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Celebrating the Christian Liturgical Year in Evangelical Churches

Most evangelical churches have no significant contact with the Christian year except on the Sunday before Christmas and Easter Sunday. Occasionally one can find a Good Friday communion service. Within many parishioners there is a sense of valued propriety in the exclusion of this type of Christian worship expression. There is often the feeling that such inclusion within the church would detract or even work against the primary mission of the church, which is to implement the great commission - making disciples of all nations and baptizing them. While there is widespread lack of knowledge of most of the themes of the Christian year, there is also a suspicion that those Christians who practice such "non-biblical" based activities do so as a dry unfulfilling ritual (perceived as a bad word), which seems completely irrelevant in our age of spiritual freedom, freshness and spontaneity from the Holy Spirit. Denominational publishing houses mirror these positions and provide no instruction - not even historical in nature of the subject of the Christian year.

This author's particular North American Baptist Church is a rare exception to the above. Drawing from very meaningful but limited exposures to liturgical environments and considerable reading about church history and Christian symbols has begun to teach the value in periodically focusing on all the major themes of our Christian faith. After using the Christian year as a primary basis of our worship for five years, our congregation would have it no other way. It gives us a sense of the recurring celebration, calling, anticipation and challenge to all that our Lord has designed us to be. Christmas has now comfortably grown to include Advent, Christmas and Epiphany. The Easter season is now expanded to encompass Lent, Easter and Pentecost.

Advent is anticipated months before it arrives. We celebrate not only the promises of Jesus' coming as a baby in the manger, but we also rejoice in the anticipation of his second coming. During Advent we sing primarily carols that invite or promise of Jesus' coming to be in our midst. Most Christmas carols are not sung before Christmas eve. We then do sing them for several weeks until the Epiphany. We then begin to celebrate the wise men giving gifts to our Lord; but we also celebrate the many gifts that God give to each of us, including his spiritual gifts. We then move into the Lenten season, discovering again the uniqueness of our Christian faith, God's plan of our redemption, the sacrifice of his son Jesus on the cross. This gives us the opportunity to sing many hymns about the cross and prayerfully examine all that we are doing both in and outside the church. Tradition is widespread that we do not say or sing alleluias during Lent. The last week of the Lenten season is called Holy Week. During this week we recall the events that Jesus experienced during the last week before his crucifixion. On Palm Sunday Jesus was hailed as the King of the Jews, adored by many who publicly praised him. There is a procession into worship with each worshiper being given a palm branch. Only a few days later he was displaying his great servant love for his disciples by washing their feet and sharing not only his last meal with those closest to him - his disciples, but was also experiencing complete aloneness on earth and the pain of his crucifixion. At the same time he prayed that his followers would be filled with blessings and joy. Reading these scriptures aloud and simply re-enacting some of these events ushers us quickly and dramatically into God's presence. Reliving these events in Jesus' ministry here each year brings fresh to us his great love and sacrifice for each of us. It challenges us to enthusiastic obedience to Him. The ending of Holy Week is the beginning of the celebration of His Resurrection. After that is our focus for several weeks we move to thankfulness for God's great gift of the Holy Spirit to us - Pentecost. Walking through each of these main events in the life and experience of Jesus as recorded in the scriptures, provides us with an endless list of praise themes and sermon topics and texts. There is no difficulty even connecting the Christian year with many topical series of sermons.

This change from the previous ritual of three hymns, offering, special music and sermon to themes from the Christian year, while now fully embraced by the vast majority of parishioners did not come about without some resistance. It seems that such resistance was generally from those who had strong resistance to many types of changes, rather than from those who had previously chosen to leave the liturgical environment. The former Roman Catholics, Lutherans and Episcopalians who have become a part of our congregation have in many cases experienced significantly new meaning to their worship life because of the reality of their evangelical faith by our observance of the Christian year. For those who have their first taste of the Christian year in worship, a sense of stability and continuity in their Christian faith and worship is also found. Our structure of prayers, confessions, singing (even chanting) of the Psalms, connected by the focus of the Christian year give just enough structure to our worship to enable each person to offer praise and adoration to our Lord. We find that a little direction goes a long ways when one's congregation is prepared and anxious to worship the Lord God of the Universe. To gather for the stereotyped meeting for preaching as in the past would not provide the level of pastoral guidance needed for effective worship. God has richly blessed us in our discovery of the Christian year.


Copyright 2001 by Rev. Larry D. Ellis, Denver Colorado USA

(Written during the author's tenure as organist and minister of worship at a North American Baptist Church in the Denver, Colorado area.)


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