In an email this leader asked,
“What you were saying about corporate readings, creeds, and confessions is interesting to me. Do you feel that is great for the Hope [College] culture specifically, or the Reformed Church? Or do you see it working well in church across the board?”
First off, let me say my journey toward these more traditional movements in worship has been a long one. My background is contemporary, independent, non-denominational churches. Ultimately what motivates me to practice readings, and confessions is a sense necessity; to feed and nourish our worshiping community, I need far more than what the typical contemporary worship song can offer alone by itself. I really enjoy and get excited about the possibilities of new music, but without the greater context of these more deliberate worship movements, contemporary music can seem vacuous and even exhausting. It is like I’m chasing fads jonesing for the newest just because it is new. I’m leery of Churches trying to compete with popular culture, yet I am enthusiastic about contextualization—finding a kind of music that makes sense to the students I lead. These historical worship practices have become a source of comfort in how they relieve the burdens of my leadership. These are worship practices that have served the church for a long time and so I can be sure the Spirit will continue to work through them still today. I know that seems like a counter-intuitive statement to our contemporary way of thinking—that all things fade and become obsolete. In my experience and in my reasoning, I’ve come to see that this is just not true. There are historical practices that endure. The trouble is not so much with the tradition, but with the vitality of the practice of the tradition. Tradition has nourished most of the world’s greatest cultures. Our present culture is ahistorical, and this is historically a young and seemingly naïve view of the past.
Jaroslav Pelikan’s well quoted statement is very helpful, “Tradition is the living faith of those who are dead while traditionalism is the dead faith of those who are living.”
I’ll lay out some thoughts here, but for further reference I encourage you to consider any of the late Robert Webber’s books especially The Divine Embrace: Recovering the Passionate Spiritual Life. Webber is the person who coined the term “ancient-future faith,” what has also been called “blended worship.” I’m afraid I have seen Webber’s good thoughts turned into another kind of contemporary trendiness where the worship seems like a strange hodge-podge. The last thing we want is to create a kind of “worship mutt” that pays lip service to different traditions out of a sense of obligation. At Hope, we’ve felt very led toward these practices. It has taken time, and thanks to the work of the Spirit, it seems to me that we have learned how to combine both old and new worship expressions in a way that doesn’t feel forced or awkward.
So yes, I believe there is a way for any and all churches to learn the disciplines of corporate readings and confessions. Yet, how and when this becomes the regular practice of a church will depend on discernment and patience. The dean of our chapel, Tryg Johnson, had already started movement in this direction before I started at Hope College four years ago. This campus ministry has always been committed to taking communion every week, but Tryg added the recitation of the complete words of institution when serving. He also started our habit of beginning each service by lighting a candle and invoking the presence of the Triune God, and he also initiated the practice of ending each service by singing the doxology. In the past two years we’ve added weekly corporate recitation of either the Apostle’s or the Nicene Creed along with corporate confession. This year we’ve also made a weekly practice of a ‘prayer of the people’ that encompasses prayer concerns both locally and globally.
All of this is principally a question of the liturgical shape of the wholeness of a worship service, an intention to guide worshipers through rhythms that continue catechetical formation. Most contemporary styled churches don’t have formal catechism, some type of believer confirmation. Some don’t even have church membership anymore. Yet, all churches, even a ‘seeker’ church, will need to somehow provide direction for believers to mature in their faith. It is interesting to note that the contemporary model tends to draw a distinction between the purpose of a sermon in relation to the rest of the service. The music is often used only as a call to worship, a way to warm the hearts and make worshipers ready and attentive to the sermon, and in this case the sermon then is the primary tool used to form the believer. This distinction does a disservice to both the music and the sermon. We consider the whole of the service to be worship and the whole of the service to be teaching—in some way forming believers into the character of Christ.
I don’t intend to offer an exhaustive explanation of these worship practices here, but I can tick through some of the ideas that mean a lot to me.
I appreciate that the direction we’ve been moving in is more intentional in being thorough in its worship leading. In my previous entry on “What Music Feeds Your Soul?” I listed various categories that fill out what I’ve called “Full Gospel Worship.” The point is that the local worshiping community needs to cover the whole amount of Biblical teaching. The task is daunting. While the non-denominational Bible churches that I grew up in claimed to be especially concerned about teaching the Bible, what that really meant was that they wanted the pastor to go much deeper into the exposition of specific books of the Bible. Compare this to the common practice of preaching the lectionary, a schedule that leads a congregation through the whole Bible in three years. The former expositional model emphasizes the depth of teaching and the teaching powers of the preacher. Further, it places the emphasis of the service upon the sermon as the high point of worship. The lectionary model emphasizes breadth of Biblical reading and places the sermon alongside the many important movements of the worship service.
We have chosen not to preach through the lectionary and follow the church calendar closely in the context of our campus ministry primarily because we are on break during the high holy days. Yet, we do want our worship to be as thorough as possible.
In terms of music, my concern is to find songs that cover a larger breadth of the Bible’s teaching. If we had an index of Biblical references for the bulk of most popular contemporary worship music, we’d find that most of our songs seem to be rather repetitive of a select few Biblical themes. What I notice most often is an overemphasis on the atonement, “Jesus, you died for my sins…your blood washes me and now I’ll spend eternity with you.” This is of course our Good News, but there are many other themes that a believer needs to regularly rehearse.
This brings me then to the help of corporate readings: these corporate readings help me frame the songs in a more deliberate manner that leads to more thorough worship. It is an issue of attention to worship language. How many of us listen to music but rarely concentrate on the language? I know I do. I had high school students who used to tell me this was their rationale for listening to hard-core hip-hop. I’m not talking about that kind of a lack of attention to lyrics (because I don’t know how it is possible to tune out such shocking lyrics). My concern is that while we may be aware of what we are singing, we may not fully engage the lyrics because we get lost in the emotions of a song. I’m thankful for corporate readings if only because they remind our worshippers that we really care about language. My hope is that we can do the readings with a pace that fosters alertness to all of the language used in the whole of the service. We want to lead our worshipers into a full worship: heart, mind, soul, strength. With this kind of attention, then the worshipers can see the deliberate connectivity that we have laid out between the music, the prayers and the sermon.
Speaking more directly to the importance of specific elements, let’s consider the value of corporate confession. The weekly corporate confession is a very tangible way for us to examine ourselves and receive forgiveness. I insert a moment of silence either before or after the reading to allow for a movement of the Spirit, for each individual to remember their sins. The advantage of confessing corporately is the awareness that we are not alone in our struggle against sin and darkness. We can take comfort in knowing that our brothers and sisters all around us are contending for righteous and holiness in their lives too. Finally, the best part of the corporate confession is the Words Of Assurance. Some may fear that corporate confession seems heavy and can lead to shame and soul sick guilt. The Words Of Assurance allow us to accept God’s grace and mercy which he so freely lavishes on us. Recently I’ve been drawing from Ephesians chapter one for this kind of rich language of our inheritance in Christ. Pronouncing the Words of Assurance is one of my favorite parts of the service.
There is much that could be said about the importance of the creeds. I’ll highlight two things: first it is the same question of thoroughness that I mentioned above. The creeds help us cover the core and yet full dimensions of our faith in summary form. Their substantial worth to the church is inestimable. Second, the creeds connect us with the church universal. There is so much division in the body of Christ that it is a joy to regularly rehearse the teachings that orthodox believers have confessed in common for centuries, across generations and cultures. The modern self—or the so-called post-modern self—is a person who is for the most part adrift without moorings for their identity. The driving forces of our culture are attempts to help the individual define him or herself out of the vacuum of the self. The creeds are sure footing because they help us maintain our participation in the ground laid by the witness of Christ through the church throughout the bulk of the church’s history. This is the testimony of our faith that many have articulated before me, that we have not created our faith just like any other cultural expression. Instead, it is our faith that creates us; it is our creedal confessions that make us essentially who we are.
I’ll conclude by confessing that I’m still really new in all of this. I’m not formally trained in liturgical coursework. I’m having to learn as I go, and the final result of what we bring together may not necessarily be the bread and butter of the Reformed Church in America partly because what I’ve come to understand is that there is variety within the RCA in how churches practices liturgy. My hope in offering these thoughts through the blog is to grab the attention of some (especially of our students) who may have perhaps never considered how thorough and beautifully intentional a service can be crafted, a kind of intentionality that does not constrict the work of God by stodgy ritualism, but instead works together to artfully demonstrate our collective love for Jesus.