[*note: lessons are taken, with permission, from Calvin Institute of Christian Worship]
Scripture: Nehemiah 8:1-6 and Luke 4:14-21
Imagine that you were there! You've been gone from Jerusalem for some years, away in captivity, knowing that Jerusalem had been ransacked and the walls had been broken down. Finally, you are back in Jerusalem (see Nehemiah 8). As soon as you returned, you rebuilt the walls under Nehemiah's leadership. You resettled the city. Now you are gathered in the city square, and the Book of the Law is brought out. Ezra begins to read it aloud. You all stand, listen, and respond with "Amen." In this moment you heard from God.
And imagine that you were there in Nazareth (see Luke 4) where the devout were gathering in the synagogue for worship. Jesus happened to be in town, and he participates in the leadership of worship by reading Scripture. He reads from Isaiah 61, a clearly messianic passage. And when he's finished reading, he says, "Today this scripture is fulfilled in your hearing." It was an electric moment!
Both of these settings remind us that the reading of the word of God is central in worship.
Worship is a conversation (dialog) between God and his children, and the Scriptures are the surest and clearest means through which God speaks. The Scriptures are his voice, and when the Scriptures are read, God is speaking to his people.
It is wise, therefore, to pay close attention to the role that the reading of Scripture has in our worship services. When we evaluate worship, we should discuss the prominence of Scripture in the worship service.
Ask questions such as:
- How prominent and obvious was the Word of God in this service? (How clearly would worshipers have heard God's voice?)
- How many Scripture passages were read?
- How influential was Scripture in shaping the worship service?
- Were the readings done engagingly and with interest?
- How many different roles did Scripture fill in this service?
How many Scripture passages?
...we should ask ourselves how much Scripture should be read in worship. It can fairly be said that most of us err on the side of reading too little Scripture rather than too much. If Scripture is God's voice among us, we must let him speak more, rather than less!
Three considerations will likely influence our selections of Scripture readings and their place in worship.
- The Liturgy. Since the entire worship service is a conversation with God and his children, God's voice should be heard numerous times. The call to worship, God's greeting, the call to confession, the assurance of God's pardon, God's guide for grateful living, the invitation to prayer, the charge, and the parting blessing (benediction) may include direct words of Scripture. In addition, professions or affirmations of our faith and expressions of thanks and praise can include Scripture.
- The Sermon. The sermon, as an exposition of Scripture, will obviously have a leading role in determining at least one passage to be read. Though this passage is normally read before the sermon, the reading may be embedded within the sermon. It may be a single passage or multiple passages. Other supplemental passages may be read also.
- The Lectionary. Many congregations use the Revised Common Lectionary to determine its Scripture readings for the day. Four passages (an Old Testament reading, a Psalm, a Gospel reading, and an Epistle reading) are provided each week on a three year cycle. You can find the suggested readings by consulting the Revised Common Lectionary on the internet or finding it in The Worship Sourcebook, p. 823ff.
Creating the Set-ups for Scripture
Often the effectiveness of a Scripture reading can be greatly increased if we place it in the right setting and surround it with meaningful words and actions. The purpose of these settings is to make clear that this is a very privileged moment. It should be received attentively and gratefully. Here are a few suggestions you may want to consider:
- Follow the practice of some traditions and stand for the reading of Scripture, especially the Gospel reading. It's very difficult to consider something commonplace while standing for it!
- Introduce the Scripture reading. This introduction should clearly indicate which text is being read and should invite the careful attention of the congregation. Encourage the congregation to follow the text in their own Bibles or those provided. Clearly state the book, chapter, portion of verses, and usually the page number. Do not hesitate to repeat this information for those who may have missed it the first time. Often it is helpful to give a brief explanation of the context of the passage so the listeners are able to understand its intent. Then a brief statement of invitation, such as "Hear the Word of the Lord…." or "Hear what the Spirit is saying to the church…." or some similar statement can help focus the attention of the congregation.
- Responses to the Scripture reading. A thoughtful response by the congregation reinforces the conviction and awareness that this is no ordinary book. A response can be a commitment of the congregation to receive this Word as God's own voice. It can also become an expression of faith in the truth of God's Word. Consider such responses as, "The Word of the Lord. Thanks be to God" or "The grass withers and the flower fades, but the word of the Lord endures forever. Amen."
- The Prayer for Illumination. Since the power of the Word of God comes through the ministry of the Holy Spirit, a prayer for the Spirit's work is a helpful companion to the reading of Scripture. This prayer may be offered before the reading or between the reading and the sermon. It may be led by the pastor, an office-bearer, a lay person, or by the entire congregation. It may be spoken or sung. In any event, it should clearly be an acknowledgement of the necessity of the Holy Spirit's illuminating work for us to read, speak, hear, and obey. You will find numerous suggestions for this prayer in The Worship Sourcebook, p. 139ff.
If we want Scripture reading to be a vital part of our worship services, here are a few other considerations we'll want to bear in mind.
- Quality Reading: Scripture is a book of diverse genres. Therefore, how it is read will need to vary from one type of passage to another. It is important for readers to prepare to read in a way that accurately reflects both the spirit and the content of the passage. This may involve coaching for some readers, training them in good techniques of reading, and even rehearsals. Encourage them to use their voice and its variations in pitch and tone to convey the meaning of the passage. Be sure they enunciate clearly and project their voice well.
- Variation: The method of reading and the person who reads should include variation. Sometimes the pastor will read; other times a lay person will read. At still other times the congregation will sing songs that proclaim the Scriptures. Sometimes multiple voices proclaiming the same text best communicate the passages. Narratives, for example, can become more real if they are presented in dramatic fashion by a group of readers.
- Sing the Word: We've mentioned before that many songs are the direct text of Scripture. In your selection of songs for worship, pay close attention to such songs and include them as much as possible. In addition, the anthems sung by a choir, ensemble or praise team can effectively "proclaim by singing." In such instances it may be helpful to help the worshipers realize that the Word of God is being sung. Consider introducing an anthem with, "Hear the Word of the Lord, sung today…." and end it with "The Word of the Lord" and "Thanks be to God."
Questions for Discussion
1. How conscious is your congregation of the importance of Bible reading in worship? Describe some of the behaviors and responses that you see as you look around the congregation during the reading of Scripture.
2. On an average Sunday, how many different passages are heard by your congregation? Is this sufficient, too many, or too few? Do worshipers know why each passage is included?
3. Are those who read doing so in a way that is interesting and expressive? Are they well-prepared? Is someone available to coach the readers when necessary?
4. Analyze who does the reading in your worship services. Look at the worship services of this past month. How many different readers were included? Were they diverse in age and gender?
5. How are readers selected? Are they the same few each time, or do you have a method for discovering willing volunteers from the congregation?
Affirmations and Professions
Scripture: Psalm 116 and Philippians 2:5-11
One significant element of worship renewal in our generation is that congregations are finding their voices. Previously, most worshipers were silent in worship, except when they participated in congregational singing. Increasingly, worshipers use their voices in worship for spoken expressions in addition to songs.
How appropriate this is! Reformed worship is built on the conviction that congregational worship is, in its very essence, a conversation with God. God speaks in the greeting, the reading of his word, the sermon, and the benediction, and the congregation responds in song, in prayers), and in affirmations and professions.
Walter Brueggemann, in Worship in Ancient Israel (Abingdon Press, 2005), points out that worship in Israel included four kinds of utterances that represented Israel's response to Yahweh in worship:
- credos, in which they gratefully remembered and recited God's delivering acts;
- praise, in which they recited their doxologies to God;
- truth-telling, in which they candidly expressed their confessions, laments, and protests;
- and vows, through which they spoke of their thankful dedication and commitment to God.
The passage of Philippians 2:5-11 stands out because of its poetic and lyric character. These words treat three themes: the call to be like Christ (v.5), the humiliation of Christ (v.6-8) and the exaltation of Christ (v.8-11). In the early Christian church, Christian belief was taught through verbal expressions. Many are convinced that expressions like this served as affirmations of faith by the early Christians to articulate and announce their beliefs to one another and the world. But these words also serve in another capacity; they become reminders of the great acts of God.
In both passages, we find excellent models for our affirmations and professions. With such words we speak to God our thanks and faith, we speak to each other for encouragement and formation, and we speak to the world our convictions and beliefs.
Types of Affirmations and Professions
In Christian worship we find a variety of affirmations and professions, depending on the location in the liturgy and the purpose of the words. Admittedly, there is a great deal of overlap between spoken affirmations and songs. Often they serve the same purpose. We can identify seven kinds of expressions that can be found in our worship services. By reflecting on these, and perhaps adding others, we will be able to participate in worship more thoughtfully. The common thread through all of these is that worshipers are speaking, not listening!
1. Expressions of Trust. Worshipers corporately express their personal trust in God as the One on whom they depend. This may take the form of reading a psalm together, such as Psalm 46 or other similar passages. Some churches begin worship with a declaration of trust, such as:
Brothers and sisters in Jesus Christ, in whom do you trust? Our help is in the name of the Lord who made heaven and earth.2. Expressions of Agreement. Historically, the word "Amen" was used as an expression of agreement with what was spoken. Many congregations encourage the entire congregation to speak the "Amen" at the conclusion of God's Greeting or a prayer, either in unison or as an echo-response. It, thus, becomes their expression of agreement with what was said.
3. Expressions of Catholicity. Because we worship as part of the "holy catholic church," we need ways to express our oneness of faith with the church around the world. The use of historic and ecumenical creeds, such as the Apostles' Creed and the Nicene Creed, serve as tools to profess our faith in concert with the church of all ages.
4. Expressions of Belief. A recitation of our basic beliefs before God becomes our "credo." Sometimes one of the Creeds (see expressions of catholicity), portions of a larger confession (such as one of our Catechisms), a passage of Scripture, or words composed by local planners are used in this way. You will find many examples in The Worship Sourcebook (see sections 3.5 and 3.6).
5. Expressions of Testimony. In some traditions, personal testimonies are regularly given. In other traditions, the words previously written by others are used for our testimonies. Psalm 23, 103 and 116 are biblical examples of testimony. Excerpts from historic confessions or catechisms can be very useful.
6. Expressions of Lament. Sometimes God's people come to worship with great pain in their hearts, and they need opportunity to express it. The psalmists did too. They believed that God gave them the right to be candid and honest in his presence. Many psalms are expressions of lament in which the worshiper expresses his or her pain, sorrow, and complaint to God, though always in the context of faith and trust. Consider having your congregation read Psalm 13, 42, or portions of 73 in worship during a time of particular pain or sorrow either for themselves or on behalf of others.
7. Expressions of Dedication. God's goodness to us calls for a response of grateful obedience, so Christian worshipers verbally speak their vows of dedication before God. Remember how Joshua led the Israelites in renewing their covenant commitment with public vows of dedication (see Joshua 24). Psalm 116 does the same in vss.12-14 and 17-19.
All these expressions in our worship are built on several key assumptions.
- God listens, and he desires to hear our voices when we worship him.
- God gives us the right and freedom to be open, honest and candid with him in our expressions.
- We express our unity as a worshiping body when we speak together.
- And we form and encourage one another as we speak together of our faith and hope.
We can only begin to suggest resources for our affirmations and professions in worship. Wise worship planners will always be collecting a growing file of such resources.
1. Scripture. As you read the Scriptures, note those passages that can serve as our affirmations (for example, Exodus 15, 2 Samuel 22, and many of the Psalms).
2. Creeds. The Apostles' Creed, Nicene Creed, Our World Belongs to God, and excerpts from the major confessions of your tradition will be rich with resources. (If you are interested in using the Belgic Confession of Faith, it has been reformatted as litanies.)
3. The Worship Sourcebook (Calvin Institute of Christian Worship, FaithAlive Christian Resources, and Baker Books, 2004) will provide many such resources. The quarterly journal Reformed Worship also gives you many resources.
Questions for Discussion
1. Begin with an assessment of your congregation and its practices.
Does your worship life regularly include corporate affirmations and professions?
Does the congregation seem comfortable reading in unison?
What could/should be done to help their comfort level?
2. Have the members of your group spend a few minutes citing a recent experience of an affirmation and/or profession that was particularly meaningful for them.
In what ways did it help their sense of worship?
How did it strengthen their experience of the unity of the body of Christ?
In what ways did it give "words to their soul"?
If none, or few, can cite such instances, why is that? How can you correct it?
3. Review the seven expressions cited above.
Which do you incorporate regularly?
Which do you rarely or never include? Why?
Which do you believe you should begin to include more?
Generate ideas for including multiple types of affirmations in worship.
4. Who is normally responsible for finding or crafting the readings for worship?
Is that responsibility clearly delegated?
Is more assistance and support needed?
Is someone personally willing to serve in that role?
5. Do you have adequate resources available? How could that be improved?