There are a whole range of special foci outside the big two of Christmas and Easter that can be included as part of regular “worship events.”
Epiphany (Jan. 6), Mothering Sunday (the fourth Sunday of Advent), Remembrance Day (Nov. 11), Baptist World Alliance Human Rights Sunday (Dec. 10/11) name but four.
I know congregations who variously observe some or none, and maybe all of these. Of course, Sunday observances tied to cultural holidays vary from nation to nation, but the practice seems fairly widespread if not universal.
To be sure, sometimes it is a grudging acknowledgement in a “children’s talk” or a more serious reflection in a “prayer,” but the issue makes it in or not. So it is that one way or another, choices are made to include and to exclude.
What I am not clear on is the basis for the decisions to include or exclude such foci from congregational worship.
I also suspect (I am perhaps necessarily suspicious) that if pressed, those responsible for making the choices may not always have necessarily thought this through (I do not mean you, of course!).
Or, if they have, they may not necessarily be confident of the validity of the answer they would have to give – “people expect it” – may be true but maybe does not feel as though the answer we should be giving.
I do think that various arguments can be made for the inclusion or exclusion of all or any of these as expressions of Christian worship services including no doubt, “We don’t do that church calendar malarkey,” or even, “I did not know there was a human rights Sunday.”
This notwithstanding, why those who regularly include, for example, “Remembrance Sunday” but do not mention “Human Rights Sunday” as part of Christian worship poses a fascinating question.
I know there can be huge pressure on the limited time of gathered congregational worship.
I am not sure any choices are more right than wrong, although I would like people to be able to articulate the reasons so these could be examined.
For while the choices made may not necessarily be right or wrong, the reasons may be more or less biblically and theologically responsible.
As Greg Scheer, in his book “Essential Worship,” writes, “Who wouldn’t want their worship to be biblical? That’s something we can all agree on, right?”
I certainly belong in a context where “biblical” carries a lot of weight and rightly so.
It is, however, at times stated as a mantra that implies that all things are thus obvious. So, what are the “biblical” reasons for including or excluding these various foci?
Scheer helpfully explores what it may mean to say that something is “biblical” in relationship to worship, and I would recommend his book to anyone who plans worship gatherings.
Moreover, if our practices, not least our worship practices, reveal the “operant theology” (see Helen Cameron) or the “primary theology” (see James McClendon) of our congregations, what does the presence or absence of such and other foci say about understanding of God and God’s nature in relation to the world?
Going another step further, if our worship services are in some ways “formative” (as, among others, James K.A. Smith addresses in his book, “Desiring the Kingdom”), we should always be asking: What are our liturgies and rituals (in the sense of the regular things we do together) forming people into by the inclusion or exclusion of these different opportunities?
Of course, consideration of the above will enable not simply informed choices about what is or is not included in our worship services, but also how we deal with them as we respond to our varying contexts.
Perhaps some of these foci need to be included but critically, with a simultaneous acceptance and rejection, deconstruction and construction guided by the question, “What do they stand for in the light of the resurrection of Jesus Christ?”
So, for example, we just observed Epiphany Sunday (Jan. 7 this year), which traditionally invites some reflection on the baptism of Jesus.
Yet, this is a topic which is strangely seldom preached in Baptist churches other than when there is a baptism.
It may indeed be important as to whether we prefer Hillsong, Bethel or Wesley songs in our singing, but these are not the only questions in town – or, again, why are these questions considered more important than the others?
In raising these questions, I am really interested, I do want to know, and, yes, I am more than a bit suspicious about the reflection (or lack thereof) leading to decisions on which observances are acknowledged and which are not.
Certainly, I think we need to be thinking about these things if we are interested in the nature of our worship events at their “substantive” levels of biblical, theological and formative natures.
Stuart Blythe is associate professor of the John Gladstone Chair in Preaching and Worship at Acadia Divinity College, Nova Scotia. A version of this article first appeared on his blog, Politurgy, and is used with permission. You can follow him on Twitter @StuartMBlythe.
Stuart Blythe is associate professor of the John Gladstone Chair in Preaching and Worship at Acadia Divinity College, Nova Scotia.