On Pacing and Lay Worship Leadership

Q. Worship services in our church are so fast-paced that I can barely keep up. What’s the big rush?

A. In the past few years, worship leaders have often sought to pick up the pace of services. Part of this quickening is intentional—some services in the past have dragged on at a snail’s pace. Part of this is also the unintentional effect of the media in our sound-bite society. Whether we live in Cairo, Carracas, or Cincinnati, our culture shapes our understanding of what seems fast or slow. Lately our culture has been speeding up our internal clocks.

As you suggest, the rush can be problematic. Services that once were listless now are breathless. Often we are given no time for reflection, for quiet prayer. In addition to opportunities for exuberant praise, we also need times for reflection. Especially in Lent and Advent.

Adding moments of silence is a good place to start. But not just any moments of silence—the best silences in worship are intentional, perhaps in the middle of a prayer of confession, perhaps after a sermon during a moment of reflection. Meaningful, pregnant silences are best. (One speaker recently suggested that we can evaluate our worship services in part based on the quality of our moments of silence.)

It’s also true, of course, that adding moments of silence may stretch services past the sixty-minute mark. As far as I’m concerned, anything we can do to break the liturgical tyranny of the wristwatch is fabulous.

Q. May an unordained worship leader lead the confession and especially the assurance of pardon? What did Calvin, or other historic figures, say about that?

A This question has arisen only fairly recently. Before 1975 or so, it was assumed that an ordained minister, ministerial candidate, or elder would lead the entire service. So Calvin and most front-line theologians throughout the history of the church never needed to directly address this issue. And Reformed Christians have written precious little on the nature of ordained ministry, leaving us with little to guide our current discussions about the significance of ordination.

The idea of seeking permission for lay leadership here relates to our understanding of the act of assurance. Traditionally, Reformed Christians have understood that during the greeting and benediction the minister was speaking on behalf of God. Seminarians are instructed not to raise their hands for the greeting and benediction until they are ordained. Medieval Christians (and some later Protestant ones) understood the assurance in the same way. They called it the absolution and understood it as a statement of divine forgiveness by the minister on behalf of God. The authority to make that statement rested in the ordination of the leader.

But most Reformed congregations have now shied away from that understanding. They preserve the idea of an assurance of pardon but understand its authority to come from Scripture (not mediated through an ordained person). That’s why the assurance of pardon is usually a Scripture text like Romans 8:1, Psalm 103:8, or 1 John 1:9-10. According to this way of thinking, there is no reason that an unordained person should not read a Scriptural assurance. In fact, many congregations benefit from having gifted persons involved in worship leadership—what a beautiful picture of the priesthood of all believers!

However, this does not mean that just anyone should lead worship in this way. It should be a person who has an understanding of worship (and of this part of the service), someone with gifts for worship leadership, someone with spiritual maturity. Leading worship requires more than good intentions. Some congregations have shifted too far from exclusive ministerial leadership to a kind of “anything goes” approach. This can not only detract from worship but also prevent the minister from fulfilling his or her calling to lead the congregation in prayer.

Any questions?

We hope you find Q&A stimulating. We also hope that you’ll join in the dialogue. Send your questions about worship to Reformed Worship Q&A by mail (2850 Kalamazoo Ave. SE Grand Rapids, MI 49560), fax (616-224-0803), or e-mail (info@reformedworship.org). You can also e-mail John directly (jwitvlie@calvin.edu).


You may be interested in two helpful pamphlets written by John Witvliet:

So You’ve Been Asked to Plan a Worship Service (#410107)

So You've Been Asked to Lead a Worship Service (#410106)

Each is available individually for $1.25US/$.80CDN; for ten or more copies the price is $.95US/$1.40CDN. To order cal 1-800-333-8300 or order online at www.crcpublications.org

Rev. Dr. John D. Witvliet is director of the Calvin Institute of Christian Worship and professor of music and worship at Calvin University and Calvin Theological Seminary in Grand Rapids, Michigan. He also teaches in the religion department at Calvin University.

Reformed Worship 59 © March 2001, Calvin Institute of Christian Worship. Used by permission.