A few years ago I was planning to visit a church and was told that that particular Sunday the congregation would focus on its graduates. I almost didn’t attend, as I wanted to participate in a “real” worship service, but I’m glad I did because it was one of the most beautiful, deeply moving, covenantal services I’ve ever attended. The focus on the graduates made sense in this primarily first-generation Latino immigrant congregation, and it was true trinitarian worship—though it looked and sounded very different from my own church.
It got me thinking, though: What is the role of “special” Sundays, or worship services that focus on topics not on the Christian calendar? To help us think through this I asked six Reformed Worship readers to answer a few questions. Truth be told, I asked these particular people because I assumed they would have different answers. In the end, as long as the gospel is central and worship is directed at the triune God, I don’t think there are absolute, right-or-wrong answers. Rather, there is wisdom we can glean to help our congregations form their own guidelines for what is or is not included in corporate worship. —JB
1. Should our worship follow the Christian calendar?
It is important that our weekly worship services follow the Christian year because this calendar represents the cosmic initiatives of God, past, present, and future. By following it, we have the opportunity to mark our lives and the ministries of the church around “kingdom time”—focusing on God’s purposes that transcend our minute-by-minute preoccupation with our own agendas. When we follow the Christian year, we proclaim and celebrate God’s story, which is centered in the life, death, resurrection, ascension, and return of Jesus Christ. I don’t think it is urgent to observe every single day or occasion in the full Christian year. But it is important to give the complete storyline in the course of the year. The question is whether worship tells God’s story. It must, for as Christian believers we are shaped deeply by that story. Observing the Christian year gives us the best opportunity to reorient our story into God’s story.
For a variety of reasons, most evangelical churches in Latin America do not observe the Christian year except for Christmas (and Epiphany, in many cases) and Semana Santa (Holy Week). This was my experience before moving to the United States, where I started worshiping in congregations that did observe the Christian calendar. This journey gave me the opportunity to rediscover this rich tradition and to appreciate how living in Christ’s story throughout the year greatly contributes to spiritual formation.
Thinking particularly of those congregations that have never followed the Christian year, I would encourage them to try it at least once. I am sure not only that they would have a meaningful and deepening experience, but that some of them would decide to continue this practice over time.
YES! Central to the fulfillment of our commission to make disciples of Jesus Christ is remembering and teaching the whole story of Jesus over and over again. This is liturgical catechesis. There is no better way for the worshiping church to accomplish this than by following the Christian year—not only celebrating Christmas and Easter but preparing our hearts and minds through the disciplines of Advent and Lent; not only remembering Jesus’ birth and death, but completing the story of his ascension and the coming of the Holy Spirit as well as remembering other significant events during his earthly ministry. Observing the seasons and special days in our corporate worship reinforces the story of Jesus among the gathered community and also provides psychological and social structures for keeping God’s story central to our individual stories.
I do not think our worship HAS to follow the Christian year, though any Christian congregation would be remiss not to celebrate Christmas, Easter, and, I would add, the ascension and Pentecost. These are all important events for the church to remember, live into, and indeed live out of. Our identity as God’s people is rooted in these events, and they shape us in countercultural ways.
The Old Testament year followed prescribed observances and feast days instituted by God, but the New Testament does not contain directions for a specific Christian calendar. I understand that John Calvin did not observe any such thing and instead preached through a book of the Bible sequentially. My custom has been to shape a four-week Advent series before Christmas, and I prefer only a four-week Lenten series rather than a six-week series before Easter. I have found resistance to this in more liturgically inclined communities that felt we had to follow the full calendar.
Yes, but we should not enslave ourselves to it. Historically, the rhythms of Lent, Easter, and Pentecost have been the most important, with Advent, Christmas, and Epiphany coming in second. Organizing our time around the big events in the life, death, and resurrection of Christ helps us deepen our participation in that reality—that’s why we do it. It also helps us synchronize our time with Christians worldwide and express our unity in a macrocosmic way.
Yes, but occasionally a church could go through the Christian year with connections to church history.
2. Should our congregational worship include “special Sundays” or commemorations of historical events?
We are faced with many options for the commemoration of civil events or particular religious occasions. These events represent examples of how God is at work, but they are not the story itself. In observing many special Sundays, it is possible to overshadow the primary movements of the story, and even to inadvertently pull the attention away from Christ as the central character of the story. I would say that certain appropriate, context-specific special Sundays may be observed, but caution is needed to ensure they are seen as subplots to the primary story.
I believe in the observance of special days when they are conducive to faith formation and relevant for the shaping of the community’s beliefs, values, and practices.
As to which commemorative or special Sundays should be included, it is not an easy decision. I prefer commemorations or celebrations that strengthen the unity of the local congregation with the broader church over strictly local events. In this sense, the calendar of special Sundays suggested by each church or denomination is a good resource. Having said this, I understand that there are some occasions when the special Sunday’s emphasis is strictly local but worth commemorating, such as a church anniversary. From this perspective, the local context should not be the main criteria in shaping the calendar, but it is indispensable in the design of worship services relevant to the community.
This comes down to balance and focus. When we gather for worship (perhaps 1/24 of 1/7 of each week), followers of Jesus are called together to worship the triune God instead of Scouting, or motherhood, or national events, or NASCAR. I’m part of a denomination that can go way overboard on “special emphasis” Sundays. Any special emphasis, sacred or secular, might be important to some people in the congregation but can be meaningless or even hurtful to others. In the congregation I’m serving, we don’t name any Sundays. We also try to avoid cute or sentimental distractions. We don’t have Boy Scouts ushering in full (or worse, partial) uniforms on Scout Sunday; we don’t hand out corsages to mothers or fathers on their Hallmark-designated special day; we don’t “kirk the tartans” or process the flag with an honor guard on a national holiday; and we don’t celebrate the local team winning the state ping-pong championship with a demonstration of their talent during the offering. These things don’t point us to Christ. We are careful, however, to design the prayers of the people each week around things that are of importance to our congregants, our community, our nation, or our world, lifting these things to God with appropriate thanksgiving or intercession. This way we can keep our focus on the living God. We also honor the many and varied things God places on the hearts and in the lives of the people gathered.
am strongly resistant to having “Hallmark holidays” or civic holidays prescribe our worship focus. For one thing, these days (Father’s Day, Mother’s Day, Valentine’s Day, etc.) do not arise out of Scripture, and they are fraught with anxiety and pain for many people. Civic holidays, similarly, are not Christian events, and they too can easily stray into celebrating nationalistic pride rather than God’s story. Another danger is that of “Hallmark holiday creep”—if something has been observed once, it has to be done again because “we’ve always done it,” and then more days get added and the marking of them becomes more and more elaborate. I would definitely note these themes in a congregational prayer, though, including marking the pain, need, and sin that can be associated with any of these events.
Having said that, as a female pastor I have found Mother’s Day, for example, to be a good reason to consider women of faith who are otherwise overlooked in our preaching cycles. But I would deliberately refer to “women of faith” and not Mother’s Day. I would also shape a service thematically to mark Reformation Sunday because it’s an important historical and theological event. Other days may lend themselves well to preaching on a certain topic such as racism (Martin Luther King Day) or work (Labor Day); however, these should not be prescribed, but engaged in by choice and always with a great deal of integrity toward any text.
I have generally supported any specific Sundays that our denomination institutes, partly because I want to encourage those ministries and their offerings, but also because I find them to be good ways to expand my preaching repertoire. It is too easy otherwise to ignore topics of world hunger, AIDS, injustice, and abuse. Services that incorporate girls’ and boys’ clubs allow for some greater worship freedom and creativity, encourage the intergenerational aspect of worship, and may also include a focus on outreach to parents of participants. I have appreciated the worship materials that a denominational agency prepares for these Sundays as well.
I think special Sundays and other commemorations are fair game as an expression of the gospel’s local relevance. But they should deepen our sense of participation in, and the particularity of, God’s story on our behalf. If they instead turn us inward, insular, or otherwise away from our essential unity with other Christians worldwide or our shared humanity, then they should be excised. I think national holidays are generally the hardest to experience as faithful Christians—we might still celebrate them, but our celebrations should be tempered by lament on behalf of our countries for our complicity in acts and systems of injustice that our countries perpetuate. We should also guard especially against exceptionalism at the congregational, local, regional, or national levels. In all cases, the local pastors, leaders, and congregations have to do the work of negotiating with their contexts—worship on July 4 on a naval base will probably look very different from worship in a church that neighbors an immigration detention center.
Special days for worship are always the subject of ongoing conversation within churches, even for national holidays. African American churches celebrate MLK Day while other churches uplift the Fourth of July. One must consider that most black and white churches live in different church worlds and cherish different histories. Worship could launch a dialogue if churches use national holidays as opportunities for exploration and for unity in the body of Christ. Church context is crucial, and as our communities become more diverse it will be crucial for predominantly white churches to make room for other histories.
A Summary of the Nairobi Statement on Worship and Culture
- Worship is transcultural: Worship has certain dynamics that are present on every continent.
- Worship is contextual: Worship reflects local patterns of speech, dress, and other cultural characteristics.
- Worship is countercultural: Worship resists the idolatries of a given culture.
- Worship is cross-cultural: Worship reflects the fact that the body of Christ transcends time and space.
3. Is it possible to both follow a Christian year structure and allow for these special services?
Here is where a strong pastoral sense is needed. According to one’s context, it may be feasible or even advisable to enfold a particular holiday or remembrance into a worship service as long as the day ultimately points back to God’s saving work given to all of God’s people. The event must ultimately be about the presence and work of the triune God in time.
I think so, but when the congregation follows the Christian year, I believe a special Sunday or commemoration should not take precedence over the Christian calendar. The worship team should creatively plan a service that integrates both emphases, subordinating the “special day” to the broader salvation story.
Possible? Yes. Advisable? No. Non-Western cultures have it right: worship is worship. Then they separately gather the community to celebrate all kinds of other important things such as birthdays, anniversaries, graduations, engagements, and job promotions, often over a shared meal. The fact that many Western congregations can’t find the time for this important type of community gathering tempts us to weave these things into the fabric of worship, when we have a “captive” “audience.” (Those two words alone should give us terror chills when used in any contexts involving worship!) This creates an unhealthy syncretism.
Yes—with a circumscribed Christian year structure and any special services that are appropriate.
Of course! The golden thread here is the ways in which those calendars reveal and remember God’s story and invite us to respond to it anew—simple to say, complex to carry out.
I do believe that both following the Christian year and allowing for special services can coexist. It would take careful planning and courageous leadership to integrate the themes. These kinds of services should only be done maybe twice a year to make sure it doesn’t become overdone.
4. What criteria might we use to make such decisions?
Criteria for determining the acceptance of special Sundays within a given local church include the “sub-storyline” of the community. Is the event a part of the people’s family story that significantly forms them? If so, helping them locate their story within God’s story can be beneficial.
A main question to ask is which of these special Sundays might contribute to the spiritual formation of the congregation and its Christian witness.
- Everything must have liturgical integrity. Is the focus being considered actually a Christian celebration or topic?
- There must be textual integrity. One must preach the text and not a topic, so the topic has to arise out of the text in legitimate ways.
- Be careful not to prescribe what is not actually mandated in Scripture.
- Exercise Christian freedom as warranted.
- Avoid wholesale adoption of “Hallmark holidays.”
- Be open to challenging yourself with a (difficult) preaching/service topic that a denomination or community context requests. It is not likely to be a topic you have covered in the previous eleven months.
The Nairobi Statement on Worship and Culture (see sidebar p. 35) is, in this and so many other situations, the guiding light! The Nairobi Statement gives us a framework for strengthening our Christian-year celebrations when they’ve become a bit muddied by extraliturgical baggage (I’m thinking of the oversentimentalism at Christmas). Just because you’re following the church year’s form or pattern doesn’t mean you’re mining its riches!
One approach would be to ask questions to guide the process of combining Scripture themes with the commemorative or other special Sunday theme. Questions could include: (a) Would combined themes in this service enhance worship or distract from it? In other words, would the combined themes compete, or would they complement each other for the glory of God and edification of the congregation? (b) Do we have the capacity and competency to pull it off? If the answer to those two questions is “yes,” then proceed—but do devise an evaluative process to elicit congregational feedback. Any change must be done incrementally.