Improvising on the Historic Liturgy

For the past five months, I’ve had the unique privilege of leading worship and preaching at Flatbush Reformed Church in Brooklyn, NY every week. As FRC is in the final stages of calling a new minister and my church meets at 5 PM Sunday evenings, this has been a great arrangement. FRC is the oldest church in Brooklyn and one of the oldest churches in North America. The put it plainly in the bulletin each week — “Serving the Flatbush Community for 362 years.” The church was built on the order of Peter Stuyvesant, son of a Reformed pastor and the last Dutch Director-General of “New Amsterdam.”  

Needless to say, preaching at this historical Reformed Church in America (RCA) each Sunday morning, then at my three year old Christian Reformed Church (CRC) plant in the evening has been quite the juxtaposition. The uniting factor has been the historic worship liturgy of both churches.

Variations on the Liturgy

Let me point out a couple of variations in our worship planning before we delve into the many, many similarities:

  • Dwell Church practices weekly communion, whereas at Flatbush Reformed Church it is celebrated once per month.
  • At Dwell Church, a liturgist leads many aspects of the service whereas at FRC the ordained minister leads all aspects.
  • At FRC, the revised common lectionary is used for the preaching schedule; Dwell Church implements it occasionally.
  • A healing prayer service, in which nearly all members of the church come forward to receive prayers for healing and anointing of oil (in the tradition of James 5:14) is held monthly at FRC.
  • Each week the Lord’s Prayer, Reading of the Law and Recitation of a historic creed (Apostles or Nicene) is recited at Flatbush, whereas at Dwell Church these elements are used less frequently.  

In the grand scheme of things, these are actually very small distinctions. In essence, we both have the same liturgy that is forming us for mission and ministry. In two very different neighborhoods, in different denominations reaching a very different demographic.

But sometimes I wonder why the liturgical formation tends to resonate more in a newer church plant context. Is it because the young people have been steeped in it their entire lives, whereas the young people at Dwell have chosen this for themselves in the last couple years? (And that it is very different than the non-denominational churches many of them grew up in) What elements could both churches (and your church) implement in order to keep our historic liturgy living and active?

Breathing Life Into the Liturgy

A great metaphor for worship planning is jazz music. In jazz, there is a beautiful interplay of written music and improvisation. The historical Christian liturgy handed down to us is the “chart.” The melody, time signature and key are there for us. But we get to make it our own through the way we solo, through the texture and originality we bring. We are empowered to breath life into something that will connect with our community.  

This also narrows down the problem. If the liturgy isn’t connecting, I don’t believe it’s the “chart” that’s bad — after all, it’s a standard — but it’s our own lack of vision, creativity and contextual application. I know that Jason Harrod (music director at Dwell) and I wrestle with this, and they are at FRC as well. So if a 362 year old church and  3 year old church are in the midst of figuring it out, perhaps yours is as well!

After just completing Jamie Smith’s newest book, ‘You Are What You Love,’ I’m more committed than ever to developing historic, Christian liturgy at our church plant. But how we apply the tradition we’ve been handed down is up to us.

Here’s one application that has worked well for us, in both contexts. Both churches are committed to Psalm-singing. The Psalm for May 22, 2016 was Psalm 8. It was sung responsively at FRC, and I fill a de facto cantor role in the reading and singing. At Dwell, we sing a Psalm every week as well. One of the ways we’ve committed to this is to create original music. One of my visions since planting the church was to use the songwriting gifts of our music director to teach millennials the psalms. Jason has written several settings of the psalms which we sing in corporate worship (you can find an example of his setting of Psalm 20 here: Jason’s original music set to the psalter has resonated with our community.

I hope that’s helpful food for thought and a practical example of how you can bring the beauty and depth of liturgy to your congregation, no matter how established or emerging.

Rev. Peter B. Armstrong was born and raised in Olympia, WA, and educated at Calvin College and Fuller Theological Seminary. He and his wife Lily moved to NYC to start Dwell Church and served there from 2010-2016. On January 1, 2017, Pete began a new calling, serving Parklane CRC in Portland, Oregon. He enjoys running, playing bass and exploring the Pacific Northwest.