The season of Advent is the beginning of the church year. If you follow the lectionary readings for this season you will find that they are accounts of prophets proclaiming the coming of God’s kingdom and anticipation of the coming of the messiah. We re-live this anticipation through these texts, our music, and even the way creation enters more deeply into darkness until the passing of the winter solstice.
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...
What should Christians do when we gather to worship? Of course, there are all sorts of things we actually do: we stand, we sit, we sing, we raise our hands, we are silent, we eat and drink, we pray. Then again, we do all these things when we attend a football game. But in worship we do all these things (and many more) with worshipful purposes in mind: to confess, to praise, to hear the Word, etc. But we don't do every possible option at every single service. So what elements are so important that we should not do without them?
The Bible offers many examples of the sorts of things worshippers do when they assemble: the Old Testament records in great detail what Temple worship was supposed to look like, including the specifics of animal and agricultural sacrifices. The gospel of Luke tells of reading from the scriptures as part of synogogue worship. Acts 2 tells us that the early church devoted itself to the "apostles' teaching and fellowship, to the breaking of bread and the prayers." So my question is this: what are the non-negotiables of worship? When God's people gather, by the power of the Holy Spirit, to renew the convenant of grace in Christ Jesus, what stuff do we do? What actions do we perform that are non-negotiable? If we gather to worship and never hear a sermon, is it worship? If we don't break bread at the table, have we worshipped? If we don't pray., or sing... You get the idea. What do you think? Post your comments.
A Book of the Names of the Dead is a very meaningful ritual for All Saints Day. Find a large beautifully bound book with blank pages. Sentences of scripture related to saints and the resurrection might be written in the margins. Or, you can purchase this book from Liturgy Training Publications. A few weeks before All Saints Day, place the book in the church and invite people to write the names of loved ones they wish to remember. Read the names aloud during the distribution of communion at your All Saints Day service. This ritual reminds us that one aspect of the Lord's Supper is the communion with all the saints. When we eat and drink, we dine with our loved ones and all the saints who have gone before us. Instead of reading the names during communion distribution, you could included the names in the prayers or read them at the font in connection with baptismal remembrance.
Each year we come to the end of October and the planning calendar reminds us that “Daylight Savings Time ends”! But more importantly the calendar will also remind us that the last Sunday in October is “Reformation Sunday”. However, a closer look will reveal that October 31 is “Reformation Day” (not Halloween on the Church calendar) and November 1st is “All Saints’ Day”. What is a church to celebrate? This year “Reformation Sunday is October 29th” and the next Sunday is not All Saints but “Christian and Citizen” Sunday. Of course, in a perfect world, we would celebrate the Reformation on October 31st and All Saints on November 1st. However, it is not always easy to get people to come to church during the week (as we observe during Holy Week). I admit, Christmas is an exception, but then again even the culture has consumed this holiday!
A guest minister who came to preach at our church told me that, during the “children's time”, he planned to sing one of his own songs with the children. So, he brought his guitar and taught them a song whose chorus went something like this:
Bugs, bugs, bugs, bugs,
Bugs, bugs, bugs, bugs.
I forget what the song was about: it may have had something to do with Noah and the Ark, but the kids sang willingly enough, and trooped off to Sunday School. But it made me both wince and wonder.
I winced because the guest minister pitched the song far too low for their voices, choosing a comfortable key for the guitar (C major) that had them straining to sing an F below middle C.
Therefore, if you are a guitar player, start with the children's range before you choose the key, rather than the other way round. Typically children's lowest note is the G below middle C (the open third string on the guitar). Make sure the song uses that note very little; middle C is much better as a low note. For practical purposes, children's high note is somewhere between C an octave above (first string, 8th fret), and E a third above that. Of course, children can sing higher, but I am here writing about congregational singing, not practiced choral (or solo) singing.
I wondered at how eager children are to learn and to be challenged, and how little that song offered them in the way of musical nourishment. Surprisingly, the songs that children latch onto and make their own, are often very different from what we might expect as a “children's” song. Anyone who has worked on the editorial committee for a hymn collection knows how elusive are the qualities that make a good children's song or hymn.
Rather than looking at the “genre” of the song, I wonder if it might be better to ask some of these questions: how would a 3-year old hear this song? A 6 hear old, a 10-year old? How many “doors” does it offer a child to enter by: concrete imagery? possibilities for motion and actions? sensory details? repeatable sections or phrases? Will it allow a conversation, a question and answer, a call and response between children, the leader and the choir or praise band? (Stuart Townend's “Who Paints the Skies?” is a song that allows this kind of worship conversation to happen. “All creatures of our God and King” - or any hymn that has a repeating “Alleluia” could serve as a wonderful kind of dialogue, if the congregation sang all the words, including “Oh, Praise Him” and the children sing the “Alleluia.” I should say that I haven't done this yet; when I do, I'll let you know how it went, and what pitfalls to avoid. I will probably teach the final “Alleluia” with its 3-beat penultimate note first!
I will continue to share lessons learned and insights gleaned from the front (and back) pews of congregational song, but in my next post I hope to report on some experiences in summer music and worship festivals around the continent.
For a fine article about 'contemporary' worship -- structure, style, planning, etc. -- that features some of the authors of this blog, click here.
Dr. Steven Taylor is the founding pastor of Graceway Baptist Church in Ellerslie, New Zealand. He has a PhD on the Emerging Church and a Masters in Theology in communicating the cross in a postmodern world. Steve recently did a course at Fuller Seminary entitled “Communicating the Biblical Text in a PostModern Culture” in July.
He argues that to communicate the biblical text for today’s context requires one to “incarnate, indwell, our culture.” Taylor goes on to use the phrase “DJing” with respect to the community. A record DJ learns the historical stories (old records) and uses them authentically in contemporary culture and integrates them into the community's stories. There is too much to summarize here, but do look for his book “The Out of Bounds Church: Learning to Create a Community of Faith in a Culture of Change” from Zondervan.
Taylor cites Bono of U2 as a person who effectively DJs today. According to Taylor, Bono is in fact a worship leader for over 40,000 people; Bono recontextualizes the biblical text and leads concert goers into a time of community worship and prayer. Taylor plays the “Vertigo ‘05” DVD and shows us how Bono is leading worship. This intrigued me to the point that Dr. Taylor and I discussed this further after the workshop. The following is from Steve’s article “7 Things I learnt from Bono about Worship Leading.”
1. Connect uniquely. In the Vertigo DVD, Bono speaks about Chicago and his memories of Chicago. He makes a unique connection with context, day, and time.
2. Engage through familiarity. Bono includes songs that resonate with previous experiences and previous encounters.
3. Use repetition to call forth prayer. Bono uses the repetitive “Hallelujah.” It is easy to sing. The simple repetition enables the audience to sing with the band.
4. Secure a 5th (visual) band member. U2 now has a 5th member of the band to add a visual layer to the experience. A wise worship leader will look to add not just singers or musicians, but a “visual” person to their team.
5. Create hope by drawing the best from the past. Bono tells the audience in the Vertigo DVD, “We as a band are looking to the future. We’re taking the best of the past and moving forward with hope.”
6. Plan participation. Bono can draw one boy from the audience to sing to, one woman from the audience to dance with. He uses repetition to call forth prayer and encourage congregational singing.
7. Invoke passionate practices. Bono invites the audience to hall out their cell phones and to text “Make Poverty History campaign.” A worship leader turns singing into action. He turns entertainment into justice.
Ron’s story about baptizing his nephew and the connections of baptism to our care for creation show how multifaceted the layers of this sacrament are. All of life, for those of us born of water and the Spirit, is wet. In other words, every moment of each day is grounded in baptism. Even if we are not following the will of God, those moments are redeemed in God’s grace, which is one aspect of baptism (cleansing from or forgiveness of sin). This is why confession or at least a reflection on how we “missed the mark” or sinned is a part of the compline prayer. The ancient “compline” prayer, or prayer at the close of the day shapes our sleeping and rising in the death and resurrection of Christ. This image is one of baptismal life; continually dying (repenting and turning from ways that separate us from Christ) and rising to new life each day.
Throughout the worship service there are several moments each Sunday where we can engage water in ways that help us understand and live more deeply into our baptism. Here are a few examples:
During the gathering of the people you can pour water into the font or baptismal pool with words that accentuate our inclusion into the family of God such as:
You are a chosen race, a royal priesthood, a holy nation, God’s own people, in order that you m ay proclaim the mighty acts of the One who called you out of darkness into God’s marvelous light. (1 Peter 2:9)
After confession, you may pour or splash water while you while declaring God’s grace and forgiveness. Any words of forgiveness and grace accentuate baptism. However, you may use words that are more explicit:
Do you not know that all of us who have been baptized into Christ Jesus were baptized into his death? Therefore we have been buried with him by baptism into death, so that, just as Christ was raised from the dead by the glory of the Father, so we too might walk in newness of life. (Romans 6:3,4) Know that you are forgiven and be at peace, walking in the light of Christ, loving God with all your being and loving your neighbor as yourself.
Calling for the offering is a great place to remind people of the promises they have made at baptism. We promise to follow Christ, obey his word, love God and one another and live our lives in ways that show Christ’s love in this world. Our best offering is the way we live. While money is important, how we make that money and our priorities in the way we spend money are also part of living into our baptism. The way we live each minute of the day is our best and most important offering, even more important that anything that has to do with money. Too often the offering seems to revolve around money, especially when we process plates of money down the aisle singing a doxology. What are ways we can expand our offering to include living the baptismal life?
Sending people into the world is another place where the image of water can remind us that we leave this place to live into our baptism. Perhaps you could use such words as this while pouring or splashing water:
We are the people of God, members of the household of faith, a royal priesthood. Let us proclaim with our lives the good news of Christ for all the world!
These images are just scratching the surface of the mystery of baptism. There are many more aspect of this life we live in faith and many more ways to express it. The Presbyterian Church USA is inviting all its member churches into five practices each Sunday:
1. Set the font in full view of the congregation.
2. Open the font and fill it with water on every Lord’s Day.
3. Set cup and plate on the Lord’s Table on every Lord’s Day.
4. Lead appropriate parts of weekly worship from the font and from the table.
5. Increase the number of Sundays on which the Lord’s Supper is celebrated.
You can read the whole report, including supporting material that is helpful for studying and reflecting on baptismal life at https://pcusa.org/theologyandworship/worship/sacramentworkgroup.htm
By engaging in these practices each Sunday we can begin to explore how baptism is a part of every aspect of Christian living. Just a few examples would be forgiving others, caring for creation, what we do at our jobs (or our vocation), the way we spend money, we interact with others, all this is grounded in the life of faith which is the baptismal life. The mysteries of the faith are never fully exhausted. These practices can be explored each and every time the community of faith gathers and even in our daily prayer.
A couple weeks ago I baptized my nephew at his home church in Chicago. Per his parents' request, we used freshly imported water from Lake Michigan. Let's just say that we certainly followed the ancient advice to use "living" water.
His parents were eager to do this because their families -- on both sides -- have deep connections to the "Big Lake" as home. In the service, I pointed to the appropriateness of the link the water made between family initiation and initiation into the larger family of God.
But more than that, I suggested that using water from this natural resource -- so dominant and precious to us in the midwest -- highlights the deep connection between the grace of God offered in baptism and the responsibility we gratefully take on as Christ's disciples to care for the world in which that grace is manifest. It says something damning to us if the water in our backyard streams, or rivers, or lakes is so polluted that we cannot in good common sense bathe in it, or in good conscience call it "living" water. Perhaps my nephew Samuel will grow up, in service to Jesus, to be a biologist who concerns himself with the health of Lakes Michigan, Superior, Huron, Ontario, and Erie.