Storytelling is a universal phenomenon playing a significant and revered role in all cultures before our modern western age. Through the passing on of stories, history was learned and remembered, children were educated, truths were passed on, and hope was given. Listeners learned about good and evil, about perseverance in the face of all kinds of trials, and that ultimately good wins over evil. Many stories portrayed a simple dichotomy of good versus evil, but more complex stories showed that most of the world had a propensity for either, and it was up to us to choose to do right.
As we prepare for Holy Week, I am struck by the increasing challenge of exploring the profound meaning of Jesus’ passion, death, and resurrection in a community with relatively little knowledge of the Bible. What advice do you have for retooling our approaches to worship in light of biblical illiteracy?
This service was originally planned in 2016 for the first-ever Ash Wednesday service at CrossPoint Christian Reformed Church of Brampton, Ontario. I planned it with Scott Post—then CrossPoint’s youth pastor—and a young member of the congregation. In 2019 I amended and adapted the original service for our context at Immanuel Christian Reformed Church in Brampton, a congregation that hadn’t observed Ash Wednesday for many years.
Years ago during Lent at my former congregation in Grand Rapids, Michigan, I structured a series of Lenten sermons around Merold Westphal’s then-new book Suspicion & Faith: The Religious Uses of Modern Atheism (Fordham University Press, 1998). In the book, Westphal profiled three of the most prominent atheists in the modern era: Sigmund Freud, Karl Marx, and Friedrich Nietzsche.
A Festival of Nine Lessons and Carols was developed by the King’s College, Cambridge, in 1918 and has been the annual Christmas Eve service held in King’s College Chapel ever since. Its stunning beauty, simplicity, and opportunity for congregational participation has made it a popular service implemented by other churches all over the world for the past century.
For Ash Wednesday, the ministry team of Princeton Christian Reformed Church (Grand Rapids, Michigan) created an intergenerational event for Ash Wednesday which could also work at any other time during Lent. You will need one plastic egg for each person you expect to attend and can adjust the rest of the supplies accordingly. You will also need at least four readers for the gathering time, a few people for imposition of ashes, three station leaders who read the “Hear It” script, one or two helpers for each station, and three ushers.
Props: two podiums, a large piece of black fabric; a large, sturdy easel; a large canvas with a rainbow penciled so lightly on it that it isn’t visible to the audience; violet, indigo, blue, green, yellow, orange, and red paint; seven paint brushes; a large dropcloth; a small table; a chair; a cot; two violet shawls; indigo fabric the size of a small tablecloth; a small blue vase; two green baskets with handles; enough bookmarks for each person present [bookmarks are made of spring-green paper with “God is making everything new!” printed on them]; a large,
Easter is the most important day in the Christian calendar, and its celebration should focus on the retelling of the resurrection story, the hope Jesus brought to the church, and the love of God toward humankind through Jesus’ selfless sacrifice.
In the summer of 2017 I was invited to serve as the pastor of the week at Covenant Point Bible Camp, a ministry of the Evangelical Covenant Church in Michigan’s Upper Peninsula. The children for this particular week were rising second-graders through fifth-graders. I had a great idea about what I was going to talk about and how to engage the kids. But I quickly forgot what that idea was when the Holy Spirit offered a different plan: “There is a puppet. His name is Eddie. Preach with him.” So I started looking for Eddie.
A friend contacted me to ask if I had designed any worship visuals around the theme of missions—more specifically, the Great Commission of Matthew 28:16–20: “Therefore go and make disciples of all nations . . .”. I’m sure I had done something at some point, but I couldn’t find a thing. Well then, that time is now.
It’s here—the next issue of Reformed Worship is literally (or metaphorically) in your hands. Now what? We want to make sure you get the most out of your subscription, so we put together this list of suggestions.
One of my students decided to practice a new spiritual discipline: Rather than gazing down at his shoes, he would look up when walking the university halls and greet others walking by. He said this was difficult for him, even at a Christian institution, as he was shy and awkward. But this discipline, he discerned, would shape him to be more like Christ and maybe touch the heart of someone in need of friendly recognition. It’s a small thing, but our spirits are shaped by small things repeated over long periods of time, and he hoped this practice would shape his character for good.
"A psalm is the blessing of the people, the praise of God, the commendation of the multitude, the applause of all, the speech of every man, the voice of the Church, the sonorous profession of faith, devotion full of authority, the joy of liberty, the noise of good cheer, and the echo of gladness. It softens anger, it gives release from anxiety, it alleviates sorrow; it is protection at night, instruction by day, a shield in time of fear, a feast of holiness, the image of tranquility, a pledge of peace and harmony."
Gather in Silence
Call to Worship
The grace and peace of the Lord be with you.
And also with you.
O crucified Jesus,
Son of the Father,
conceived by the Holy Spirit,
born of the Virgin Mary,
eternal Word of God,
we worship you.
O crucified Jesus,
holy temple of God,
dwelling place of the Most High,
we adore you.
The Same Old Story
It always felt wrong, and I thought maybe it was just me. But then I heard similar musings from fellow pastors who also felt guilty about it. Easter, after all, is the liturgical high point in the Christian year. More so even than Christmas, Easter sees churches packed to overflowing. So why as a pastor did I sometimes see Easter Sunday coming down the pike and feel a sense of . . . well, not dread, but a certain heaviness—the kind of thing that could wring a sigh or two from me?
Leviticus is one of the most underread and underappreciated books of the whole Bible. Pastors who choose a sermon text from Leviticus might expect their listeners’ eyes to glaze over as they anticipate a scholarly description of outdated laws pertaining to everything from mold and mildew to skin disease and bodily fluids. Leviticus also includes descriptions of violent and bloody sacrifices, thou-shalt-not rules on shellfish, and instructions for days set apart for special observance each week, month, and year.
The following discussion is from the second 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 in January 2018. The first section appeared in Reformed Worship 129 and dealt with the promises and pitfalls around public worship and mental health. The rest of the session focuses on prayer.
What would it look like to offer up worship with reverence and awe? Well, it may not be quite what you expect! It certainly wasn’t what I expected as I opened up Hebrews with a group of Christians some time ago. Don’t get me wrong; I knew the “golden verse” on why we do church at all was in there (“Let us consider how we may spur one another on toward love and good deeds, not giving up meeting together, as some are in the habit of doing” (Hebrews 10:24–25, NIV). That was no shocker, and I think most of us knew it practically by heart.
In RW 129 I began a response to the following question:
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?
Over the years in this space we’ve talked about inspiration—where and how and when we’re moved to make something new and fresh. For me recently, it was a something very old: the song “Not What My Hands Have Done,” LUYH 624, PsH 260 written in the 1860s by Horatius Bonar. There were fewer than twenty people at a staff retreat where this song was part of the morning’s opening worship.
“We pray for darkness so that we may see” is one of many provocative lines in Rod Jellema’s poetic litany “Praying for Darkness in a Year of Glare” (p. 16). I wonder about that line. Is it true? Would I ever dare pray for darkness so that I might see? It seems to me that we’ve been experiencing too much of this world’s darkness. We can’t escape it. It consumes news outlets and social media feeds. It fills our workplaces, our homes, our churches . . .
Nicholas Wolterstorff says that Christian worship, like the Old Testament psalter, should include trumpets, tears, and ashes—that is, praise, lament and repentance. All too often, however, tears and ashes are absent from Christian preaching and worship.
Parent God of all of us, hear our prayer
in this disruptive year: Lord, turn out the lights.
Turn out for moments of our prayers
and for moments of our lives
all the lights we see by,
or all the lights we think we see by.
Make it dark in here, even now, in each of us.
The Art Pieces
Celebrate As We Gather
Song: “A Resurrection Declaration” with choir, brass, and bells Roger Thornhill and Victor C. Johnson
For a long time—the thirty years and more that I was the pastor of the same church—I prided myself in never preaching the same sermon twice. There were exceptions, of course. If I went off somewhere on vacation or for some other reason and was given the opportunity to preach, I took with me a sermon or two, usually a recent sermon, adapted it some for the new place, and preached it over again. These occasions were rarely wholly satisfying. The message, usually part of a series, often seemed slightly off in a new context and preached to people I hardly knew.
Lent is a time to refocus and reframe our practices, clearing spaces in our minds and hearts to see and grasp anew the self-giving grace of our Lord Jesus Christ. But for those involved in preparing worship for Lent this is a busy time of trying to balance preparing for Holy Week with church programs and initiatives that are in full swing. It may seem as though the work is piling dangerously high. We are tired. We are weary. We are worn. Yet week in and week out we find ourselves in the trenches of our busy and relentless church life.
A Scriptural Pattern of Divine Blessing
In the Christian tradition in which I grew up, worship services began and ended with a prayer. The faith-nurturing I received there also included my pastor’s encouragement to read through the Bible every year. I did that several times before experiencing a different worship style that began with a divine blessing and ended with a benediction.
We are struggling in our ministry with many people in our congregation who have mental health concerns. We have responded to this pastorally, but not really in worship. Are there resources for engaging this in worship?
Here you will find two services based on the same prayer outline: adoration, confession, thanksgiving, and supplication. These services are meant to be fairly simple, with opportunities to pray through Scripture and song. Neither service includes a sermon, but one could easily be added as a reflection on one of the Scripture passages. —JB
Our worship team was brainstorming one night in response to a facilities improvement survey. We talked about the way our sanctuary and the rest of our buildings don’t flow well—they seem strung together. This is true for many churches: Education wings were a second thought after the sanctuary, and additional space—from kitchens to gyms to side chapels—are tagged on as years and needs accumulate. Things change, sometimes without much thought about the overall impact of the build-up of small changes over time.
I tend to be a bit wary of trends that get too popular too fast. Pinterest, the online social networking app for collecting and sharing ideas visually, was one I was certain wasn’t a good thing—especially for “serious” artists working with visuals for worship. Serious artists—that’s us, right?
“Weep not for me, Mother,
in the grave I have life.”
So begins the poem “Crucifixion” by Russian poet Anna Akhmatova (1889–1966). “In the grave I have life.” “Yes, but . . .” we want to argue. We feel compelled to interject that “but.” But Christ didn’t stay in the grave; we don’t stay in the grave; there is life on the other side of the grave, not in it. This is all true. Yet maybe Akhmatova was correct in calling our attention to the grave itself.
Freedom from Fear” is a Lenten series created by Pella Reformed Church in Adams, Nebraska. Throughout the gospels Jesus tells his followers or those around him, “Do not be afraid.” Yet today fear plays an enormous part in our lives. We spent the season of Lent looking at the times where Jesus says, “Do not be afraid” and discovering what fears Jesus is releasing us from today.
A song you may choose to use for the whole series is “Don’t Be Afraid” LUYH 429 by John L. Bell of the Iona Community
Holy Week at Covenant Life Church, a Christian Reformed church in Grand Haven, Michigan, has taken on a very distinct shape over the last twelve years. Prior to celebrating the glory of the resurrection, we create space to dwell with Christ by way of an immersive Stations of the Cross experience. The Stations of the Cross have a long, storied history within the Christian faith. For us, our goal is to create an interactive, meditative, and multi-sensory journey with Jesus, walking with him in the final hours of his life, leading up to his death and resurrection.
Approximately 2,016 years ago, God couldn’t walk. He had to be carried everywhere, like most babies.
2,015 years ago, God took some staggering first steps, fell, and scraped his knee. He cried, and his mother wiped away his tears and told him to try again. Or maybe he still crawled everywhere. Some toddlers are late bloomers.
2,010 years ago, God ran across the street in a small town with the other kids, perhaps playing a version of soccer. He might not have been very good at it.
[If desired, you could have an individual or small group humming “Were You There?” underneath the monologue until the phrase “Lazarus! Come out!”]
Please step back with me to the first Easter morning. [head scarf on]
Worship from the Heart to the Heavens” has been a frequent and fertile theme over the many years that I have planned and led worship services with a focus on congregational song, both in North America and beyond. This theme is a testimony that we’re never alone when we worship God. We always worship in community as part of the body of Christ, not only when we are in a congregation with others, but also by ourselves, in our “closets.” That is a comforting truth!
I hear a lot of colloquial language about the Holy Spirit that doesn’t feel right to me. For example, one of our leaders likes to say, “I didn’t have time to plan—what a great opportunity for the Holy Spirit.” What do you think?
Fasting is a practice that some people incorporate into their spiritual lives on a regular basis—even weekly. Scot McKnight defines fasting as “a whole-body response to a grievous sacred moment” (Fasting: The Ancient Practices, Thomas Nelson, 2009). But why should we fast? McKnight’s definition helps us understand why: to respond to something that is spiritual enough, and grievous enough, to merit such an action.
Incorporating evolving technology has been an ongoing theme in Christian worship for two thousand years. From the use of scrolls to the invention of the printing press, from the use of lanterns to the invention of electricity, and from use of a pipe organ to the invention of electric guitars, worshipers have always been adopting new technology in worship.
Growing up in the countryside five miles outside Ada, Michigan, Roman Catholics were largely unknown to me. When I was about ten, my parents sold off a small chunk of the farmland they had bought some years before, and the Smith family built a house half a mile up the road from us. They went to St. Robert Catholic Church.
I’m old enough to remember worship without projection or large displays. Oh, there were times when a really progressive pastor would lug a clunky overhead projector upfront and supplement his message with rough words or pictures drawn on clear sheets of plastic called “transparencies.” The bulbs were hot, and the fans keeping them cool were loud. And then there was the problem of the transparencies sliding off the glass at precisely the wrong time.
If you are an RW subscriber and are reading this article shortly after it arrived in your mailbox, you are reading this in the midst of Advent. Though it isn’t Lent as I write this editorial either, in many ways it feels like Lent, and I wonder: where is Easter?
People both inside and outside of the church often have a view of Jesus that is too small. Some of those outside the church reduce Jesus to a zealot or a moral teacher, while some Christians view him only as a necessary sacrifice or a helpful example. In order to truly worship Jesus as Lord, we need to see him in his proper place as the Son of God.
Giving up sweets, deleting social media accounts, vowing to exercise more—these are trendy Lenten practices to adopt. Kicking off the season with a paintbrush and scrap pieces of fabric in hand? That one might be less familiar.
Smocking up to get your hands messy with paint and glue may not be your go-to spiritual practice. But for a few members of Covenant Presbyterian Church in Charlotte, North Carolina, diving deep into the creative layers of Lent is exactly how they chose to enter the season.
“When Jesus expressed his anguish on the cross with the words of Psalm 22, he highlighted one of the precious facets of the psalms in general, namely, that as songs they uniquely convey the inward depths of the soul, and especially of Christ’s soul. Not only do the psalms help shape our response to God in the trials and joys of life, they also reveal to us something of the inner life of Jesus Christ, glimpses we do not have through the gospels alone.”
(L. Michael Morales, Jesus and the Psalms)
This service was planned using art by John August Swanson as described below. More information about purchasing, rights, and the works themselves can be found at johnaugustswanson.com. A CD called “What Wondrous Love” with these images and more is available at eyekons.com/church_image_banks/cd_collections.
Few sounds are as evocative of contemplation and prayer in the Christian imagination as the sound of plainchant, the music that was born in the ancient church. Its purpose was to glorify God, lifting up the hearts of those who sing and of those who hear it. Just as the Western church has inherited a vast legacy of Gregorian chant, which is the basis of written Western music as we know it, rich traditions of cantillation as a spiritual practice also exist in many other faith traditions.
The Lord's Supper on Good Friday: YES
It had been nine months since I had arrived at Ancaster Christian Reformed Church, and I was still walking that fine line between “that’s how we’ve always done it” and “that sounds like a great idea.” This was to be the first time I would travel the Lenten journey with my new congregation, and I was looking forward to celebrating with them that capstone of our faith: Easter morning.
If you peruse the most popular Christian book titles, or if you check out what pastors and church consultants are blogging about, or if you read the titles of plenary speeches and workshops at Christian conferences, then you will quickly discern one of the hottest current topics in Christian circles: leadership. Everyone wants to be a leader. Everyone wants to be an effective leader.
Over the last few years, and particularly in the last few months, I have noticed an increase in the discussion about and desire for more times of confession in worship. There was a time when churches were discouraged from “airing their dirty laundry” during worship because confession wasn’t seeker friendly. The corporate act of confession also didn’t seem to fit with our individualistic ideas of sin and responsibility.
Looking ahead to summer, I am already frustrated by how many of our church members will be gone. Whatever happened to loyalty to a congregation? Do people realize what a burden this creates for those of us who remain at home?
“I wish the church knew how deeply God can change your life,” Mark said. His friends nodded in agreement around the lunch table, sharing a common meal of tacos and a common story of returning back to their communities after serving time in prison.
Adam Merrill Longoria Tice was born in western Pennsylvania on October 11, 1979, and was raised in Alabama, Oregon, and Indiana. He is a graduate of Goshen College in Goshen, Indiana, (2002, major in music composition), and the Anabaptist Mennonite Biblical Seminary in Elkhart, Indiana (2006, M.A. in Christian formation). From 2007 to 2012 he served as associate pastor of Hyattsville Mennonite Church in Hyattsville, Maryland (near Washington, D.C.), and since 2012 has lived with his family in Goshen, Indiana.