More than Preaching: An interview with Calvin Bolt

A few years ago Rev. Calvin Bolt underwent what he smilingly calls a "liturgical conversion." Since then, Bolt has taken a new approach to the planning and practice of the worship service, an approach he finds stimulating and beneficial for himself and his congregation.

A Christian Reformed church pastor for twenty–eight years, Bolt is currently serving Twelfth Avenue CRC of Jenison, Michigan. Though he is on the editorial council of REFORMED WORSHIP (RW), he is adamant about not being a "liturgical expert." He insists he is an "ordinary preacher" who has merely changed his liturgical stripes.

To inform and encourage pastors who may be contemplating liturgical change, RW associate editor Harry Boonstra and Education Department editor Bob Rozema recently interviewed Bolt.

Q. Before your "conversion," how did you approach the liturgy?

A. During the first fifteen years of my ministry I looked on the worship service only as the preaching of the Word. I loved to quote Calvin’s phrase, "You’re going to go to a sermon." I worked only on the sermon; the rest of the service went on pretty much the same, Sunday after Sunday.

I remember one time someone in Zeeland (Michigan) asked me about liturgy, and I told him I had no feeling for liturgy. The important thing to me was the sermon. The order of worship was printed on the back of the bulletin and we just followed it, over and over again. I can’t remember ever changing even the doxology.

Q. Was that approach fostered in your seminary training?

A. I think it was. We had very little training as far as liturgy was concerned. We went through the standards of Reformed worship, and most worship services in the CRC were pretty much the same back then. No one ever expected us to do anything differently.

Q. When did your attitude toward liturgy begin to change?

A. About ten years ago at Faith CRC in Holland, Michigan. I give the credit for my change to Martha Tibbe, the organist and choir director—and a very wise and sensitive person. One time when she came into my office, I said to her, "What do you want to do?" And she looked at me and said, "It isn’t what I want, it’s what we want."

And then we began to plan our first service together, talking about how the music and the Word must be brought together for a total worship experience. To accomplish this, Martha challenged me to make a preaching schedule, and ever since I’ve been planning my sermons three to six months in advance. This is absolutely necessary if you expect to integrate the sermon with the rest of the service. I’ve found that following the Lord’s Days in the Heidelberg Catechism or preaching a series on a book of the Bible or on a topic helps me plan this far in advance.

After I made my preaching schedule, Martha brought in the music to complement the sermons. We worked hard on this. From there we went on to work out themes in the worship service.

Q. What do you mean by "themes?"

A. Let me give an example. At Twelfth Avenue we began the Lenten season by focusing on the results of Christ’s suffering and death in the life of the believer. The first result is joy, and so we worked one whole service around the theme of joy. The in–troit emphasized joy, and we followed that—and the Apostles’ Creed—with songs of joy. Immediately after the sermon the choir sang an anthem of joy. After the benediction the choir sang again, this time about carrying joy and happiness into the world.

You know, once a congregation gets used to this sort of thing, they expect it. So if one Sunday you don’t have a unified service, it’s like wearing a new suit with an old tie. People notice.

Worship has to be a total experience for the believer. Without such unity the service becomes a patchwork business.

Q. Besides themes for worship services, that other changes have you made?

A. We use congregational responses or litanies to move the poeple from one part of the service to another. Occasionally, like when we do the lessons and carol at the beginning of Advent, we’ll use readers from the congregation.

Q. Does anyone besides you ever lead in prayer?

A. No. I haven’t found anyone willing to do this. A committee once proposed to the consistory that the elders should lead in prayer every other Sunday, but the people resisted that idea.

Q. In some congregations an elder stands at his seat and offers the prayer for illumination, asking the Holy Spirit to guide the pastor and the congregation. What do you think of that practice?

A. That’s good. I’ve often thought, too, that when a visiting pastor comes, an elder who knows the needs of the congregation ought to lead the congregational prayer.

Q. If you have guests presenting music, are you able to integrate their music into the worship service?

A. Sometimes. The music committee has my preaching schedule and they inform guests of my sermon topic and text. Sometimes, of course, you’re at the mercy of the visitors, if you know what I mean.

Q. How do you involve children in the liturgy?

A. In the morning I always have a children’s message. Often it serves as an introduction to the regular sermon. But sometimes I speak to children before the congregational prayer, either teaching them about prayer or explaining some of the things we’re going to pray about. I do this with other parts of the service as well.

Q. Does anyone from the congregation ever volunteer to give a children’s mesage?

A. No, but I think it’s a good idea.

Q. How about songs for children?

A. After baptisms we often sing "Jesus Loves Me," which is precisely what baptism is saying to the children. On other occasions I depend quite a bit on the organist to help me come up with children’s songs. We sometimes sing a children’s song after the children’s message. It’s so important that children be incorporated into the total worship experience.

Q. Who, besides yourself, works on planning such "total worship experiences" at Twelfth Avenue?

A. The choir director, Les Knot, and another person, Barb Vre–devoogd, who’s very gifted in writing worship services. The choir director chooses the music (by the way, having a choir director or organist who’s sensitive to good music is very important). Barb often writes a first draft of the liturgy; then Les and I review it and send it back to Barb for the final version.

We don’t have a formal worship committee (though generally this is a good idea), so we three work on and develop worship services together. We also evaluate the worship.

Q. Is the sermon still the big thing for you in worship?

A. Yes. In the Reformed perspective the music, the choir, and everything else enhances the preaching of the Word. The believer is brought into fellowship with God through it all, but I think the Word must be central.

Q. Devoting more attention to liturgy doesn’t devalue the sermon?

A. No. It enhances the sermon. And the sermon enhances the rest of the service. The preaching of the Word becomes much more exciting, much more a living experience for the believer as the total liturgy is brought together.

Notice that the planning also begins with the Word. The choir director does not dictate to me what I’m going to preach. I make the preaching schedule, and others work from there.

Q. In this preaching schedule, are you guided by the church year?

A. Pretty much so. We plan special services for the special days of the church year, such as the beginning of Lent, Easter Sunday, Pentecost Sunday, Reformation Day Sunday, and Advent. During the four weeks of Advent we sometimes use banners and a completely different liturgy. Usually on a Sunday evening before Christmas we do a carol sing. We’ve also done an Easter hymn sing around the benefits of the resurrection as described in the catechism.

Q. How do you alert the congregation to what you’re doing in a given service?

A. The theme is always announced in the bulletin. If a service requires a special liturgy, that liturgy is placed in the pew, not in the bulletin.

Q. You don’t have to do a lot of explaining throughout the worship service. . . .

A. No. Telling the worshiper what to do all the time is a negative experience.

Q. It’s obvious that you’ve enjoyed this liturgical change. But what do you hear from the pew?

A. About 90 percent of the people give a very positive and strong response. It’s been especially good for the choir members. They feel they are ministers, a very important part of the worship service.

A few people, especially older people, are very negative. They think—as I used to—that the only important thing is the preaching of the Word.

Q. Some people in the church will always want more change, more innovation than they get; others are traditional and want less change. How do you deal with those extremes?

A. I think you have to ask why people want to innovate. Just for the sake of innovation? Then it has no value. I’ve seen this happen in worship services, and it can be abominable. Rather, you innovate to accomplish a purpose. Again, you have to ask why other people do not want change. Part of the reason may be because such people have never really had—in their hearts and souls— a worship experience. I wonder whether the critics are totally passive in their worship experience. Do they know what it is to let their souls reach out to the living God in worship?

Q. Let’s go back to that question of why innovate. Why have you personally made the liturgical changes we’ve been talking about?

A. When I saw what could be done with music, with responses in the church, then something happened in my soul. I found out that through the entire service I could bring worship and praise to God. When that happens, then innovation is a good thing.

By the way, maybe I’ll change yet, but right now I place the emphasis in a worship service on the vertical, not the horizontal. To me, the worship service is the believer and the community of believers meeting and worshiping and praising the living God. I have a hard time, for example, in a worship service in which people are shaking hands and greeting each other.

Q. But couldn’t such greetings be an expression of the communion of the saints?

A. I recognize that. But I haven’t yet become comfortable with it.

If God is great and infinite and holy, the only thing I can bring to him in the worship service is my best. To me, my best is not spontaneous. It’s carefully thought out, like a piece of art that we’re bringing to God.

Q–Ifa worship service is so carefully planned, isn’t it in danger of becoming a performance?

A. That’s a very real possibility, and we have to be careful not to turn worship into a program or a performance. What matters is what goes on in the heart of the worshiper.

Q. You’re in a church where you can afford a trained organist, a choir director, a gifted person to write litanies. But what about churches with more modest resources and talents—is your kind of unified liturgy possible for them?

A. Perhaps to a degree such a church would be more limited. I guess it depends on how creative a person is or on what creative resources a person can find. But, you know, other churches do more in liturgy than we do at Twelfth Avenue—they have more resources, more gifts. The key, I believe, is simply to use what you have.

Q. If a pastor wants to change the liturgy in his congregation, where should he begin?

A. The very first thing I would do is plan my preaching schedule and work with my organist and choir director. As I said before, I don’t think you can expect to have a real worship experience unless a minister is willing to plan his preaching schedule several months in advance.

At Twelfth Avenue I also appointed a committee of two council members and four church

members to review our liturgy and to make recommendations. I did that because I wanted the liturgy to be the congregation’s liturgy, not mine. Then we just began doing the new things. It’s important, I think, to print a new order of worship—including the titles of music—in the bulletin each week.

I want to urge people to develop a total worship experience and see what happens to their own heart and soul and mind and spirit. Don’t be afraid of taking the step.

Q. Do you see any liturgical changes in your future?

A. I would like to see more people involved in the worship service so that it becomes the total congregation worshiping God.

Robert Rozema is an editor in the Education Department of CRC Publications. Harry Boonstra is associate editor of RW.

BEHIND THE SCENES

Behind the unified services described by Rev. Bolt (see "More than Preaching") are hours of hard, creative work by liturgy writer Barb Vredevoogd. Blessed with a strong back ground in drama and writing, Vredevoogd volunteers anywhere from five to twenty hours per service to writing special liturgies for Twelfth Avenue worshipers. Her work includes selecting hymns; writing litanies, prayers, salutations, and benedictions; and typing out final copy for the bulletin.

These are a few of her guidelines for writing liturgy:

  • Agree with the pastor on the basics of a worship structure before beginning. Like her pastor, Vredevoogd stresses the vertical, not the horizontal, dimension of the service. She’s very interested in preserving the "mystery and wonder" of worship.
  • Use Scripture for all litanies, prayers, and so on. "Everything in the entire service comes from Scripture. Be careful not to quote out of context, and always use the Bible version that’s in the pews" (NIV at Twelfth Avenue). For a sense of how a passage sounds, Vredevoogd likes to listens to tape recordings of that passage.
  • Take time to rehearse lines with readers.
  • Print the entire service—including words of songs—in the bulletin. Get permission to use songs not included in your church hymnals.
  • Ask the person who prepares the liturgy to also type out the service for the bulletin. Proper spacing (in the bulletin) is crucial; the congregation should be able to see at a glance where they "come in."
  • Look for people with a "flair for the creative" to write liturgies. Some experience in drama also helps. But professional experience in writing/editing is not necessary. "A tremendous number of people out there have a creative urge . . . use them."
  • Don’tjust use someone else’s liturgy and insert a different sermon! Good liturgy has to be a total package.

 

Excerpt

I’ve been planning my sermons three to six months in advance. This is absolutely necessary if you expect to integrate the sermon with the rest of the service.

When I saw what could be done with music, with responses in the church, then something happened in my soul. I found out that through the entire service I could bring worship and praise to God.

Harry Boonstra (hboonstr@calvin.edu) is former theological editor of RW and emeritus theological librarian of Calvin College and Calvin Theological Seminary, Grand Rapids, Michigan.

 

Robert Rozema is an education editor for CRC Publications.