I recently heard a story about a woman in a shopping mall who accidentally dropped a large bag of items that scattered all over a busy aisle where lots of people were coming and going. As she quickly knelt down, trying to pick up everything, another woman also bent down and helped until every item was retrieved. The first woman, searching for a word of gratitude, blurted out, “The Lord be with you.” Instantly the other woman responded, “And also with you.” They laughed with joy and embraced.
Those ancient words of greeting had become deeply embedded in the lives of both these women. Perhaps they recited them weekly, as countless Christians have and still do every time they gather for worship. In these days of so much change, some ancient patterns are worth keeping, no matter what the denomination, no matter what the age or makeup of the congregation.
The Search for Something New in the Context of Something Old
In this issue of Reformed Worship, as in many of our issues, we offer ways to worship that, if followed, would involve change in your congregation. Worship leaders are often searching for something fresh, something new. Introducing something new could be as simple as designing a dramatic service for Ascension Sunday (p. 20), including youth in worship planning more than you often do (pp. 3 and 7), or planning a set of services with a renewed emphasis on the Triune God in our worship (pp. 18 -19). Perhaps you will be challenged to think about adding another service in a different style (see p. 22)
No matter what the level of change, some things always stay the same. We still are called as individuals to enter into God’s presence, but we are also called into community—both in our local congregation and far beyond. Whenever Christians gather for worship, they need to be aware of the larger body, at least in their prayers. If they focus only on themselves and their own congregation, they are missing out on the big picture of what God is doing in the world.
I would go even further. Some worshiping communities reflect a small niche of society. Whether that niche is defined in terms of a particular tradition, ethnic identity, age, musical preference, or anything else, every worshiping community needs, on occasion, to do two things.
Sink deep roots in the holy catholic church
First, our worship needs to be rooted in the one holy catholic church in such deep ways that if anyone from another congregation—from a different niche, if you will—worships with us, they will know they are in a Christian community that includes them. After all, worship services are public events, not private club meetings. As newcomers to a particular congregation, we may be unfamiliar with many parts of the service, but the basics should be the same: we gather in God’s presence, God’s Word is proclaimed to all—member, seeker, and visitor alike—and we are all called to respond.
Worship with others beyond your community
Second, to the extent that your congregation covers a narrow niche, learn to experience the blessing of scheduling worship services where your whole congregation worships with others who are not like you. The experience of worshiping with the larger body in a new way is invigorating and helps us all to remember the basics. It also helps us look anew at our own congregation—at those we thought we were including but perhaps have marginalized.
My office is down the hall from the office of Friendship Ministries, a program for adults and children who are developmentally disabled. Nella Uitvlugt, director of Friendship, speaks of the need for some things in worship to stay the same so that developmentally disabled members can also participate. Repetition helps. For example, reciting the Lord’s Prayer and the Apostles’ or Nicene Creed on a regular basis gives people a point of connection. So do responses like “The Lord be with you”/”And also with you”, and “Lift up your hearts”/”We lift them up to the Lord.” And so do sung responses that are repeated from week to week.
Friendship students are not the only ones who benefit from this kind of repetition. All of us do. When these responses become a deep part of our faith language, they help to shape us and to connect us to the larger body of believers.
Repetition can become dull and boring. In my own congregation, we haven’t sung the Doxology regularly for years, preferring new parting songs of praise each week that connect with the Scripture and theme of the day. But perhaps it is time to dust off the Doxology again, and at least sing it for a season—perhaps even in a contemporary musical arrangement during our new weekly evening youth services. After all, many old things can and will be made new.