"City-Positive" Worship and 24/7 Discipleship

Q: We recently welcomed a visitor with limited church background who loved our music and was open to our preaching, but said that she felt our church had a negative view of our city. We are scratching our heads about what to make of this.

A: So many different things could be going on, of course. But this comment reminds me of Redeemer Presbyterian Church in New York City and its pastor Tim Keller, who regularly insists on a “city-positive” approach to ministry. He suggests that just as the exiled people of Israel were called to be a blessing to the city of Babylon, so too congregations today are called to know, love, and engage with their context. Worship leaders, preachers, and others at Redeemer are challenged to know New York City well—“its cultural life and icons, its history, its idols, it needs”—and look for ways to ensure that worship is neither “triumphal nor sequestered in counterculture” (Redeemer Presbyterian Church Worship Leader Manual, p. 19). Note that this embrace of a city does not imply a reticence to critique its idols. But it does call us to be actively looking for all the ways that God’s common grace is at work in a city—and then naming and celebrating those in worship.

Q: Our theology insists that Christianity affects every aspect of our life, but I'm not sure our worship really reflects this. How can we make this point more clear?

A: One obvious way is to make sure that this commitment to 24/7 discipleship is stated simply, repeatedly, and memorably in sermons. But that is not the only or even the most significant way of forming a congregation to embrace that vision. One telling place to look for this vision is your congregation’s practice of intercessory prayer. Many congregational prayers focus—and rightly so—on those with physical needs and on church programs. But that also leaves out a lot. What about prayers for help in discerning how to spend money wisely, to be faithful disciples in the workplace, to engage in leisure in life-giving ways, and to make good choices about food? What about prayers not only for missionaries, but also for librarians, politicians, engineers, and nurses?

Just as the exiled people of Israel were called to be a blessing to the city of Babylon, so too congregations today are called to know, love, and engage with their context.

Or, thinking about the previous question, what could you do to make your prayers more “city-positive”? What events, controversies, challenges, or opportunities is your city or town facing right now? How could your congregational prayer life name those concerns in more concrete and constructive ways?

What we ask God for reinforces our sense of what God actually does and can do—and vice versa. That is why it’s important to reflect on our practice of congregational prayer, and to make sure that our imagination is stretching to match the breadth of what is going on in the world.

One value of a strong template—or default outline—for congregational prayer is that it challenges prayer leaders to expand the range of concerns they name.

There are many other aspects of worship that can also strengthen perceptions about discipleship in the world. Think about the images that you project or print in worship, for example.

Rev. Dr. John D. Witvliet is director of the Calvin Institute of Christian Worship and professor of music and worship at Calvin University and Calvin Theological Seminary in Grand Rapids, Michigan. He also teaches in the religion department at Calvin University.

Reformed Worship 104 © June 2012, Calvin Institute of Christian Worship. Used by permission.