On Hallmark Holidays, Calls to Godly Living, and Means of Grace

Q. Recent conversations I’ve heard dismiss Mother’s and Father’s Days as Hallmark holidays not suitable for worship. Aren’t these important pastoral topics in an age in which family life is so threatened?

A. Thanks for this corrective message. In response to the overloading of the church calendar with Sundays that focus on denominational agencies, key topics, cultural celebrations, and various days of prayer, many of us have worried that key events in Christ’s life are often eclipsed. This year, for instance, many congregations celebrated Mother’s Day but made little or no reference to Christ’s ascension.

Still, as you suggest, the topic of parents, parental love, and family life is very appropriate for worship. It’s a theme that runs from the Ten Commandments right through Paul’s letters. And it is significant for pastoral and evangelistic reasons. Not only does it inform how we look at our parents or children, but also how we explain and understand God’s love for us.

In light of the tension between “calendar take-over” and this pastoral concern, consider two mediating strategies.

First, consider giving cultural observances significant attention in pastoral prayers and through a brief pastoral word of encouragement just prior to the intercessory prayer. Using carefully chosen words, pastors can address the theme in a weighty, if not lengthy way.

Second, when cultural observances are also reflected in sermon themes, watch that the service doesn’t sentimentalize the topic. Keep hymns, songs, and prayers focused on Jesus. And practice pastoral care in worship by naming and praying for the struggles of those estranged from their mothers and fathers, those whose mothers or fathers have died, and those who long to be mothers or fathers.

Q. There seems to be a lot of recent emphasis on confession as part of worship. But why so little emphasis on the call to godly living? Statistics tell us that the behavior of people in church is hardly different from that of the world.

A. You’re right that the practice of regular prayers of confession is much more established today than ten years ago in many congregations. And you’re also right that many churches do not give much attention to some kind of call to godly living. Many classic liturgies follow the prayer of confession with an assurance of pardon and hymn of praise, assuming that the call to godly living will be issued through the sermon or in a charge at the end of the service.

Some Reformed churches follow the assurance of pardon with a call to godly living, with the Ten Commandments as the prime example. One liturgical historian called the Ten Commandments “the Calvinist Gloria”—that is, the natural substitution for a hymn of praise following the assurance of pardon. So it’s not surprising that The Worship Sourcebook (Faith Alive Christian Resources, 2004) includes more resources for reading the Law (section 2.7) than any other worship book I know of.

Consider how your service could end with both a charge and a blessing. Taken together these two words are a wonderful summary of a Reformed approach to ethics. God never gives us a command without a promised blessing to be with us. And God never gives a blessing without guidance about how we might best flourish in daily living. (See The Worship Sourcebook 9.1, 9.2).

Q. What is a “means of grace”? Why did my pastor say that this is the most important thing for us worship leaders to learn about?

A. The Reformation list of “means of grace” includes preaching, sacraments, and (often) the exercise of church discipline—all of which are essentially liturgical or have direct liturgical counterparts.

The phrase “means of grace” directs our attention to God’s action. We can’t generate grace, only God can. Preaching and sacraments are means of grace in that God uses them to comfort, challenge, nourish, correct, inspire, and teach us. We come to worship (to listen to sermons and participate in the sacraments) with our best offerings. But we bring them into a sphere of divine activity. It is the Holy Spirit who makes worship “work.”

Ninety percent of the books and articles about worship that cross my desk stress how much we need to worship with passion, integrity, and excellence. I couldn’t agree more. But the more significant part of the equation is how God uses that passion, integrity, and excellence (and our imperfection and weakness) to bring about healing and redemption.

I suspect that your pastor wanted your team to explore how to think in these terms, to realize how the power of worship is not finally up to you. That discovery is full of gospel joy.

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 (cicwdir@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 77 © September 2005, Calvin Institute of Christian Worship. Used by permission.