Suzanne L. Vinson on Congregations Creating Liturgical Language
Grace Baptist Church in Richmond, Virginia, often invites members to write words used in worship. They've found that crafting liturgical language, such as calls to worship or stewardship and psalm or song paraphrases, is an easy way to help more people participate in worship and congregational life.
Suzanne L. Vinson is associate pastor for congregational life at Grace Baptist Church in Richmond, Virginia. She is also a visual artist. In this edited conversation, she shares how co-creating liturgical language during a Vital Worship Grant helped all ages in the congregation enliven worship and connect with each other and with God.
How would you describe Grace Baptist's 2020 Vital Worship Grant project?
We collaboratively created original liturgy, hymnody, and art for worship that facilitates connection with God in all of life. Doing this helped us form soul-shaping habits that sustain us, transform us, and allow us to live in all the other spaces of our lives differently. It also helped us enliven worship—even online and hybrid worship—to care and share with one another and to connect with God.
Let's focus here on writing liturgy together. Why is that important at Grace Baptist Church?
We try to use all members' voices in worship because we believe all are ministers, and we want everyone to have a voice. We try every week to invite youth voices, whether speaking words they've written, lectionary readings, or words others have written. For example, our service for December 20, 2020, included a pageant recorded in parts by our GBC children and youth and their families.
During our grant, we invited members to write liturgy around the lectionary while also holding in mind our current condition—the often heavy circumstances of the moment. Most often these [liturgical words] were calls to worship or calls to stewardship. During Advent 2020, members wrote an Advent wreath liturgy for each Sunday, and GBC member Madonna Byrkeland wrote "Silence the Noise" to the tune of "Silent Night."
Do people write liturgy alone or in groups?
They do both. At least a third of our crafted liturgical language has been written in groups. Initially we wrote in small groups for seasons, including significant liturgical language crafted for Advent during our 2018 Vital Worship Grant. Most of the rest is written individually by members of Weekly Liturgical Writers at Grace (WLWG).
During Advent and Christmastide 2021, we crafted our services more creatively each week and, as a whole, incorporated more hymnody, movement, different song styles, prose, and congregational involvement. Each week held a particular theme of hope, peace, joy, or love. We wanted to gently process our experiences of the pandemic through each lens of Advent. After a brief hiatus in Lent 2022, WLWG members continue to write individually. Having words crafted from within the congregation adds such wonder and delight!
How do you arrange for liturgy written by individuals?
WLWG people are given weekly themes and scriptures to help direct their writing of calls to worship or stewardship. Sometimes we invite people to paraphrase a psalm that will be used in worship, such as this Psalm 130 paraphrase in our August 2, 2020, service of lament.
We have a volunteer who keeps a list of writers and knows their availability. She generally invites someone to write something four weeks ahead of a given Sunday. She asks them to submit something within two weeks. For example, for a service on February 14, she invited someone on January 10.
Do you give them a word count or other guidelines? What is the vetting process?
Our volunteer explains the readings and service program for a given Sunday. We don't give a word count. It could be ten short lines or twelve different lines with two sentences. We reserve the right to edit because we care about language use and how we talk about people. I avoid gendered language to maintain inclusivity. In general, little ends up changed. If more significant change is needed, I let the person know by email or a phone call.
How do you use the written contributions?
During most of our latest grant, pandemic restrictions prohibited us from gathering in person in the sanctuary. So besides asking someone to write a call to worship, call to stewardship, liturgical sentences, paraphrased psalms, or whatever, we asked them to record and video themselves reading their contribution from their home spaces or yards. Adding the visual depth of our homes and gardens into the worship invited intimacy. If someone didn't feel comfortable self-recording, then ministers did it. If they felt self-conscious having their voices recorded, then we'd ask someone else to read it. Sometimes their written contributions came through as recorded voices while visual art or photography appeared on screen.
What do congregants say about member-crafted liturgical language for worship?
Some older congregants said that the word "creative" makes them panic. But our members tend to offer lots of generous feedback on trying new things. Members often spoke of how significant the liturgy written by other members was for them. They waited to see in the credits each week who created the words that they'd appreciated hearing.
Members often say, "How wonderful; just what I needed to hear!" About half the invited writers said, "Thank you for entrusting me with that responsibility. I enjoyed spending that extra time with the text."
When one of our Advent writers died in 2020 during the pandemic, we took those crafted words and re-crafted them for worship services that followed his death. Those words took on such meaning for all of us as we grieved his loss. We have also found scripture and liturgy recorded by those who have died to be so meaningful and treasured. What a gift to have their presence remain with us in these ways—these beautiful souls whom we love and miss who are now in the great cloud of witnesses.
Was there any other way you used language creatively in worship or congregational life?
During this grant and our previous one, people also wrote in the hymnku form—haiku poetry set to music. We have been singing them in church about once every quarter or so for the last few years.
We've sometimes used blackout poetry in creative writing workshops and youth gatherings. A recent worship service included liturgical dance and the opportunity to make blackout poetry. We included Bible passages printed out in the bulletin so that people could circle the words that stood out to them and black out the rest. They made poetry using the words of Scripture. But we also said, "Give yourself permission to do what you most need. It's okay to sit still, listen to music, and not do blackout poetry." In that service, we also included multiple youth art pieces in ledger size, displayed on sanctuary pillars and windows.
How have you involved children or youth in writing for worship during the pandemic?
During private Facebook chats with church youth on Wednesday nights, I asked our kids four questions about the weekly Advent theme. I'd say something like, “Did you know next Sunday's theme is Advent hope? What is hope? Where do you find hope? Where do you lose hope?” Then I put together an Advent liturgy using their language. They knew they were crafting liturgical language but didn't all know what the end result would be.
Not all families with children and youth feel comfortable meeting in person yet. We're finding we need to connect with them in small groups or at other times. And we still don't have as many young children in worship because not all are old enough to be vaccinated.
But we pay more attention to diversity—such as in ages or life stages—in Sunday worship. Earlier this year, I was studying a text about love and community for an upcoming worship service. I realized it would be most effective if spoken by a family with a male, female, and child, so I invited a certain family to read that passage in worship.
Learn more about Grace Baptist's 2018 and 2020 Vital Worship Grants. Contact Suzanne L. Vinson through her website, where you can book her as a speaker or retreat leader, or through her arts website, Silver Tree Art. Read Worship Words: Discipling Language for Faithful Ministry (Engaging Worship) by Debra Rienstra and Ron Rienstra.