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Walking with Jesus: A Reflection on a Maundy Thursday Service for Low Attendance

When you know that a small number of people will attend a worship service, how can you use this as a benefit for spiritual growth for yourself and your congregation? How can intimacy and love, through shared experiences, be fostered within God’s people during lean times? Pastor Joy-Elizabeth Lawrence shares her journey of planning a Maundy Thursday service with low expected attendance.

I sighed when I learned it was my responsibility to plan a Maundy Thursday service during spring break. In my context, most families travel out-of-state that week and service attendance has been sparse. But then the Spirit spoke to me: “You think low attendance is negative. What can a small number of people do together that a large number can’t?”

“A small number of people can fit into our prayer room,” I thought.

Then, I read Carrie Steenwyk’s Reformed Worship issue 102 article “Walking the Stations of the Cross” and was inspired to plan a service that incorporated movement throughout our church building as we listened to Luke’s narratives from chapters 22 and 23. During this season of Lent, we had been focusing on stories of Jesus’ interactions with people in Luke’s Gospel, and I wanted to continue this. In our service, we moved throughout our church building, each space represented a different geographical location (or locations).

Station 1: The Festival of Unleavened Bread (The Kitchen)

We began in the church kitchen, where we’d replaced the fluorescent lighting with lamps. We stood and sat around the island as we sang the Taizé chorus, “Eat This Bread.” As Pastor Paul read Luke 22:7-22, I broke the unleavened bread and passed it around. Then, we shared the cup for intinction. After the meal, we listened to Luke 22:23-38, and sang the Taizé chorus “Stay with Me” as we transitioned to the prayer room.

Station 2: The Mount of Olives (Prayer Room)

We squeezed into the prayer room; children sat on the floor and seniors on chairs. Many of us stood. Our prayer room features a stained glass window of Jesus praying on the Mount of Olives, which is why I choose this particular place to represent the Mount of Olives. There, I read Luke 22:39-53 and we prayed a prayer by Thomas A. Patterson from The Pocket Book of Prayers (Jim Palmer, editor; Thomas Nelson, 2005) that begins, “We are tired, Lord, weary of the long night without rest” as we confessed our fatigue alongside Jesus’ disciples. The experience in the prayer room was intimate, and when we sang “Go to Dark Gethsemane,” I recognized how good acoustics were in that small room.

Station 3: Outside the High Priest’s Home (A small bonfire outside)

We walked outside to the fire and listened to the story of Peter betraying Jesus (Luke 22:54-62), and the poem “Judas, Peter” by Luci Shaw. The story continued, focusing on the beating of Jesus (22:63-65), and then we joined together in a prayer of intercession for victims of violence from The Covenant Hymnal #922:

God of unending mercy, we pray with those who are crying.
       For women and men who are battered in body or spirit,
       For children who sleep the fitful sleep of hunger,
       For all who are imprisoned by walls or worries,
       For all who are despondent because they feel unloved.
Christ, have mercy upon those who cry;
Christ, have mercy on us
       when we turn away from the cries of others.
Give us the strength of compassion,
       that we may not shield our eyes and hearts
From the pain of our sisters and brothers, but seek to understand and to heal.
Bless us with courage and arm us with hope,
       that we may help lessen the suffering of our word.
Hear this our common prayer and those of our hearts which we now offer.
Amen.

Station 4: Before the Council and Pilate (Large Narthex)

We moved back inside where chairs were set up in our larger narthex. We listened to Luke 22:66-71, and then sang the following alternate verse to “Crown Him with Many Crowns.” (This is not a verse usually included in hymnals).

Crown Him the Son of God, before the worlds began,
And ye who tread where He hath trod, crown Him the Son of Man;
Who every grief hath known that wrings the human breast,
And takes and bears them for His own, that all in Him may rest.

After hearing Luke 23:1-7, we transitioned by singing “Go to Dark Gethsemane,” verse two, and walking through the back of the sanctuary to our smaller narthex.

Station 5: Before Herod (Small Narthex)

Here, we heard the story about Herod (22:13-25), spent a moment in silence, and sang the alternate verse to “Crown Him with Many Crowns” again. Then we moved back to Pilate, a return to station 4.

Station 6: Return to Pilate

We listened to Luke 23:13-25, and sang verse two of “Go to Dark Gethsemane” again. While we had been in station five, a staff member had delivered a rough-hewn cross in this space and I invited anyone who desired to help carry the cross to come forward. Children and adults of all ages wanted to participate. Together, they carried the cross into the sanctuary and set it up on the chancel.

Station 7: The Path to The Skull (Moving toward the Chancel)

I read Luke 23:26-34 as we moved together following the cross. After the cross was set up, we sang “Go to Dark Gethsemane” verse three, and sat in silence. Before the benediction, we pondered our time together, beginning with the time in the kitchen eating unleavened bread. We sang “Eat This Bread” once more, and I invited the congregation to continue walking with Jesus, as we had just done together.

Reflection

Often, when we plan worship, we hope for large numbers of participants. This is good. However, sometimes a small group of people can do things that large groups cannot. When you know that a small number of people will attend, how can you use this as a benefit for spiritual growth for yourself and your congregation? How can intimacy and love, through shared experiences, be fostered within God’s people during lean times, like spring break?