On All Saints' Day, Devotional Prayers, and Distinctions Between "Songs about God" and Songs to God"

Q. All Saints’ Day sounds so Roman Catholic. Why does our Reformed church celebrate this day? Doesn’t this betray our roots?

A. The sixteenth-century Reformers abolished all celebrations related to saints. They had deep pastoral concern for people who believed that the saints could offer prayers on their behalf. The Reformers saw this as a direct challenge to the sufficiency of Christ’s atonement for sins and priestly intercession.

Yet New Testament Christians rightly recall with thanksgiving and joy the “cloud of witnesses” that precede us in faith. The writer of Hebrews 11 lists a whole gallery of those of whom “the world was not worthy” (Heb. 11:38). We give thanks for these saints not because of what they can do for us, but because of what Christ has already done through them. Whether we acknowledge biblical figures like Abraham or Sarah, Mark or Mary, or more recent saints like a wise parent, mentor, or teacher, we remember and are led to pray “all praise and thanks to God.” That’s why even Reformed Christians love to sing “For All the Saints.”

Today we don’t have to worry too much about people in the Protestant church being tempted to pray to saints. But we should worry about a church that is remarkably oblivious to its history and a culture that looks down on the elderly and wise. We are susceptible to what C. S. Lewis called a “chronological snobbery” that assumes that history has nothing to teach us. In today’s church, deep pastoral concern should lead us to be grateful for occasions to praise God for faithful Christians who have gone before us, including significant people in our own lives.

Q. We have a worship leader who reads prayers from a book. They are beautiful and poetic, but they don’t help me pray. Can’t we bury the book?

A. Prayer books come in two types: liturgical and devotional. Devotional prayer books often feature memorable metaphors or pithy aphorisms that stimulate our imagination and give us thoughts to savor. They usually require more than one reading. These books are more helpful for nurturing the worship leader’s own prayer life than for providing texts for worship.

Liturgical prayer books, on the other hand, are designed to speak for a whole community of worshipers, not just a single believer. They use language that is accessible on first hearing. Even leaders who pray extemporaneously can benefit immensely from using published resources that provide images, phrases, or thoughts that they might never otherwise have thought to mention.

Rather than bury books altogether, why not give your worship leader the gift of a liturgical prayer book? Or consider a workbook to help them prepare their own prayers. I’d recommend Let the Whole Church Say Amen!: A Guide for Those Who Pray in Public by Laurence Hull Stookey (Abingdon).

Q. Lots of contemporary worship leaders make a distinction between “songs about God” and “songs to God.” Is this distinction valid?

A. Indeed, many contemporary worship movements (notably, the Vineyard) seek to promote more intimate awareness that worship enacts a close, personal relationship between the believer and God. This simple distinction has been a key teaching tool to help thousands of worship leaders accomplish this goal. Often leaders will use “songs about God” (“A Mighty Fortress Is Our God”) only as preparation for true worship—songs directly to God (“I Love You, Lord”).

Helping people experience worship as a direct, relational action is an important corrective to worship that is passive or unengaged. But sometimes the distinction is drawn too tightly. One problem is that it leads to neglect of many biblical songs. For example, many favorite psalms, including Psalm 1 (“Blessed is the one who trusts in the Lord”) and Psalm 122 (“I Was Glad When They Said to Me”), don’t directly address God for many stanzas at a time. Yet these songs and thousands of more recent texts can be intimate, relational, and profoundly nurturing.

Further, we don’t need to be limited by the rhetoric of song. In “Praise to the Lord, the Almighty” and “All Creatures of Our God and King,” we actually address each other and all of creation with a call to worship. Yet we can sing these hymns both “up” to God and “out” to each other at the same time. Why force a song into one category or another?

Finally, we should make sure that our “songs to God” are balanced. “I Love You, Lord” conveys the intimate part of this relationship. “Holy God, We Praise Your Name,” in contrast, conveys the transcendent dimension. The balanced Christian life needs both.


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).

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 65 © September 2002, Calvin Institute of Christian Worship. Used by permission.