Communal Worship with Seasonal Structure
By Teri Peterson, MDiv ’05.
February 5, 2015 — Communal worship may be one of my favorite things. I love to plan it, I love to lead it, I love to coach others as they plan and lead. And there’s just something about the Reformed Tradition’s understanding of the order of worship that works so beautifully—the movement from gathering to preparing to encountering to responding to sending. When a service ties together around the Word, it’s almost like magic happens in the sanctuary.
I suspect many people would disagree with my assessment of traditional worship. I have often heard the words “rote” and “dry” alongside the usual “boring.” And though the phrase “frozen chosen” had very little to do with worship originally, it is certainly applicable in many congregations now. But it doesn’t have to be this way! We do not have to be people whose focus on the Word Proclaimed eclipses the need for the whole people of God to participate in the liturgy from beginning to end.
So how can we be true to our amazing tradition, while also being creative, engaging the whole person, and offering people the chance to participate in the beauty that is created in good liturgy?
There are a few relatively simple ways, like using liturgical language and music that is fresh and contemporary (which will often mean writing your own liturgy, though there are great resources too, like the ____ & ____ series from the Iona Community, and www.liturgylink.net). Being aware of multiple senses and learning styles, and then incorporating things like body prayer, Praying in Color, conversation, and silence are also quite simple. Having said that, be aware that even something as simple as an opportunity to ask the person sitting next to them “How can I pray for you this week?” can be a major change that can make people uncomfortable.
If you want to do something big, great! Lay the groundwork, though. Going all the way to something like what we did on Pentecost last year … well, let me just go ahead and say it: don’t. Not every idea is good. (Each part of the bulletin was numbered, and there were balloons around the sanctuary with numbers taped to the ribbon … children took turns choosing a balloon and then leading that part of the service. The entire service felt very spontaneous, because we never knew what would happen next. The only good thing I have to say is that it had to be the Spirit that gave us the Doxology first and the Lord’s Prayer last—every other minute in between was excruciating. Not recommended!)
But if you’re ready, here’s something new we are doing at the Presbyterian Church of Palatine. We adapted this idea from several churches in Genesee Valley Presbytery, who are also experimenting with this new way of being. It’s more than just worship planning, it’s a whole way of life for a congregation. We’re only six months into our two year experiment so far, but we are loving it. We call it the Seasonal Structure.
We divided the calendar year into eight seasons. Most are liturgical seasons—Epiphany, Lent, Easter, Advent/Christmas. In that long season of Ordinary Time between Pentecost Sunday and Advent, we created four seasons: Pentecost I, Pentecost II, Harvest I, and Harvest II. Each season is between 5 and 8 weeks long. On Stewardship Commitment Sunday, everyone in the congregation is invited to sign up for one or two seasons for the coming year. The resulting team is then responsible for the whole life of the church during their season—meaning they make and carry out plans for Worship, Education, Mission, and Fellowship. They do their own publicity, ensure that some aspect of stewardship is a part of the season, recruit their own volunteers, and hold their own meetings. It sounds crazy, but here’s the process:
About 7 weeks before the start of the season, the team gathers after Sunday worship for a 3-4 hour meeting. We order lunch, people share a bit about themselves and why they signed up for this season, etc. Then we spend a significant chunk of time reading all the lectionary texts for worship during the season. We study, ask questions, pray, and ponder. When the team has discerned a theme that arises from these texts, we look for ways to center the church’s life on the theme and scriptures. The team makes suggestions for liturgy, music, and ritual. They plan a variety of educational offerings for all ages. They choose (or create) mission opportunities that they can connect to the theme. They come up with social opportunities for the church to gather around the theme. They divide up the tasks that need to be done, they set their own meeting schedule, and then they spend the next 7 weeks preparing, and then the 5-8 weeks of the season implementing those plans. Afterward, the whole team and I gather for a dinner where we evaluate the season and leave notes for future teams.
It sounds like a ton of work. And it can be, depending on what the team decides to do. But we have found that it puts the church community’s life together right where it belongs: centered in scripture, cohesively radiating from the experience of worship, and in the hands of the people of God, not just the staff.
One of the beauties of communal worship in the Reformed Tradition is its cohesion. We have extended that cohesion to the whole of the church’s activities, insisting that what we study, how we play, and the ways we serve need to be rooted in scripture and worship. We already see this bearing fruit in more people participating in education and fellowship, more creativity coming from within the congregation (everything from visual arts to music to ritual ideas), and more investment in the life of the community. I am seeing people better able to articulate the connections between scripture and mission, where before we did many things but weren’t clear about why.
If you want to do this, be prepared: teams will come up with ideas that scare the collar right off you. From suggesting a secular pop song as a theme song for the season to moving an entire worship service to Saturday night dinner and taking Sunday off, from asking you to ensure that the liturgy and music all contains a certain image or phrase to deciding not to schedule liturgists but instead ask for volunteers to lead parts of the service in the middle of the service…it’s an experience, to be sure. But a good experience—for me as the pastor to let go a little and trust the Spirit at work in community, and for members of the teams, who get a behind-the-scenes peek at how church functions, and whose ideas have for so long been dormant because the experts have always pulled from the same playbook. [BCW, I’m looking at you! ;-)]
Our worship has never been so vibrant, and our community has never been so connected to the word. It’s a big shift (especially since our Season Teams took the place of all the standing committees of the church!), but as one elder said when we were discerning if this was the way to go: “maybe it’s time to wipe the slate clean and see what Jesus will do, rather than just tweaking our old ways again.” And all the people at the meeting said: AMEN!
The Reverend Teri Peterson has been pastor at The Presbyterian Church of Palatine since January 2013, having previously served six years at the Ridgefield Crystal Lake Presbyterian Church and one year as a Young Adult Volunteer in Cairo, Egypt. She holds a degree in clarinet performance from DePaul University and an MDiv from Columbia Theological Seminary.