Christmas, children, and surprises go together like peanut butter and jam. There is nothing more delightful than seeing a child’s eyes light up as they unwrap a Christmas gift they really wanted but didn’t expect to get, or than when you’ve found that perfect gift for someone. Christmas surprises are joyful surprises.
What a vision of peace the prophet Isaiah paints for God’s people in the southern kingdom of Judah! Invasions by the ruthless Assyrians came from the north, they were betrayed by their sister kingdom Israel, and inadequate kings of their own made the time perilous.
The World Needed a Savior . . .
Call to Worship
With two readers.
People of God, today we worship a God of revolution;
a God who is in the business of turning our lives—
turning the world―right-side up.
The prophet Isaiah says:
“A shoot will come up from the stump of Jesse; from his roots a Branch will bear fruit.”
A branch, bearing fruit?
During this season of Advent we celebrate God’s extraordinary gift of his son, Jesus, who became the bridge between heaven and earth, a redeeming bridge between God and us. Through the incarnation of Christ, this spark of God’s glory, the Word, became flesh and dwelt among us. This is one of the core treasures of the Christian church, shared by believers of all faiths and denominations.
Recently Reformed Worship was able to pose the following questions about the incarnation to three individuals.
I’ve sometimes heard the phrase “incarnational worship.” What does that mean? What is the significance of the incarnation for our daily living and worship?
Here are their responses:
At the Calvin Worship Symposium in January, world-renowned New Testament scholar N. T. Wright emphasized that congregations and Christians today need the broad themes of Scripture from Genesis to Revelation. We treat Scripture in devotional or moral bits, but we don’t know how the Scriptures go together. While the Revised Common Lectionary does provide some tools for this—it essentially organizes the church year around the life of Christ—it is missing the narrative or chronological journey through the Scriptures.
Note: This article is adapted from the introduction of Visser’s book The Birth of Jesus the Messiah: The Stories of Matthew and Luke for Preaching and Teaching, (WestBow Press, 2017).
It is common to come into a church and hear music. Singing, on the other hand, is another issue.
I have worked at several kinds of churches, including Lutheran, Roman Catholic, Methodist, Presbyterian, Baptist, and non-denominational. I’ve been a choir director, worship leader, and organist. I’ve noticed a common thread about singing running through every church: Each has a pastoral musician whom they trust.
It hit me a couple of weeks ago when I realized the worship planning team or someone—the pastor, probably, late Saturday night—used a banner I had designed at least fifteen years ago to signal this Sunday was Communion Sunday. Surely we must have done something different or new since then, right? Nope. I couldn’t think of anything beyond an on-screen graphic done up a couple of years ago for a Good Friday service.
Have you heard the news? Reformed Worship is celebrating its 30th anniversary! This is a rather amazing feat, given the current status of print publications. And while we would like to think this is the result of a stellar staff and even better subscribers, we are quick to realize how the services and articles that were sent in for publication were shaped through prayer and the working of the Holy Spirit. The RW staff are always surprised by how the Spirit brings the right submissions together at the right time to formulate each issue of this journal.
Last year our congregation chose to take a look at the Christmas story through the lens of our five senses.
On the first Sunday of the Advent season we looked at the tastes of Christmas. We began by looking at the reason why Jesus came, and we tasted the bread and the juice of communion as a reminder of the body and blood of the Lord.
This service is the first in a series titled “Sing 10,” which highlights services in which 10 or more songs are sung. Sometimes it will be in the form of the traditional hymn festival, but in this case it is a worship service with many options for congregational song in a more modern genre. What will set these articles apart from other services is that we will include lead sheets or full scores to a few of the songs as well as background or performance suggestions where applicable.
At the August 2014 meeting of the worship, music, and arts committee of Central Presbyterian Church in Atlanta, Georgia, one of the youth on the committee suggested an art installation project for our Advent, Christmas, and Epiphany seasons. Her name is Avery West, and her suggestion was that we create a large origami star mobile to hang from the ceiling of our sanctuary.
To the artist John August Swanson, art is a journey into the wonder of life. His art explores the ongoing narrative of God and God’s people through visual stories filled with hope, faith, and love. Swanson’s art guides us to see the sacredness of our ordinary lives and reflects the unique beauty of our everyday experiences. They become visual parables of the daily lives we share.
As Reformed Worship enters its 30th year, it is natural to look back and wonder what has changed since this publication began. My colleague John Witvliet can testify to the explosion of work in the area of liturgics and worship. The serious study of worship has gone from a relatively rare enterprise a few decades ago to a growing academic phenomenon. In addition to Reformed Worship, worship planners and pastors now have access to a mind-boggling wealth of resources.
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.
I’m sure I’m not the only worship leader to wonder what to do for the annual Thanksgiving Day service. Sometimes it feels like I have to manufacture a spirit of thankfulness for this one day before returning to business as usual the next morning. What if I’m not in a particularly thankful mood? What if my congregation is facing or enduring a tough situation? Manufacturing thankfulness for an hour of worship sounds trite and inappropriate.
Last week I was asked to lead worship at a small church plant. It was a young church where I, a 31-year-old, would be one of the older attendees. So I looked through my song list and choose three songs that would be fitting for the night before Easter. I wasn’t looking for any particular kind of song; just songs that conveyed the message of the cross and that might be familiar and singable with this group. It wasn’t until after I picked out the songs that I realized all three were hymns.
At a Church Near You . . .
Lisa, overflowing with energy and excitement greets a visiting couple. “It’s so good to have you here today. I’m on the worship planning committee and we have so many special portions to our service this morning. While this will be a surprise to the congregation, we asked the brass ensemble to join the opening song, but they are in the balcony so it will be an unexpected delight for all. We also get to celebrate the Lord’s Supper together. This is a great day for you to be part of our community.”
“The Word became flesh and blood, and moved into the neighborhood.”
—John 1:14, The Message
It’s that time of year again. Time to prepare for Advent and Christmas, looking for a new take on the old story, trying to find some creative ideas to get the juices flowing. But, as we all know, those ideas can’t be too involved because the months around Christmas are busy. As you and your congregation begin to prepare for this important season, may I make one suggestion? Leave room to think deeply.
One of the more subtly challenging aspects of worship planning that our team faces is how to develop a sense of cohesiveness from week to week. How does the worship we facilitate this week relate to what we experienced the previous week or to what we will encounter next week?
The ghosts of a chosen legacy
curl in rattling whispers, echoes of that
tarnished triumphal exodus rendered by the cleavage
of a foreboding sea and heralded
through the inciting song of Miriam.
The Israelite root hacked down, defiled
and tormentingly grafted in the crucible promise
of a pagan adopted daughter to a widowed Mara,
the gleaner only rescued by the bestowed favor of a kinsman redeemer,
his honor bound by the threads of marital covenant.
The tangled ancestry unfurling to seize
We are pleased to introduce a new series of writers for this Noteworthy column. This column and the ones appearing in the next three issues, though authored by an individual, are the result of a collaboration between four Canada-based writers who are associated with various colleges that make up the University of Toronto. In this issue we will hear from Swee Hong Lim. The other three collaborators are Christina Labriola (RW 118), Hilary Donaldson (RW 119), and Becca Whitla (RW 120).
Recently I served as the chairperson for a search committee that was seeking to hire a new professor of missions and missiology at Calvin Seminary. That task meant that I had the chance to bring myself up to speed a bit on the current state of conversations about missions and where some of the primary foci are in the field of missiology.
Every fall as we approach the Advent and Christmas seasons, I find myself searching for an entry point to these annual celebrations. What will “ignite” the planning process? Which idea, word, image, or song will come to mind and become the foundation of the eventual Advent chapel service at school or Christmas Eve celebration at church?
What is she doing? She has my dream job! I need to know about that job!”
The first time Hannah Garrity witnessed an artist creating visual art in worship, it nearly took the wind out of her.
For centuries, John 1 has offered the church perhaps its favorite Advent text outside of the birth narratives of Luke. But have we ever stopped to think about what was going through the mind of the author when he chose the word logos (word) to describe Jesus? Perhaps we are so used to the strange choice that we don’t realize how inscrutable it sounded the first time Western ears heard it. But make no mistake: it was utterly clear and eminently meaningful to John’s original audience.
While candlelight services often take us through the Christmas story with opportunities to sing beloved carols, this service is unique in that it focuses on our wilderness. So many of us relate to that dry place, that dark place, that lonely place, a place of despair, of yearning. The world around us is such a place, and it is to such a place that Christ came to be our Light. This service provides a beautiful and meaningful way to approach Christmas.
What can a small congregation do to meet the needs of children and families? Traditional age-stratified classes don’t work when there are only one or two children per grade level.
At key moments in their history, God’s Old Testament people renewed their covenant relationship with God. The following service is based on one of those moments as chronicled in Joshua 24. It invites the congregation not only to remember but also to rehearse and reenact the story as their own. Some congregations find such a rehearsal of God’s covenant particularly meaningful as they transition into a new year.
Scripture: Joshua 24:1
Keaton Lee Scott is a native of Langdale (now Valley), Alabama, where he was born on April 19, 1950. He received his bachelor of music and master of music degrees from the University of Alabama in 1973 and 1976, respectively. Since that time he has served as an adjunct faculty member for the Schools of Music at the University of Alabama at Tuscaloosa, the University of Alabama at Birmingham, and Samford University, and as organist/choir director at several churches. But his main occupation has been the writing of music.
¿Qué pasó con la segunda venida?
도대체 재림에 무슨 일이 생겼는가?
It has been years since I've heard a sermon or sung a song about Jesus' second coming. Why? How do we recover that?
Churches introduce the Lord’s Supper in their liturgies in various ways. Some use a recommended form, while others write their own. The latter might explore a topic such as the presence of Jesus at communion, or communion and children. Here, I’d like to consider another aspect of the Lord’s Supper: how it addresses the burdens we carry when we come to the table.
Joy to the world, the Lord has come! For those who observe it, Christmas is a day of much anticipation and celebration. In my home it is no different. Blessed with many friends and family, we have multiple celebrations to attend and gifts to exchange. It is a busy time with all the preparations and events at church. And there are so many traditions: the children’s Christmas pageant, our church’s Living Nativity, the Christmas Eve candlelight service, monkey bread on Christmas morning, family worship. Christmas is a wondrous time—a joy-filled time.
Prepare the Way is a series created by the Wesleyan Church that features four weeks of spiritual preparation leading up to Christmas. Included are sermon outlines; small group lessons for children, youth, and adults; and more. Many additional resources, including PowerPoint backgrounds, devotionals, and family service ideas can be found at wesleyan.org/323/advent-2013-prepare-the-way.
“O Come, O Come, Emmanuel” with Psalm 74
Let’s face it: Advent has been hijacked. Most people, including many Christians, consider Black Friday to be the beginning of the Christmas season. But long before the crush of holiday shopping at the end of November, Christmas lights festoon our streets and malls and the sound of Christmas jingles is inescapable.
The book of Isaiah, which has often been called “the fifth gospel,” preaches the Advent and Christmas gospel in ways that resist both hopelessness and sentimentality. Its texts are full of both unbending realism about the terror of sin and injustice, and resolute hope in the coming of the Messiah and the peaceable kingdom that this Messiah would usher in. This service of lessons and carols journeys through the book of Isaiah sequentially, with readings and music drawn from ten different chapters.
In late 2011 we decided to write a Christmas song for our congregation and to have the children of the congregation help us. We invited them to bring lyrics or ideas to include in the song as they came forward for their time with the pastors. They did so for a four-week period.
We (Veena Kulkarni and John Groen) then sat down and began crafting the lyrics. We had no tune in mind, but the lyrics came together with little resistance. They seemed to have a certain logic to them. After a couple of meetings they were in place.
- Two Readers
- Six Choral Readers (three “First Choral Readers” and three “Second Choral Readers”)
- Four Umbrella People
- Sick woman
- red—the blood of Christ (salvation)
- green—green pastures (protection)
This litany was originally written for a Bible study group’s Christmas worship celebration. It could easily be adapted for a larger worship gathering or a small family worship time. Make sure to have someone read the section titles to signal the liturgical moves in this litany. The original intent was for a different person to read each paragraph. However, if you use this in a church setting, it may be best to split the readings between three or four individuals. —JB
“Hear, O my people, and I will speak.” (Psalm 50:7)
“To hear God speaking, to listen to his voice, does not necessarily involve the auditory senses, but is like a field of vibrations that surround one’s life and one’s horizon with an engaging reality that overwhelms what is in sight before one.” (from Prayer by Hans Urs von Balthasar [Ignatius Press, 1986])
The Church Year as Evangelistic Resource; Active and Passive Advent Piety; and Weaving Together Christmastide and New Year's Day
So often, church year seasons drive our worship planning process. But terms like “Advent” and “Epiphany” don’t communicate well. They end up being barriers to our audience—especially our audience of the unchurched. What can we do about that?
For many of us, Advent marks the beginning of the church year. But is it the proper place to start? The season from Advent to Epiphany is only one chapter in the metanarrative that began with the creation of the world. Scripture makes it clear that the mission of God is to redeem the world, to bring the nations to himself.
In the Old Testament, God chose to work primarily through the Hebrew people to bring others into the covenant community. In Genesis 12 God says to Abraham:
Finding a fresh way to share, experience, and delight in the Advent season and in the celebration of Christmas can prove challenging year after year. The story is well known to church members, and creating services that encourage them to enter the story with fresh, excited, and expectant eyes and hearts can be difficult.
One of the surprises of Christmas is who was “in the know”: a group of shepherds, an old man and an old woman, a group of foreigners. The good news of Christ’s birth went forth into unlikely places and was spread among people of all backgrounds. For centuries, missions meant taking the gospel message and going or sending people to another place in the world to share it. Today, the world is no longer far away, and one of the ways we experience the global church is through our worship music.
Prayer stations are a wonderful way to engage all the senses in meditation, reflection, and prayer. And while they are often used as a separate experience for youth groups or special events, I’ve started to wonder about using them in the context of Sunday morning worship.
It’s the season of light. Christmas lights surround us and captivate the children among us and the child within. In worship the light is much more subdued as each week we simply add one more candle flame to the Advent wreath. While the growing light might not be noticeable, the true Light that has come down to earth touches each one of us, and we in turn are called to share the light of Christ with others.
Q After twelve years of planning worship, Advent is starting to feel a bit tired to me—we seem to fall back on the same texts and songs. How can we freshen up our approach?
Worship leaders and planners are well aware of the pervasive use of projection media for songs, prayers, litanies, art, and advertisements in worship services. Googling “worship backgrounds” returns about six million options. While examples of digital worship visuals are plentiful, there are miscues everywhere, including slides that are cliché, distracting, or poorly designed.
The psalms touch every emotion. They are genuine cries to God, longing for hope, and shouts of praise that lead us into a closer relationship with our Lord. This service uses the psalms through the eyes of Advent. In Advent we wait, we remember what God did for his people in the past, and we rejoice in our salvation. We also look ahead, knowing that our Lord, the King of glory, is coming, full of truth and grace.
As Christians, sharing the gospel message should be something we do as naturally as breathing, both in word and in action. This litany encourages us to share Christ daily with all those we meet.
Leader: Eternal God, you give us a guide for our lives in your Word.
All: Love the Lord your God with all your heart,
Women: with all your soul,
Men: with all your mind,
A few years ago I visited my friend Shawn, who is what you would call an audiophile. Shawn devotes an immense amount of time, energy, and money to thinking about and listening to music. He’s one of these people who would rather buy music than groceries. His apartment was simple, but decorated wall to wall with record albums.
I asked Shawn, “Why do you still collect records?” He looked at me, as audiophiles do, as if he were disappointed in me. He simply shook his head and said, “Because they sound better!”
As I reflect on this issue of Reformed Worship, the words “longing” and “journey” come to mind. Longing is what sends us out on our journey to discover what more there is to life. Ever since the fall, people have been longing for things to be the way they were meant to be. We long for the restoration of relationships gone wrong. We long for a creation restored. We long for an end to war and violence and hunger and pain. And so we journey on in faith and hope.
We long for more. Especially at Christmastime, we long for more. I don’t mean the common longing for toys and family, carols and jolly feelings, eggnog and Santa. I mean a real, deep longing for something that actually fills us up and satisfies. We long for Christ to be with us.
Somewhere inside the busyness of the “real world” there’s “rest,” but it can be hard to find. Although we look for it in various places, it is often elusive or fleeting, at best. Today, I want to introduce you to a man who was forced to learn the hard way to find rest. Zechariah was a priest. You can find the word “rest” inside the word “priest,” but Zechariah had a hard time finding it. His story helps me, and I hope it helps you too. This is the story of Zechariah.
Reading and hearing the biblical narratives leading up to the birth of Christ seems countercultural these days. Commercial establishments begin celebrating an “instant” Christmas the day after Halloween. But when there’s no room for Advent celebration, there’s no “prepare the way of the Lord,” no waiting and working for Christ’s kingdom.
First Sunday in Advent
Jesus said, “I am the light of the world.”
Advent is a time of waiting, but it can also be a very meaningful time of confession. These four litanies for confession and assurance are designed for consecutive use during the four Sundays in Advent.
First Sunday in Advent
Song: “O Come, O Come, Immanuel” (st. 1-2, sung by choir) LUYH, CH 245, PH 9, PsH 328, SFL 123, SWM 81, TH 194, WR 154
In the Christmas classic It’s a Wonderful Life, George Bailey (played by Jimmy Stewart) yearns for something better. But, beginning with his father’s untimely death, circumstances beyond George’s control thwart each of his plans to escape the runty town of his birth. George doles out his life helping small people live their small-town dreams. All the while, he believes he is missing something. He longs for something more, something exotic and adventurous, and audiences all over the world have identified with his longings for more than sixty years.
This Christmas Eve service tells the story of God’s salvation plan from the Garden of Eden to Jesus’ resurrection. It shows how all of Scripture is one big story of God calling his people back to him. The service is appropriate for people of all ages and all stages of the faith journey, and can be used in a wide variety of settings.
Christmas can be a beautiful time to incorporate movement into your worship gatherings. Christmas Eve candlelight services provide an especially wonderful atmosphere for introducing a simple dance done either in a group or solo. Christmas programs are also a perfect time for children to lead movement and get comfortable worshiping through motion. And what better occasion than Christmas Day, the birth of our King, to get the whole congregation involved in a processional with simple side steps and clapping?
One of the challenges when planning a hymnal is deciding where a particular song belongs, knowing that though the index in the back of the hymnal may suggest multiple places for a particular song, the location of the song has greater influence on when it will be sung. The challenge in this Noteworthy is to think outside the hymnal placement, as each one of these songs can be used both during the time from Advent to Epiphany as well as at other times of the year.
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.
Christian or not, you can’t help but wonder if the world is about to implode.
No, this isn’t another Harold Camping-esque attempt at prophecy. It’s just a simple statement of fact. The world as we presently know it will end. This truth is as certain as the birth and resurrection of Christ.
Week 1: Jesus, Our Good News
Colossians 1:1-8, 28-29
Lighting of Advent Candle
Ringing of Bells
After wrapping up last year’s Advent series at our church, Pastor Dale proposed the idea of using the book of Ruth for our next Advent series. Although my thoughts kept rolling around the question How will he get Advent and Christmas out of the book of Ruth? I didn’t say anything. By July, when it was time to select bulletin covers for Advent, the question was still there.
I needed to know how to correlate the Advent candle wreath lighting with the sermon theme. What evolved became one of my favorite Christmas series.
This article is the second in a series introducing “Worshiping the Triune God,” a working document published following the inaugural meeting of the World Communion of Reformed Churches (WCRC) in June 2010 (see Part 1 in RW 100).
Every year Christians celebrate the two great festivals of Christmas and Easter that give meaning to our lives: Christ’s coming to earth in human form and in humility, and Christ’s return to his Father in a glorified human body. This year, Advent begins on November 27 with the Scripture passages in the Revised Common Lectionary for Year B.
The following theme, objective, and structure outline is reminiscent of the lesson plans teachers prepare for their classes. As worship planners it would be a great discipline to use similar categories for our planning.
A seven-year-old friend of mine showed me his sketchbook after the service last Sunday. It was a drawing of one of the electric guitars used by the praise band of our church. He was quite proud of his work, but he was quick to point out that the strings weren’t quite right. They were a little heavy-looking, but it was a very well-drawn picture for a kid his age. Afraid Sam would quit drawing guitars because the first one he drew wasn’t perfect, I told him how in art school you get to draw and redraw the same thing over and over until it feels just right.
The book of Isaiah has long been appreciated for its vivid imagery depicting broad messianic themes: the Anointed One, the Coming One who will bring about God’s redemptive purposes in history; the Messiah as King who “will judge the needy with righteousness and with justice will give decisions for the poor”; but also the Messiah as an obedient servant whose suffering unto death works God’s redemption. As a consequence, Isaiah has often been called “the fifth gospel.”
Dear God, be with my cat. Be with my grandma. Be with my friend who broke his arm.
The prayers of young children, in spite of their “me-centeredness,” often reflect concerns with their immediate world. These basic intercessory prayers show that kids work to develop their own prayer life. They also prompt us to guide our children well in learning the full range of a rich prayer life with God.
Q. I don’t want to go into all the details, but our congregation has had a really tough year. Our worship planners are weary and worried about guiding the church through the “joyful” Christmas season. They don’t have a lot of joy and wish they could skip ahead to the New Year so we can start over. Do you have any ideas to encourage them?
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.
You go for the kids. At least that’s what you tell yourself. You know the story, and though the songs may change from year to year, little else does. It’s not that it’s not enjoyable; it’s just that it’s so predictable. The story doesn’t change, and you don’t expect it to change you—not after all these years.
Psalm 150 declares, “Praise [God] for his mighty acts; praise him according to his excellent greatness!” (KJV). God requires our very best, and we dishonor God if we offer anything less (see Malachi 1:8).
Most of the worship leaders I know strive for excellence, and most of the conferences I attend encourage excellence too. But what does excellence in worship mean to you? How do we know when excellence is achieved? What standards do we look to?
Because Advent can be a hectic time of year, our Creative Arts Team wanted to give worshipers the opportunity to slow down. For the four Sundays of Advent we intentionally set aside time at the beginning of each worship service to enable worshipers to take a breath, reflect, and focus on the coming Savior. It was our hope that this slow-paced opening would help us all “wait for the Lord.”
This article is taken from a 1980 editorial in Liturgy and Music in Reformed Worship, the precursor to Reformed Worship. Unlike back issues of Reformed Worship, the jewels in these newsletters are not available online, so we decided to share a few of them with you. You may be surprised at how much hasn’t changed in the last 30 years.
It’s not surprising that the topic of lament is generally ignored in November and December. During this time, when sparkling window displays surround us and manic Christmas music streams from every department store, lament seems shockingly discordant with the season—an inappropriate drifting from “the Christmas spirit.” Though some churches do seek to minister to those who experience grief, loss, and loneliness during Advent, lament is not generally a part of our church services.
All families develop rituals and traditions. In one family, the grandmother always cut off one end of the Easter ham and baked it in a separate pan. When someone eventually asked Grandma about the symbolism behind this ritual, she laughed and said there was no symbolism. For the many decades she’d been in charge of the Easter feast, she’d never had a pan big enough to hold the whole ham, so she always cut it. It was as simple as that.
We Did It!
I thought I would send you some photos of what our visual arts committee did with your idea. The back cover of Reformed Worship is always our favorite. Thanks so much for all of your work and ideas.
Worship Director, Brookfield CRC,
Awhile ago I happened to be reading one of the minor prophets when I came across a prophecy about the Messiah. I wondered why this prophecy was not included in the traditional service of lessons and carols made popular by the King’s College, Cambridge. My interest piqued, I decided to try to create a new service of lessons and carols using different lessons than those we usually hear.
is at the root
is at the heart
and not for one day only
but for each waking day.
At the heart
of Christ’s incarnation
is the truth
that God makes extraordinary things
in ordinary places,
that heaven and earth
holy and earthly
God and human
The wonder of Christmas
Sometimes, having an art education can be a problem when choosing books for your kids. There are many fine storybooks out there, but there are also many so-so offerings with overly simplistic storylines and color
palettes that include only primary colors.
And then there are the picture books of Eric Carle and Lois Ehlert. Clever and beautifully illustrated with cut and torn paper, they are a treat for kids and the adults who read with them.
All in the Family
Lately I’ve been struck by the frantic pace of life. Some folks are complaining about being overloaded; most simply look tired. Meanwhile, I feel increasingly compelled to help people rest in God’s presence.
Afew years ago, we designed a worship service for the first Sunday of Advent to introduce and explain the general themes of the season, including the lighting of Advent candles. In past years, the latter had received cursory attention, consisting of a short Bible reading followed by the lighting of the corresponding candle. I saw value in giving the Advent candle themes more attention, perhaps by “illuminating” their meanings (hope, love, joy, peace) visually. We decided to create a banner for each Advent candle.
This dramatic reading was written to show how the announcement of a coming Savior fit snugly into the history and expectations of God’s
people, how the Lord Almighty is a God of justice who watches over the needy, and how this God will be manifest in Jesus.
Forty or fifty years ago, there wasn’t much question of what you’d find when opening a hymnal: congregational songs displayed in four-part harmony. Glorious SATB! There is nothing like the sound of a congregation raising its praise in a robust balance of soprano, alto, tenor, and bass. Many of the best singing congregations in Reformed, Mennonite, and Lutheran traditions don’t even need the support of an organ or piano to complete their harmonies.
Discovering fresh worship music for Advent, Christmas, and Epiphanycan certainly be a challenge. In no other season is the pressure to singfamiliar songs so evident. And yet, in this season we are surrounded bywhat we already know. We hear the old Christmas strains on our commute,at Starbucks, and in the mall.
To help my faith community stay spiritually awake in December, I usetwo methods: creatively arranging old favorites and introducing newworld and modern songs. Here are a few suggestions for doing both.
I can’t imagine worship through the cycle of Advent, Christmas, and Epiphany without music. Through the centuries, composers and arrangers have offered the church a wealth of music that is consistent with the themes of worship for these seasons.
Note: The readers’ parts should be adapted to fit the “voice” and experience of the readers as well as the context in which this script is used.
[Violin plays through “O Come, O Come, Immanuel” CH 245, PH 9, PsH 328, SFL 123, SWM 81, TH 194, WR 154 one time.]
Reader 1: When I was a child, I had no patience for family reunions or for the drawn-out discussions about family genealogy that occurred over Sunday morning coffee at my grandfather’s house.
It’s coming, just like it always does, ready or not: the moment when the congregation becomes quiet and everyone’s eyes turn toward you. The moment when you take a deep breath and then do your best to unfold the mysteries of Scripture. The moment when you find out whether the sermon that seemed so compelling in your office can compete with this week’s episode of The Office.
Every preacher faces that pressure. But different preachers may take very different approaches.
This is the second of three letters from Tapescrew to his nephew Woodworm, in which he delights in the human tendency to resist dependence on “the Enemy.”
My dear Woodworm,
The following article, though not typical for Reformed Worship, is well worth spending some time on. Pastors, musicians, and worship planners alike can benefit from considering the pairing of text and tune and the challenges that arise from a plethora of choices. In addition, several denominations are in the process of developing new hymnbooks for congregational song. This series of articles provide a peek into some of the detailed discussions that take place when considering the pairing of texts and tunes.
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?
I admit it. I’m a self-professed worship nerd. I’ve been known to match the color of the runner on my office table to the current season of the church year. In fact, just about all the décor in my office and home is liturgical in nature. I like to surround myself with reminders of who I am in the much larger scheme of God’s plan of redemption. At Christmas, of course, the décor includes a nativity set.
The Message in the Music: Studying Contemporary Praise & Worship
Robert H. Woods and Brian D. Walrath, eds. (Abingdon, 2007)
This excellent study seeks to give a balanced assessment of both the text and music of contemporary worship music by studying the seventy-seven most commonly used songs in American churches as reported by CCLI (the copyright licensing company).
For this Advent series we created dialogues where parents would speak informally with their children about who Jesus is. Each week we sang Graham Kendrick’s “Meekness and Majesty” (SNC 109), which contrasts Jesus’ divinity with the humble circumstances of his birth. These dialogues accompanied the lighting of the Advent candle each week.
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How far and deep does the meaning of Advent go? Christmas can easily become sentimentalized with nativity scenes or mistakenly celebrated as the beginning of an escape to heaven. Our worship planning group tried to bring out a sense of the deep adventure that Advent really is by drawing in the cosmic scope of Christ’s incarnation in the world.
“After Jesus was born in Bethlehem in Judea, during the time of King Herod, Magi from the east came to Jerusalem and asked, ‘Where is the one who has been born king of the Jews? We saw his star when it rose and have come to worship him.’ When King Herod heard this he was disturbed, and all Jerusalem with him.”
This service is modeled after the renowned “Festival of Nine Lessons and Carols” heard every Christmas Eve over BBC radio. It was first drawn up by Archbishop Benson when he was Bishop of Truro for use in that Cathedral. In 1918 it was simplified and modified for use in King’s College Chapel in Cambridge, England, by Eric Milner-White, who, at age thirty-four, had just become dean of King’s College.
For Christmas last year, my daughter, a sixth-grader, was given a sturdy box filled with 365 pieces of origami paper—one for each day of the year. On the back side of each brightly colored “tomorrow’s” sheet of paper is a pattern for “today’s” origami.
As I write this, we are at day 148, and she has folded 148 pieces of paper, almost to the day. She’s like that. Oh, and of course, we save each and every one.
The Advent/Christmas/Epiphany cycle is a time of newness: a new liturgical year begins with the first Sunday of Advent. A new year on the secular calendar begins before the cycle is done. And let’s not forget the new babies in the stories!
This children’s Christmas program, which incorporates questions and answers from the Heidelberg Catechism, follows the well-known structure of “sin, salvation, and service.” It is a celebration of God’s love for us and our response in faith.
Many hymnals have a large section devoted to Christmas. In actual practice, this section gets used throughout Advent (thereby shortchanging the character of Advent). If you take a few moments to page through the Christmas carols and hymns in almost any hymnal, you’ll find that narrative and folksy, sentimental lyrics easily outweigh songs with a theological treatment of the meaning of Christ’s incarnation.
“We Three Kings/Bell Carol,” arr. Foncannon
“Songs of the Season,” arr. Keveren
Eternal God, you have made yourself known to people of all ages, all times, and all walks of life. As the magi were overjoyed when they saw the star, so may we be filled with joy as you reveal yourself to us this morning. Amen.
A shy female student stepped to the microphone and prayed: “Bring peace to regions of conflict, especially Sudan, Israel, and Gaza.” A tall male student bent over the same microphone: “Bring consolation and companionship to widows and orphans.” Another student, standing on tiptoes, adjusted the microphone to her mouth: “Renew our nation in the ways of justice and peace.”
Our church can be described as a singing church. As part of our worship pattern, once a year we usually hold a hymn-sing, gathering to worship God specifically through song. This year our pastor preached a series of sermons based on various psalms, so instead of a hymn-sing we decided to hold a psalm-sing.
The season after Christmas and before Lent can often seem like a “down” time in the church year—as if we’re simply marking time while waiting for another grand celebration. Whether it is because people are suffering from holiday fatigue or influenced by gloomy winter weather, the season of Epiphany can go by unnoticed and unheralded.
C.S. Lewis’s Screwtape Letters consists of an imagined correspondence between the senior demon Screwtape and his young nephew Wormwood. Screwtape gives advice on tempting and leading humans astray. Lewis uses this correspondence to make some insightful and often biting observations about the human condition, and how easily we are deceived by the forces of evil.
Each year four churches in Woodstock, Ontario, gather for a combined service to celebrate Reformation Day. Those four churches are Knox Presbyterian, Emmanuel Reformed, Maranatha Christian Reformed, and Covenant Christian Reformed. In this service the focus was on remembering that God is present in all facets of our lives.
Welcome and Announcements
Silent Prayer (Concluded with singing “I Love You, Lord”)
This versatile drama presentation, based on the Heidelberg Catechism’s first question and answer, can be included in a worship service in a variety of settings and stages. The reading can be adapted to include five to twenty or more student readers. For Part 3, you’ll need three different colors of T-shirts for three small groups of two to three students—each of the small groups puts on a matching color T-shirt to identify them as a group. (Inexpensive colored T-shirts are available at most large craft stores.)
The purpose of Reformed Worship is to support the creative and discerning process of worship planning and leadership. We hope that churches will adapt all the resources included in this journal, but sometimes we wonder how they’re doing that.
We were encouraged by the following note from Mary Winters, particularly because her whole church got involved in the project. We share this with you in the hope that you will find it equally encouraging. —JB
Three New Song Collections
Of the making of hymnal supplements there is no end, it seems. Actually, the term “hymnal supplement” is hardly an appropriate name anymore. The old pattern of hymnals being replaced in about a generation by a new hardbound hymnal has all but disappeared.
If you’re like me, you find the cover of this issue of RW thought-provoking. Chris Stoffel Overvoorde’s That Glorious Form stops us short and makes us think. The Christ child in a crown of thorns? It’s not a pretty picture. It’s not the typical picture of Advent and the Christmas season. If given the choice, we would rather focus on the perfect, beautiful baby in the manger with the loving gaze of his mother and father falling upon him. We prefer the pretty picture.
Q We’ve had complaints of having too much of a “minor-key Advent” in our church. How would you respond?
A It all depends!
Advent is a time of great hope. But it is also a time to dwell honestly with the fact that our full hopes for Christ’s second coming are not yet fulfilled. Advent is also a time of waiting.
After I led a group of people with cognitive impairments in the celebration of the Lord’s Supper, Sarah approached me to ask a question. I had difficulty understanding her because I don’t know her well and because she has trouble articulating certain sounds.
Finally, I understood that she hadn’t come forward to take communion that evening because she has a swallowing disorder. Sarah feared she would choke in front of everyone as she took the elements. She asked if we could go to a more private place where I could serve her. I was delighted to do so.
Q We’ve had complaints of having too much of a “minor-key Advent” in our church. How would you respond?
A It all depends!
Advent is a time of great hope. But it is also a time to dwell honestly with the fact that our full hopes for Christ’s second coming are not yet fulfilled. Advent is also a time of waiting.
Human nature is such that we prefer the sweet to the sour, the easy to the hard, the light rather than the darkness. But for the light to seem bright, we first need to spend time in darkness. Similarly, we need Advent to comprehend the gift of Christmas. This series allows us to dwell in Advent, to notice that we’re living in between the two advents, to dare to look at the world’s darkness in order to better see the brightness of Christ’s light.
We distinguish between these holy books
and the apocryphal ones. . . .
The church may certainly read these books
and learn from them
as far as they agree with the canonical books.
—Belgic Confession, Article 6
During Advent we wanted to draw all the generations in our congregation into the wonderful messages of hope, love, peace, and joy. To do that, we wrote dramatic scripts to reflect God’s command to tell the children the stories of his faithfulness. Storytellers represented the gospel characters who had received God’s message directly from angels: Zechariah, Mary, Joseph, and the shepherds.
Children are the living messages we send to a time we will not see.” Christ Community Church takes this quote by cultural critic Neil Postman seriously. According to the church’s vision statement, it “desires to be a vibrant, spiritual community that shapes the next generation of God’s champions.” One way this happens at Christ Community is by involving kids in creating visual art that helps lead the congregation to worship God.
Last December, our worship committee was looking for an idea for our annual candlelight service. For our Advent worship we had used the series “The Places of Christmas” (RW 77), which traced the places along God’s story of redemption. To build on this theme, our worship team came up with “People and Places of the Nativity”—a service looking at the significance of the ordinary people and places of the nativity story.
Snow falls gently outside the window. Inside, the fireplace spreads its mellow warmth through the family room. Firelight plays on the walls and ceiling as the children snuggle around you on the couch. There are cookies and milk, your favorite tattered Bible, and expectant eyes and ears. It’s time to read the Christmas story from Luke 2 again. What a beautiful family tradition!
"Why are there no good Christmas songs?” one of my college students asked last December. He was frustrated in his search for contemporary songs to use in our Sunday evening worship service. Though he found several good hymns and carols to use, he wasn’t coming up with anything new.
Here’s the typical music director’s dilemma: you want to use instrumentalists in the service because that adds a unique dimension to your worship, but you also know there’s a wide range of ability among your willing volunteers; many, if not all, are amateurs.
How can you select repertoire that honors their capabilities and helps them reach their full potential in using their gifts to serve the Lord? Here’s some practical advice for doing just that.
Our Approach to God
[Sound of clock ticking; the words, “Teach us to number our days” appear one by one on screen. Piano plays “Now Is the Time to Worship” as PowerPoint slide dissolves into the words of the song. Throughout the service, words of all litanies and songs are projected on screen.]
Involvement in the arts is an important way for kids of all ages to find their place in congregational life. Church is a place where someone can recognize and respect children’s gifts and then work with them to create something unique that contributes to the whole congregation’s worship. Be that person!
The construction of this hanging is simple and the amount of potato printing required will give everyone plenty of opportunity to perfect the technique.
I Say Potato
Here’s how it’s done:
The following is the first of a three-part series based on a transcript of a lecture given by Dr. N. T. Wright at Calvin College on January 6, 2007. Much of this lecture is based on his previous writings, especially Simply Christian (HarperCollins, 2006). We are grateful to Dr. Wright for allowing us to share this lecture with our readers over the next three issues. In this issue the focus will be on the sacraments in general; RW 90 will focus on baptism; and RW 91 on the Eucharist.
When we gather for worship on New Year’s Eve, we do so to praise God for the past year—to thank God for the wonderful gifts he has given us and to remember his wonderful deeds. But what if our year has not been good? What if, when we think back on the year, all we can remember is pain and heartache? What if we lost someone we dearly loved? What if we drifted away from a loving friend? What if we lost our job and are struggling to make ends meet? What if we’ve fallen into sinful behavior and find it difficult to break free? What if we feel abandoned by God?
The idea for this service began in late November 2007. As a congregation we were not planning to hold a New Year’s Eve or a New Year’s Day service. So we asked the question, “How will we begin the new year on Epiphany Sunday?” The idea that stuck was to ask members of the congregation to submit Bible texts that had sustained them, given them hope, and challenged them in the past year or two. The members responded with nearly one hundred submissions!
One Sunday I (Steve) served as visiting preacher at a church that had planned a mission emphasis service. As I took a seat near the front, I was impressed by a colorful display of flags representing the countries touched by the congregation’s missionaries. The music carried the energy of the large and growing majority-world Christian movement. A little later in the service, a PowerPoint presentation projected scenes of Christians from around the world gathering to worship the crucified, risen, and reigning Christ.
Scan the crowd at one of Madison Square Church’s well-attended Sunday services and you’ll see something rare: a group whose demographics actually looks like its diversely-peopled promotional materials.
Imagine standing in the arrivals area at the airport, your heart pounding. Your beloved has been away on a long trip, and any second he or she is going to walk through those doors. In your mind you can already see the dear, tired face lighting up as your eyes meet.
What a sense of excitement there is when something eagerly anticipated finally arrives! That same kind of anticipatory joy characterizes our waiting for Jesus in Advent. In fact, our sense of joy during longed-for events in our lives is mild compared to the joy of what God has done, and is still doing, in Jesus.
Calvin Institute of Christian Worship Announces 2008 Worship Renewal Grant Recipients
When church leaders talk about worship, they tend to talk about style, techniques, and equipment for worship services. But many congregations are dedicated to reflecting on the deeper meaning and purpose of worship and congregational life.
Still Relevant After All These Years
I was recently looking for some resources on Seder suppers when I ran across your publication. In RW 6 (Winter 1987/88) I found just what I needed (Steve Schlissel’s article). Although I was able to read the article online I ordered a back copy of the issue so I could have it to read in print. What a treasure!