From the Ends of the Earth to Geneva: A report on an international consultation on reformed worship
Increasing numbers of churches are celebrating World Communion Sunday on the first Sunday of October. It’s a service I look forward to more each year, especially as I get to know brothers and sisters in Christ around the world. Early this year I met several in Geneva, Switzerland, when I had the privilege of attending an International Consultation on Reformed Worship.
What a learning experience! About thirty people from almost as many countries met for a solid week at the John Knox Center (associated with the World Alliance of Reformed Churches) to discuss worship in our different contexts. Since we also ate all our meals together at the center, we had the opportunity to get to know each other and ask many questions. It was an unforgettable week.
To prepare for our meeting, participants wrote papers that were distributed in advance. During the meetings we discussed the papers, got feedback toward second drafts, and together wrote a paper called “Common Reflections.” The intent is to produce a publication that will give insights into the worship life of Reformed/Presbyterian groups worldwide.
Here is a taste of what I learned during that fascinating week:
- Representatives from the Congo and Indonesia both requested our prayers. Both countries are at war; there is great suffering and increasing persecution against Christians. I invite you also to consider their request for prayers.
- About a third of the Christians in the African country of Malawi are Reformed because of the missionary efforts of people from South Africa and Scotland (including Tom Colvin, member of the Iona Community who gave us the Malawian song “That Boy Child of Mary”).
- About half of the Congregational churches in the United Kingdom are led by laypeople because of the lack of pastors. Representatives from the UK also mentioned the loss of extemporaneous prayer by those too tied to a prayer book, though many other countries reported increased desire for collections of prayers to strengthen their worship.
- Many Reformed bodies around the world began through the efforts of nineteenth-century American and English missionaries who were not psalm singers. Those missionaries took with them many currently popular gospel songs. The representative from the Pacific Islands learned for the first time at this consultation about the importance of psalm singing in the Reformed tradition.
- Brazilian Presbyterians also trace their roots to the nineteenth century and retain a conservative anti-Catholic focus. Rebaptism is an issue; in fact, the Pentecostal influence is the most pervasive at present. That influence is worldwide, a statement echoed by virtually everyone present.
- The Korean churches also began with nineteenth-century missionaries. They continue to enjoy phenomenal growth reflected in many huge churches and in the missionaries they send around the world. Some churches require converts who wish to be baptized to bring people they are discipling to church with them!
- The Presbyterian Church (USA) reported on the challenges of preparing a Korean Service Book (almost completed) for their Korean-speaking members. They are preparing side-by-side Korean-English texts, since the older generation needs the Korean, and the younger needs the English. The generation gap and the fear of losing young people have driven Korean-American Presbyterians to seek a worship book.
- Many countries reported early (and some continuing) struggles to introduce indigenous music in worship, but that struggle is giving way to another: the pervasive influence of contemporary popular worship songs, especially from the United States. Many African young people, for example, are singing American praise choruses in English, not in their native languages.
- I learned that the word globalization, which I used in a positive sense to speak of church music in North America that is strengthened by songs from around the world, is seen as a less positive word by many people who are sensitive to the domination of the United States.
I could go on. The next time you think of the diversity within your own congregation, remember how much more diverse the big picture is, as God’s people all over the world meet every week to be fed with Word and Sacrament, to offer prayers and praises, and to celebrate our oneness in Christ. May World Communion Sunday become for you this year a joyful local foretaste of the heavenly banquet that will be attended by “ten thousand times ten thousand” of our very diverse brothers and sisters, all giving glory to our one Lord.