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Ron Rienstra on Liturgical Performance and Improvisation

You might think of performance as totally out of place in Holy Communion. But performance and improvisation can help leaders and worshipers show and tell the gospel with their whole selves.

Ron Rienstra teaches preaching and worship arts at Western Theological Seminary in Holland, Michigan. He is an ordained minister in the Reformed Church in America (RCA) and co-author of Worship Words: Disciplining Language for Faithful Ministry. In this edited conversation, Rienstra explains how and why to perform and improvise liturgy, especially the communion prayer.

People sometimes criticize church services that seem more like performances for spectators than worship as the work of the people in dialogue with God. So why can it be good to “perform” the liturgy?

You’d never go to a play and expect to see actors reading from scripts in their hands. You expect them to perform the play—to speak the words, make gestures, and move around. Good performers completely inhabit their roles so they persuasively mean what they are saying and doing. Yet in Reformed circles, we can be a little uncomfortable with the idea of performing the liturgy. People hear “performance” and they think “pretend.” But by performing, I mean the opposite of “pretend” or “fake.” I mean inhabiting our liturgical roles so that we really mean what we say and do—and that people can tell that this is so.

If you don’t pay attention to performance skills in worship, you may end up with a rote or perfunctory performance of a deeply significant action. This can happen, for example, at the Lord’s Supper when presiders omit the Great Prayer of Thanksgiving, do just a little with the words of institution, and then slowly share out the communion elements, pew by pew. Communion ends up being a somber wake for poor dead Jesus instead of a celebration of the risen Christ’s presence among us.

Can you give an example of helpful performance in worship?

I remember going with my son Jacob to an installation of elders at Pillar Church in Holland, Michigan. It’s constitutional in the Reformed Church in America that you have to use the exact words from Worship the Lord: The Liturgy of the Reformed Church in America for elder installation. The pastors, Jon Brown and Chris DeVos, had memorized it all. Even though their words had the formal cadences of carefully crafted liturgy, the effect was different from reading. Jacob said afterward, “They must really take their job seriously.” He recognized the performative aspect of liturgy.

What first steps could a pastor take to become better at performing the communion liturgy?

I recommend thinking about both showing and telling. Gestures and symbols are important parts of showing. In the Reformed tradition, we’re a little uncomfortable with gestures and not so good at invoking the power of symbols. Here’s an example: In the Middle Ages, the key moment of communion with God was when the priest held aloft the chalice. The common call from the congregation was, “Heave it higher, priest!” They wanted to see it. It still makes a difference today when presiders hold the bread and the cup out and high while proclaiming, “The gifts of God for the people of God!”

Learn to be as comfortable with the show as with the tell. If you say the words from Isaiah 55: “Come, all you who are thirsty,” come to the table, you can emphasize the word come and make an expansive gesture. This is a meal, and you’re inviting the whole community to the Great Banquet of the Lamb.

Our “show” and “tell” sometimes don’t match up well when we celebrate communion. There is not much feasting—the show is anemic—when all we get is little Chiclet-size pieces of bread and sippy cups of juice. That’s not to say that God doesn’t work with that, of course. But to my way of thinking, it makes more sense to “show” a feast of abundance. Likewise, using a common loaf and common cup represents a “one bread, one body” unity. Also, sharing communion in a circle is a really wonderful way to suggest koinonia.

What improves the telling aspect of performing the communion liturgy?

In the same way that preaching is richer when you can actually just speak the sermon, liturgy is better when you speak it instead of read it. And, though God can work through any Lord’s Supper, the communion liturgy is better when it includes the Great Prayer of Thanksgiving, also known as the Great Thanksgiving or eucharistic prayer. Here’s why: Preachers can have an off day, but people still need to be fed. They need to hear the gospel. The Great Thanksgiving feeds people because it tells the whole gospel message.

In many liturgical churches, people can feel as if they are being led more by paper than by people. I understand why leaders will write out and read the Great Prayer of Thanksgiving. After all, as preachers, they are careful about theology, and they want to get it right. That’s a good thing. And it’s better to read it than to skip it altogether. However, when preachers read the Great Thanksgiving rather than speak it, the language of the prayer has more a memorial function than an expressive one. When the prayer is memorized or improvised, then it’s easier for the people to realize that the presider “owns” it—that she or he really means it. This is performance not as “pretend” but as “real.”

When and why might someone vary the wording of the Great Thanksgiving?

Without denominational constraints (as we have in the RCA), I would think it ideal to write a new one each week to go with that week’s themes. Some churches that celebrate weekly communion do a new prayer for each liturgical season, to emphasize that season’s themes and texts.

Can you give an example?

If you are preaching on Revelation 5, where the twenty-four elders fall down and sing praises to the Lamb, then perhaps you’d shape your eucharistic prayer around occasions where people have bowed down and praised or worshiped God. In the opening section, telling the story of salvation, you might mention Abraham bowing when he met God by the Oak of Mamre, Moses and the people bowing at Mt. Sinai, the people bowing at David’s prompting, Isaiah bowing in his vision of the throne room of God—or all of the above. In the section on Jesus, you might mention the Magi kneeling before the baby Jesus and people spreading their cloaks and singing hosannas during Jesus’s triumphal entry. When the Pharisees complained about the noise, Jesus said that if the people held their peace, then the stones would shout out. That’s what I mean by telling the whole gospel story, but with a particular emphasis, seeing the whole scene through a particular lens.

Given communion’s significance, what’s the reason for improvising the eucharistic prayer?

I don’t think of improvisation as slapdash or thoughtless. To improvise well, you have to know your subject deeply and operate within a structure. To improvise the Great Prayer of Thanksgiving, you have to be familiar with the whole arc of Scripture. You have to be attuned to biblical events, images, and themes. The early church fathers offered phrases and models for eucharistic prayer, but they didn’t require everyone to repeat the same words. It was enough for the Great Thanksgiving to follow a basic structure that includes remembering God’s saving action in the past, and then pleading for God to save again in the present and future.

And by these lights, “improvising” might involve a careful mapping out of the prayer without necessarily composing it word by word. If you have thought about your themes beforehand, and you are familiar with the pitfalls to avoid, and if you structure your Great Thanksgiving around each person of the Trinity, and you know you’ll start with creation and end in New Jerusalem, then you can do it. You want to tell the whole story of salvation with part of this week’s themes and texts. So if you’re preaching about Jesus’s baptism, then your prayer could center around water as it features in the story of salvation history— maybe God separating the formless void into sky, water, and land and, later, parting the Red Sea; Jesus walking on water and turning water into wine; the Spirit as water cleansing us from sin and as the source of living water from which we are all “made to drink” (1 Cor. 12:13). This enables the preacher to allow the Great Prayer and the sermon—both proclamations of the same gospel—to resonate with one another rhetorically and thematically in a way that they otherwise could not.


Use or adapt prayers from New Eucharistic Prayers: An Ecumenical Study of their Development and Structure, edited by Frank C. Senn, and Eucharistic Prayers, by Abigail Kocher and Samuel Wells. Both books are also excellent for personal devotions.