In the Book of Order, members are called upon to be involved in the ministry of Christ’s Church in a variety of ways, including by “proclaiming the good news in word and deed” and “taking part in the common life and worship of a congregation” (G-1.0304). In our minds we could probably categorize church activities into these two separate areas, but for ruling elders, these sentences encompass— wholistically — our responsibility to serve as leaders of the congregation.
Ruling elders “have responsibilities for the life of the congregation” (G-2.0301). They are “called to nurture the common life of the people of God through their gifts of discernment and governance,” and
“make provision for the regular preaching of the Word and celebration of the Sacraments, corporate prayer, and the offering of praise to God in song; oversee and approve all public worship in the congregation, with the exception of responsibilities reserved for the minister of the Word and Sacrament; determine occasions, days, times, and places for worship; and have responsibility for the arrangement of worship space, the use of special appointments (flowers, candles, banners, paraments, and other objects), and the ministries of music, drama, dance, and visual arts” (W-2.0303).
These responsibilities call for ruling elders to be able to understand and evaluate the connections between worship and the common life of the church. For example, your church might provide an amazing worship experience on Sunday mornings but also may need to reflect on why people are not taking part in “extra-liturgical” activities. A church’s vitality and impact goes beyond what happens in worship. Worship can be the heart of the gathered congregation, but what is the church’s body doing the rest of the time? How are you being the hands and feet of Christ in the world? These are important questions for the leadership of the church.
There is a connection between common and communion, a sacrament that is such an important part of the worship experience of Christ’s people. We usually think of the sacraments as a particularly sacred and special time during worship. But in the New Testament, sharing a meal often occurs beyond a scheduled time and place. In her article “The Lord’s Feast,” Melva Wilson Costen states that “the Gospels report Jesus’ common eating and drinking with people from various walks of life, making such events worthy of remembrance.” She also says that “Communion is understood as a common participation in a divine Christian life that a person lives in Christ, because it is initiated by Christ.”
Worship and common life are connected in the common meals, sitting around a common table. Communion goes beyond Sunday mornings and encompases all we do as a congregation and as Christians in our everyday lives. To live in Christ there needs to be an understanding that our lives are not compartmentalized between what happens in worship and what happens the rest of the time.
In a "Being Reformed" study called “Ruling Elders: Transformation,” Peggy Hinds calls sessions to understand the connection between worship and the common life of the congregation. She points to something she calls “Boardroom Table Dynamics.” She shares her experience of a tension between having more time for worship during a session meeting and the desire to get down to the business at hand, praying and then moving on. She shares these words of wisdom:
“Approaching the session’s work as a board meeting puts elders in business mode. It is easy to forget that the work is sacred and that the purpose is to serve and honor God. The boardroom table calls us to focus on covering the agenda; the communion table invites us to remember Christ and to be his body. By remembering who Christ is and who we are called to be, we approach the session’s work with humility, grace, and gratitude” (p. 20).
Worship calls us to remember Christ and to celebrate that Christ understands us and we need to understand him. The common life of the church should also create spaces to do the same and to be his body. Sometimes connecting both allows us to remember the familiar, as when we sing “Holy, holy, holy Lord, God of power and might, heaven and earth are filled with your glory.” But sometimes it reminds us that Jesus’ values and actions challenge the status quo and the messages of the systems, societies, promotions, and cultures that surround us. Both are important.
- What events can you think of that could promote the connections between the worship life and the common life of your congregation?
- What are things that you can do to go from a “Boardroom Table Dynamic” to a “Communion Table Dynamic”?
Marissa Galván-Valle is a minister of Word and Sacrament in the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.). She is the senior editor for Spanish Language Resources in the Presbyterian Publishing Corporation and temporary pastor at Beechmont Presbyterian Church, an intercultural church that worships each Sunday in Spanish and English. She was ordained as a ruling elder when she was 21 years old.
Throughout 2023 and 2024, monthly Regarding Ruling Elders articles will alternate between a deep dive into the ways ruling elders discern and measure the life of a congregation through the ministry of members and stories about how ruling elders are using their call and gifts as they move within and beyond the walls of the congregation.
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