On Flags in the Sanctuary, Liturgical Powerpoint, and Paschal

Q. Since September 11, the United States flag has reappeared in our church sanctuary. But some people are offended and want to remove it. What is the issue here?
—Illinois

A. This topic presents a difficult balancing act. On the one hand, we want to express gratitude for the opportunity to live and worship in freedom and for those who have given their lives for this cause. On the other hand, we want to avoid a civil religion that limits our view of God’s actions in the world to just North America. Some will interpret removal of the flag as a protest against civil religion, while others view it as a sign of ingratitude for the privilege of living in a free country.

My own view is that we are still quite tempted toward civil religion, and thus that it is best to not display our national flag in a worship space, provided that the congregation is receiving biblical instruction about our relationship to government (see Rom. 13), along with opportunities for prayers of gratitude and intercession for our nation and the world.

That said, including the flags of many nations—especially when they are displayed without distracting from pulpit, font, and table—is a practice that conveys the worldwide scope of God’s work in the world.

Q. Our church is considering purchasing a high-tech visual presentation software package. On our worship committee, two people think this is great and two people hate it. How can we move beyond our differences in taste?
—Tennessee

A. You’re starting with the right question. Evaluating any technological innovation requires going deeper than taste. Each technological innovation—whether it be incandescent lighting, the pipe organ, the microphone, or Powerpoint presentations—has the potential to both enable and inhibit the primary actions of worship, such as the proclamation of God’s Word, honest corporate prayer, and celebrations of baptism and the Lord’s Supper.

Keeping this in mind helps us sort out good and not-so-good uses of presentation technology. Some presentations overwhelm the sermon or prayers and only function to impress worshipers with a dazzling display of visual creativity. Others provide a fitting visual counterpoint to support the primary actions of worship.

A lot also depends on the nature of the congregation. In some cultures, worshipers may be better able to worship with the aid of visual presentations; in others, the opposite will be true. There is no one right answer here for all times and places.

Sorting out which is which is the task for all pastors, elders, and others in positions of spiritual leadership. Here we need discerning people who are willing to both promote and limit the use of this technology. Imagine a church that simultaneously adds Powerpoint and a Taizé prayer service, for example, or a church that adds visual presentations for part of the service, but not the whole.

Finally, as with other dimensions of worship, it is important to build capacity to do visual presentations well. Many churches have lamented that they didn’t take time to train their presentation experts about the meaning and purpose of worship and to develop good communication patterns between these leaders and the pastor and musicians.

Q. I’ve been reading about Easter and have run into the term paschal. What does that mean?
—Texas

A. This adjective refers to the Passover: “For our paschal lamb, Christ, has been sacrificed. Therefore, let us celebrate the festival” (1 Cor. 5:7-8). When we try to explain the significance of Christ’s death and resurrection, the Jewish Passover is a good place to start. Just as the Passover blood protected the people from death, so too Christ’s death and resurrection is the power of life for us. In some theological traditions, the term paschal mystery is used as a summary statement for the whole Christian gospel.

It’s significant that you’ve run into the term paschal in conjunction with Easter. Sometimes we needlessly separate the meaning of Good Friday and Easter, implying that Good Friday is about salvation and that Easter is about victory and power. Rather, Good Friday and Easter together achieve salvation and teach us about ultimate victory and power.

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Any questions?

We hope you find Q&A stimulating. We also hope that you’ll join in the dialogue. Send your questions about worship to Reformed Worship Q&A by mail (2850 Kalamazoo Ave. SE Grand Rapids, MI 49560), fax (616-224-0803), or e-mail (info@reformedworship.org). You can also e-mail John directly (jwitvlie@calvin.edu).

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