Affirmations and Professions (Bible Study)

One significant element of worship renewal in our generation is that congregations are finding their voices. Previously, most worshipers were silent in worship, except when they participated in congregational singing. Increasingly, worshipers use their voices in worship for spoken expressions in addition to songs.

Lesson 8                                   See all lessons
Scripture: Psalm 116 and Philippians 2:5-11

Introduction

One significant element of worship renewal in our generation is that congregations are finding their voices. Previously, most worshipers were silent in worship, except when they participated in congregational singing. Increasingly, worshipers use their voices in worship for spoken expressions in addition to songs.

How appropriate this is! Reformed worship is built on the conviction that congregational worship is, in its very essence, a conversation with God. God speaks in the greeting, the reading of the word, the sermon, and the benediction, and the congregation responds in song, in prayers, and in affirmations and professions.

Walter Brueggemann, in Worship in Ancient Israel (Abingdon Press, 2005), points out that worship in Israel included four kinds of utterances that represented Israel's response to Yahweh in worship:

  • credos, in which they gratefully remembered and recited God's delivering acts;
  • praise, in which they recited their doxologies to God;
  • truth-telling, in which they candidly expressed their confessions, laments, and protests;
  • and vows, through which they spoke of their thankful dedication and commitment to God.

Of the two passages cited above, Psalm 116 is a warm, beautiful personal affirmation that can be an example for us. Jewish worshipers considered Psalms 113-118 the "Hallel" which was a special part of the Jewish Liturgy, used especially at the great religious festivals. Of these six psalms, Psalm 116, based on deliverance from a time of crisis, is a warm and precious testimony of love for the Lord that can be taken on the lips of any thankful Christian. It was probably written by a king and echoes many of the Psalms of David. It is a song of multiple stanzas, which are divided into three main divisions. Words such as these will frequently be appropriate in worship, especially at Lord's Supper. They are words of thanks, affirmation and love for the delivering care of God!

The passage of Philippians 2:5-11 stands out because of its poetic and lyric character. These words treat three themes: the call to be like Christ (v.5), the humiliation of Christ (v.6-8) and the exaltation of Christ (v.8-11). In the early Christian church, Christian belief was taught through verbal expressions. Many are convinced that expressions like this served as affirmations of faith by the early Christians to articulate and announce their beliefs to one another and the world. But these words also serve in another capacity; they become reminders of the great acts of God.

In both passages, we find excellent models for our affirmations and professions. With such words we speak to God our thanks and faith, we speak to each other for encouragement and formation, and we speak to the world our convictions and beliefs.

Types of Affirmations and Professions

In Christian worship we find a variety of affirmations and professions, depending on the location in the liturgy and the purpose of the words. Admittedly, there is a great deal of overlap between spoken affirmations and songs. Often they serve the same purpose. We can identify seven kinds of expressions that can be found in our worship services. By reflecting on these, and perhaps adding others, we will be able to participate in worship more thoughtfully. The common thread through all of these is that worshipers are speaking, not listening!

1. Expressions of Trust. Worshipers corporately express their personal trust in God as the One on whom they depend. This may take the form of reading a psalm together, such as Psalm 46 or other similar passages. Some churches begin worship with a declaration of trust, such as:
          Brothers and sisters in Jesus Christ, in whom do you trust?
          Our help is in the name of the Lord who made heaven and earth.

2. Expressions of Agreement. Historically, the word "Amen" was used as an expression of agreement with what was spoken. (You will find an explanation of "Amen" in Q&A 129 of the Heidelberg Catechism.) Many congregations encourage the entire congregation to speak the "Amen" at the conclusion of God's Greeting or a prayer, either in unison or as an echo-response. It, thus, becomes their expression of agreement with what was said.

3. Expressions of Catholicity. Because we worship as part of the "holy catholic church," we need ways to express our oneness of faith with the church around the world. The use of historic and ecumenical creeds, such as the Apostles' Creed and the Nicene Creed, serve as tools to profess our faith in concert with the church of all ages.

4. Expressions of Belief. A recitation of our basic beliefs before God becomes our "credo." Sometimes one of the Creeds (see expressions of catholicity), portions of a larger confession (such as one of our Catechisms), a passage of Scripture, or words composed by local planners are used in this way. You will find many examples in The Worship Sourcebook (see sections 3.5 and 3.6).

5. Expressions of Testimony. In some traditions, personal testimonies are regularly given. In other traditions, the words previously written by others are used for our testimonies. Psalm 23, 103 and 116 are biblical examples of testimony. Excerpts from historic confessions or catechisms can be very useful.

6. Expressions of Lament. Sometimes God's people come to worship with great pain in their hearts, and they need opportunity to express it. The psalmists did too. They believed that God gave them the right to be candid and honest in his presence. Many psalms are expressions of lament in which the worshiper expresses his or her pain, sorrow, and complaint to God, though always in the context of faith and trust. Consider having your congregation read Psalm 13, 42, or portions of 73 in worship during a time of particular pain or sorrow either for themselves or on behalf of others.

7. Expressions of Dedication. God's goodness to us calls for a response of grateful obedience, so Christian worshipers verbally speak their vows of dedication before God. Remember how Joshua led the Israelites in renewing their covenant commitment with public vows of dedication (see Joshua 24). Psalm 116 does the same in vss.12-14 and 17-19.

All these expressions in our worship are built on several key assumptions.

  • God listens, and he desires to hear our voices when we worship him.
  • God gives us the right and freedom to be open, honest and candid with him in our expressions.
  • We express our unity as a worshiping body when we speak together.
  • And we form and encourage one another as we speak together of our faith and hope.

Remember, when you use words published by others, the author and source should be identified. Also, be sure that you have received copyright permission for the words that require it.

Resources

We can only begin to suggest resources for our affirmations and professions in worship. Wise worship planners will always be collecting a growing file of such resources.

1. Scripture. As you read the Scriptures, note those passages that can serve as our affirmations (for example, Exodus 15, 2 Samuel 22, and many of the Psalms).

2. Creeds. The Apostles' Creed, Nicene Creed, Our World Belongs to God, and excerpts from the major confessions of your tradition will be rich with resources. 

3. The Worship Sourcebook (Calvin Institute of Christian Worship, Faith Alive Christian Resources, and Baker Books, 2004) will provide many such resources. The quarterly journal Reformed Worship also gives you many resources.

Tips for Discussion Leaders

A thoughtful discussion on this issue should probably begin with a quick review of the definition of worship as a corporate conversation with God. He speaks to us; we speak to him. With that understanding, the presence of our voices is not only permissible, but necessary. In some congregations this may be more customary than others. You will have to assess the readiness and comfort of your congregation.

Another factor is practicality. To enable everyone to read, the words must either be printed in the order of worship or projected on a screen. The only exception is when a passage of Scripture can be read directly from the Bible. Even then, make sure everyone is using the same translation.

Discussion Starters

1. Begin with an assessment of your congregation and its practices.

  • Does your worship life regularly include corporate affirmations and professions?
  • Does the congregation seem comfortable reading in unison?
  • What could/should be done to help their comfort level?

2. Have the members of your group spend a few minutes citing a recent experience of an affirmation and/or profession that was particularly meaningful for them.

  • In what ways did it help their sense of worship?
  • How did it strengthen their experience of the unity of the body of Christ?
  • In what ways did it give "words to their soul"?
  • If none, or few, can cite such instances, why is that? How can you correct it?

3. Review the seven expressions cited above.

  • Which do you incorporate regularly?
  • Which do you rarely or never include? Why?
  • Which do you believe you should begin to include more?
  • Generate ideas for including multiple types of affirmations in worship.

4. Who is normally responsible for finding or crafting the readings for worship?

  • Is that responsibility clearly delegated?
  • Is more assistance and support needed?
  • Is someone personally willing to serve in that role?

5. Do you have adequate resources available? How could that be improved?

Further Reading: "The Utterances of Israel in Worship," in Worship in Ancient Israel: an Essential Guide, Walter Brueggemann, Abingdon Press, 2005, pp. 39-61.

Lesson 9
See all lessons

Comments