On Thanksgiving Day many churches offer a very traditional worship service: Psalm 100, a litany of thanksgiving, “Come, You Thankful People, Come.” On a day when we look back with gratitude at God’s good gifts to us, it makes sense to make use of the work and wisdom of our forebears and to worship using that which is tried and true. Other congregations seek innovation: pilgrim puppets behind the pulpit, prayers of thanks colored (not written) in crayon on scraps of paper and dropped in the offering plate.
Our culture craves novelty, which may explain—but doesn’t necessarily commend—our thirst for it. A more laudable urge is to offer in our worship not a stale tradition, repeated out of habit, but something original: our creative expression, our prayers and words and music, our very selves. We want to offer something fresh and new. But must it be an either/or choice? Many congregations are very successful in their efforts to examine the tried and true traditions (often more true than actually tried), identify the best in them, and then freshen them in ways sensitive to their contexts. Here are a few ideas...
Call to Worship
Psalm 100 is just the right Scripture to use as a call to worship on Thanksgiving Day. It’s familiar, and it summons God’s people both to worship and to give thanks. But the elevated diction of most psalm translations, and the formal quiet out of which calls to worship are often spoken, can diminish the psalm’s affective energy. To generate enthusiasm, some congregations bring out their best thespian/liturgist to lead the reading with strong voice and grand gesture. But the right song might work as well—if not better—to encourage rather than coerce the congregation into eager, participative praise. For example, teach and then sing the song “Come, All You People” (it can be found in the hymnal supplement Sing! A New Creation) at the very start of the service, and let the energy leak into the responsive reading of Psalm 100 as a call to worship. Let it leak by maintaining a soft percussive pulse, and maybe a low bass drone, throughout the speaking. Then reprise the song afterward, and the service will have begun with faithfulness and vigor. (See the music here, hear it here.)
Hymn of Thanks and Praise
Nearly every hymnal has its share of wonderful Thanksgiving songs. “Come, You Thankful People, Come”—despite the agricultural metaphor’s diminishing resonance with most congregations—is just one of them. Along with “Now Thank We All Our God” and “We Gather Together,” these tried and true texts are rich in theology and poetry. But older songs have no monopoly on depth. “Have We Any Gift Worth Giving” (SNC 14) is a superb contemporary hymn text by Carl Daw, based on Romans 12:1. The musical setting by Al Fedak is contemporary, but in the familiar style of a Genevan psalm tune.
A recently freshened favorite I’ve heard is “Let All Things Now Living.” A shift in time signature from 3/4 to 4/4 (each q becomes q.) gives the song a sense of uplift, and at a decent tempo (132 bpm), the syncopation gives it the urgency of folks traveling—even running—onward, with joy, from “light into light.” Add the descant on the second stanza, but drop all accompaniment to let the congregation soar on “We too should be voicing . . .” Then add support again at “Till all things now living unite in thanksgiving . . .”
Sometimes new songs need freshening too. Here is the contemporary favorite “Give Thanks,” arranged here by Daniel Richardson in a simple jazz style. An ensemble with even modest chops can pull this off gracefully. Use a bass for the lowest line (derived from the chord chart), and a soprano instrument on the melody. A vocalist or soprano instrument might also lead the congregation if they will sing along—but it might be difficult; the melody contributes some of the most “jazzy” notes (the flat and sharp 9s and 13s), and there is the unusual F# in measure 14. With the highs and lows taken care of, the rhythm instrument (piano or guitar) can concentrate on the more unfamiliar chord forms. Note that each measure usually gets two chords—but they’re not equal. The second chord, when on the fourth beat, is a “passing” chord.
Litany of Thanksgiving
The tried and true litany of thanksgiving is almost always responsive. It engages leaders and the congregation in a rhythmic back-and-forth that is, at its best, almost musical. But at its worst, the carefully crafted words of the leader are punctuated by the rote and lifeless repetition of a simple phrase, prompting an unfortunate congregational response: boredom. One remedy is to allow the congregational response to be not nearly musical but undeniably musical. A sung refrain can freshen even the dullest litany and bring new life to a psalm. For examples, look at the “Thanksgiving” section in Sing! A New Creation. It sets three Psalms of Thanks to different musical responses. One is based on a classic hymn (Psalm 107 and “Now Thank We All Our God”), one on a global song (Psalm 66 with “Cantad al Señor”), and one on a praise song (Psalm 65 with “Shout to the Lord”).
The second feature of the tried and true litany is its poetry. It employs elegant language, an offering to God of the best words we can wield. But too much of a good thing can become tedious; we’ve all endured the litany composed by the congregation’s erstwhile (and infrequently indulged) poet—the litany that seems to go on and on and on, in language less evocative than exhaustive. As in music, less is more. The best poetry is concrete and vivid, pointing to the universal by means of the specific. Children are surprisingly good at describing the world in observant detail. So in the weeks preceding Thanksgiving, ask your own congregation’s young people to help assemble the raw materials for a unique Thanksgiving litany. Offer them some broad categories of things for which we’re grateful to God: created beauty, comforts of home, blessings of faith, and so on. Let them work at home or in a Sunday school class compiling their own lists. Encourage them to strive for descriptive detail (“pesky little brothers and wise grandmothers” is more memorable and meaningful than “our loving families”). But beware language that’s clever but quirky or hard for a congregation to read (“skies of couple color as a brindled cow” wouldn’t work well in worship). Then have someone with a flair for words knit them together for the Thanksgiving Day service. Keep the syntactical units short, the sentence structures simple. A good example of this sort of litany (complete with sung response) is “Give Thanks to God, All the Earth.” It has been revised many times with the help of young poets.
Prayer of Thanksgiving
A good prayer of thanksgiving has much in common with a good litany. It is poetic in both rhythm and diction, it is reverent and engaging, and it is often led by a practiced public prayer. Its theme is thanksgiving rather than thanks-getting; it recalls the needs of others around the world and God’s blessings showered on all people rather than voicing appreciation for the goods, services, and luxuries we are fond of. What would it take to transform a good prayer of thanksgiving into a great prayer of thanksgiving? Perhaps the right liturgical context: communion. The Lord’s Supper liturgy includes a large section often named the “Great Prayer of Thanksgiving.” It is a recollection of God’s gift of salvation offered in Jesus Christ, a joining with all creation blessing God as good and holy and the source of all blessing. In fact, the term “Eucharist” means “thanksgiving.” This, after all, is what Thanksgiving traditions—whether liturgical or cultural—are all about: gathering around a table with loved ones to have a meal of gratitude, remembrance, community, and hope. What better way to give a tried and true tradition fresh, new life?