By Paxson Jeancake
As a worship leader I am often asked, "Do you plan everything around the sermon theme?" Though the paradigm that I use to guide my worship planning includes the sermon theme, it goes much broader and deeper in scope than just that one factor. I briefly articulated my approach last week in the Introduction to this four-part series. When I plan each week I think in terms of God's Story, Our Story, and My Story. This week I will focus on God's Story, beginning with a discussion on the annual rhythm of the Christian Year.
Celebrating the Annual Rhythm of the Christian Year
This liturgical art is by Rini Simon, a talented young adult from our church. It is an ink drawing which depicts the life of Christ - his role in creation, his birth, crucifixion, resurrection, ascension, sending of the Holy Spirit, and future return and reign. This is the heart of God's Story. In worship we remember, recall, and appropriate these events and realities. We do this, in part, by following the cycles and seasons of the Christian Year.
Part of my passion for telling God's Story comes from the narrative found in 2 Kings 23:1-3 (ESV):
Then the king sent, and all the elders of Judah and Jerusalem were gathered to him. And the king went up to the house of the Lord, and with him all the men of Judah and all the inhabitants of Jerusalem and the priests and the prophets, all the people, both small and great. And he read in their hearing all the words of the Book of the Covenant that had been found in the house of the Lord. And the king stood by the pillar and made a covenant before the Lord, to walk after the Lord and to keep his commandments and his testimonies and his statutes with all his heart and all his soul, to perform the words of this covenant that were written in this book. And all the people joined in the covenant.
The context for this narrative is that the high priest, Hilkiah, found the Book of the Covenant (likely, the book of Deuteronomy). We do not know how long it had been lost, but the people had fallen away from the Lord. Finding and restoring the Word of the Lord sparked a revival and ushered in a number of reforms through King Josiah. As a worship pastor, I feel a responsibility to steward God's Story so that it is not lost in my generation. The message of Deuteronomy 6:4-9 likely motivated Josiah in his day. It is part of my own motivation to serve as a Gospel Storyteller for my local church and my family:
“Hear, O Israel: The Lord our God, the Lord is one. You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your might. And these words that I command you today shall be on your heart. You shall teach them diligently to your children, and shall talk of them when you sit in your house, and when you walk by the way, and when you lie down, and when you rise. You shall bind them as a sign on your hand, and they shall be as frontlets between your eyes. You shall write them on the doorposts of your house and on your gates."
We are to immerse ourselves in God's Story, passing it on at home, at work, and in worship. The psalmists functioned as storytellers in the Old Testament. They often retold all or portions of the story of redemption in their songs, spurred on by this motivation:
One generation shall commend your works to another,
and shall declare your mighty acts. - Psalm 145:4 (ESV)
Finally, in the New Testament we receive this exhortation from the apostle Paul:
Let the word of Christ dwell in you richly, teaching and admonishing one another in all wisdom, singing psalms and hymns and spiritual songs, with thankfulness in your hearts to God. - Colossians 3:16 (ESV)
It is for these reasons that I feel compelled as a worship leader to tell God's Story of redemption through the annual rhythm of the Christian Year. I am not motivated or compelled by mere tradition; I am fueled by a passion to pass this story on, one generation to the next.
The liturgical calendar below was created by my artist friend Barbara Lyon. It is a wonderful and creative way to visualize the seasons of the Christian year.
During Advent and Christmas we retell and reorient ourselves around the reality that God put on flesh and walked among us. Throughout Epiphany we tell about his manifestation to the world. We recall the Magi who came to see him, his baptism in the Jordan River, and his transfiguration.
On Palm Sunday we sing and shout "Hosanna!" to the King of kings; however, we also remember the irony of this day as Jesus wept over Jerusalem for her blindness and hardness of heart. We walk through the sobering events of his arrest, trial, and crucifixion on Good Friday. We rise on Easter Sunday to celebrate Christ's resurrection and the hope of new life.
Though it is definitely the forgotten festival among many evangelicals, many congregations recognize the Ascension (either on a Thursday or the following Sunday) and the reality that Christ is now at the right hand of the Father interceding and advocating for his people. We remember the day of Pentecost, celebrating the coming of the Holy Spirit in power to the church. Pentecost is a time to remember the third person of the Trinity who empowers, comforts, fills, and guides us, the people of God. As we tell God's Story we are formed and transformed, year after year, by the spiritual realities of a living, sanctifying God.
Rediscovering the Ascension as a Major Festival and Doctrine of Our Faith
Before discussing the weekly rhythm of the Lectionary, I would like to focus on the Ascension in an effort to rediscover the riches of this neglected doctrine and festival. I have devoted a page on our website for Ascension Resources where you can read and discover even more on this topic.
Since 2005 I have been intentional about celebrating the Ascension at the churches where I have served. In Augustine's day the Ascension was seen as the crown of all Christian festivals. Augustine declared that it was:
"that festival which confirms the grace of all the festivals together, without which the profitableness of every festival would have perished. For unless the Saviour had ascended into heaven, His Nativity would have come to nothing... and His Passion would have borne no fruit for us, and His most holy Resurrection would have been useless." 1
Our recognition and understanding of the Ascension is much different in our present time. Today, the Ascension goes by virtually ignored in the evangelical world. I think this is really unfortunate. In his book He Ascended into Heaven, Davies writes:
"There are those who claim that the Cross is the heart of the Gospel; others that the Resurrection should occupy this position. It is not my intention to seek to displace either of these two by the Ascension, but to add the Ascension to them, so that this triad in unity is recognized as forming the heart of the Gospel." 2
I resonate with this statement wholeheartedly and long for the day when the Cross, the Resurrection, and the Ascension (this "triad in unity") are recognized as forming the heart of the Gospel.
Engaging our Artists During Ascension and Pentecost
In hopes of gaining a more robust celebration of both the Ascension and Pentecost at my current church in Florida, I issued a Call to Artists in 2016 on the theme, God Is For Us: The Ascension and the Outpouring.
The purpose was to invite the artists among us to engage with the event or the present realities of Christ's Ascension or the coming of the Holy Spirit at Pentecost. In doing so, my hope was that all of our hearts would be encouraged and edified, and that our imaginations would be stirred by the advocacy of our ascended Lord and the power of the Holy Spirit.
Once the deadline for submission arrived, we had just over a dozen artists who participated and twenty different works that were on display for the two weekends of Ascension and Pentecost that Spring. The exhibit exceeded my expectations and was a successful event for our congregation through the means of community and creativity. I hope the Church will, once again, recognize the Ascension as a major festival and vital doctrine of our faith.
Celebrating the Weekly Rhythm of the Lectionary
In addition to the annual rhythm of the Christian Year, I also seek to tell God's Story through the weekly rhythm of the Revised Common Lectionary (henceforth, the Lectionary). 3 Over the years, I have utilized many of the Lectionary-based resources available through books, journals, and liturgical planning calendars. I have found it creative and edifying to incorporate Lectionary readings and prayers within the flow of a worship service. Utilizing these resources throughout the Christian Year is a way to tell God's Story and offer our people a healthy diet of Word and prayer.
Most recently, I have been inspired by a book by F. Russell Mitman entitled, Worship in the Shape of Scripture. In this book Mitman describes an organic liturgy - one in which the sermon and liturgy organically arise out of the shapes and forms inherent in the Scriptures themselves so that the whole worship service aims, through the Holy Spirit, at becoming an event of the Word of God. Mitman's basic paradigm is "from lectionary to liturgy."
This idea has deepened my appreciation for the Lectionary at multiple levels and has motivated me to begin to craft my own prayers, affirmations of faith, and other elements as they organically flow out of engaging with the Scriptures for that week. (Mitman's book was a major impetus for creating The Lectionary Journey).
My church is not one that follows the Lectionary in its preaching. However, I have found that by engaging with the Lectionary readings each week, personally and as a family, I usually find one or two texts that I can weave into the flow of worship in a natural and intentional way. Typically, after singing a couple of opening songs, I (or a vocalist on the worship team) will read one of the Lectionary passages. Then, we will have a worship element that flows out of the reading (e.g., a prayer of confession or renewal followed by an assurance of forgiveness, a prayer of intercession, an affirmation of faith, etc.). That element is often followed by an appropriate song of response. All of this is part of the Gathering portion of the traditional four-fold pattern of worship which I have followed for years: Gathering, Word, Table/Response, Sending. 4
Incorporating Lectionary readings and original or readily available Lectionary-based resources has become a natural and intentional way to follow the seasons of the Christian Year and incorporate Scripture and other worship elements throughout the service. In remembering these cycles and seasons, we tell the whole Gospel story (God's Story), stirring our hearts, minds, and imaginations around the realities of our triune God. In doing so we are heeding the call, mentioned earlier, to let the word of Christ dwell in us richly.
1. J.G. Davies, He Ascended into Heaven (Cambridge: James Clarke and Company, 1958) 170.
3. The Revised Common Lectionary is a collection of readings from the Bible for use in Christian worship, making provision for the liturgical year with its pattern of observances of festivals and seasons. The Lectionary is organized into three-year cycles of readings. The years are designated A, B, or C. Each yearly cycle begins on the first Sunday of Advent (the last Sunday of November or first Sunday of December).
4. I plan to write about the four-fold pattern of worship in another series of articles.