John D. Witvliet

John D. Witvliet is director of the Calvin Institute of Christian Worship and professor of music and worship at Calvin University and Calvin Theological Seminary in Grand Rapids, Michigan. He also teaches in the religion department at Calvin University.

Articles by this author:

  • Q

    As we prepare for Holy Week, I am struck by the increasing challenge of exploring the profound meaning of Jesus’ passion, death, and resurrection in a community with relatively little knowledge of the Bible. What advice do you have for retooling our approaches to worship in light of biblical illiteracy?

    A

  • Funeral planning is a growing pastoral challenge. Even ten years ago, families mostly left planning to the pastor, who worked to personalize each service. Now, families often make requests of the pastor—but many don’t fit well in a Christian funeral. So how might pastors respond wisely to such requests and even proactively avoid them?

  • Q

    I am a fan of short songs in worship—simple songs that don’t take a lot of rehearsal. No one on my praise team is all that interested in this. Help me convince them

    A

    I am happy to take a crack at this! Short songs (coritos) offer much:

  • Q

    Our church celebrates Christmas and Easter, but not the rest of the year. We are bit perplexed by the long stretch from Pentecost to Advent. Help us understand.

    Q

    What should we name the season after Pentecost? We debate this every year and never quite arrive at consensus.

  • Q

    We are struggling in our ministry with many people in our congregation who have mental health concerns. We have responded to this pastorally, but not really in worship. Are there resources for engaging this in worship?

    A

  • Q

    What profound needs we face in the world! How few of them we ever hear about in worship, in spite of dozens of remarkable Christian agencies and organizations that are responding to them! How can we change that?

    Q

  • Q

    We are excited about a vision of “vocational discipleship,” the idea that faith shapes how we engage in the workplace. We are starting to think about setting aside a Sunday to focus on this. What advice do you have?

    A

  • Q

    I hear a lot of colloquial language about the Holy Spirit that doesn’t feel right to me. For example, one of our leaders likes to say, “I didn’t have time to plan—what a great opportunity for the Holy Spirit.” What do you think?

    A

  • 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.

  • Q

    I am hearing a lot about ways to commemorate the Reformation, especially as we approach the 500th anniversary of Luther’s posting of the 95 theses in 2017. I am feeling a bit ill-equipped to approach this thoughtfully. What advice do you have?

    A

  • Q

    Looking ahead to summer, I am already frustrated by how many of our church members will be gone. Whatever happened to loyalty to a congregation? Do people realize what a burden this creates for those of us who remain at home?

    Q

  • 한국어    Español

    ¿Qué pasó con la segunda venida?

    도대체 재림에 무슨 일이 생겼는가?

     

    Q

    It has been years since I've heard a sermon or sung a song about Jesus' second coming. Why? How do we recover that?

    A

  • 한국어    Español

    La constancia, los valores litúrgicos permanentes, y la ayuda del Espíritu en medio de nuestras debilidades.
    지속성, 지속적인 성품, 그리고 우리 연약함을 도우시는 성령님

     

    Desiring to further express the diversity of the body of Christ and support a broader base of Reformed churches, RW is committed to taking a very small first step by making one article in each issue available in Korean, Spanish, and English. —JB

  • Why does Ascension Day matter? We don’t celebrate it anymore, and I need to give my congregation a better rationale for why we should. By the way, they don’t have patience for a treatise on the matter. I need short, pithy explanations.

    A

  • Q

    Our church puts a lot of effort into making worship more meaningful for kids. While they are more engaged, it’s hard to tell if they are really benefitting from all this effort spiritually. How do we discern what is really formative, and what is just busy activity?

    A

    What a challenging and fruitful question—for people of all ages!

  • Q

    I love RW, but I attend a congregation with minimal resources, minimal talent, and minimal openness to creativity. It is my congregation and I don’t want to leave. But my frustration is growing. How can I manage the gap between my ideals and reality? Is there anything I can do to help expand our vision?

    Q

  • Q

    Thinking about Lent again makes me feel a bit fatigued, especially when I think about all the energy required to defend and promote all the disciplines of obedience that are so important during Lent. Our congregation resists all of that “spiritual protein.” How can I overcome my congregation’s resistance?

    A

  • The function of hymnals in the life of the church has changed dramatically over the past thirty years. Many congregations rarely use them. Thousands of Christians seldom, if ever, open one. When people hear of the publication of Lift Up Your Hearts (LUYH), it’s natural for some of them to ask, “Why would you ever want to publish another hymnal?”

  • Q:Are there ever instances in which it could be appropriate for people to celebrate the Lord’s Supper using a video feed over the Internet, especially for small rural churches in northern Canada that are separated by miles yet served by only one pastor? Could that be considered a real celebration of the Lord’s Supper?

  • Q: Sometimes I worry that the kids I teach don’t see how the Bible fits together. How can I help them get “the big picture”?

    Several recent books have lamented that while many people know some Bible stories, they really don’t have a sense of “The Big Overarching Story” of God’s mission in the world. Some people wonder whether worship reinforces this problem by jumping around from one part of the Bible to another.

  • Q: We recently welcomed a visitor with limited church background who loved our music and was open to our preaching, but said that she felt our church had a negative view of our city. We are scratching our heads about what to make of this.

  • Q: How can we publicly welcome children who are ready to participate in the Lord’s Supper for the first time without putting too much pressure on very shy children?

    A: Churches are wise to find ways to publically celebrate this milestone moment in children’s lives. Here are a few suggestions from a variety of congregations for doing so in age-appropriate ways:

  • Over the past fifteen months, it has been my joy to worship with more than forty congregations from twenty different denominations as part of our family’s sabbatical in southern California. It would take a book to unpack all the things we experienced. For now, here is a brief report on eleven things that we noticed—some to celebrate, some to ponder, some to lament.

  • Have you ever been in a ­worship service where the ­spoken, sung, or visual message was transformational? You leave convicted that the old way of doing, believing, or speaking was wrong and it is replaced with a new way. Such was the experience of the writer of Psalm 73.

    In this article John Witvliet explores Psalm 73 and what it might teach us about worship today—and how it might provide an example for future issues of Reformed Worship. —JB

  • Q My church sings contemporary music, but with piano accompaniment rather than guitar and drums. It doesn’t sound very contemporary. Why can’t the music be led by a band, like it was designed to be?

    A There are a lot of layers to this question. Some churches don’t have a praise band because they don’t have people with the necessary skills. Others prefer piano or organ or have discerned that in their context piano or organ accompaniment leads to the best possible singing. All of those judgments need to be made contextually.

  • Q Is it really legitimate to treat some psalms as if they refer to Jesus?

    A Christians have long interpreted several psalms (16, 24, 72, 110, and others) as referring to Jesus. This is very similar to Christological readings of other Messianic prophecies, such as Isaiah 7, 9, or 40.

    • Our church has a part-time worship coordinator and rotating worship teams, but everyone is feeling burned out. What advice do you have for restructuring our work?
    • Our music director is retiring, and we want to revise the job description. We want to involve more people in worship.
  • This year I have enjoyed participating in events celebrating John Calvin’s five hundredth birthday in Pittsburgh, Toronto, Grand Rapids, and Montreat. I’ve been pleasantly surprised by the keen interest in Calvin’s approach to worship. Here are brief answers to some of the most commonly asked questions I’ve received during these celebrations.

    Q What are some of the biggest differences between being a Christian in Geneva in the sixteenth century and being a Christian in North America today?

  • Q My pastor was explaining John Calvin’s understanding that in the Lord’s Supper “the Holy Spirit lifts us up so that we commune with Jesus in heaven.” This sounds beautiful—but it also sounds pretty far-fetched. The Lord’s Supper doesn’t feel, taste, or look like heaven. What are we to make of this?

  • In her engaging introduction to Christian spirituality, Debra Rienstra describes her experience of church during her childhood years:

  • In early September, many churches begin a new season of church education classes and a host of other programs with a special “kick-off” worship service. Most often these services focus on a theme of dedication, and there never seems to be enough songs with words like “Take My Life and Let It Be.” While this is a strong theme, it can also focus a lot of attention on the enormous outpouring of busyness the new year promises.

  • Q After a few years of welcoming younger children to profession of faith, our church has reverted to the older pattern where only the young people eighteen and older want to profess their faith. That seems to be when they are ready. Isn’t that OK?

    A Having eighteen-year-olds make profession of faith is indeed terrific. It is far better than in many churches where youth simply drift away!

  • Q  I always am anxious about Pentecost. I feel pressure to create a service in which people experience the Holy Spirit in an Acts 2 kind of way. Any advice?

    A  For starters, recall again the whole scope of the Bible’s teaching about the Holy Spirit. The Spirit works through both order and spontaneity, both dramatic intervention and long-term formation.

  • Q What should we call the sacrament of the Lord’s table: the Lord’s Supper, Communion, or Eucharist?

    A Each of these names is theologically and pastorally significant.

    “The Lord’s Supper” conveys that Jesus is the host of this meal and we celebrate the sacrament because of his command.

  • Q My cousin’s church now celebrates communion early in the service before the kids leave for children’s church. Is there anything wrong with that? Wouldn’t that be a good plan for those of us hoping to incorporate children more fully in the sacrament?

  • Q I feel that lay participation in worship has gotten out of hand in my church. People use the line “priesthood of all believers” to justify everything and the kitchen sink. Is this really what Luther had in mind when he stressed this doctrine?

    A My guess is that there’s more to your question than simply this doctrine, perhaps having to do with good communication within the congregation. Here I’ll simply address the doctrine itself.

  • Q: If a call to worship is really about hearing God call us, then what about using as a call to worship one of the many psalms that originated in a liturgical setting where people were calling each other to worship? Who is speaking to whom? Must the call to worship come from Scripture? Does it necessarily have to be short or can a choir sing an anthem for 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.

  • It is perhaps a sign of the times that I have recently received many questions about worship and politics. We live in an era of divided loyalties and deeply polarized rhetoric on many political issues. As I approach these questions, I am convinced that one of the worst things that can happen to worship is that it becomes politicized in ways that obscure the themes of God’s glory, the gospel of Jesus, and the work of the Spirit. In the United States, newspapers regularly offer us accounts of this happening in congregations on both ends of the political spectrum.

  • Our church renovation committee has been talking about our sanctuary. One of our members thinks this term is misleading. Is “sanctuary” a good term to use in church architecture?

    The term “sanctuary” can be misleading if people begin to think that the worship space is in itself more sacred or sanctified than other spaces.

  • For my final issue as editor, I took the liberty of choosing the questions for Q&A. The first question was wide open, and John’s response sends us to the ongoing work of Christ. The second arises out of my opportunities to worship these past twenty years with many congregations—some across town, others across the world. The more I have tasted the love and diversity in the body of Christ, the more hungry I become for worship that bridges human barriers.

  • John D. Witvliet prepared this prayer for his ordination service into the ministry of Word and Sacrament in the Christian Reformed Church.

    This prayer is based on the ancient “O Antiphons” that are also the basis for the Advent hymn “O Come, O Come, Immanuel” (see also p. 38). The elipses (. . .) are places for possible extemporaneous additions.

  • Q. How can we balance our desire to make changes in the service for emphasis and still allow the congregation to be comfortable within a certain structure so they can worship without distractions?

    A. It was C.S. Lewis who famously compared good worship with an old shoe. The more familiarity and fewer surprises, the better. Lewis was right that innovation tends to draw our attention from the purpose to the mechanics of what we are doing.

  • Q. What should we call the piece of furniture we use for the Lord’s Supper? An altar? A table? I’ve even heard it called an altar-table? Why that?
    —Illinois

     

    A. An altar is furniture for a sacrifice. Altars in the Old Testament temple and tabernacle were the place for the sacrifice of animals. In the medieval church, the Lord’s Supper or mass was celebrated at an altar. Correspondingly, the Lord’s Supper was understood to be the enactment or re-enactment of Christ’s sacrifice.

  • Q Our congregation has almost no musical talent, and so we had to hire a music director from beyond our fellowship. The challenge is that both this director and the congregation are frustrated with things they see as both problematic and fixable, but have no good forum for dealing with them in ways that won’t cause all kinds of hurt. Do you have any advice for us?

    —Illinois

  • The Worship Sourcebook stands in a long tradition of worship books in the Christian church. The biblical Psalms may well have functioned as a prayer book for the people of Israel. Some of the earliest Christians compiled their advice about forms and patterns of worship into church order documents, the first of which, the Didache, dates back perhaps into the first century a.d. Over time, especially in the early medieval period, these documents grew very complex, with detailed instructions about every aspect of worship.

  • Q Thanks for your comments in RW 69 about ordination. I have one more question: What about the assurance of pardon? In our church, only a minister offers the benediction and greeting or leads the sacraments, but our lay leaders do the assurance of pardon. Is that permissible or advisable?

    —Michigan

  • Q   One big change for us in the past few years is that our pastor just preaches in worship, while our worship team leads the rest of the service. We enjoy leading, but don’t have a lot of training. Shouldn’t the pastor take a more active role in the rest of the worship service?

    —Iowa

  • Q. Our newspapers are full of stories about crime, homelessness, the environment, and other societal problems. Why don’t we hear more about this in worship?
    —Michigan

    A. My hunch is that these themes are quite prominent in communities that face injustice but less so in more affluent places. It is always a temptation to prefer worship that comforts us without challenging us. But the gospel clearly involves both.

  • Q. I have trouble with planning our prayers of confession. People are saying the words, but I wonder how many are actually personally confessing their sin. If we aren't actually confessing, why perform this rather onerous part of the service?
    —Ontario

  • Q   We’re hiring a new worship director.  Do you have any advice about how to set up a job description?

    —New Jersey

    A    Based on learning from a number of congregations that we have heard from at the Worship Institute, I would recommend thinking about three things that churches sometimes miss:

  • Q. All Saints’ Day sounds so Roman Catholic. Why does our Reformed church celebrate this day? Doesn’t this betray our roots?
    —Kentucky

    A. The sixteenth-century Reformers abolished all celebrations related to saints. They had deep pastoral concern for people who believed that the saints could offer prayers on their behalf. The Reformers saw this as a direct challenge to the sufficiency of Christ’s atonement for sins and priestly intercession.

  • Q After many years of planning Advent and Christmas services, our worship planning committee wants to use Old Testament readings other than Isaiah 7, 9, 11 and 40. Do have any fresh ideas?

    —Alberta

    A Great question! Many congregations limit their search for Old Testament readings to texts from Handel’s Messiah (who would have ever guessed that a 17th-century oratorio librettist would have so much influence on worship today!).

  • “We are what we eat.” Anyone who’s suffering the cumulative effect of too many ice cream sundaes knows that’s true. But when it comes to matters of spirituality and faith, I’d like to suggest, we are what we sing.

    Music has the uncanny ability to burrow its way into our spiritual bones. Even when we are tired or depressed, old songs well up from within us and dance on our plaintive whistling lips. When we are old and can remember little else, we are still likely to recall the songs we learned in our childhood.

  • Q. What makes a piece of music durable?
    —Mississippi

    A.Some factors that contribute to durability are fairly objective: music must be singable and interesting, texts must be true and memorable. Generally, songs with comparatively trite or idiosyncratic rhythms, melodies, or texts become dated in a hurry, as do songs that are dependent on a certain cultural context.

  • Q. Each week in worship, we read from both the Old Testament and the New Testament. Sometimes the New Testament readings are direct fulfillments of the Old Testament prophecy that is read. Sometimes these passages seem entirely unrelated. Why?

    A. First, I’m happy to hear that you have those two readings each week. This is a wonderful way of ensuring that the congregation is exposed to a balanced diet of biblical readings. It gives a sense of God’s actions over time.

  • Sermons on praise in the narrow sense (Ps. 95) and on worship in all of life (Rom. 12) are immensely important to preach. But suppose that you want to preach about the worship service, the liturgy, the event of gathering in Jesus’ name (for more on these three meanings of the term worship see p. 46). Perhaps worship has become a source of conflict in your congregation. Perhaps you want to deepen the congregation’s experience of common worship. To preach about worship, what text would you preach? Where in Scripture would you look?

  • Q. In our congregation, we’re spending a lot of time and money on the worship service. But don’t we worship in all of life? Why do we put so much energy into the worship service?

    Q. If we show up on Sunday morning to “worship,” why is there so much opposition to singing worship songs? Isn’t that the whole point?

  • Q. We have conflict on our worship team that is very frustrating to our congregation. What have other churches done to work with this?
    —Ontario

    A. To my surprise, this is the most frequently asked question we receive here at the Calvin Institute of Christian Worship. Perhaps this is the inevitable result of having many more people involved in worship leadership than a generation ago. Three primary strategies appear to be the most common and helpful.

  • This article is excerpted from a new booklet on planning worship in the popular So You’ve Been Asked To . . . series (see inside back cover for more information).

    So You’ve Been Asked to . . . Plan a Worship Service includes sections on The Role of the Worship Planner, The Planning Process, Patterns for Efficient Planning, Long-Term Goals, Questions, and Resources.

  • This service was prepared by John D. Witvliet to accompany his article on p. II.

    Gathering for Worship

    Call to Worship and Greeting

    Hymn: "Go to Dark Gethsemane" PsH 381, PH 97, TWC 225

    Opening Prayer

    Remembering

    Prayer for Illumination

    Scripture Readings

  • Planning worship for Good Friday is a challenging pastoral and theological task. How do we begin to acknowledge the power and the mystery of the cross of Jesus Christ? How do we proclaim, even on Good Friday, that Christ is crucified and risen? What emotions are appropriate to express? Do we rejoice or do we weep?

    Three Typical Approaches to Good Friday

    A quick study of thirty or more printed orders of service in my files suggests that most Good Friday services feature one of three strategies.

  • Lament is a sign of both honest faith and resolute hope. When we worship together, we bring with us our experience in the world, from our most profound joys to our most painful sorrows. Like the Old Testament psalms, thoughtful liturgy allows us to express the whole range of our experience in ways that are fitting to the message of the gospel.

  • John D. Witvliet has been appointed assistant professor of worship and music at Calvin College and adjunct professor of worship at Calvin Theological Seminary in Grand Rapids, Michigan. Two future articles will explore the way in which lament can function in the ebb and flow of weekly worship, apart from times of crisis.

  • Dr. James F. White is currently professor of liturgical studies at the University of Notre Dame, South Bend, Indiana, where he has supervised nearly twenty Ph.D. dissertations on worship-related topics. His sixteen books on worship include A Brief History of Christian Worship, An Introduction to Christian Worship, and Protestant Worship: Traditions in Transition, all texts that are frequently assigned in college and seminary courses on worship.

  • David Peterson. Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 1992. 317 pp., $20.00.

    The Reformed tradition has always maintained that its worship is regulated sola scriptura, by Scripture alone. Worship is thus never understood to be an act of creative self-expression, but rather an act of obedience to God. We worship God not in ways we dream up, but. in ways that God teaches us in the Word.

  • BULLETIN NOTE

    Our guide for worship is Paul's letter to the Colossians. This epistle celebrates the lordship of Jesus Christ, reminds us of our "Freedom to Serve," and calls us to live in the fullness of our union with Christ. The order of worship mirrors the outline of this epistle, with hymns and prayers that serve to help us live into the truth of Paul's message.

  • Metrical Psalms

    A New Metrical Psalter, Christopher Webber, Church Hymnal Corporation
    Psalter Hymnal, CRC Publications, 1987
    Rejoice in the Lord, Eerdmans, 1985
    Trinity Hymnal, Great Commission Publications, 1990

  • Brian Wren. Carol Stream IL: Hope Publishing Co., 60 minutes, $29.95

    In How Shall I Sing to God? Brian Wren provides us with a thought-provoking introduction to contemporary hymnody, an introduction to his own visionary hymn writing, and an intriguing discussion regarding language appropriate for worship.

Blogs by this author:

  • A Compelling Pastoral and Discipleship Opportunity

    I am hearing a lot about ways to commemorate the Reformation, especially as we approach the 500th anniversary of Luther’s posting of the 95 theses in 2017. I am feeling a bit ill-equipped to approach this thoughtfully. What advice do you have?

  • When an international student moves to the United States, and starts watching American football or baseball, they are often perplexed. When a North American student explains the game, they start to appreciate it. But when they hear a true fan of the game respond to a brilliant play by exclaiming “now that was amazing,” then their attention is focused in a new way. That exclamation—a testimonial, really—becomes an invitation not just to understand the game, but to fall in love with it.