Terry L. Johnson
This is the eighth of 18 articles in a series entitled “Who Needs the Church?”
A recent review article in a Christian periodical makes the claim that, “An hour or a few given to Christian worship in a week is not sufficient to form the primary loves and desires of people who are being formed in rival and often contrary loves the rest of the week.” 1 He argues that the whole structure of the church’s life plays a vital role in counteracting the impact of the culture throughout the week. That got me thinking about the value of a regular weekly and annual routine in the life of our church.
Each summer our congregation worships Sunday nights from Memorial Day weekend (last Sunday in May) to Labor Day weekend (first Sunday in September) at our Point Pleasant camp facility. This tradition predates my arrival in Savannah 30 plus years ago. Certain “rituals” tie these summers together. We begin and end each summer with informal singing led by stringed instruments for the 15 minutes before the service begins, culminating in singing the contemporary version of Psalm 134:
Behold, Bless the Lord, all children of the Lord,
Who stand by night in the house of the Lord.
Lift up your hands to the sanctuary,
And bless the Lord.
A “Church-Wide Barbecue” follows the service in May, a “Low Country Boil” in September. The actual services at the opening and closing of the summer at Point Pleasant each conclude with the singing of “When Peace like a River” with its two-part refrain. Repetition of these songs each year stir up memories of worship services and Christian fellowship going back decades. We recall our child-rearing years and our children growing into adults. Now we look across the room at our grandchildren. Our children themselves recall the singing, the food, playing in the marsh, and hunting for fiddler crabs.
My point is: these are powerful builders of community. They help mark our identity as a congregation. The songs, the meals, the families in fellowship: this is what we do each summer. This is who we are: summer nights at Point Pleasant, “Behold, bless the Lord;” “It is Well with My Soul;” church-wide barbecue in the spring, low-country boil in the fall.
The same is true of Easter. Easter week we conduct a service of “Lessons and Psalms.” All the “passion narratives” from the four gospels are read. The psalms associated with these narrative are sung. The impact of this extended meditation upon Christ’s suffering is powerful. Easter Sunday we open our Easter service with “Christ the Lord is Risen Today.” The church is full. The first audible notes from the congregation are startlingly loud. The singing is powerfully moving. Each year we conclude with Handel’s “Hallelujah Chorus.” Each year we are overcome with emotion at the sheer beauty and majesty of it all.
As summer ends, we conduct an annual “Communion Season” with services Thursday – Saturday, culminating in Sunday communion. We read the great gospel texts. We sing the great evangelical hymns: “When I Survey the Wondrous Cross,” “Alas! and Did My Savior Bleed,” “O Sacred Head, Now Wounded,’ and “O the Deep, Deep Love of Jesus.” The services culminate when we meet each other at the table, representing Christ and His benefits, and the deep bonds of commitment and conviction that we share.
Each fall we host a “Fall Family Night” on October 31 as an alternative to the pagan and occultic observance of Halloween. We organize rides and games for the children, with food and candy for everyone. The neighborhood joins us. Costumes are donned and fun is had by all. This is a staple of our congregational life.
Each Christmas season we have a “Service of Lessons and Carols” followed by a Christmas buffet. This has been the tradition for over 30 years. The sanctuary is beautifully decorated. The singing is gorgeous. The food is delicious. The fondest of memories are associated with this event. The Christmas Eve service provides more of the same. Every year we open the service with “O Come All Ye Faithful.” Many of us struggle to choke out the words. Every year we close with “Joy to the World.” We exit the building and sing a series of carols on the lawn by candlelight. No one wants to miss that service. It is our tradition. It is what we do. It is who we are. It is a staple of our congregational life.
Each winter/spring we conduct a “Mission’s Conference,” Thursday through Sunday, the Sunday morning service beginning with Isaac Watt’s great paraphrase of Psalm 72, “Jesus Shall Reign,” and we hear challenging messages from missionaries and guest preachers.
We are not a calendar-driven church. We philosophically are opposed to the full “church calendar” of Advent, Lent, and so on. We limit ourselves to the “five evangelical feast days” of Christmas, Good Friday (Maundy Thursday), Easter, Ascension, and Pentecost. Even then we treat the latter two with a light touch. Yet we can see that there is an important identity-forming role played by the annual cycle in the church’s life.
More importantly, our weekly services forge our identity as a community, shaping our understanding of who we are, what we believe, and what we do. We have a weekly routine, a weekly tradition of 9:30 Sunday School followed by 11:00 morning worship and 5:30 evening service. We sing two hymns and a psalm in our services. Singing a classic hymn at I.P.C. such as “Holy, Holy, Holy,” or “Praise to the Lord the Almighty,” or “Be Thou My Vision,” or any one of literally dozens of other hymns and psalms is a powerful experience for most of our people. We read a lengthy passage of Scripture. We recite the Creed and the Lord’s Prayer. We pray a “full-diet” of biblical prayer. We observe not weekly, but monthly Communion. Week in, week out, 52 weeks a year, morning and evening, this is what we do. This is who we are.
Remarkably, our people grow to love traditional hymnody and metrical psalmody. If they move to other communities, they miss “the music.” They long to sing the substantial hymns and biblical psalms and the tunes of enduring quality. When visiting other churches, they notice the absence of extended Scripture reading and miss it. They notice the absence of prayer and feel a void as a result. They observe the less-than-rigorous attention to the text of Scripture in the preaching and yearn for truly biblical exposition. Their identity, their convictions, their commitment, their desires have been forged by our routines and traditions.
Commitment to a church means commitment to its program and its people. Those who commit to its program, who are there each week for each service all through the year, grow to love the weekly and annual routine. They grow to love the regular services and the special services. They are moved by the routines and traditions that mark who we are and what we do.
Because they are committed to the program of the church, they become committed to the people. This commitment follows naturally and organically because they are there at the church among its people. They are present at services, mingling with the members before and after. They are present for the coffee and sweets before Sunday School and morning service, getting to know others through casual conversation. They stay for the evening meal, sitting across the table from other members over an extended period of time, deepening the bonds of fellowship with them. Their children are becoming the best friends of the other children of the church. Common convictions with a common outlook and common priorities are forged. A community of like-minded people emerges who love each other, care for each other, and bear each other’s burdens. Through regular involvement in the programs of the church, our hearts are knit together. It happens subtly slowly, unperceptively. Often we fail to recognize how wonderful and beautiful it all is, until sadly, perhaps by death or by relocation, it is over.
The building of congregational identity is aided when the pattern of church life extends beyond one’s local church. If one is part of a national denomination in which there is substantial unity in worship, it helps. Of course, from place to place there will be variations in details. Not every church has a Point Pleasant. Not every church has an organ. Not every church sets up tables down the center aisle for communion. Yet if when one relocates to a new community, or one goes on vacation, one can find a sister church which features morning and evening worship, expository preaching, substantial Bible reading, a full diet of biblical prayer, and traditional psalmody/hymnody, one may find oneself happily “at home.” One may even realize, “There are lots of us. We are not alone.” The Episcopalians seem to know who they are and what they’ll get when they walk through the doors of an Episcopal church: Prayer Book worship. Regrettably, maybe fatally, the days of liturgical unity are long gone among conservative Presbyterians, unlikely to return.
The world’s “liturgies” are pervasive and powerful. Its calendar of events, from Super Bowl, to pop concert, to three-day weekend; to the Easter bunny, to Halloween, to Santa Claus; its music; its literature; its arts; its use of media; its accepted “truths;” its received “values,” all conspire to undermine Christian faith. The world’s calendar all but smothers ours. The church is organized in opposition to the world and the world returns the favor. The church eventually will not only conquer the world, but batter-down hell’s gates as well. Yet we will only see it do so in our time and place if we are committed to the church’s program, if we are active participants in our “life together.”
Terry L. Johnson is the senior minister of Independent Presbyterian Church in Savannah, GA. He is author of various books including Leading in Worship, Worshipping with Calvin, Serving with Calvin, and The Identity and Attributes of God.
TAGS: “five evangelical feast days;” fellowship; denominational unity; liturgy; commitment to church’s program; weekly pattern of church life; annual pattern of church life; community; church meals; identity as a church; communion season; lessons and psalms; lessons and carols; Christmas season, Easter services; Missions Conference.
Jason Micheli, “Can Christians Transform Culture?” in The Christian Century, August 29, 2018, Vol. 135, No. 18, p. 34.