Each spring at Western Theological Seminary we hold an end-of-year awards convocation, as do many educational institutions. It’s a special ceremony to celebrate God’s gifts to the whole community and to honor students who have made particularly good use of those gifts. Awards are granted for excellence in biblical studies, church history, ethics, missiology, preaching, pastoral care, systematic theology, and so on.
Such a service has a natural tension: are we primarily giving glory to God, or are we praising people and their accomplishments? Is there a way to do both while keeping first things first? These theological problems manifest themselves in questions of embodied liturgical practice.
First, where will honorees stand? In other words, how can we shape our space to emphasize our common giftedness rather than separating and elevating only certain members of the community?
Second, what do we do with a typical expression of praise: congregational clapping? For whom and to what end are we cheering? How does applause subvert or contribute to an atmosphere that is both serious and ceremonial and at the same time exuberant and celebrative?
In thinking through these questions, we hit upon some solutions (or partial solutions) that may help congregations likewise wrestling with how to manage applause that gives honor to individuals for one reason or another.
One way we dealt with the tension of attributing glory to God for human accomplishments was by centering the entire service on the baptismal font. Rather than meeting in our usual chapel space, with its fixed pews and strong horizontal axis focusing attention on the pulpit (a configuration designed for attentive listening), we met in our airy and reverberant atrium, a community space commonly used for fellowship and coffee throughout the day.
A large bowl was placed on a decorated table in the center of this space. The congregation sat in a circle around the table, with aisles leading toward the center. At the appropriate point in the service, as the names of award-winning students were called, they came from their seats among their peers to the baptismal font, dipping their hands in the water on their way forward to receive their award.
Doing this reminded us that we are gathered together as God’s chosen and baptized people. We approach God with the humility of forgiven sinners washed clean by grace. Furthermore, it is the Holy Spirit who, at our baptisms and throughout our lives, gives us the resources we need for our ministries in the world. Seminarians prepare for ministries of preaching and pastoral care, teaching, service, and more. But all of these endeavors are a limited subset of the single ministry of Christ given to the whole church, enabled by the Holy Spirit’s ongoing power and presence.
Whenever we engage in a cultural activity that we also do outside of worship, we inevitably carry into worship the memories, meanings, associations, and social dynamics of that other context. This makes applause a problematic activity in worship, because in most corners of North American culture, applause closely follows a presentation or performance directed at an audience. The audience responds gratefully with this hand-slapping expression of praise—but it’s praise directed at people. In the context of worship, we want to bathe any honoring in a profound thanksgiving to God.
So at our honors convocation, where applause seemed a natural and spontaneous congregational response—for example, when the award-winners’ names were called out—we didn’t squelch it. Instead we encouraged it. But we had musicians accompany the applause with a particular percussive motif—one borrowed from the South African song “Amen siyakudu misa / Amen, We Praise Your Name, O God” (SNC 287). This distinctive syncopated rhythm was played on djembe, cajon, and on colorful and tuned percussive tubes called “boomwhackers.”
Earlier in the service (at two places, actually) the congregation heard and sang this short song of praise to God using those instruments and that rhythm. Thus, when folks heard it again whenever they had an impulse to clap, the applause had both a rhythmic and a theological overlay of jubilant praise to the One who is the source of all good gifts and our joy in them.
Check out a video of a portion of this service at http://tinyurl.com/WTSservice.
The video is part of a Worship Renewal Initiative undertaken this past year by the Reformed Church in America (www.rca.org/worship). Congregations across the RCA are being asked to tape moments of transcendence in worship—moments where, by the power of the Spirit, God’s presence is evident, and where there is deep congruence between what our liturgical actions communicate and what we say we believe.
If you are interested in participating in this grassroots renewal project and would like to submit a tape of a “transcendent moment” from your own congregation’s worship, please contact Ron Rienstra.
Order of Worship
Gathering Around the Font
Prelude/Processional: “Down to the River to Pray”
Call to Worship (from Eph. 4)
God’s Greeting/Passing of the Peace
Opening Hymn of Praise: “Holy God, We Praise Your Name” CH 2, PH 460, PsH 504, TH 103, WR 138 / “Amen siyakudu misa / Amen, We Praise Your Name, O God” SNC 287
Statement of Purpose
Prayer of Thanksgiving over the Water
Receiving the Word
Prayer for Illumination
Scripture Reading: Ezekiel 2.8-3.11; Revelation 10:1-11
Song of Response: “Speak, O Lord” CSW 17
Celebrating God’s Gifts
Granting of Awards
Sung response: “Amen siyakudu misa / Amen, We Praise Your Name,
O God” SNC 287
Remembering Our Baptism
Prayers of the People
Song of Remembrance: “Song Over the Waters”
Renewal of Baptismal Commitment
Sung response: “Oh, I Know the Lord’s Laid His Hands on Me”
Blessing and Sending
Charge and Blessing
Postlude: “Step by Step” SNC 17, SWM 12, WR 494
“Amen siyakudu misa / Amen, We Praise Your Name, O God” SNC 287