We are a culture that fears the uncomfortable, looks for the easy option, and is quickly distracted by the latest shiny bauble. We are a culture that does whatever it can to avoid being confronted by the darkness and evil that surrounds us, to live in denial of the atrocities occurring even in our own communities. We are a culture that is quick to lay blame for the struggles of other humans at their feet rather than consider our own part in supporting systems that have created and maintained injustice. We don’t want to see or feel truth.
This Advent series highlights the themes of promise, preparation, joy, and hope with a focus on how angels model worship in both the Nativity story and in Revelation.
Each week’s Advent readings were read by two members of our youth group.
“Can we please do something different for Christmas Eve this year?”
“Can we try something that will speak to those on the fringes of our community?”
If you plan worship, questions like this might be vying for attention in your own church. While services with traditional structures and themes may appeal to some, others, depending on their age and background, could find such an approach difficult to relate to.
For about seven years in the 1960s, the Beatles recorded special Christmas songs and greetings for the members of its fan club (mailed to them on a 45 rpm—remember those?). One year the song was titled “Christmas Time (Is Here Again).” It has to count as one of the simplest of all Beatles songs as the five words of the title are sung over and over. And over. And over again.
The theme for these Advent/Christmas/Epiphany visuals is “All Is Calm, All Is Bright.” It was inspired by the two hundredth anniversary (in 2018) of the composition of the well-loved Christmas carol “Silent Night! Holy Night” Mohr, LUYH 85, GtG 122, PsH 344. The visual elements incorporated into the sanctuary during the season carried great meaning and significance.
For this Advent/Christmas issue of Reformed Worship, we asked our RW staff this question: “What congregational song related to the story of Christ’s birth do you find particularly meaningful and why?”
from Handel’s Messiah.
Words: Job 19:25–26; 1 Corinthians 15:20; adapt. by Charles Jennens
It’s in the news. It’s in our politics. It’s in our streets. And increasingly, it’s in our churches: diversity—or, more specifically, conflict over the ethnic, racial, and cultural differences that mark “us” as “us” and “them” as “them,” those who are “in” and those who are “out.”
Acquired disability is the norm as we age. An acquired disability occurs after birth, typically from accident, illness, or increasing age. According to the U.S. Census Bureau, 71 percent of Americans aged eighty and older have a disability. Statistics Canada has found that 43 percent of Canadians over seventy-five live with a disability.
Eighty and Over Sunday” emerged in the life of a small, rural congregation I was serving. It struck me that we had a significant number of elderly in our midst—people who for years had lived their faith and shaped the life of the community. We were wanting to hold some special services to be an evangelical outreach to those affiliated with or known to the congregation but who did not regularly attend. A service and reception honoring the elderly among us seemed a good way for families and friends to reconnect in a positive, life-giving way.
It’s been twenty years or so since video projection took over many of our worship spaces. Because we were so enamored by the new technology—guaranteed to take our worship to the next level, whatever that was—it quietly snagged the top spot in the visual hierarchy of our spaces.
Lately I’ve been thinking about the scope of the incarnation. Jesus was born and dwelt among us. But who is the ‘us’? Were there ever any borders, either physical or metaphorical, that Jesus stayed within? Any study of Scripture is quick to show that Jesus made it a practice to cross as many borders as possible in his time on earth.
The Chronicles of Narnia have held a special place in my heart and life for many years. They invite me to imagine other worlds and give me fresh insights into the ways the biblical narrative of creation, sin, and sacrifice can be understood and experienced. I’m not alone in my deep appreciation for all the times that Aslan, Lucy, Eustace, Reepicheep, and other Narnian characters have popped into conversation as illustrations from another world for how we might live in this world.
This Christmas service of songs and readings examines Jesus’ birth and how he is the fulfillment of God’s covenant from four perspectives: Isaiah the prophet, Mary the mother of Jesus, Paul the apostle, and the believers living in the present time. As the covenant people living under God’s faithfulness, we shall re-examine our role or responsibility in this grand story.
Voice 1: A reading of Matthew 2:13–14
When [the magi] had gone, an angel of the Lord appeared to Joseph in a dream. “Get up,” he said, “take the child and his mother and escape to Egypt. Stay there until I tell you, for Herod is going to search for the child to kill him.”
So he got up, took the child and his mother during the night and left for Egypt.
What if . . . ?
What if the angel hadn’t warned Joseph in a dream that Herod was seeking to kill Jesus?
Most churches celebrate the season of Advent. But for many pastors and worship committee members, this season can be a challenge. There are, it seems, only a limited number of ways to retell the Christmas story in a way that is fresh and insightful.
With this in mind, we decided to base our Advent worship on the theme of Christmas carols. It was a challenge to select just a handful of songs to focus on during the four Sundays of Advent and Christmas Day, but we chose these five popular carols:
Written to be sung following the second stanza (“God of God . . .”) of “O Come, All Ye Faithful.”
Gently she holds him, deity enshrouded.
Love comes redeeming our mortal estate.
Sharing our dying, firstborn of our rising.
O come, let us adore him,
O come, let us adore him,
O come, let us adore him,
Christ the Lord!
Recently I was interviewed for a podcast in connection with a blog I write for a couple of times each month. The interviewer asked the question, “What is the difference between a blog and a sermon?” It was a good question and not one I’d thought about much before. Whether what I came up with by way of an answer was very good or complete I don’t know.
The following is an adapted transcript of the first part of a session led by Dr. Charlotte vanOyen Witvliet, Rev. Cindy Holtrop, Dr. Warren Kinghorn, and Dr. John Swinton at the Calvin Symposium on Worship, held in January 2018 at Calvin College, Grand Rapids, Michigan. In this first section they discuss together the promises and pitfalls of worship and mental illnesses. The remaining portion of this session focuses on prayer and will appear in RW 130.
We all want to see more millennials active in the church. A simple observation most Sunday mornings bares the statistical truth that this demographic is much smaller than other generations in worship. Although this reality can be explained by several cultural and sociological obstacles, it is discouraging that more emerging adults (ages eighteen to thirty) are not active in the life and work of the church. The gifts and experiences of emerging adults are vital to the church’s flourishing, and the church has much to offer them in community, support, and spiritual formation.
I hate, I despise your festivals,
and I take no delight in your solemn assemblies.
Even though you offer me your burnt offerings and grain offerings,
I will not accept them;
and the offerings of well-being of your fatted animals
I will not look upon.
Take away from me the noise of your songs;
I will not listen to the melody of your harps.
But let justice roll down like waters,
- Share stories of God’s grace: For ideas on how to do this, see crcna.org/FaithFormation/toolkits/faith-storytelling-toolkit.
- Symphony of praise: Invite children (and children at heart) to come forward and choose either a small percussive instrument, a flag, or a ribbon to use during a sung time of praise.
When we enter a worship setting, we’re often met by a cacophony of sounds: the hum of friendly greetings, the strum of a guitar, the laughter of young children. We absorb God’s Word and proclaim God’s glory through speaking and listening and singing. But what happens when the person walking through the doors of our church is deaf? How does one participate in worship, specifically musical worship, without the ability to hear?
Our church is redesigning its website and asked for our worship team’s help with including materials related to worship. What advice does RW have?
At a 2018 Worship Symposium workshop, painter and calligrapher Matt Plescher (mattplescher.com) showed participants how to do brush calligraphy. With Plescher’s permission, his work “God is with us” is adapted here for an Advent/Christmas visual. His original art is available free of charge at viascriptura.com.
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.