March 20, 2017

Steady Worship in Unsteady Times

Every congregation knows what it is to go through some kind of major change or transition. Most of us have experienced transitions between pastors - with vacancy, interim, search and finally call. Many of us have lived through, or rather survived a building renovation - paint chips, fabric samples and floor tiling strewn about while the unabating construction dust makes us feel like we’re permanently living in Ash Wednesday. Some of our congregations have been affected by changes in our towns and cities - a new president arriving at the town college, the closing of a major plant leaving many in the church without jobs, the opening of a new church down the street. We’ve all been there…….been in that time of transition where for at least a short while, everyone feels somewhat unsettled. Change can bring about excitement for what is to come, and also fear for the future.  It can bring about a spirit of unified collaboration, and also painful division. Change is hard. No matter how positive the outcome or easy the process…. Change is always hard. 

Major Change

It’s no surprise to anyone that our country is in the midst of a major transition with the election of our new president in November. You can’t open the news without headlines screaming from both sides of the aisle, demanding our attention, wrenching our hearts, occupying our minds and consuming our conversations. It has not been an easy few months for anyone with the finger pointing, the blaming, the growing mistrust and anxiety between parties. It has not been easy. 

Our congregation is located in Northeast Washington DC, 5 miles north of the Capitol. 25% of our congregation are current federal employees, serving organizations like NASA, the Department of Justice, EPA, FDA, the office of Ethics. Another 25% are retired government employees. There are dozens who are government contractors or who work in non-government agencies but are tied so closely they might as well be feds. Every presidential election and change in administration in Washington brings about a significant amount of change and anxiety, and the election of President Trump is no exception. Whether we agree with them or not, the executive orders and major changes implemented have left everyone unsettled. The promise to “drain the swamp” has left the majority of our congregation in fear for their jobs and vocations. Our pastor, Meg Jenista, refers to our church as “Kuyperian swamp monsters”... we are people who live in this city, feel called by God to practice in the sphere of politics and government work. The anxiety in our church is palpable every Sunday and it carries over into our worship practices and worship life together. 

Liturgy that Stabilizes

An email from a parishoner several weeks back reminded me of why liturgy is so important for congregational worship. This parishoner was commenting on how it seems like every single day at the office brings about another change. Another email from the boss with rules, restructuring, budget cuts. As work life and home life continued to fluctuate, she wrote how much she appreciated the stability and constancy brought about through Sunday morning worship.  We don’t sing the same songs every single week. The choir doesn’t repeat the same anthem over and over again. Our pastor doesn’t re-preach sermons for months at a time. Everything is new and fresh from week to week, but the basic dialogic structure of our liturgy stays consistent. Each week we arrive to worship, called graciously by God who hears and receives, and we enter into a conversation with a God who does not change, regardless of the world around us. 

The Cross - our Steady

In a recent sermon, Pastor Meg quoted the Carthusian motto “Stat crux dum volvitur orbis” which means, “The cross is steady while the world is turning.” And maybe that’s just it…While the world around us, politically, physically, emotionally or professionally is turning, the cross is our steady. That cross which calls us to worship and praise each week, regardless of the state of mind we find ourselves when we arrive is our steady. Entering into the dialogue of worship, appreciating the ease and familiarity of the conversation and knowing that no matter what is said in that space, grace abounds….that is our steady. We as worship planners, musicians and pastors are given the opportunity each week to help our congregations enter into and embrace the steady. We put on our creative hats and look for new and compelling ways to keep the communication lines going but we do so within a framework of familiarity and stability. “The cross is steady while the world is turning.” May our worship always reflect the power of that cross and bring honor and glory to the one who is worthy of all our praise. Regardless of how the world is turning within your congregation, steady on friends, steady on.

Kathryn Ritsema Roelofs is a commissioned pastor in the Christian Reformed Church (CRC) and serves as a worship specialist with Thrive, a ministry of the CRC. She is also the managing director of the Worship for Workers project through Fuller Seminary.