Trinity Sunday and the Call to Worship

Q: Why should we observe Trinity Sunday when it isn’t a clear event in Scripture? What is gained from dedicating one Sunday a year to this theme?

A: It is true that Trinity Sunday is unlike Pentecost and Christmas in that it doesn’t focus on a particular historical narrative.

But it’s not true to say that the Trinity is not tied to an event or that it is simply a disembodied or ahistorical idea. The trinitarian nature of God is actually reflected in every celebration of the liturgical year. At Christmas, for example, we remember the Holy Spirit’s work in Jesus’ conception (Luke 1:35). At Easter, we celebrate that God raised Jesus from the dead (Acts 4:10). At Pentecost, we read New Testament texts that assert that the Father and the Son send the Spirit to us (John 14:16; 15:26).

So think of Trinity Sunday as the “coda” on the unfolding drama of the year from Christmas to Pentecost—an opportunity to linger on what the entire history means about the nature of the God we worship.

Trinity Sunday also allows us to sense how this trinitarian dynamic extends to us—even in worship. The Father receives our worship, the Son perfects it, and the Spirit prompts it. The doctrine of the Trinity helps us realize that God is not simply the passive receiver of our worship, but the active agent who makes it possible. That single claim entirely changes how we think about what we are doing when we gather for worship.

Trinity Sunday gives us an occasion to explore one of the richest, most pastorally profound themes in all of Christian theology.

Q: Help us with getting our worship service started. We always have a “call to worship.” But sometimes it really isn’t a call at all: it’s a prayer or a thematic statement or something else. How can we improve this?

A: There are many appropriate ways to get a worship service started. Several ancient liturgies began with an “introit.” That term simply means “beginning point” or “introduction”; it’s roughly equivalent to what some churches today call “the opening sentences” or simply “the opening.” The texts for introits ranged from prayers of praise (“We worship you”) to invitations (“Come, let us worship”) to descriptive texts (“You satisfy our longings”).

Second, in the Reformation period (and beyond), some liturgies began with a votum or vow-like statement, such as “Our help is in the name of the Lord.” That is neither a prayer, nor an invitation, nor a description of God. It is a strong assertion of trust and faith. It signals that what is about to happen is nothing less than the outworking of our covenant relationship with God.

Third, the term “call to worship” (a recent term) refers to a text of invitation such as “Come, let us worship and bow down, let us kneel before the Lord our maker.” Such an invitation reinforces the point that worship is something we are invited into, rather than something we generate on our own. When scriptural words are used, this practice also conveys the idea that God fittingly has the first word in worship. In worship, as in life, God loves and addresses us even before we address and love God.

Fourth, a “greeting” (or, to use the older term, “salutation”) is a benediction-like moment when we hear a pastor say words of greeting, usually drawn from Scripture, such as “grace to you and peace from God our Father and the Lord Jesus Christ” (Phil. 1:2). This also clearly conveys that God speaks the first word in worship. And it conveys the idea that God comes to us not only with a command, but also with a grace-filled greeting.

How do we sort through all of the options?

First, let’s be clear about our terms. Using the term “call to worship” and then having a worship leader say something that doesn’t include an invitation seems like a contradiction. It also doesn’t make sense to have a call to worship that is a prayer (which is exactly what I discovered in a church I visited recently). That only contributes to a sense of ambiguity about what is going on.

Second, we need to think through the most important pastoral needs of the congregation. For many contexts, the greatest need today is sensing that worship is about nothing less than our engagement with God, and that this God comes to us with both a grace-filled greeting and an invitation. Thus I would heartily recommend beginning worship with a “Greeting and Call to Worship,” and then choosing texts that match.

More to come on calls to worship in RW 84.   

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.