Church of the ServantGrand Rapids, Michigan

Church of the Servant traces its origins
back to a late-’60s fellowship
that started experimenting with folk
styles of worship in an abandoned Christian
school building in inner-city Grand
Rapids. It proved so appealing over the next
twenty years that, after renting a number
of other facilities around town, it finally
built its own. This is a low-profile structure
with multicolored exterior walls and
a curving glass entry-way, like a modern
school building or a new library, located
off a busy four-lane street at the suburban
edge of town. I visited it on a wet, sloshy
third Sunday in Advent.

“COS” has acquired a particular reputation
in the West Michigan area. It follows
what has become a set tradition of “liturgical”
worship and weekly communion. It’s
something of a bastion of the local Christian
Reformed Church intelligentsia. A fair
number of disgruntled CRC natives have
found it to be a lasting harbor in–or the
last stop on the way out of–the denomination.
And it’s one of the few local Christian
Reformed congregations that attracts people
from other traditions, probably due to its liturgy
and reputation for strong preaching.

The 11:00 a.m. service I attended featured
the profession of faith and baptism of
five Nepalese young people who had been
part of the church’s Basic English ministry,
aimed at refugees living in the neighborhood’s
many apartment complexes. (The
8:30 a.m. service celebrated an infant baptism,
and the 10 o’clock hour was devoted
to a congregational meeting. This is a CRC.)
I wanted to witness the adult baptisms
since, in my experience, that’s an uncommon
event in the CRC. For a denomination
at times criticized for being tangled up in its
Dutch ethnic roots, the addition of Nepalese
members sounded particularly exciting and
encouraging.

As I approached the door, I was greeted
by a sign promising “Valet Parking.” I considered
what to say to the usher: party of
one, non-smoking, and if you can, a pew
with a view? I later learned that the service
was being offered for the first time that day
to help those worried about trekking across
the mall-like parking lot to the worship
space.

I made my own way into the sanctuary,
which at 10:50 a.m. was still almost completely
empty. Given the freedom to choose
among the semi-circle of movable chairs,
I didn’t know what to do. I pondered the
mailboxes nicely arranged along the back
wall of the sanctuary, checking for familiar
names, then finally opted for a chair Dance at COS
located in the back row next to the sound
booth. While its flat concrete floor, white
girders, and contemporary communion
table gave the impression of a warehouse
redone by IKEA, the sanctuary was bright
and airy, with light streaming in through
a band of windows circling below the roofline.
A number of bright purple banners
gave a flash of color to the walls. On the
seat beside me I found a twelve-page liturgy
as well as the CRC’s Psalter Hymnal and a
blue binder filled with photocopied songs.

By 11 o’clock the church was filled to
about three-quarters capacity and a trombone
and piano began to play “This Is the
Day.” A young man walked up to the dais
and greeted the worshipers with a “good morning.” He mentioned there would be
four baptisms and one profession of faith.
He acknowledged the presence of fifty Nepalese
guests, all seated in a section at his
far left. We joined in on “Sing with Joy and
Jubilation,” while a family went up to light
the Advent candles and then read, with the
congregation, a responsive greeting.

As we sat to sing “O Come, O Come Emmanuel,”
a row of liturgical dancers, men,
women, and children, all soberly dressed,
walked up an aisle. Organized from tallest
to shortest, the dancers were intricately
joined, an arm passed back over the shoulder,
joining another arm, another shoulder.
They moved two steps forward and one
back in time with the music, making their
way past the communion table and then
down the opposing aisle. The lilting movement
presented a striking emblem of the
slow but steady passage from captivity to
freedom.

As the liturgy progressed unannounced
and we sang another song, two women performed
a second liturgical dance. Given the
flat floor, I couldn’t see very well what they
were doing, but noted a ceramic bowl being
lifted up and arms held close to the
chest, then swung as if they held a baby.
The bowl was finally lifted up to the dais
and I clued in: the dance was meant to
symbolize baptism.

During much of the service I felt oddly,
and paradoxically, under-informed. The
liturgy was extensive, presenting many of
the liturgical songs with musical notation.
It also gave the complete text of two lectionary
readings and credited the considerable
work of the pianist/worship planner, who
had been inspired by Handel’s Messiah.
But at the same time I had no idea who
was the liturgist, what was the dance, who
was doing the dance, or who had done the
choreography. COS is thankfully not Our
Lady of the PowerPoint, but there must be
a way to go green, give credit to those to
whom credit is due, and avoid photocopying
so many liturgies each week.

Before the scripture reading, the children
were invited to the front for “Little
Lambs” classes. After the group received a
blessing, a lucky young man got to carry a
banner and lead his fellow sheep out of the
sanctuary. A woman from the congregation
then read the first lectionary passage
and sermon text, Zephaniah 3:14-20 (“Sing
aloud, O daughter Zion”), while a man read
Luke 3:7-18 (about John the Baptist).

Pastor Jack Roeda took over from the
readers and began his sermon, “A Song of
Joy.” Roeda has been pastor at COS for
twenty-five years and rightly enjoys the
reputation of being one of the most engaging
preachers in the CRC. Dressed in a long
white robe and a purple stole, he stood in
front of the congregation with no lectern,
his notes held to the side, confident but not
overbearing, his frame somewhat stooped
and an arm folded across his chest, his
voice often hushed, as if he were inviting
his listeners to join in on a secret.

Roeda began with a sentence to consider:
“We are to live the future in the present”
and compared that idea to the way
children like to play at being adults. This
comparison led to parallels with baptism
and communion: the promise of new creation
means that we must live the future of
redemption–right now. Roeda referred to
the joy mentioned by Zephaniah, the joy after
much woe. And so in baptism, we pass
from judgment to being raised to a new life
in Christ. He then turned to consider what
might characterize this future, lived in the
present, again citing the joy mentioned by
Zephaniah. Such joy might come through a
special Easter Sunday service, but also in
quiet prayer and meditation. Another opportunity
to find joy would be “ordinary”
events. Here he referred to his notes for the
first time, reading a long anecdote about
a cancer patient, a child who had never
seen a praying mantis, and then suddenly
one appeared in view. Summing up, Roeda
stressed that in the knowledge of the new
creation, in God’s victory over our enemies,
we must live our present lives in joy. Also,
we can look forward to God receiving us
in joy, just as the father of the parable receives
the prodigal son. He advised that
“if crap happens to you, enter this good
place”–God’s love. Finally, for those who
did not experience the joy of the new creation,
Roeda issued a call to repentance
and to prayer, for “you have been rescued
from the rat race” and “we are to live this
future.”

The entire sermon lasted about twenty
minutes and presented a well-crafted talk,
with an earnest focus, some exegesis, and a broad application that tied in to the sacrament
of baptism. For the greater part of
the sermon, however, Roeda pecked out the
points of his sermon with his right hand,
fingers forming a puppet-like beak. I’ll admit
this mannerism distracted me more than it
should have. More seriously, during the entire
sermon I waited for some details about
the young Nepalese awaiting baptism and
profession of faith. How did they come from
that Himalayan country to the flat lands
of West Michigan–and to a predominantly
white congregation? I was left with the impression
that the Big Sermon Idea was more
important than the people at hand.

The baptism and profession of faith
were very moving, and frankly eclipsed the
sermon and entire service. Each member
of the group (four men and one woman)
warmly greeted the congregation and gave,
at times in halting English, a short testimony.
One young man said that, by coming
to faith, “I feel peace in my heart.” What
more can one say? The Spirit was alive
and working at Church of the Servant. The
young people all knelt before the pastor to
be baptized and then received a pendant
from their sponsors.

After the baptism, we turned to communion,
which began with the offertory. Instead
of having deacons pass the plate, the
people brought their gifts right to the front.
A woman from the congregation then offered
an excellent “Prayer of Great Thanksgiving.”
Communion itself took place in a
circle formed around the table. As such the
cup and bread were not presented at a rail
but passed around the circle of standing
congregants. As one circle formed and then
another began to come together, I wasn’t
sure what to do. I waited for some sign, a
nod from an elder to come forward. Then I
realized (yes I am slow to new liturgies), I
had the freedom to join a circle when and
as I wished. Once up front, I enjoyed being
part of the circle as the congregation sang
a variety of songs. One song, I should add,
had a Nepalese stanza.

After the blessing, as the musicians
began to play “Joy to the earth/The Savior
reigns,” everyone joined hands. I looked at
the liturgy. The joining of hands was nowhere
mentioned and perhaps this was optional.
I moved towards the safety of the
sound booth but the woman beside me caught my eye and held out a hand, which
I joined.

The lengthy service finished off at
about 12:40 p.m. with a series of announcements.
Some people stayed seated to listen,
others moved off to talk, and a fairly large
group walked to one side of the hall where
a photographer had set up an area to take
pictures for the church directory. Amidst
the hubbub, I struggled to hear the announcements
but one in particular caught
my attention. A member of the Refugee
Task Force made a specific appeal for volunteers
to make a six-month commitment
to act as mentors to people involved in the
Basic English ministry. Volunteers could
also act as mentors to other new members,
since the goal was to enfold everyone into
the church.

As with other congregations that offer
both a strong community outreach program
and an equally strong commitment
to a particular worship style, COS seems to
face the challenge of making the two mesh,
of guiding Basic English worshipers into its
services. Or perhaps the regular services
need some Basic English?

The announcements done, I walked
slowly out of the church. I had noticed many
fellow professors and staff from Calvin College
in the sanctuary and had received
some welcoming nods. I realized there were
many more people I didn’t know, that the
church was not a mere outpost of my college
as I had once feared. No one, however,
talked to me on the way out of the sanctuary
except for one close colleague to whom
I was a bit embarrassed to admit that I was
engaged in church reviewing. Right then it
felt like church spying.

Our brief conversation left me asking
myself whether COS would be the place
for me and my family. I enjoyed the commitment
to worship, worship that involved
various members of the congregation,
women and men, old and young. While
the pastor’s style distracted me at times,
he explained God’s promises with his full
heart and mind. The church’s commitment
to serving refugees was also faith-inspiring.
From this one visit, though, I wondered
how easy one could go from being a
somewhat befuddled visitor to a committed
attendee, reaching out to join hands in
the circle of worship.

Otto Selles is professor of French at Calvin College in
Grand Rapids, Michigan.