than God to find fulfillment.

Michael Borgert: Often in our worship the attributes of God are not so much articulated as assumed. Perhaps this is a weakness because assumptions can be such tricky and misunderstood things. It might be better to at least state the assumptions up front. The attributes that are assumed and seem for many to function in worship are those we’d call incommunicable—eternal, incomprehensible, invisible, unchangeable, infinite and almighty. An emphasis we have tried to stress more recently is the goodness of God and God’s immanence—the tangible divine presence among God’s people as they worship. We are becoming better at naming these attributes (or at least shifting our assumptions), and doing so has enriched our worship.

Denise L. Posie: Good, just, almighty, completely wise, incomprehensible, eternal, unchangeable, infinite.

Paul Thé: For most contemporary/modern churches, almighty and unchangeable are the two most common from the Belgic list. Our worship planning team makes a strong effort to include some of the more obscure, incommunicable attributes of God. Although not included in that list, “holiness” would probably rank highest among churches in our part of the country.

2. Which attributes of God go unnoticed or are underrepresented?

PJ: God’s compassion (literally, “wombishness”) is significantly underrepresented.

MA: Incomprehensible, invisible, unchangeable, infinite.

GM: I suggest we look to Article 2 of the Belgic Confession where we discover that creation is like a “beautiful book in which creatures, great and small, are as letters to make us ponder the invisible things of God.” The attribute of God’s beauty, reflected in creation and our worship, would encourage us to develop a far more intentional theology of the arts in our life together.

PD: Wise, just, and good. These may be acknowledged but are frequently redefined by our personal needs/expectations.

PH: We struggle with the invisible—the immanent is much easier to present.

SH: The justice of God.

CD: God’s condescension to become incarnate in his Son, and to die on the cross as an atoning sacrifice for sins, receives less emphasis. God as sin-bearer in the suffering and dying humanity of Christ is not generally thematized.

PT: Invisible and mysterious.

3. What one or two long-term worship habits or practices would be most helpful for your church to learn in order to strengthen the formative dimension of worship?

PJ: First, a mindset of patience for children in worship. Youngsters tend to fidget, poke one another, laugh at inappropriate times, etc. Of such is the kingdom, but if you ask some of the adults sitting near them, these behaviors come as a distraction to some and as an embarrassment to others (their parents). Second, as we have the pattern of having children with us for part of the service (the beginning on non-communion Sundays and the end on communion Sundays), we dismiss the children or welcome them. Some sort of blessing at those transitional times would be helpful.

MA: The awesomeness of God experienced here and now (versus in heaven and in the future); the habit of kneeling at some point of the worship, at prayer for example.

GM: A sacramental worship life—one that not only regularly celebrates the sacraments, but one that embraces holy rituals and rhythms that carry us through not only our seasons, but our years.

PD: Confession/assurance of grace, a deepened and pervasive life of prayer as God’s people gathered.

ATP: Our church has opened itself to prayer in a deeper and more committed way. . . . Prayer must be a response. It must be a dialogue between creator and creation. Prayers are not to be merely heard but mutually spoken to each other, for each other and Our Father. Since we have made a deliberate effort over this past year with services devoted to prayer, we may be in a position to step aside and let the Holy Spirit guide us anew. I would like to experience a little more liturgical response. People are accustomed to prayers being led by the pastor. I believe the Spirit is calling us to step out and change, grow.

PH: It has been good for us to follow a four-fold pattern that first brings people into God’s presence intentionally; second, lifts up the Word in many ways; third, brings people to thanksgiving through the Lord’s Supper as a weekly reminder of resurrection day, of God’s gift to us in his Son, of God’s power of faithful promise, and of God’s presence in the Spirit; and finally, in departing, reminds us of Christus Victor, the kingdom of God, and our part in the body of Christ. What facilitates this is the use of the psalms—praying the psalms and going back and using psalms as songs for worship in settings that are singable by the congregation.

CD: Our congregation celebrates the Eucharist once a month. I am a proponent of a weekly celebration. Such a practice not only would support and reinforce the themes our church does well in proclaiming and celebrating in worship, but also contributes to a deepening of our christology. In regard to this issue of christology, it may also be helpful to introduce as a regular feature in worship the recitation of the Creed after the sermon.

MB: A deepened sacramental awareness/sensibility and more consistent sacramental practice. This has enriched faith formation by connecting what are sometimes (often?) disembodied concepts/ideas with material reality. Yet the symbols point beyond themselves. We have been formed more intentionally into people who live out their baptism and are nourished by the Eucharist.

DLP: It would be most helpful for our church to learn how to worship God for who he is. Learning and practicing the more physical aspects of worship (kneeling, shouting, dancing, lifting hands) would also be appropriate, along with effectively using the spiritual disciplines of silence, lamentation, and intercession in worship.

PT: A theology of missiology in worship. With renewed emphasis on the missional church, there are many questions about its relationship to liturgy. This discussion should also include the use of evangelism in worship, especially considering that we are in the post-seeker-sensitive decade, the post-Jesus movement, and the great awakenings of the previous two centuries.

4. Given the cultures that shape worship in your context, what are the most significant new opportunities for faith formation in worship?

PJ: Because we inhabit a multicultural area, one way of helping to form the faith of our youngsters is to help them understand their faith in comparison and contrast to other faiths, identifying similarities and differences.

MA: Worship as a celebration without losing the reverence component.

GM: The inclusion of different ethnic and global worship practices will remind the church at every turn that it is part of a worldwide community of love and justice.

PD: Ours is a highly distracted, “type A” culture. Any element of worship that slows people down and systematically distracts from self-absorption is going to be a benefit.

ATP: In our worship context there are small windows to open. Someone has to step out or maybe step in to what already exists. We experience worship in liturgical dance by the youth and the youth play instruments from violin to guitar. Maybe we should look through the lens that exists, add a little light, and focus it—just a little at a time.

PH: We are essentially a single culture congregation, so what dominates is the consumerist American culture. It would be good for us to go back to a simpler, less techno-centric, tool- and program-driven worship style. To come before God just bringing the gifts and person he has made us to be. How to do that is a whole different story—any ideas?

SH: The preaching of God’s Word remains a most powerful force of spiritual formation.

MB: The increase of the number of young children in our congregation has opened the congregation up to the power of stories (biblical narrative, personal testimony) that present an opportunity for faith formation—taking time to quiet oneself and listen attentively, developing the ability to see our lives in the context of the biblical narrative, reflecting on the work of the Holy Spirit in our lives, developing an awareness of God’s presence, and taking a long view of time in an age consumed by the latest and the greatest. All of these are profoundly countercultural practices.

DLP: Given the cultures that shape worship in our context, the most significant new opportunities for faith formation in worship are resurrecting the use of Scripture, creeds, and confessions expressed in contemporary ways. This could include using poetry, rap, hip-hop, mime, drama, liturgical dance, and accompaniment like a drum circle. Having individuals give testimonies in our worship or in small group settings about how God met a need, delivered, or comforted them not only strengthens the individual’s faith but also those who are listening. It gives testimony to who God is and what God did. It also opens the door for people to nurture others who are going through some of the same struggles or circumstances.

PT: Our second service allows us tremendous flexibility to experiment and expand our worship practice. We have also seen small groups as a vehicle for worship transformation: a common remark is that worship here is safe and intimate. Lastly, we have special worship services, some of which coincide with the church calendar, and others which are held quarterly, that give us opportunities to shape worship.

5. Conversely, given the cultures that shape worship in your context, what are the idols or temptations that need to be resisted?

PJ: The increasing encroachment of the religion of sport, which has powerful formative effects on our children but often assumes an understanding of competition that borders on violence. This idolatry needs to be encountered by a robust alternative in worship. I wish I could say we had a viable solution!

MA: To consider the “altar” (front part) of the church as the most holy place of the building.

GM: The arrogance of the present—oblivious to the riches of the past and the challenges of the future; the seeming need to create an adrenaline-driven worship experience that can only exhaust a church and finally make it shallow and inward-focused; and the enormous temptation to focus on the narcissistic needs of our church instead of the God we worship and the world we serve.

PD: Self-sufficiency, rote repetition of texts and beliefs, domestication of God into a manageable buddy or a beneficial acquaintance, fear of commitment.

ATP: The first concept that we face and dare to address as an idol would be tradition. “This is the way we do it and it works, so why change?” We must change. We are losing our youth. Youth must be invited into worship in new innovative ways. The temptation is to resist change out of fear. We must collectively explore change.

SH: The prominent idol may be the praise of people that accompanies good entertainment. The corresponding temptation is to turn the liturgy into yet one more form of entertainment, which means that we have worshiped ourselves, not our triune God.

CD: To capitulate to the post-Christian culture and refuse to address such problems as inviting to the Lord’s table people for whom the words, symbols, and gestures are largely unintelligible—and who for that reason cannot see that the ritual involves them in something for which they are not sacramentally and catechetically prepared.

MB: The four great faith questions everyone must answer are questions of identity, community, narrative and vocation. Christian faith presents an alternative identity (in baptism), community (church, communion of the saints, kingdom of God), narrative (Scripture), and vocation (disciple). All cultures present alternatives to those questions and are thus temptations to reject a full understanding of Christian formation.

DLP: People express their love and gratitude to God in a variety of ways. There is the temptation to say there is only one or a few ways to worship God. Another temptation is to judge something we perhaps have not experienced ourselves. There is the idol of focusing on self and others and not God; we don’t always give God the glory. Also, we must consider the idol of worshiping in one’s own comfort zone (style of music, worship, body postures, and so on). How open are we to change? Our unwillingness to lay aside old ways for God to release something new becomes a hindrance to greater worship.

PT: In a musically prolific church that explores newer music, freshness, style, and vibe can be a hindrance (strengths can turn out to be weaknesses if we’re not careful). We attempt to make cultural connections with the style of our music. As a result, people can be tempted to associated worship with style. Our staff goes to great lengths to emphasize that worship is liturgy, work, and lifestyle . . . not only singing.

In addition to these five questions, we couldn’t resist asking our panel a sixth question: Are there any other practices, issues, or topics regarding worship and faith formation you’ve been discussing lately that would be instructive for our readers?

MA: The disposition of the heart to worship is far more important than seeking perfection—for example, in the choir.

GM: The question of how a worshiping community that is already diverse can be attentive to the experiences of those who worship and at the same time create unifying liturgies that remind us that we are finally one.

PD: Prayer that adores God for who God is.

ATP: Our challenge is to invite those accustomed to Dutch Reformed, Hispanic, or African-American worship to learn from and embrace each other’s practices.

PH: We have been emphasizing the covenantal connection between baptism, profession, assumption of office, and service in God’s kingdom through teaching, missions, Lord’s Supper, and marriage. At each of these junctures, we pause to ponder the vows about to be made. Since each of these events is a gift of God, and since we vow to hold fast to the Word, creeds, and God-given leadership in the face of our brokenness, the connection is natural.

SH: We have discovered the importance of identifying movement in the liturgy, beginning with God calling us out of the world to worship and sending us back to serve God.

CD: After the prayers for the people we have introduced the rite of anointing with oil, explaining that oil is associated in the Bible with vocation (consecration to a calling), spiritual empowerment, and healing.

MB: Lectionary reading and preaching. To know that you are reading and hearing (or preparing) a sermon from the same text as sisters and brothers from a variety of Christian traditions in a variety of locations and circumstances enriches our understanding of the communion of the saints and deepens our appreciation for the unfinished nature of the story we find ourselves in.

DLP: Knowing how to bring worship into discipleship, council and congregational meetings, justice concerns, outreach, evangelism and missions is vital. Spiritual disciplines should be introduced to individuals as young Christians. They should be part of our lifelong learning and practice.

PT: In the past the “opening of worship” songs seem to be chosen for the sake of flow and key. I’d love to see discussion on the practical aspects of song selection for worship leaders and pastors. Other topics include themes for newly written songs and increasing the quality of music teams.