Lament and Praise as a Way of Life

Why Every Church Should Assess Its Weekly Worship Pattern

Q

Our church feels called to address some major societal issues as a congregation, including racism, the history of genocide of indigenous peoples, and human trafficking. The question is how we will do this in worship. Some have suggested we have a special service that focuses on each key issue. But that doesn’t feel right. I fear we will just have a succession of single-issue services and then drop our concern.

A

I am grateful for the question. I have been struck lately by how many churches want to avoid these topics in church life, trimming intercessory prayers back or cutting them altogether, having occasional sermons about lament and confession but doing little to actually practice these communal disciplines. There is great cultural pressure in many places to avoid the world’s problems and look the other way—cultural pressure that must be firmly and joyfully resisted for the sake of the gospel.

We should recognize the fact that a single service that speaks prophetically from Scripture about any one of these matters and prays about them specifically would be a significant step forward in many contexts. This kind of direct address is best done when complemented by education sessions and when engaging these topics in many other parts of church life. The links between worship, other ministries, and daily life matter a lot.

But while significant, a single service on any of these topics is by no means sufficient, as you suggest. What matters is the trajectory of the life of a congregation over time—long periods of time. It’s all about “a long obedience in the same direction,” as Eugene Peterson terms it. Is your church ready to accept the redemptive calling to lament, pray, and work together to respond to these profound challenges not just over several days, but over months and years?

I recently learned of one congregation that is hosting monthly conversations about racism in their community, another that has made praying about injustices to indigenous peoples a permanent part of their life, and another that is eager to pray for persecuted Christians around the world with new resolve.

Yet these exemplary churches are also confronted with the huge challenge of discerning how to sustain concern for topics like these over time—alongside of concern for warfare, inter-religious conflict, refugees, the sanctity of life, consumerism, idolatry, creation care, and so many other haunting issues of great significance.

I think your question can ultimately only be addressed by looking at the fundamental pattern that shapes your worship on a weekly basis—the communal spiritual disciplines your congregation accepts as a guide to life together. It needs to affect the structure of a congregation and its worship; it can’t happen on an occasional basis.

In my study of the development of liturgies, I’ve been struck by how classic liturgies of the church dating back to the 4th century, and sometimes earlier, wove together both lament and praise as a regular discipline. Many early church liturgies begin with both “Lord, have mercy” (Kyrie eleison) and “Glory to God in the Highest” (Gloria in excelsis Deo).

The big idea here is that the Christian life—lived between Christ’s resurrection and coming again—is a life of both dying and rising, both lament and praise, both pruning and growing, both confession of sin and sanctification, both renunciation and affirmation. We live, as Martin Luther explained so forcefully, as people who are both sinners and justified (simul justus et peccator).

It is essential that every congregation build into its liturgical life weekly disciplines of both kyrie and gloria, where kyrie is both confession and lament and gloria is both thanks and praise. 

I am convinced that it is essential that every congregation—traditional or contemporary, urban or rural, new or old—build into its liturgical life weekly disciplines of both kyrie and gloria, where kyrie is both confession and lament and gloria is both thanks and praise.

With that in place, there are 52 Sundays a year in which to include specific, candid, concrete expressions of lament, confession, and intercession. Each of the massive issues you have named can be called to mind repeatedly throughout the year, with space left for other issues and topics too.

Then, 52 Sundays a year, that lament and confession can be followed by thanks and praise for the promise of the gospel to bring healing and hope, a promise that may be fulfilled in significant ways that very week or over the space of decades or centuries.

This approach to weekly worship also helps us name the fact that in our lifetimes, this side of Christ’s return, we will never be done lamenting racism, genocide, and human trafficking. And we also will never be done looking for the tangible ways that God’s Spirit is bringing about healing and hope out of despair.

Thanks to the power of the Spirit at work among God’s people, there may well be sanctifying progress: stunning expressions of grace, justice, and healing that the Spirit allows us to directly experience. We long for this. But even this does not turn off our continuing lament for other topics of grave concern.

For some congregations, a commitment to a weekly kyrie and gloria will not require changing the structure much. It may only require sharpening the regular practices of confession and intercessory prayer by becoming clearer and more disciplined about the concerns named during these parts of a service.

For other congregations, this commitment will require a wholesale revision of a weekly pattern, a firm decision to change the usual order of business to make room not only for praise, but also for lament and intercession.

One final note about this anniversary year for Reformed Worship. For 30 years I have celebrated how readers of RW have picked up and used individual prayers, songs, planning ideas, and teaching ideas from the pages of this magazine and its website. Yet at times those ideas are grafted onto a local approach to worship that is not structured for both lament and praise.

Without a structure that itself announces the good news of the gospel—that the triune God is a God who heals brokenness and despair—we can be left with a service that announces half a gospel. So this year, perhaps as an Advent gift to your church, consider ways of sharpening your weekly kyries and glorias, building them into the structure of your service, and celebrating with your congregation the stunning news that we worship a God who hears our cries and has promised to fully heal this terribly traumatized cosmos.

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.