When the Israelites were still wandering in the wilderness, before they had land, let alone crops and harvests, God instructed them how and when to give thanks for the harvests that were to come:
Three times in the year you shall hold a festival for me. You shall observe the festival of unleavened bread; . . . the festival of harvest, . . . the festival of ingathering . . . (Ex. 23:14-16).
What hope that must have provided for a people who longed for more than manna! And so the Jewish people eventually went to Jerusalem three times a year, bringing their offerings and singing their songs as they went (including Ps. 120-134, the Songs of Ascent). Undoubtedly they took their instruments along as well for a joyful time of singing and dancing, feasting and celebrating.
Meetings of WARC
This past summer I had a taste of that kind of festival joy in the West African coastal city of Accra, Ghana, site of the 24th General Council of the World Alliance of Reformed Churches (WARC; www.warc.org). About 800 delegates, observers, and registered visitors from around the world gathered to worship, study, and learn from and with each other. WARC is a fellowship of 215 member denominations in the Reformed tradition representing some 75 million Christians in 107 countries, most in the southern hemisphere. This gathering was much more diverse than the twelve tribes gathering in Jerusalem, but here too, there was much singing and dancing, feasting and celebrating what God has been doing in Reformed churches worldwide.
“That All Might Have Fullness” (John 10:10) was the theme of the two-week conference, which began each day with worship, Bible study, and then meetings that concentrated in three areas selected as particularly important in our time and requiring fresh study with a global focus: missions, spirituality and worship, and covenanting for justice in the economy and the earth. Discussions were often passionate and challenging, especially with delegates from places like the Sudan, Cuba, Romania, and Indonesia.
Two denominations served as hosts. The Presbyterian Church of Ghana (PCG) was established in 1828 by Swiss missionaries from Basel, and now has 2,138 local congregations with a membership of well over a million. The Evangelical Presbyterian Church (EPC) started just eight years later (1836) with missionaries from North Germany. Between them they have hundreds of schools and training centers, and many bookshops, hospitals, health clinics, and agricultural stations throughout the country. In an amazing act of hospitality, these two denominations decided to provide meals for the two weeks for everyone without charge.
Worshiping together on the two Sundays was joyful and memorable. The first Sunday we gathered in a huge festival service; the second weekend the PCG and EPC arranged for small group weekend congregational visits in many towns and villages that provided more meals and cultural presentations, with opportunities during worship services to bring greetings from our home churches and bring greetings back from them.
Worshiping with Thousands
That first Sunday morning, I read Psalm 122, “I was glad when they said to me, let us go up to the house of the Lord.” Worship was indeed a very glad affair. It started with more than twenty buses with a police escort taking us through this large city. Sirens screeching, the motorcycles stopped traffic at every intersection, making sure we all arrived safely together. Our buses joined dozens more from local congregations.
The service was held at Independence Square (Ghana became independent in 1957) by the sea, a huge area over three football fields big. Half was reserved for parking, the other half for the thousands of people who were seated in groups of hundreds under the shade of canopies. In between was a long row of canopies for the many choirs, bands, worship leaders, and honored guests. I was puzzled at first by a large empty space of at least fifty feet between that row of canopies and all the people.
During the gathering of all these thousands, bands played—both British style brass bands and Ghana drum ensembles.
The processional hymn was “O God, Our Help in Ages Past.” A number of choirs processed, moving through the large areas between the platforms and the people. That Isaac Watts hymn from Psalm 90, sung by thousands, was so powerful I almost lost it right there. Then came a quieter introit by the choirs: “The Lord Is in His Holy Temple”—a tradition in the Presbyterian churches in Ghana dating back to missionary days.
After a spoken call to worship and another hymn came “Praises,” led by some of the church bands. I understood what that large empty space was for as the singing erupted into dancing. The whole crowd came forward more or less by sections into the large open area between the platform and the seating and started dancing. Old and young came forward from all over the world, inspired by the infectious joy. At first I just watched, fascinated especially by very elderly men and women, some with canes, who were moving with joy and grace. I was sitting next to a Korean pastor who had not danced before; we looked at each other, grinned, and joined in. Later I learned that the churches introduced drumming and dancing in the 1980s as part of a move to become truly African in their worship and to sustain and retain the youth in the church.
The worship leader invited the people to say the Lord’s Prayer and the Apostles’ Creed in their own language. Standing to pray and profess those two foundational statements of our faith individually and communally, with thousands, in different languages, was very powerful.
The offering presented another opportunity for choral singing and for worshipers to come forward and drop their offerings in large woven baskets placed in front of each section. I wonder how many North American congregations would consider dancing as they came forward to joyfully offer their gifts!
The closing hymn was “The Church’s One Foundation.” Never before had I sung that hymn with so many people from so many nationalities in so many languages. What a blessing not only to profess “one holy catholic church,” but to experience the unity we have in Christ with our brothers and sisters!
Worship in Local Congregations
The following Sunday I was assigned to two PCG congregations about a six-hour drive from Accra. I attended an 8 a.m. English service in the city of Sunjani and a 10 a.m. service in the local language in the small village of Chiraa. In both—and this was the experience of others as well—I was ushered to the front to sit next to the pastor and was asked to give greetings from my home congregation and to bring greetings back from them. A couple of impressions:
- The order of worship in both places was similar; there appears to be great respect for the classic Christian and Reformed pattern of worship.
- Both services used the same Scriptures; a few years ago the PCG decided to follow the Revised Common Lectionary in order to help unify the churches. The sermons were biblical and pastoral.
- Both services included African music and dance, again near the beginning of the service and for the offering.
- Choirs were important and excellent; congregational singing was vibrant.
- Some hymns, brought by the missionaries years ago, were familiar so I could sing along, which delighted all of us.
- Each congregation expressed eagerness to greet our local home congregations, to enter into fellowship with them with greetings, gifts, and prayers.
Whetting Our Appetites
I left Ghana wishing everyone would have the opportunity to be blessed by worshiping with brothers and sisters from so many places. This was indeed a foretaste of heaven, when the nations will all bring their splendor into the new Jerusalem (Rev. 21:24). How can local congregations begin to taste the goodness of worship with the larger body of Christ in their own communities?
One possibility might be to consider partnerships with other congregations in different countries. Congregations already support missionaries in different countries; likely your congregation also has international connections through business or education or family members. One Christian day school in Grandville, Michigan, has started a partnership with a school in Kenya; the blessings of that partnership have been amazing: children write to each other, teachers have visited each other’s schools, and both build each other up in faith. The economics are more likely to make it possible for North Americans to begin the travel. But we may receive the greater gift: learning of joy in Christ that is not dependent on material possessions. And that may be just what we need most.