Were You There?

Sensing the Power of the Crucifixion

Good Friday is a day of confrontation, a day when the forces of hatred and evil tried their best, or rather, their worst, to destroy Jesus. This is no “warm fuzzy” worship service. Instead it dramatically challenges participants to experience the reality of Christ’s crucifixion through all five senses, so the significance of Christ’s sacrifice is not only understood but felt. Here we acknowledge the ugliness of sin and our own participation, through our sins, in Christ’s death. We are there when they crucify our Lord.

As they arrive, worshipers should be encouraged to sit close to each other in a block of pews toward the front of the sanctuary. If necessary, other pews may be roped off with a roll of black crepe paper to redirect seating. Having the congregation seated together is important because symbols of the crucifixion will be passed among them. Also, if seated together, worshipers can support one another in the prayers and hymns.

Following is an order of worship with comments for the worship leader. The service is divided into six sections, each beginning with a Scripture lesson and followed by the passing of a symbol during a period of silent meditation and concluding with one or more stanzas of the African-American spiritual “Were You There?”

The service generally takes about forty minutes. If a large congregation is anticipated, the leader should have a crown of thorns, a piece of wood, or other symbol for every subsection of the congregation. Ushers can assist the leader in passing the symbols from the table to the congregation and from the congregation back to the table. The service may be lengthened by adding hymns or longer readings.

Each segment of the service may be introduced with remarks that help make the experience more “real.” For example, the section using wood to represent the cross might include a reminder that crucified individuals often would rub their backs raw against the wood of the cross as they shifted their weight from nailed hands to nailed feet in order to breathe, adding to their suffering.

This worship service may be disturbing to some. Others will be deeply moved, like the woman who reported that, as the nails were being driving into the cross, she could feel the blows in her own bones (actually the force was being transmitted somewhat through the floorboards). On the whole, response to this service has been overwhelmingly positive. Many have said it is the most meaningful Good Friday service they’ve ever attended; perhaps because they have experienced something of Christ’s crucifixion anew—with all five senses. The worship leader should be prepared to discuss the reaction of any worshiper who might approach her or him after the service.


Call to Worship

Who has believed what we have heard?

And to whom has the arm of the Lord been revealed?

He was despised and rejected by others;

A man of suffering and acquainted with infirmity.

As one from whom others hide their faces he was despised,

And we held him of no account.

He was wounded for our transgressions,

crushed for our iniquities;

Upon him was laid the punishment that made us whole,

and with his stripes we are healed.

Prayer of Confession

All we like sheep have gone astray; we have all turned to our own way, and the Lord has laid on him the iniquity of us all. Amen.

Hymn: “Beneath the Cross of Jesus” CH 320, PH 92, TH 251, WR 255

Scripture Reading: Matthew 27:27-31

Symbol: Crown of thorns

[A crown of thorns is passed among the worshipers. A crown can be created from twisted rose bush stems (leaves removed) or from barbed wire. A barbed wire crown becomes an especially powerful reminder of those who are being persecuted or tortured, or confined to prison, labor, or refugee camps. Any crown must be handled carefully, of course.]

Silent Meditation

Song: “Were You There When They Crowned His Head with Thorns?”

Scripture Reading: John 19:16-17; Matthew 27:32

Symbol: Wood

[A rough piece of wood is passed among the worshipers.]

Silent Meditation

Song: “Were You There When He Carried His Own Cross?”

Scripture Reading: Matthew 27:33-36

Symbol: Nails

[Worship leader or a representative pounds nails into a cross of rough wood, using a heavy mallet. I have used a cross that’s about seven feet tall, made of weathered two-by-sixes. It rested against the table until this point in the service, when it was placed on the floor for nailing. Then the cross was moved back to the table and large nails or spikes are passed among the congregation. Pole barn nails, which are about one foot long and made of galvanized metal, may be used.]

Silent Meditation

Song: “Were You There When They Nailed Him to the Tree?”

Scripture: John 19:28-30

Symbol: Vinegar

[Individual communion cups with red wine vinegar may be pre-placed in the holders in each pew. Or they may be passed among the congregation on trays. The leader drinks from a chalice on the table.]

Silent Meditation

Song: “Were You There When They ‘Suaged His Thirst with Gall?”

Scripture: John 19:38-40

Symbol: Cloth

[A section of cloth is passed among the worshipers. Cheesecloth or other gauze-like cloth may be used.]

Silent Meditation

Song: “Were You There When They Wrapped Him in the Cloths?”

Scripture: John 19:41-42

Symbol: Tomb

[The leader or a representative may carry the cross out of the sanctuary. The congregation follows in procession. Where this service was introduced, the church abutted a cemetery and the cross was left in front of an unoccupied utility building that resembled a crypt, where it stayed until Easter Sunday morning. In different settings the cross could be placed upright in the ground in a cemetery or perhaps somewhere on the church property. If these are not options, the cross may be left in the sanctuary over Holy Saturday.]

Silent Meditation

Song: “Were You There When . . .

They Crowned His Head with Thorns?”

He Carried His Own Cross?”

They Nailed Him to a Tree?”

They ‘Suaged His Thirst with Gall?”

They Wrapped Him in the Cloths?”

They Laid Him in the Tomb?”

“We Were There When They Crucified Our Lord”

Assurance of Pardon

[Worshipers receive a reassurance of God’s forgiveness]


Worshipers leave in silence

Reformed Worship 86 © December 2007, Calvin Institute of Christian Worship. Used by permission.