Do children leave the worship service to attend children’s programs?

Yes – during both morning services. Children ages 2 1/2 through 2nd grade begin the service with their families and leave the service together before the sermon, after receiving a congregational blessing. Preschoolers go to Little Lambs class, and students in kindergarten through 2nd grade go to Children’s Worship. Little Lambs and Children’s Worship meet in the education wing, on the east side of the building.

We think it’s important for children to be present with their families for a good deal of the liturgy. Even though they don’t understand all the words, they can participate enough in the singing, the passing of the peace, etc., to share genuinely in our worship of God. When it comes to the sermon, however, we believe that the youngest children should hear the Word of God addressed to them at their own level. Thus, at this point they are led out to continue their worship in another part of the building.

On Family Communion Sundays, young children return at the beginning of the Lord’s Supper to rejoin us in this part of the liturgy. Each Sunday, children or young people who have not yet participated in the Preparation for Communion class stand with their parents in the circle at the front, where they receive a blessing from the pastor or a council member.

I heard you have a church service for people who are learning English. Is this true?

Yes. In 2009 we started a “Basic English” worship service for those whose native language is not English. After a long process of discernment with fits and starts, the BES leadership team approved changing the name of the BES to All Nations Worship Service. The name All Nations seems to better capture how this service has grown to be a fellowship of believers from many nations who share their gifts for God’s glory and the enrichment of Christ’s church. Read more about our All Nations Worship service, formerly called the Basic English Service.

Where did the liturgies of Church of the Servant come from?

After World War II, churches in all the main traditions of Christendom — with the exception of the Eastern Orthodox — engaged in liturgical revision. The results of their work display an astonishing ecumenical convergence. Not only are the structures of the newly proposed liturgies virtually identical, but often the contents are as well. Basically, all these denominational committees went back to the liturgy of the church around 200 AD — after it had settled in and before it became encrusted.

The Christian Reformed Church (CRC) also participated in this ecumenical convergence. In the early 1960s, the denomination appointed a liturgical committee. In 1968 that committee presented to Synod its report, including a proposed structure for Sunday morning worship. It was a Word/Sacrament structure. The report was approved by Synod, and the liturgical structure was recommended to the churches.

The worship committee of Church of the Servant (COS) took that recommended structure and filled it out for the various seasons of the church year. In the early 1980s, the Denominational Liturgical Committee did so as well. You will find their proposed liturgies strikingly similar to the COS liturgies.

Why do you follow the church year in your liturgy — Advent, Christmas, Epiphany, etc.?

One way to think of the church’s liturgy is to think of it as a remembering. God is not some abstract, eternal, immutable, impassive being. God acts in history. God is the Alpha and Omega, the one who is and who was and who is coming. The church gathers to remember God’s great decisive actions and to respond with praise, petition, commitment, etc. But when the church remembers, it doesn’t just bring things to mind in psychological fashion. It performs its rememberings. It remembers by reciting God’s actions in the reading of Scripture. It remembers by celebrating the Lord’s Supper as a remembrance or memorial of Christ. And so forth.

So, too, we follow the church year as a remembering of the decisive events and periods in Christ’s life. From the very beginning, the church followed a weekly cycle and celebrated Sundays as a memorial of Christ’s resurrection. After a century or so, it began to superimpose on the weekly cycle a yearly cycle, whereby it eventually celebrated Easter as a remembering of Christ’s resurrection, Christmas as a remembering of his birth, Epiphany as a remembering of his manifestation to the public, Pentecost as a remembering of the coming of the Spirit, and so on.

In short, we follow the church year because we think it important that even the rhythms of our yearly existence be sanctified as a memorial of our Lord’s birth and life and death and resurrection and ascension. For in Christ is our redemption. Among the things we remember are also God’s promises. Remembering those promises leads us to expect and hope. In our remembering, we expect.

When I looked at your liturgy, it seemed very formal; but when I experienced it, it didn’t feel that way. Can you explain that?

The first thing to be said is that one can no more judge a liturgy from what is printed out than one can judge the performance of a play from the script. The liturgy — that is, the service — consists of things done by us and by God. What is printed out is the script for these doings; but it’s not the real thing.

Nonetheless, you’re right if you mean that our Sunday morning liturgy has a definite structure. And perhaps it is somewhat intricate. That comes about because the people have a large part to play; our liturgy simply could not be done if there were no congregation present. And, of course, the congregation has to be coordinated in its contribution. Maybe the requirement of that coordination is what accounts for the apparent formality.

It would be better to say, though, that it is a carefully structured liturgy; because indeed it isn’t formal and stiff. The people get out of their seats to bring their offerings forward — and we let that happen without having ushers carefully organize it. They get out of their seats for the Communion, again without careful organization. So, yes, much of what happens is not ordered and planned. We have an overarching structure, and within that there occurs a certain amount of unplanned, unstructured, spontaneous action. Freedom within structure.

For example, we believe that the Lord’s Supper should be introduced with the people offering their gifts. So that particular structure always remains. But we also believe that the most appropriate gesture or posture for offering one’s gifts is to bring them forward. That, then, is how freedom within structure arises.

Maybe there is another thing you are putting your finger on when you say that it feels like a blend of formality and informality. It often happens that when a congregation has a carefully structured liturgy, all intensity disappears, and everything becomes very sober and serious and uptight. That is not true for us, and we pray that it never becomes true. The participation of COS in its liturgy is done with intensity and joy.

Why do you celebrate the Lord’s Supper every week?

That’s the big question, given that COS stands firmly in the Reformed tradition, where the practice has been to celebrate the Supper just four times a year. It’s also a big question in the sense that it will take a bit longer to answer it. Perhaps a good place to begin is with some historical considerations.

Though Jesus at his last supper with his disciples before his crucifixion told them to “keep on doing this as a memorial of me,” he did not (on record) tell them how often to celebrate his memorial meal. Neither is there any decisive indication in the New Testament as to how frequently the early church celebrated it. Evidence as to the practice and conviction of the early church has to come from outside the New Testament. Of course, the same is true for sermons, and indeed for worship services in general. The New Testament does not say that we are to assemble for worship every Sunday, nor can we decisively infer from the New Testament that the early church did so.

One source of evidence as to the practice of the early church is a little book called the Didache or the Teaching of the Twelve Apostles, probably written toward the end of the first century AD. There we find this passage: “On the Day of the Lord come together, break bread and hold Eucharist.” That doesn’t tell us what the actual practice was. But certainly it does express the conviction of an ancient Christian writer, one probably associated with some of the original disciples, that the Lord’s Supper or Eucharist should be celebrated every Sunday.

Another ancient source of evidence is the First Apology of Justin Martyr, written around 150 AD. Describing Christian practice, probably at Rome, Justin says that “on the day which is called Sunday, all who live in the cities or in the countryside gather together at one place.”

He then goes on to describe the Scripture readings and the sermon; and after that he says, “Then we all stand up together and offer prayers. And . . . when we have finished the prayer, bread is presented and wine with water; the president likewise offers up prayers and thanksgivings.”

In short, as far back as we can look into the tunnel of history and still find decisive evidence, we discover that the early church celebrated communion weekly and was convinced that it should.

That is how things remained in all the main branches of Christendom in all places and at all times until Holy Week 1525, in Zurich, Switzerland, where the reformer Ulrich Zwingli initiated the practice of having 48 preaching services in the year and four Lord’s Supper services.

John Calvin was always opposed to this Zwinglian innovation and ardently desired that the people should celebrate weekly. The Lord’s Table, says Calvin, should be “spread at least once a week for the assembly of Christians. . . . All, like hungry men, should flock to such a bounteous repast.” And again: “It was ordained to be frequently used among all Christians in order that they might frequently return in memory to Christ’s Passion, by such remembrance to sustain and strengthen their faith, and urge themselves to sing thanksgiving to God and to proclaim his goodness; finally, by it to nourish mutual love, and among themselves give witness to this love, and discern its bond in the unity of Christ’s body.”

As you can surmise from the last quotation, what lay back of Calvin’s insistence on weekly communion was his understanding of the significance of this sacrament. Zwingli thought that the Lord’s Supper consisted of our actions addressed to God: thanksgiving, memorial, pledge, etc. Calvin insisted that not only do we act in the sacrament, but God acts as well. The medievals argued over the “real presence” in the sacrament. Calvin went beyond them to insist that not only is God present in the sacrament; God is active in it. By way of the sacrament, God here and now validates the promise he has made with us that he will unite us more closely to his Son; and more than that, God here and now effectuates that promise. By way of the sacrament, we are united more closely to Christ in his humanity. The sacraments are thus a means of grace. As such, they are to be received frequently, says Calvin. They are medicine for our spiritual infirmity.

We should realize that the theological debate between Calvin and Zwingli over the significance of Holy Communion was won hands down by Calvin. All the great Reformed confessions of the 16th century — Heidelberg, Swiss, French, Belgic, Scottish — side with Calvin. Yet, for various reasons, it was Zwingli’s practice that won out. Calvin won the theological debate while Zwingli won the liturgical one.

In a way, then, all that we at COS have done in having Holy Communion every week is bring our liturgical practice into conformity with our Reformed confessions. We are following the express wishes of John Calvin himself. The congregation which celebrates the Lord’s Supper weekly is “Calvinistic”!

Why do you all come forward and stand in circles for the Communion?

History reveals various practices here:

  • One is that with which many of us are familiar from our experience in the 20th century Reformed and Presbyterian congregations: The people remain seated and the elders bring the elements to them. But let’s remind ourselves of some of the significance of the Lord’s Supper; it is a celebration of our unity in Christ, with a pledge of our fidelity to the God of the covenant. Surely just sitting in place is about as unfitting a posture as one could imagine for these two themes.
  • Probably going forward to kneel at an altar-rail, as is customary in Lutheran, Anglican, and pre-Vatican II Catholic churches, is somewhat better. But here, too, the theme of this celebration as a sign of our unity is submerged, as is the fact that this is a memorial of an actual meal, Christ’s last supper with his disciples.
  • Yet a third possibility, traditionally practiced in Orthodox churches and now also in many Catholic churches, is to have the minister and perhaps commissioned lay persons give the bread and wine to the people as they file past. This way of doing it seems also to have been the practice of the early French Reformed Church and of John Calvin.

After reflecting on the various possibilities, we concluded that the best way to give bodily expression to the many different dimensions in the significance of the Supper was for us to come forward (thus to indicate our pledge of fidelity), to stand in a circle (thus to indicate our unity), and to pass the bread and wine to each other (thus to indicate that we minister Christ to each other). We like what Calvin said on this: “It is as if one said that the saints are gathered into the society of Christ on the principle that whatever benefits God confers upon them, they should also in turn share with one another.”

There are also some echoes of Reformed tradition in our practice. The custom in the Dutch Reformed Church, until well in to this century, was to have the people come forward and actually sit at tables. Our way of doing it is just a small variant on this practice from our tradition. Once again, what looks like innovation is actually tradition recovered.

Why do you have the people bring their offerings up to the front?

In the offering we present the results of our labor for the work of the church. We sacrifice some of our substance. We do it in a spirit of praise and thanksgiving. Our offerings are a sacrifice of praise and thanksgiving, offered liturgically in response to our hearing the Word.

The question we have asked ourselves, then, is what is the appropriate gesture to reflect this act of giving? What motion best fits this action? Certainly sitting stock-still in place is about as unfitting as one could imagine. Much more fitting would be to come forward. In short, here, as in many other places in our liturgy, we follow the principle of using the gesture or posture or motion which best fits the action. It is also this principle which determines, for example, when we stand up in the liturgy. We do not stand up simply to have a change of posture.

Perhaps some visitors find bringing the offerings forward in this way rather chaotic. In fact, the whole procession — that’s really what it is, a gift-bearing procession — organizes itself very nicely.

There is another reason for doing it this way. We’ll talk about it next. It’s a historical reason.

What is the historical reason for having the people bring their offerings up to the front?

In the early church, the people at a certain point in the liturgy brought their offerings of foodstuff forward. The presider then took out enough bread and wine for communion, and the rest of the offerings were distributed to the needy.

This practice of bringing gifts forward, including bread and wine for communion, was apparently continued for a good many centuries in at least some places. It goes exactly the same way in our liturgy. The minister says, at the beginning of the Lord’s Supper, “Let us prepare the table with the offerings of our life and labor.” We then come forward with our gifts of money, and at the end of this procession, those assigned to bring the bread and wine for the day bring them forward. No attempt is made to conceal the fact that the wine was bought from a store and the bread either bought from a store or baked at home. Our ordinary lives are connected with what we do in church. The bread and wine, like the money, are offerings of “our labor.”

By coming forward to present the gifts, including gifts of bread and wine for communion, we actively express the fact that in gratitude we are presenting to God the good gifts that God has given us, some of them to be used by him in turn to give himself to us in communion. This theme of thanksgiving is picked up when we immediately go on to express in words our thanksgiving for God’s acts of creation and redemption. The whole context for the Lord’s Supper is thus thanksgiving.

In bringing our gifts forward we also give vivid expression to the fact that we give ourselves to God — “the offering of our life.” Thus, the offering looks forward to the Dedication, where we say (in most of our liturgies), “We praise you, Lord, with these your gifts of bread and wine. We offer you ourselves as your people in your service.”

Why do you have members of the congregation lead the intercessory prayers?

The intercessory prayer is the prayer of the people. It is part of their address to God. A fitting way to express this is to have a member of the people lead the people in their prayers. Of course, the pastor is also a member of the people, so our pastor also regularly leads us in our prayers. But after Christ’s sacrifice, the people of God no longer need a priest who, as intermediary, presents their prayers to God. Christ is now our intermediary and intercessor. All our prayers are now in his name. In our practice of having people from the congregation lead the intercessory prayers, one sees at work one of the fundamental principles underlying our life at Church of the Servant: the liturgy belongs to the people. Naturally, the person who leads the prayers must reflect, prepare, and be in prayer in order to lead the people effectively and to speak on their behalf before God in the name of his Son.

That item which you call The Passing of the Peace —why do you have that in your liturgies?

In several of his letters, Paul speaks of “the holy kiss.” From the church of apostolic times, the holy kiss entered most of the early liturgies, gradually coming to be called The Peace. Our passing of the peace at COS is the equivalent of the holy kiss in the apostolic church. It is an expression of our love and unity in Christ. In our culture the normal form of mutual greeting has become the handshake, in place of the kiss of Near Eastern culture. So though a kiss or embrace is not inappropriate as a way of passing the peace, the handshake is the normal form among us.

In some of our liturgies, The Peace occurs within the Lord’s Supper part of the liturgy, after the breaking of the bread and before the invitation. In others, it occurs near the beginning of the liturgy, in response to the minister’s presentation of God’s Word of peace to us. We, the people, then speak God’s peace to each other. The reason we have placed it up there in several of our liturgies is that we think it an appropriate response to God’s greeting to us, and because our young children are still with us in the service.

The goal of God’s redemptive work in the biblical vision is that humanity shall dwell in peace (shalom); now already the church of Christ is to give signs of that goal.

I noticed that you have the reading of the Law in your Lenten liturgy but not in the others. Why is that?

Strictly speaking, we do have it in our other liturgies. The Law of God does not come to us only in the words of the Decalogue. Once that is recalled, it becomes clear that the Law of God occurs explicitly in almost all of our liturgies, though the Ten Commandments are found only in the Lenten liturgy. Among the Reformers there was much discussion as to the function of the Law in the Christian life. Some insisted that the Law brought home to us our sinfulness, thus preparing us to accept grace. The Calvinist party insisted that its primary function was to give us guidance for living in obedient gratitude.

Accordingly, in the Heidelberg Catechism the exposition of the Ten Commandments occurs in the section on gratitude rather than in the section on sin. Our liturgies follow this understanding. Most of them have the minister pronounce God’s Law for our lives at the end of the liturgy, just as we are ready to go forth. Here, to cite one example, is the form it takes in our Pentecost liturgy: “And remember, the harvest of the Spirit is love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness, and self-control. The Spirit is our source of life. Let us therefore walk by the Spirit.”

For Lent, however, it seemed appropriate to follow the old Reformed practice of having the Decalogue, or some close equivalent, much earlier in the liturgy, in the Confession. Again we follow the Calvinistic pattern: the Law occurs after the Gloria, which follows the Declaration of Pardon after the Confession. In that position the Law clearly functions as summons and guide to the life of gratitude for those who have been declared forgiven.

Why do you have those announcements at the end of the morning service?

Here you touch on the element of our service about which there has probably been more disagreement within COS than any other. Some members don’t like the announcements at all. They find them anticlimactic. And everybody would agree that sometimes they get too long. But other members prize them very highly. Once we had a visitor from Taizé who found the announcements one of the most striking and one of the most wonderful parts of our service!

What’s the idea behind them? Most announcements concerning the life of the congregation go into the printed bulletin — routine announcements about meetings, dates to put on the calendar, etc. The end-of-the-service announcements are not the chance for those who neglected to put something into the bulletin to make up for their negligence.

But there are certain special announcements concerning the life of the congregation that seem much too significant to be stated merely in black words on white paper — announcements about illnesses, healings, births, engagements, weddings, deaths, greetings from special visitors, etc. We think it important in these cases for the person involved to have the chance to speak to the congregation in his or her own voice. That keeps vividly before us the fact that our concerns as a congregation of Jesus Christ are the concerns of flesh and blood creatures in whom the gospel is incarnated. It displays to us the concreteness of our Lord’s presence in the lives of our fellow church members.

That still leaves open the question as to where the announcements should occur. In the past we tried various places other than the end of the service, but all of them seemed like an interruption to the worship. That’s why we have them at the end.

Why do you have a semicircular seating arrangement?

At several points in our answers we referred to a certain principle of “fittingness” — we think that gestures, motions, postures, etc., should “fit” the liturgical action. Thus, we stand to sing the Gloria after the words of absolution, and we get out of our seats and bring our gifts forward for the offertory. It was this principle of fittingness that was operative in our choice of semicircular seating.

For one thing, we asked what would best fit the biblical understanding of the nature of the church. Though the New Testament uses a variety of metaphors here, certainly one of the most prominent is that of the church as the family of God. It seemed to us that the normal hall-type seating arrangement was not at all fitting to this; much more fitting was a semicircular arrangement, in which people can better see each other and in which the notion of a gathered family is better conveyed.

We were also thinking in terms of those two central actions of our liturgy, the preaching and hearing of the Word and the celebration of the Supper. In the former case we wanted to express the reality of being gathered around the Word, in the latter case, of being ready to eat the Supper together. It seemed to us that the semicircular arrangement also best fit these two realities.

I notice that sometimes you include dance in your liturgy. Isn’t that distracting?

We hope not. Just as we never stop the liturgy to have “special music,” so too we never halt the liturgy to have dance. Dance for us always serves the liturgy; it accompanies the congregational singing. The dancers work out motions and gestures that fit the liturgical action — once again the principle of fittingness!

But why do we have it? Well, though we certainly don’t think that the endeavors of Christian artists ought to be confined to liturgical art, nonetheless we see the arts as, in a certain sense, finding their fulfillment in the liturgy. Here humanity’s arts are explicitly offered back to God the Creator by way of being caught up in worship of him. We human beings, as head of creation, here function as priests offering the world back to God in a sacrifice of praise and thanksgiving. Thus dance in the liturgy is for us an offering back to God of his gift of ordered motion.

One might add that through dance in the liturgy, more of ourselves is caught up in worship, not just more of the world. For, of course, we are part of the world. Nowhere is that more obvious than when it comes to our bodies. We are more than minds and spirits; we are also bodies. To worship God in spirit and in truth is not to worship him as if we were disembodied. You see, the dancers are not performing for us but on our behalf. They represent us. It is we all who are dancing.

(Most of these questions and answers are excerpted from the booklet “Worship at Church of the Servant,” written by Nick Wolterstorff. Printed copies are available from the church office.)