To be honest, I can’t remember much about the prayer of confession from last Sunday’s worship service or what songs we sang in worship three weeks ago. By no fault of my pastors, I also can’t recall the specific points of any sermon from last fall. Perhaps some of us could, but I suspect most of us would struggle to do so.
To be fair, I also couldn’t tell you what I had for dinner last Wednesday, what they talked about on NPR two weeks ago, or what I watched on Netflix last month. But I can tell you that food, news, and entertainment are part of my regular rhythms.
In a similar way, I can tell you that my normal worship practices include confession, singing, prayer, Scripture engagement, and offerings. Though not necessarily memorable in specific ways, these practices form my identity as they facilitate my encounters with God among God’s people.
Worship That Forms Us
In this context, several call-and-responses have found their way into my heart through worship. I would even say that the Spirit has used these repeated litanies to form my faith and understanding of who God is; of who I am in relationship to God, the church, and the rest of the world; and of how God calls me to live within the still-unfolding story of God’s restorative mission.
For instance, the opening of worship often contains words like “The Lord be with you,” to which the rest of us respond, “And also with you.” In some seasons of my life, I resisted what I perceived to be a dry formality in that particular call and response. However, the more I encounter grief and conflict, and the more I become aware of how my life is entangled in systemic injustices, the more those words of welcome have become a cleansing and healing grace. This simple refrain speaks to me about God’s presence and this gathered community’s purpose while assuring me that I can be reoriented by God and among God’s people.
Though each particular litany may affect us differently, I’ve noticed three ways that call-and-responses can form us as God’s people: through active participation, by nurturing our roots, and with whole-life theology.
Call-and-responses invite us to transition from being passive recipients to active participants in a dialogue between God and those gathered as God’s people. While we could treat these pre-formed words as an empty gesture, call-and-responses expect us to contribute by adding our particular voices within the unfolding worship narrative.
One of the simple ways I’ve seen this enacted occured around Thanksgiving. With children gathered near the front of the sanctuary, the refrain unfolded through the words of Psalm 136:1:
Those of us in the pews: Give thanks to the Lord.
Those of us standing in front: For he is good.
Those of us in the pews: His love endures forever.
While not novel, this simple, intergenerational recollection of Scripture brought young and old together as coparticipants and contributors in worship. Occasionally, this refrain would be followed by prayers of the people voiced by a leader, a child, or other members of the congregation. We actively practiced thanksgiving together.
Nurturing Our Roots
The call-and-responses that I remember most frequently outside of worship are those that nurture the roots of my faith with the major events of Jesus’ life.
For example, this traditional communion acclamation deepens my trust in God’s salvific work in Jesus Christ, inviting me to remember and believe that:
Leader: Christ has died.
Children: Christ is risen!
Congregation: Christ will come again.
For the past several years, First Hamilton (Ontario) Christian Reformed Church began Advent with a whispered call and response. On the first Sunday, the children would gather in the middle of the sanctuary and whisper: “Jesus is coming.” To which the congregation responded in a whisper: “He’s almost here.”
Each week of Advent, the children would move a little closer to the front of the sanctuary and raise their voices a little louder: “Jesus is coming.” And the congregation would respond, matching their voices with the children’s each time: “He’s almost here.”
On the last Sunday of Advent, the children would stand at the front of the sanctuary and call out loudly to the rest of the congregation: “JESUS IS COMING!” and we responded: “HE’S ALMOST HERE!”
This four-week crescendo has become one of the ways I live into the Advent rhythms of remembering Jesus’ birth and anticipating his second coming. The remarkable effect, however, is that I find myself repeating that refrain in my prayers throughout the year. The cadence situates my present circumstances within the work God has already done in Jesus Christ while beckoning me to trust the reality of Jesus’ still-to-come return.
Finally, some call-and-responses reinforce the biblical worldview that every area of life belongs to God. I’ve found this to be particularly true in confessions and benedictions.
This confession, rooted in Isaiah 55:6–7, assures me of God’s mercy while inviting me to recognize and abandon my own unrighteousness:
Leader: Seek the Lord while he may be found;
People: call upon him while he is near.
Leader: Let the wicked forsake their ways
People: and the unrighteous their thoughts.
Leader: Let them turn to the LORD, and he will have mercy on them,
People: and to our God, for he will freely pardon.
In my current context, marked by partisan politics and the tendency to distrust or even demonize my neighbor, giving voice to this confession reminds me that I, too, am a sinner in need of God’s intervening mercy. In response, I am called to temper my attitudes, words, and actions outside of worship.
Similarly, the closing benediction extends my vision beyond the worship moment to see that the living God sends us out of the sanctuary. This adaptation of the Aaronic blessing (Numbers 6) has helped shape that whole-life vision for me:
Leader: God has gathered us together. And it has been good. God now sends us as beloved children, as sisters and brothers, as the people of God to love others as God has so deeply loved us. God attaches God’s own name to us with this blessing: The Lord bless you and keep you. The Lord smile upon you and be gracious to you. The Lord look you straight in the eyes so you might be filled to overflowing with the peace of God’s presence.
People: We receive this blessing as we go to love and serve others just as God has loved us in Jesus Christ.
Cultivated, Not Manufactured
In reflecting upon the nature of call-and-responses, it’s also important to admit that these litanies will not automatically transform us. Our faith is not manufactured from liturgical ingredients. However, God’s people have spoken grace and peace and rehearsed the stories of God’s redemptive work with wide variety and creativity for millenia now. And the Spirit continues to work through call-and-responses within worship to cultivate our faith by inviting us to become active participants in the life of faith, nurturing us through remembering the central moments of Jesus’ redemptive work, and expanding our vision of God’s kingdom in every area of our lives.