A Pastor Appreciates the Hymns: Calls to Service

By Joe LaGuardia

A Pastor Appreciates the Hymns is a series on hymnody and worship in the church.  By incorporating personal testimony and theological reflection, the series draws meaning and strength from sacred songs past and present.

In his letter to the Ephesians, Paul encouraged Christians to “live a life worthy of the calling to which you were called” (4:1).  Early in church history, many took this calling to mean the divine orders to which priests, bishops, and popes were commissioned.  After the Reformation, of which we celebrated 500 years this past October 31, the church preached that all the people of God are called.  It was Martin Luther who lifted up every believer, noting that even the least among us fulfill God’s call in our life when we live faithfully and obediently.

Our sacred hymnody has come from this vocational geography in the life of the church.  There are two types of songs that relate to calling: Our call to salvation, and our call to Christian service.  Both affirm that God offers us opportunities to choose Christ; worship–and the hymnody that makes up a part of that worship–is our response to God’s gifts and blessings in our life, a celebration of how we have experienced God from one week to the next.

Hymnody that communicates a call to salvation are vast and well-known.  In many churches, these are songs that we sing during a time of invitation, either after a lengthy music set or immediately following the sermon.  Hymns such as Come, Ye Sinners, Poor and Needy, express our longing for God, our fragility as humans, and the vastness of God’s love.  The song, penned in the eighteenth century by Joseph Hart, assures us that in our call to God, God will “embrace us in His arms.”

Other invitation hymns include Have Thine Own Way, Lord, which echoes God’s prophecy to Jeremiah that God is indeed potter while we, God’s people, are clay to be molded and sculpted by our Lord.  I Surrender All is yet another hymn that acknowledges our choice to give all who we are to Christ Jesus, to “make me, Savior, wholly Thine.”

A beloved hymn, Softly and Tenderly, authored by Will Thompson became a fast favorite among revivals in Great Britain and the Americas.  The great evangelist, D. L. Moody was said to have favored this song above all others, befriending Thompson along the way.  Thompson held Moody’s hand on while Moody was on his deathbed (Kenneth Osbeck, 101 Hymn Stories).

A second category of invitation hymns include the commitment to Christian service.  Come, All Christians, Be Committed and The Mission God Has Given (a more contemporary hymn) are among my favorites.   Both implore believers to “share the gospel with people near and far” and share our blessings with others.  Hymns that we sing around Thanksgiving, such as Because I Have Been Given Much, challenges us to give to others: “I cannot see another’s lack and I not share my glowing fire, my loaf of bread, my roof’s safe shelter overhead.”

Invitation and response are our responsibilities in meeting the Lord’s gift of grace and salvation in our life.  They do not uphold a works-based righteousness but recall James’ admonishment to Christian sojourners in the world, that “faith without works is dead” (James 2:26).  We need this reminder every week, and our time of invitation is a perfect incubator for a faith that upholds all our callings in Christ.

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When criticism gets in God’s way

criticismBy Emily Holladay

This post was originally featured on Call and Response, a blog sponsored by Duke Divinity’s Faith & Leadership program. Two years after I wrote this post, I find myself searching for ways to extend learning and mentoring relationships so that there is a place for the young, energetic minister and the wise, seasoned minister (maybe even from different churches!) to share together in the learning process.

This year, my home church started its first contemplative service on Thursday nights. Going to seminary, working at a church and maintaining regular hours at my weekday job makes it difficult to get back, but my ministers talked all semester about how great the service was and how much they wished I could come be a part of it. So once my classes were over and I had some extra time, I decided to make the trek home for the contemplative service and extended visiting with friends.

Apparently I picked the wrong week. Out of the two ministers who normally planned the service, one was at a meeting and the other (who normally played piano for the service) was recovering from wrist surgery. Instead of the tranquil lilt of piano music guiding our thoughts and prayers, we were serenaded with recordings of contemporary music I have been taught to scrutinize for lacking theological depth. We were asked to sing with piano accompaniment recordings but could not find our place because the melody was indistinguishable.

The contemplative service was meant to be a time of rest and reflection after a busy week, but the many distractions impeded my worship.

As a seminary student, it is often difficult to sit through any worship service without critiquing every little detail. I just spent a semester in worship class, engaging every element of a good worship service and noting those moments that fall below our incredibly high standards. I learned to think about the subliminal messages we, as ministers, send our congregation when we do not approach worship planning with intentionality and care.

Sitting in my church’s contemplative service, all my worship class instincts infected my mind. By the end, I had a list of things I thought could have been done better, should have been done differently or should have been left out altogether. I had criticized the service but missed out on the worship.

Afterward, I went out to dinner with one of the ministers, who admitted that the service was not the best and wished I had come on a different night. I refrained from recounting my list of faux pas with her, and simply said, “I wish I were still here so I could help out!”

And I meant it without a hint of irony. I need a place where I can share my perspective, a place where I can question and engage, a place where I can try new things and see what happens. My church needs me, too. The church needs someone eager with fresh views, someone who will question and prod in ways that helps worship become deeper and more meaningful. I can only imagine what I could bring to the table if I were invited!

But I wish I could be there for one more important reason: so my church could remind me how to worship.

Perhaps more than I need a space to engage what I’ve learned, I need my ministers to help me see church and worship through spiritual eyes, rather than academic goggles. I need their wisdom to help me worship, instead of criticizing. I need this because I am not sure how long it will take to unlearn my classroom instincts once I am serving in a ministry position post-seminary.

I am not unique. I don’t know a seminary student who doesn’t struggle to sit through worship or a sermon without running through the checklist of things they learned in class to judge how good it was. And it’s hard to find God on a checklist.

Churches and students could benefit from a mentoring model that allows students to critically engage worship, while receiving wisdom on how to simply be in worship. In the end, churches would be stronger, and the students would be more well-rounded and prepared for their own church ministry.