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Howard Vanderwell on Worshiping with the Christian Year

In this edited conversation, Howard Vanderwell describes experiences that led him to create a primer on worshiping with the Christian Year.

Howard Vanderwell served as pastor for 40 years in several Christian Reformed churches in the U.S. Midwest. Now he is resource development specialist of pastoral leadership for Calvin Institute of Christian Worship.  In this edited email conversation from July 2013, he describes experiences that led him to create a 17-page primer on worshiping with the Christian Year.

What course were you teaching at Calvin Theological Seminary when you discovered that some students were unfamiliar with the Christian Year? About what percentage of your students don’t know much about the liturgical year?

There are two levels of my exposure to seminary students’ awareness of the Christian Year. For about six years, I’ve been involved in seminary chapel planning with a student team. I became aware in chapel planning that most students had a general idea of Advent and Lent, but their understanding didn’t go very far beyond that. In 2010 and 2012, I taught an elective course, “The Doctrine of Christ and the Services of the Christian Year.” In teaching the course, I found the same, though I was pleased to discover that students signed up because they were interested to learn more about the Christian Year.

I would estimate that most students are aware of the basic structure of Advent and Lent, and, of course, Easter. Many have no knowledge of Epiphany or Ascension Day, and some (to my surprise) did not even observe Pentecost! Only an occasional student was aware of the whole cycle of the Christian Year.

Of those who didn’t know much about the liturgical year, what fraction was intrigued—and why?

I’m not able to speak for the seminary student body as a whole, but of those I’ve had in class, nearly all were intrigued. They’ve heard a good bit about it in their study and reading, but, as the course opens, I explain my thesis that observing the Christian Year does justice to the entire doctrine of Christ. When we follow the Christian Year in worship, we cover the entire doctrine of Christ from his birth and ministry; to his suffering and death; his resurrection, ascension and reign; and his sending the Spirit. At that point I see the lights go on in students’ minds. “Oh, that makes sense!” Their level of interest rises significantly.

If you shared your experience of following the Christian Year while you were pastoring a congregation, what did you tell your students about that?

My awareness of the Christian Year’s significance grew gradually during my years of ministry. My congregations knew about Advent, Lent, Easter and Pentecost. Each year those seasons would receive more thorough and thoughtful development in worship and preaching.

In addition we had the advantage of a children’s worship ministry that practiced the Christian Year. Children would learn it there, share it with their parents and we’d gradually import it into worship. So the Christian Year was introduced in increments with some explanation along the way.

I considered that my educational task was a large one. Yet, my pastoral task was to assimilate the meaningful observance of the Christian Year into worship in an acceptable manner, and not as a “new program that we’re going to follow now.” To avoid controversy, I provided explanations and moved slowly.

What are the pros and cons of using the liturgical calendar and lectionary for every weekly worship service versus using them only for selected Sundays or seasons?

The liturgical calendar (or Christian Year) and the lectionary are two different things. The liturgical calendar provides the shape of the year according to the doctrine of Christ. The lectionary provides a three-year cycle of scripture passages for each Sunday of the Christian Year. In my practice, I aimed to build in the liturgical calendar, but I did not follow the lectionary. The lectionary’s benefit is that it provides a readily available, thought through rhythm of scripture readings consistent with the year. The difficulty is that it takes away some of a preacher’s freedom and flexibility to select passages, particularly for series preaching.

I focused my sermons in large part on preaching through the creeds and confessions. Merging my confessional preaching with the Christian Year’s timing made both more meaningful!

If some of your students have begun using the Christian Year for worship planning in their congregations, what faith forming benefits have they reported?

One student, who also serves as a church staff director of worship, testifies openly to the benefits for worship planning and for personal faith. He is convinced that regular exposure to the entire ministry of Christ gives us a greater awareness year-round of how all aspects of Christ’s life and ministry fit together and progressively provide for our salvation.

What first steps will best help introduce congregations to these concepts?

I suggest giving greater emphasis to Advent and Lent and explaining why. Then explain the whole picture to members of the worship committee. Increasingly provide educational tools, perhaps in the bulletin and newsletter articles, for the congregation.

Download Howard Vanderwell’s “Worshiping with the Christian Year: A Primer.” Read a brief Q&A with Kevin Soodsma, one of Vanderwell’s students. Browse other Christian Year resources, including visuals used in congregations that follow the liturgical calendar.