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The Case for Reciting Creeds in Worship

Albert Aymer believes more churches should use creeds in worship. A feature story exploring the case for reciting creeds in worship to connect with our past and enrich our worship.

“People see the schools I attended and the degrees I earned and think that’s who I am. It’s not,” says Albert Aymer, president of Hood Theological Seminary in Salisbury, North Carolina.

Aymer grew up on the Caribbean island of Antigua, surrounded by steeldrum and calypso music. But what formed him, he says, is worshiping alongside his parents—an Anglican policeman and a Methodist seamstress, who knew 450 hymns by John and Charles Wesley.

“Where I grew up, we used Cranmer’s liturgy every Sunday. We were following the seasons of the church’s year from my infancy,” Aymer says. He learned to chant, not sing, the psalm for the day. The words and rhythms of ancient canticles, such as the Te Deum, which follows the outlines of the Apostles’ Creed, shaped him.

“In worship we celebrate God with a host of angels and archangels. I can sense my grandmother and my mother and all the saints of God who have preceded me but who are still here surrounding me in an unbroken fellowship,” he says.

Aymer has a message for churches doing all they can to make worship relevant and contemporary. “Remember that worship transcends time and space,” he urges.

One of the best ways to do that is to use creeds in worship.

Saying who we are

Aymer says he’s encouraged by liturgical revisions that are intelligible and meaningful to worshipers, yet preserve our heritage as a worldwide “communion of the church celestial and the church terrestrial.”

“Saying the creeds in worship links us to the church of past ages and connects us to the worship of future ages. Only a narrow stream of death separates us from the saints now in heaven—and God spans that. Using creeds in worship gives the sense that God’s future is already now,” Aymer says.

He has studied, pastored churches, and taught throughout the Caribbean and the Eastern United States. He’s moved in Anglican, British Methodist, United Methodist, and, now, African Methodist Episcopal Zion circles. He often worships in Presbyterian and Lutheran churches.

“Saying creeds in worship makes me feel so at home among believers, no matter where I am,” Aymer says.

Enriching worship

Aymer explains that including historic creeds in worship adds theological depth and integrity to services. Creeds give biblical authority to worship because the creeds are based on the Bible.

Consider how people during Bible times identified themselves as part of God’s family.

  • “Hear, O Israel: The Lord our God, the Lord is one” (Deuteronomy 6:4).
  • “Simon Peter answered, ‘You are the Christ, the Son of the living God’ ” (Matthew 16:16).
  • “May the God who gives endurance and encouragement give you a spirit of unity among yourselves as you follow Christ Jesus, so that with one heart and mouth you may glorify the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ” (Romans 15:6).
  • “For what I received I passed on to you as of first importance: that Christ died for our sins according to the Scriptures, that he was buried, that he was raised on the third day according to the Scriptures” (1 Corinthians 15:3-4).
  • “Who, being in very nature God, did not consider equality with God something to be grasped, but made himself nothing, taking the very nature of a servant, being made in human likeness….and every tongue confess that Jesus Christ is Lord, to the glory of God the Father” (Philippians 2:6-11).

Reciting biblical words aloud together, whether in prayers, creeds, or liturgies, often helps worshipers move from doubt to belief.

Remembering what matters

The biblical authority of creeds—reinforced by reciting them together in worship—“safeguards thoughtful worshipers from being led astray by every wind of doctrine,” Aymer says.

Remembering what it means to be Christ’s body on earth can infuse preachers with the courage to be prophetic.

“Calling people to justice. Calling people to mercy. Calling a nation to responsibility to how it uses its resources and how it spends the lives of its young people. That's the role of the prophet. If our worship is going to be biblically centered, we've got to remember that our role as pastors is a prophetic role,” Aymer says.

Likewise, he explains, reciting creeds together in worship helps focus on the essentials that unify Christians instead of the non-essentials that divide the church.

“Many of our churches are in hot debates between freedom of choice and freedom of life, between heterosexuality and homosexuality. These are not tenets of faith. These are not the real things that make us Christian.

“The creeds help us focus on the bigger things that bind us together instead of focus on those news-catching things that we’re using to fight each other to death,” Aymer says.

Creeds help Christians explain what we believe—and why it matters

Dan Brown’s novel The DaVinci Code is a fascinating read. The film of the same name (opening May 19, 2006) promises to raise the same question among moviegoers that readers are already asking. That double-edged question is: Despite what the church has proclaimed, was Jesus really divine and are the Scriptures trustworthy?

And those unfamiliar with the ancient Nicene Creed may fall for The DaVinci Code’s central claim about Christianity, that “almost everything our fathers taught us about Christ is false.”

Brushing up on historic creeds will prepare you for conversations about what Christians believe and why.

Who uses creeds

The largest survey ever conducted among U.S. congregations examined creed use and other changes since 1945. As you might expect, nearly all acknowledged sacred scripture as a foundational source of religious authority.

But only a fifth of congregations always include creeds or statements of faith in worship. Most of these also have a strong commitment to denominational heritage. Episcopal, Lutheran, Orthodox, and ReformedChristians, as well as those from historically black denominations, tend to value creeds. The Roman Catholicmass for centuries has included the Nicene Creed, though the 2002 Roman Missal now also permits the Apostles’ Creed in worship.

The survey found that churches founded before 1945 are more likely to recite creeds in worship than those founded after 1945. Researchers noted an inverse proportion between always using creeds or statements of faith in worship and always using electronic instruments.

A 2002 Barna study on differences between pastors’ and parishioners’ worship views discovered that while 38 percent of laypeople said reciting creeds is important, only 14 percent of pastors agreed.

Many groups affirm what’s expressed in the Apostles’ and Nicene Creeds but choose not to use creeds in worship, stating they have “no creed but Christ.” Some Baptists, Disciples of Christ (Christian Church), and Mennonites explain that creeds contradict the Bible by adding to or subtracting from its words. They also say that confessing faith in Jesus is enough to join the church—so there’s no need to use creeds or doctrinal statements as tests of church membership.

Apostles’ and Nicene Creeds

Of Christendom’s many creeds, the best known and most used are the Apostles’ Creed and the Nicene Creed. Both say what things Christians believe as true without explaining how they are true.

Though the apostles did not write it, the Apostles’ Creed evolved as a way for the early church to hand on the basic structure of biblical faith. Roman Christians used a question-and-answer form of the creed to prepare converts who wanted to be baptized and join the church.

“Faith was not something one reached out independently to take possession of, but something given as a gift to the one who came to the community in search of it,” Ronald Byars explains in A More Profound Alleluia.  

Many churches still use the Apostles’ Creed for baptism. Byars says that this baptismal creed reminds believers that joining Christ’s body, the church, “marks the inauguration of a lifelong formation, not separate from but within the community of faith.”

A council of fourth century bishops wrote the Nicene Creed to refute the heresy that Jesus is human but not fully God. Catholics and many Protestant denominations often sing or recite the Nicene Creed in communion liturgies. The Orthodox Church also uses the Nicene Creed in communion—but says that the Holy Spirit “proceeds from the Father” instead of “proceeds from the Father and the Son.”

Saying or singing the creed is not an argumentative or theological exercise. It’s a “celebration of a faith that rests ultimately in the triune God, whom the church identifies and proclaims by means of these fragile, yet bold, words,” Byars says.

Saying the creed is countercultural

Choosing to celebrate faith by reciting or singing creeds in worship has become a quietly dramatic behavior, actually countercultural, says Luke Timothy Johnson, in The Creed: What Christians Believe and Why It Matters.

In a world that values individuality, novelty, situational ethics, and consumerism, creed-reciting Christians “are actually doing something together,” pledging themselves “to a set of convictions and thereby to each other,” Johnson says.

Creeds move the focus from my to our. Byars says, “When the church is summoned to rise and profess its common faith, it does so not in a cacophony of simultaneous personal testimonies, but in words that belong to the community of saints, including both the living and the dead.”

Though Baptists don't often use creeds in worship, two Dallas Baptist University student groups—a worship formation program and study group—have begun using creeds in worship. And it’s been remarkably well-received, according to philosophy professor David Naugle.

“Many of our students and faculty are hungry for a sense of heritage and communion. Creeds articulate what our forefathers and foremothers in the faith believed and have passed down the ages to us. Creeds connect us to a Christian past, helping us realize we belong to something much greater than just what’s happening now,” Naugle says. 

Learn More

Read A More Profound Alleluia, then discuss it with a group.

Listen to a radio broadcast about creeds, featuring Jaroslav Pelikan, author of Credo: Historical and Theological Guide to Creeds and Confessions of Faith in Christian Tradition

Organize an adult education series around Towards Sharing One Faith, a Study Guide on the Nicene Creed.

Consider reviewing one of these books for your church newsletter, then donating the book to your church library:

Browse related stories on Dallas Baptist University campus worship, making congregational prayers more global, Trinitarian themes in contemporary worship music, and what two denominations have in common. 

Start a Discussion

  • How often and in what ways does your congregation use a creed or statement of faith in public worship? Would you like to change anything about this practice?
  • Which elements of worship help your congregation see itself as the gathered body of Christ, rather than a group of separate individuals, each worshiping God in the same room?
  • What’s the difference between using words handed down through the ages to express the content of your faith—and choosing words that reflect your own experience, history, and personality?
  • Brian McLaren, author of A Generous Orthodoxy and other books on the emerging church, says he “totally affirms the importance of our ancient creeds,” but notes the creeds say nothing about Christ’s ministry and teaching. How do your worship services reflect what Jesus taught about his new kingdom? 

Share Your Wisdom

What is the best way you’ve found to use the creeds in worship? 

  • Have you used a question-and-answer system to help new members or young people learn a creed—and then made this part of the worship service welcoming them into the fellowship?
  • Did you develop a system to educate worshipers about the connections among the Bible, the Nicene Creed, and the Christian year?
  • Have you tried any creed-related worship changes that didn’t go over very well? Looking back, what went wrong? Please share this lesson with us.
  • Which resources—drama, music, art, dance, or other—have helped your church intensify worshipers’ understanding of and appreciation for what creeds mean?