On Sunday, February 27, 2022, our world was reeling from the news from Eastern Europe. The preceding Thursday, the armed forces of the Russian Federation had attacked neighboring Ukraine from land, sea, and air. Our congregation has seen wars before, but never – it seems – in a country so much like our own and in the modern technological world of cell phone cameras and social media accessibility.
Personally, I’m even more sensitized to the warfare because I lived (1996-2002) in Barnaul, Russia as my family served as full-time, located missionaries there (my parents were there longer than that). I have Russian and Ukrainian friends, I speak Russian, I watch Russian media; many Russian foods are childhood “comfort foods” for me – when I’m feeling under the weather, I drink hot black tea with сгущёнка (sgooshyonka), sweetened condensed milk.
But this was not my personal crisis, it’s the world’s crisis. It is my belief that it also weighs heavily on God’s heart and that we should be engaging with these current events – and others – as we bridge the gap between heaven and earth, representing the kingdom of God while walking among the kingdoms of earth. Especially when Christians assemble weekly, I believe it is appropriate for current events to be part of that event – whether for lament, repentance, petition, or understanding through the narrative framework of God’s redeeming work (for more on that rationale, see the blog post At the Intersection of Current Events and Worship).
So, how did we worship on Sunday after the war began? As I planned our worship time for the Church of Christ in Fredericksburg, Texas, I aimed for a layered approach to overlaying God’s narrative over the events of the preceding week. Our live-streaming technology was out of commission, so there is no recording of this assembly.
The Order of Worship
I Shall Not Be Moved (F)
Welcome, Announcements, Video of Ukrainian Christians
While On the Sea (Dm)
Prayer for Peace (Levi Sisemore)
I Need Thee Ev’ry Hour (Ab)
In Need (E)
Fill My Cup, Lord (Bb)
Prayer (Charlie W.)
Just As I Am – I Come Broken (Db)
Your Love Defends Me (A)
Choral Scripture (Psalm 99)
Encountering Jesus: Zacchaeus
Softly and Tenderly (Ab)
Nearer, Still Nearer (Db)
Communion & Dismissal Prayer (Larry B.)
Layer One: Telegraphing the theme
First, we welcomed all of our guests – and being a tourist destination, we almost always have out-of-town and local guests – and members. We shared health updates on some church members who have been suffering so that we could know how we ought to pray. Even in a small Texas town, one of our members requested prayers for extended family that lives in Ukraine. As I concluded our welcome, I put my cards on the table for the morning, offering an invitation to journey together along the theme of our need for God and how he supplies the need.
Communication is a good thing. Worship themes are probably best identified to the congregation rather than deduced by them. The worship planner has had time for themes to marinate in his soul (mediation, prayer, reflection, etc.); the congregation is experiencing them unfold in real-time. Sometimes themes are too obscure or specific for the congregation to identify until very late in the assembly (usually until the preacher announces his sermon topic) and so they were unequipped to put the puzzle pieces together until after most of those pieces had passed them by. Don’t make the church wait until the drive home to realize, “Oh, that’s why we were singing those songs in that order!”
If your theme is very general (e.g., the love of God; the Cross, etc.), then the congregation can pick up on it by seeing an order of worship. It’s less critical to announce your theme. However, the more specific you are or the more intentional your planning is to take the church on a journey, the more you’re going to have to announce the road map. The worship planner’s role is to create points of engagement – not obscurity – for the church. Give people the tools to engage with the service you’ve planned!
Layer Two: Song selection
In western church culture, the songs we sing are the most obvious tool in a worship leader’s toolchest. Because we often have limited ourselves to this one tool, many think picking and leading songs is the only thing there is to do (consider this a great time to ponder the difference between a “song leader” and a “worship leader”). Remember, worship includes singing, but not all worship is singing (and not all singing is worship).
All the songs we sing are digitally projected with words and notes on a very large overhead screen. All the slides are easy to read and are provided as an on-ramp for participation. As a congregation, we rely 100% on congregational, a cappella singing – we value singing vertically (to God), horizontally (to one another), and together (united in voice and spirit)!
I don’t “try” to sing modern songs, I don’t “try” to sing hymns, gospel songs, or praise choruses. Good worship planning doesn’t pigeon-hole itself into one genre of music, but embraces the best and most relevant from all kinds. For us, there is a theological issue that all singing will be a cappella and a musical issue that it all must be at the level of an untrained chorus (the whole congregation). Within those parameters, any song can be evaluated for use in the assembly based on its content and function. Those are much better criteria than “my favorite type of song.”
I Shall Not Be Moved
I Shall Not Be Moved was our first song. It has its roots as a Spiritual (a subgenre of American folk music, sung particularly by slaves and their descendants). Although printed music has straightened out this song on the page, I still led it with dotted eighths, and an informal, energetic camp-feeling.
We needed confidence and a declaration of faith. On Sunday we have a voice – so what do we cry out? “All flesh is grass, and all its beauty is like the flower of the field. The grass withers, the flower fades when the breath of the Lord blows on it; surely the people are grass. The grass withers, the flower fades, but the word of our God will stand forever” (Isaiah 40:6-8).
The chorus’ words come from Psalm 1:3 and Jeremiah 17:7f – “just like a tree that’s planted by the water, I shall not be moved.” As with all folk songs, every region and tradition has added verses and lyrics. We sang, “Glory! Hallelujah! I shall not be moved; Anchored in Jehovah, I shall not be moved,” “In his love abiding, I shall not be moved; And in him confiding I shall not be moved,” and “Though the tempest rages, I shall not be moved, On the rock of ages, I shall not be moved.”
While on the Sea
While On the Sea was our next song, but we’ll save discussion of its role in the assembly for the section “Layer Three: Focus on special events.”
I Need Thee Ev’ry Hour (Medley #1)
I Need Thee Ev’ry Hour is a classic, classic American gospel song. Relevant lyrics included, “No tender voice like Thine can peace afford,” “I need Thee … in joy or pain, Come quickly and abide or life is vain,” “I need Thee … Most Holy One; O make me Thine indeed,” and “I need Thee, O I need Thee. Ev’ry hour I need Thee. O bless me now, my Savior; I come to Thee.” We added a fermata to the “O” in “I need Thee, O I need Thee,” and held that IV chord to support the emphatic lyric.
I Need Thee Ev’ry Hour (Ab) ends on Ab and In Need (E) begins on G# – which are musically the same note – and perfect for a seamless segue from one to the other in a medley without re-pitching.
In Need (Medley #2)
In Need is not a “new” song to me (we were singing it in youth groups and camps Pacific Northwest twenty years ago), but it still has a new flavor in our congregation. These lyrics confess the need for “things that only You can give to me:” grace, love, mercy, strength, peace, and Christ the perfect lamb. “I am your child, I am in need.”
In Need ended on E and Fill My Cup, Lord (Bb) an F. There’s only a half-step between these two, so they’re close enough in that for congregational, a cappella we use that E as our beginning tone which puts the song in A (keyed just one half-step lower than where it was written; perfectly acceptable).
Fill My Cup, Lord (Medley #3)
Fill My Cup, Lord was a song we introduced the week before. When we introduce a song we make an attempt to sing it three or four more times over the next few weeks, just to solidify it in the congregation’s ear as “exposed” (if not “learned”). Last week’s sermon was on John 4 and that is the basis text for the lyrics of this gospel song.
I’m sure this song was new to most of our congregation last week, but – again – some songs are simplistic enough that the melody’s movement can be anticipated and we can all sing along to it easily. The best way to learn a new song is to sing along with it. This was Week Two. The theme of the lyrics parallels the biblical text – we have needs that, despite our own attempts we cannot fill; only God can fill them. Like a good gospel song should, this song follows a basic three-verse and chorus pattern: My problem, my solution, my invitation.
We sang, “Like the woman at the well I was seeking for things that could not satisfy; And then I heard the Savior speaking, ‘Draw from my well that never will run dry,’” “There are millions in this world who are craving The pleasures earthly things afford; But none can match the wondrous treasure That I find in Jesus Christ my Lord,” “Bread of Heaven, feed me till I want no more, Fill my cup, fill it up and make me whole.”
This concluded the three-song medley of our needs and God’s provision. One of our elders led a prayer that, while general in scope, did acknowledge many of the needs we share – spiritual and physical.
Just As I Am – I Come Broken
Just As I Am – I Come Broken is a product of hymnological engineering. It’s been a common enough practice in the last generation of hymnists to take an old hymn or gospel song and lean upon its imagery (and nostalgia) to immediately build credibility for a newly-written chorus, verse, bridge or other part of the song. For some this practice is an adulteration of a beloved classic, for others, it breathes life into an old, tired song.
Though not in the medley, this still focuses on our inadequacies without God. In spite of how I am, the Lamb of God still bids us come to him. Generations have sung the original since the mid-1800s. The added lyrics describe how we come towards God: “broken, to be mended,” “wounded, to be healed,” “desperate, to be rescued,” “empty, to be filled,” “guilty, to be pardoned” – yet “welcomed, with open arms.”
Your Love Defends Me
Your Love Defends Me is a contemporary song with enough musical clues that, if you know what to look for, you can see CCM (“Contemporary Christian Music”) fingerprints even in this a cappella arrangement from The Acappella Company’s Praise & Harmony series. Clue 1: When the first beat of a song’s melody is a rest, oftentimes that’s where the instrumental accompaniment would hit (which happens over and over in this song). Clue 2: When the melody notes don’t match from verse to verse – compare “Where else could I go?” to “the war is already won,” and the additional three measures for “I know the war is already won”). It’s not the most intuitive song because of these things, but once a congregation has learned it, it’s got a solid message and good energy.
God is our joy, song, well, refuge, portion, and salvation – where else could we go? He is with us in the fight, we need to only remember that he has already won the war. “Surely my God is the strength of my soul. Your love defends me … and when I feel like I’m all alone … your love defends me.” Hallelujah!
More is a lovely, legato reflection upon the abundance with which God meets our needs. He lavishes his grace upon us (Ephesians 1:8). The love of God doesn’t just meet our needs, it goes above and beyond. Our preacher has remarked that this is his new favorite song, so if I do plan on using it, it’s often right before the sermon so that he can personally benefit from singing it.
With Ephesians 3:18-19 in mind, we sing that God’s love is more than “…my mind can fathom,” “…I know,” “…the highest heaven,” “…than forever.” To establish what cannot be known, the song points us to a lifetime of evidence of God’s faithfulness: before birth, we were known and formed by God – he was there before life; he gave breath, voice, touch, eyes, and ears – he was there in life; he gave came into this world and gave a home
Softly and Tenderly
Softly and Tenderly was our invitation song. The sermon was from Luke 19, the story of Zacchaeus, the “wee little man.” I resisted the temptation to program in that children’s song. Sometimes we’ll sing little kids’ songs, but I didn’t have the time/place for cutesy today. We were underscoring some serious themes.
The story of Zacchaeus culminates in an invitation. “Zacchaeus, hurry and come down, for I must stay at your house today,” Jesus says. Building on that narrative hook, we sang, “Oh, for the wonderful love he has promised … though we have sinned he has mercy and pardon, pardon for you and for me,” “come home, ye who are weary, come home.”
Nearer, Still Nearer
Nearer, Still Nearer was the song immediately preceding the Communion. Like Ev’ry Hour I Need Thee, this rock-solid gospel song fills a lyrical, musical, and emotional niche that other songs are hard-pressed to fill. This song is another confession of our need and an appeal to God to draw us closer to his heart, bringing nothing of worth in ourselves to deserve being brought near, in order that we would belong to Jesus. “Sin with its follies, I gladly resign” – I trade everything for the all-surpassing worth of knowing Jesus Christ my Lord. The only thing I want, the one thing I need: “give me but Jesus, my Lord, crucified.”
Layer Three: Focus on special events
On this day, the current events on everyone’s mind were related to the growing conflict in Eastern Europe. I began a special set of slides with a map of Ukraine and an arrow marking the city of Mykolayiv. Then I introduced and gave a short situation report on the status of Mike, Andrea, Corwin, Elora, Kerys, and Peregrin Soto as missionaries in Mykolayiv, Ukraine. I followed this up with an introduction and status report on Brandon, Katie, and Justus Price and the Ukrainian Bible Institute in Donetsk, Ukraine.
There is a Ukrainian-language song called Боже, я молюсь за Україну (“God, I Pray for Ukraine”) which is a heartfelt prayer. Insofar as Ukrainian and Russian are very, very similar languages (and I speak Russian), I was able to translate an excerpt of the lyrics and present them on-screen. I read the Ukrainian text while the English was on the screen. After these prayerful lyrics were introduced, we watched a sixty-second clip of the Church of Christ in Ternopil, Ukraine. As I understand the video, it features both local Ternopil Christians and Christians from other regions of Ukraine who were traveling westward to Poland to escape the violence. We heard Ukrainian Christians praying-in-song for their own land.
The scripture text I Timothy 2:1-4 flashed on the screen next, an explanatory passage on prayer.
While on the Sea (Ukranian folksong)
While on the Sea was a special song. We have sung it together at this congregation once before, but it’s not common in our repertoire or well-known by us. Rather than re-explain the significance of this translated Ukrainian folksong, I will cite this Facebook post from Christopher H. Huston.
Below is an anonymous Ukrainian poem, set to a traditional Ukrainian folk melody, arranged for congregational singing by Dr. Jack Boyd, who is a professor of music, emeritus at ACU and a long-time song leader at [Minter Lane Church of Christ, Abilene, Texas] …
The translator, Stephan Bilak, was kidnapped by the Nazis from his home in Ukraine when he was 16 years old, processed through Auschwitz, and sent to work as slave labor on a farm in Germany. The German farmer and his wife treated him kindly. After the war, Bilak was educated in the US, then established a “Russia for Christ” radio program, projecting gospel messages behind the Iron Curtain from his home in Switzerland. When the Iron Curtain fell in 1989, Bilak returned to his hometown of Ternopil, Ukraine and founded a congregation. This page is from the hymnbook, Great Songs of the Church, Revised (1986, [ACU Press]), edited by Jack Boyd.
One of the philosophical differences between Slavic and Western culture is their perspective on fatalism. Fatalism doesn’t allow many Eastern Europeans to believe they will ever not be on the sea with its “terrible roaring”, but they can – and do – hope for God to watch them as they sail.
“While on the sea hear the terrible roaring, See how the boat of my life rolls with me; In fear of death and in deepest of anguish, Lord, hear my prayer, watch my soul on the sea.”
A very, very common phrase Eastern Christianity is “Господи, помилуй нас” or “Lord, have mercy on us,” an echo of Psalm 30:10; 51:1; 57:1; 123:3, several figures in the New Testament, and – foremost to me – the tax collector of Luke 18, who “standing far off, would not even lift up his eyes to heaven, but beat his breast, saying, ‘God, be merciful to me, a sinner!’”
Though some highly liturgical traditions do call their worshipers to the Greek phrase “Kyrie, eleison,” most evangelical Christians don’t find use for this “downer” of a prayer. Lament, or singing while sad, is not part of our tradition. We have many songs about being happy and some that even chastise the sad, but very few songs in our repertoire that allow us to mourn our sin, sorrow, and heartache. It’s estimated that 50% of the psalms, however, were written with this tone. Thank God for his word that gives us the phrase, “Lord, have mercy!”
“Save me, O Merciful Father, forgive me; How as my life with its ending I see. My youthful strength has been spent in the battle. Lord, now I beg you, have mercy on me.”
An exhausting voyage, a life-sapping battle, and now a long journey – these are the metaphors of a glass-half-empty. It’s a realist’s view and is at home in the Slavic psyche. We must realize that even this mindset can worship faithfully! God is no further away from the broken-hearted (Psalm 34:18) than is from those who are “happy, happy, happy.” Americans/Westerners need to learn how to weep.
“I have no strength left to aid on my journey; Help me to reach that fair land past the sea; Help me to travel to my native country. Lord, now I beg you, have mercy on me.”
Prayer for Ukraine, Russia, and the saints
At this point, I led a focused, specific prayer for the people of Ukraine, the people of Russia, and especially our brothers and sisters in those two nations. I was also thankful for the Polish, Romanian, and other Eastern European Christians who have opened their doors and hearts in hospitality to the refugees.
Layer Four: Choral scripture reading (Psalm 99)
Each week we have a choral scripture reading. I call it “choral” because each voice is assigned its own parts and we speak the whole work together, even if at times one party is silent and another party is speaking. It’s no different principle than a song that gives a leading melody to one vocal part and, for a few measures, the other parts are participating by listening and resting. For us, this is taking seriously the instruction to “speak to one another in psalms” (Ephesians 5:19) and to “devote yourselves to the public reading of scripture” (I Timothy 4:13).
I never feel bound by the lectionary-assigned scripture readings, but I will usually consult the Revised Common Lectionary for a reading just to keep me from returning to the same passages each time. On this week, Psalm 99 was a very apropos passage and very adaptable to our back-and-forth format.
Layer Five: Sermon coordination
This was addressed a little bit above. Before I begin planning our assembly, I have the preacher’s PowerPoint slides. From those slides, I have a good working knowledge of the salient points and relevant passages for this particular sermon. I don’t feel compelled to wrap the entire assembly around the sermon, though I certainly wouldn’t want to present a theme that went in an opposite direction of the day’s lesson.
During the singing of the invitation song, at the second (and final) verse, someone responded to the invitation (no complaints here!). This is the major challenge of using pre-planned projection and still calling people to respond to an invitation by coming down front after a sermon. Songbooks are still necessary for the moments you must go off-script. Alternatively, a good projectionist could call up a hymn as requested by the song-leader (this is easier in some projection management packages than in vanilla PowerPoint).
As appropriate songs for the occasion of baptism, we sang Tell Me the Story of Jesus. There was enough content (four long verses and a musically inescapable chorus) that I knew I could slow it down or speed it up to accommodate the pace of the baptism or after it.
Have a few songs in mind – and their numbers in the hymnal – for “just such a time as this.”
Layer Six: Lord’s Supper and dismissal
After the baptism was completed, we all – including our new sister – shared in the Lord’s Supper together. As always, a scripture was on-screen with references to Jesus marked in the color red. Each week the passage changes, but the focus remains on Jesus and the atoning sacrifice he made.