Sunday, August 02, 2009

Worship & Arts at the Center [part 5 of 8]: Songs and Prayers in Worship

Congregational Song

[*note: lessons are taken, with permission, from Calvin Institute of Christian Worship]

Scripture: Psalm 96 and Colossians 3:15-17


It is rather astonishing to think of how unique congregational singing is in North American culture. Where else in today's society do you find groups of untrained singers joining together in song? Long gone are the 'gather around the piano and let's sing' days of a generation or two ago. Yet when we gather for worship, we join our voices in song. In the dialogue of worship in the Reformed tradition, congregational song has primarily had the role of the people's response to God. And that role has been shaped by Scripture, as shown through a study of the Psalms as the songbook of the Bible. In our discussion on congregational song, we will examine closely the nature of the Psalm songs and how that can serve as a model for our songs today.

The Spirit of the Psalms

The spirit of the Psalms can loosely be divided into three: psalms of praise, psalms of confession and psalms of lament. Nicholas Wolterstorff, in one of his lectures on worship, has likened these three spirits respectively as the psalms of trumpets, ashes and tears. The psalms of trumpets are songs of celebration and praise which glorify God for his character and his acts in history (i.e. Pss. 8 and 103). The psalms of ashes are songs of repentance and a humble heart (i.e. Pss. 32 and 51). The psalms of tears are songs of complaint in the context of faith (i.e. Pss. 13 and 42).

It is interesting to note that the three characteristics the psalms reflect most likely will be present among your congregational members on any given Sunday. Psalms exhibit a balance of thought and an honesty of emotion and expression that serves well as a model for the church's song today.

The New Testament also gives us a few examples of songs, such as the Canticles of Mary, Zechariah and Simeon as well as the creedal hymns of Philippians 2:6-11 and 1 Timothy 3:16. In the context of Colossians 3:15-17, we are encouraged to sing with thankfulness "psalms, hymns and spiritual songs." Today's church often struggles with what that means and how to balance what they do with the modeling of Scripture.

The 21st Century Church

The church today has a wealth of musical material to select from. Various denominational hymnals, internet resources, publishing houses not associated with a denomination, and licensing programs have opened so many opportunities for congregational singing that one knows hardly where to begin the selection process. There are praise and adoration songs, songs of thanksgiving, songs of profession and proclamation, narrative songs, songs of intercessory prayer and confession, songs of fellowship and songs of anticipation. And the list goes on. How does one begin? Shaping and balancing our psalms, hymns and spiritual songs on the model of the spirit of the Psalms may well be the best place to start.

Perhaps it is also helpful to remember that each congregation has its own unique history and personality. The songs that have been sung over many years have helped to shape the congregation to be who it is today. Those songs should never be easily discarded. At the same time, newer songs need to be added to stretch the congregation beyond its current boundaries.

The Form of Today's Congregational Songs

Traditional or new hymnody that sequentially follows a thought process from the beginning stanza through the ending stanza can carry much theological content that is both instructive to the faith while it professes and encourages faith. In many ways they engage the mind. As an example, think of "Praise to the Lord, the Almighty" and "In Christ Alone." Such hymns teach the theology of the church.

Cyclical and short chorus songs can be grouped or sung separately as response songs within the dialogue of worship. In many ways they engage the emotions. As an example, think of "Change My Heart, O God," "I Love You, Lord," or many of the Taizé responses. Cyclical songs tend to be expressions of feelings.

Responsorial songs are hybrid songs. They normally combine a hymn-like set of stanzas with a repeated refrain. They incorporate both instruction and expression; mind and feelings. Think of songs like "It Is Well with My Soul" and "There Is a Redeemer."

A healthy congregational song diet should probably include some traditional, some cyclical and some responsorial songs that reflect the spirit of the Psalms. The best songs in any style or from any culture will engage your mind and your heart and your feelings! You will need to remember that there are both older and newer songs in each of the forms presented. You will also need to be committed to developing a song diet that reflects and nurtures an intergenerational church.

Congregational song is a primary means through which the congregation carries on its dialogue in worship with God. It needs to be encouraged and developed well. It is always wise to think of the congregation as the "big choir" of the church and all other choirs, ensembles and worship teams as the "little choirs" that help teach and encourage the people's song. To do so is both God-glorifying and enriching to his children!

Suggestions for Congregational Song

1. Make a conscious decision that song is the voice of the people in the conversation with God.

2. Provide for prompters-your accompanists, ensembles, choirs, cantors, etc. Encourage them, affirm them, and provide resources for them, printed resources as well as educational and conference opportunities. Draw them into your worship plans so their contributions may reflect the themes you are developing. Maintain your instruments well so they can enjoy their work.

3. Provide musical tools. Learning new songs is easier when the musical language of notes and rhythm is given along with the text of the song. Musical notation also provides the opportunity to sing in harmony. Those people who read music will appreciate being able to do so, and those who do not will benefit from the leadership of those who do!

4. Remember that new songs cannot become expression of faith songs without repetition in the learning process. Try not to sing a new song once and then let it set for a number of weeks. We have found it most helpful to incorporate a new song each week over a course of 4-6 weeks for the congregation to sink it into their souls. Since they are shorter, easier, and more repetitious, cyclical songs do not need the same amount of concentrated introduction and use. Responsorial songs can be introduced by soloists, worship teams, ensembles and choirs singing the verses with the congregation joining on the refrain. A congregation may be ready to sing with the team on final stanzas already the first week of introduction to the song.

5. Provide musical education for the youth and the adults. In today's budget conscious society, the first educational programs to get cut are the fine arts programs. If our children do not receive musical education in a school setting, the church should provide opportunities for them to learn the basic fundamentals of reading music. A generation down the road will be very limited in what they sing if we neglect such opportunity today. Think of how many times you have heard someone say, "I wish I knew how to sing better!"

6. Encourage and enliven your singing by incorporating variety in the ways you sing and plan for singing:

• Do you always sing all the verses to the same accompaniment?

• Do all the people sing all the verses all the time?

• Does anyone ever give verbal transitions so that you know why you are singing a song?

• Is it possible for you to provide instrumental or vocal descants?

• If you have a choir, does it lead and assist your congregation in learning new worship songs?

• Does your worship team ever assist your congregation in learning new hymnody or responsorial songs?

• Do you ever sing either unaccompanied songs or individual stanzas?

• Do you select your songs enough in advance so your accompanists have time to learn them well?

• Do you keep records of what you sing and how often you sing a particular song? Assess those records for balance. Over the course of weeks or a few months, do your song selections reflect a fair representation among the forms of music [hymnody, cyclical, responsorial] as well as among the spirits of trumpets, ashes and tears? The goal is to achieve balance over the course of time, not necessarily within each service.

Questions for Discussion

After reviewing some orders of worship from previous weeks, discuss some of the following:

1. Identify what motivates your congregation to sing well.

2. How much does your congregation sing in a worship service, and how does the singing help advance the dialogue in worship?

3. What is being done to teach your congregation to sing thoughtfully?

4. Does your congregation actively encourage your musicians? In what concrete ways?

5. Is your song diet balanced? Is there a fair representation of the three forms of songs? [see above]

6. Is your song diet balanced? Is there a fair representation of the three spirits of song? [see above]

The Prayers of the People

Scripture: 1 Chronicles 29:10-19 and 1 Timothy 2:1-8


Reformed worship is built on the conviction that congregational worship is essentially a conversation with God. In some elements of the worship service, such as the greeting, scripture reading, sermon, and benediction, God speaks to us. In other parts of the worship service, the worshipers speak to God through songs, commitments, and prayers.

The prayers in a worship service lift the corporate voice of the people heavenward. If you use arrows (An up arrow means we are speaking to God, and a down arrow means God is speaking to us), then prayers are up arrows. To make this clear for the worshipers, it is often helpful to include an invitation to prayer with the firm assurance that God is listening to us, such as, "We join our hearts and voices to offer our prayers to God" or "God hears us when we call to him. Therefore, let us join in prayer, offering our praise, thanksgiving and intercessions to God."

The two Scripture passages speak to the practice of corporate prayer. In the first we find David standing before God's people and leading them in prayer. He led the people as they gathered the gifts necessary for building the temple. He anticipates that his son Solomon will be king and will build the temple. In this context, he leads them in prayer. Read David's prayer carefully. Notice how it is a prayer of praise (v.10-13), an expression of humble surprise (v.14-17), and a request that God will continue his work among the people and Solomon (v.18-19). At the end of his prayer, the people respond with words and gestures (v.20).

In the second passage Paul writes pastoral instructions about worship to Timothy, the pastor at Ephesus. High on the list of these instructions about worship is the encouragement to public prayer. There are several key ideas here. He encourages Timothy to lead the church in praying for others, particularly public officials (v.2) in a day when public officials did not look kindly on the Christian church. God is pleased in our praying (v.3), and public prayers come from within the life of a congregation where there are good relationships (v.8).

Types of Worship Prayers

There are many purposes of prayer in worship services. Perhaps if we identify a number of these distinctions, you will be more aware of the nature of each prayer in a service.

Opening Prayer: a brief prayer near the opening of worship when the congregation thanks God for his presence and calls on God, particularly the Spirit of God, to be present and give blessing while we worship.

Prayer of Confession: a corporate prayer in which sins and sinfulness are confessed, and the congregation asks God to forgive them.

Prayer for Illumination: either before the Scripture reading or between the Scripture reading and sermon, this prayer asks for God's Spirit (who wrote the Scriptures) to illumine our minds and hearts as it is preached and received.

Prayer of Application: a prayer after the sermon in which we give thanks to God for the truth of the word that we have heard and for his blessing as we attempt to respond to it and obey it in our living.

Offertory Prayer: either before or after the offering has been received, this prayer asks God to use these gifts and pour out his blessing on the ministries these gifts support.

The Prayers of the People: though given many different names (Congregational Prayer, Prayer of Intercession, Prayers of the People, Pastoral Prayer, or a "Collect"), this is typically the longest prayer of a worship service. It gathers the joys and celebrations, needs and concerns of the worshipers as well as intercedes for the needs of others, the worldwide church, and the nations of the world.

Special Sacramental Prayers: at both Baptism and the Lord's Supper special prayers of thanks and intercession will be offered.

You can likely think of others also. The nature and structure of each worship service will indicate which are needed and where they should be placed. It is sometimes helpful for worship planners to ask about the purpose and placement of each prayer in the service.

Methods of Praying

Just as the types of prayers will include much variety, so should the methods by which we pray. Hopefully, this list of admittedly incomplete methods will stimulate your ideas, discussions and planning.

1. Extemporaneous or Written Prayer by a Pastor or Worship Leader. The only voice heard is that of the leader. This prayer is presented conversationally. It requires careful forethought by the leader so that it meaningfully represents the voice and concerns of the entire congregation.

2. Historic Written Prayer. This prayer is printed and read, either by a leader or by the congregation in unison. It has been selected from historic worship literature and is often a time-honored prayer. This type of prayer enables worshipers to sense the unity of the church across the generations.

3. Unison Prayers. When written prayers are printed in the worship bulletin or projected, all worshipers merge their voices together and pray in unison, which means the words used should again represent the voices of the entire congregation. Those who write the prayers should also make the phrases relatively short and readable.

4. Sung Prayers. The integration of song and prayer deserves more attention in the church. Much hymnody is sung prayer. In addition, many songs serve as responsorial sung prayers. The sung refrain can be an integral part of the prayer and a way for worshipers to participate in the prayer. Many responses are available in Christian hymnody.

5. Open Spontaneous Prayer by the Worshipers. In some congregations, or at some occasions, all members of the worshiping congregation are invited to verbalize their prayer as they desire. Some speak from their pew. In other churches an open microphone is provided. Small groups may be formed to pray together creating a "concert of prayer." Worshipers may be invited to speak out just the name of a person, concern, or joy that they would like to lift up.

6. Responsive Prayers. A responsive prayer has a rhythm built into it. The leader and the congregation both participate. In some instances the leader concludes each section with "Lord in your mercy" to which the congregation responds with "hear our prayer." This pattern can be done multiple times within a prayer. A similar pattern can use sung responses.

7. Repetitive Prayers. We've used repetitive prayers in conjunction with the children's message. We call them "Echo Prayers." The pastor speaks a brief statement, and the children repeat it. This continues for the entire prayer. Through this method, our praying also becomes a time for teaching how to pray.

8. Bidding Prayers. In this case the worship leader "bids" the worshipers to pray for a certain subject and then gives them silent time to pray privately for that subject. This continues until a variety of subjects have been lifted up in prayer. At the conclusion the prayer leader closes the prayer or the people can pray together a printed prayer.

The task of formulating or selecting prayers for a worship service can be a daunting task. We are planning words that others will use to speak to God! Carefully consider which prayers should be included, where they should be located in the worship service, who will lead them, and if and how they will be written.

Questions for Discussion

1. Take the worship sheet of last Sunday and note the different prayers. Identify the purpose each one has. Is the intent or purpose of each prayer in the worship service clear? Is it clear to the leaders and to the worshipers?

2. Do you have sufficient variety in the types of prayers that are offered? Do some prayers fulfill the same purposes? What other types could you consider including?

3. Do you think you have too few or too many prayers in your worship services? Why?

4. Are the intercessory prayers of your congregation sensitive to the needs of the congregation? Are they sensitive to the needs of the community? Do they express a concern for the world and those who suffer, or are they focused only on the needs of your particular church and local community?

5. How does your congregation feel about written vs. spontaneous prayers? Are they willing to respond in word and song to prayers? With what methods of praying is your congregation most comfortable? What new methods could be used to help them pray more genuinely and creatively?

6. Do the words used in prayer-both those spoken by a leader on behalf of the congregation and spoken by the congregation-reflect the voice and concerns of the range of people present? Is anyone left out of prayer? What changes in either language or method could help include more people in the congregation?

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