For many churches across the country, this Sunday is Rally Sunday or Kickoff Sunday—a time to gather the church family together again as a new program year begins. This is a time to celebrate people, ministries, relationships, milestones, and God’s presence with us. All of this has me thinking more generally about celebrations in the church throughout the year. Every Sunday we gather for worship, there is an element of celebration; even at the end of life, we celebrate a baptism made complete with a Service of Witness to the Resurrection. And I think we should also celebrate the sacred among the mundane and the smaller miracles in life.
The Bible, of course, is full of celebration! Our ancestors in the faith celebrated God’s presence, God’s guidance, God’s help, God’s saving grace. There was dancing in the streets, singing, music played on many instruments, shouting, inviting, feasting and more. Celebration is an important part of our journey with God. In a time when there is a lot of gloom and doom surrounding churches in general—in regard to loss in membership and questions about leadership or how money is spent—now is the time for us to celebrate what God is doing among us. What are the signs of God’s power and presence in your church? How is God calling your church to serve the community? Where are the signs of new life in your congregation?
- Baptism- I know a number of churches who haven’t had many—if any—baptisms in recent years. But that doesn’t mean that we can’t still celebrate our baptisms and be reminded that we are Beloved Children of God. There are several resources for “Reaffirmation of the Baptismal Covenant,” including in the Presbyterian Book of Common Worship. Whether or not we have an occasion to celebrate a new baptism, we should offer opportunities for people “to remember their baptism and be thankful.” We are reminded of God’s providence throughout history, of being set free and grafted into Christ, and that the Holy Spirit renews and empowers us… even today.
- The Lord’s Table- We in the PC(U.S.A.) are encouraged to celebrate the sacrament of communion often, but in many churches, this happens only once each month. It’s also often a somber occasion, one that doesn’t always seem like a celebration. We would be wise to remember we are indeed celebrating a feast, where Jesus invites all who want to come, to join together at one Table and be united with him and with each other. When I have led a “Children at the Lord’s Table” workshop and talked about the occasion of celebration in the Lord’s Supper, we gather around the Table and blow party horns. It’s a visual and audible reminder that we are celebrating each time we come to the Table.
- Rally Sunday (Kickoff Sunday)- There are many ways to celebrate on Rally Sunday. Many churches gather for a special opening liturgy before new Christian Education classes begin. There may be a breakfast or lunch for the congregation to join in celebration together. New opportunities for ministry may be presented, and all are welcomed in… whether they have been attending worship all summer or not, whether they are a new visitor or a long-time member. This is also an occasion to celebrate the many generations of the church and to bring people of all ages in the church together. If this is the start of a new school year, it may also be a day to have a “Blessing of the Backpacks” for students of all ages. This is a time to celebrate new beginnings, new school years, new visions for the church, and new ways to be Christ’s hands and feet in the world.
- Ministry/Mission Fair- This type of event can take a lot of planning, but can be a great way to celebrate the various ministries in a church and/or the various mission and outreach opportunities. Gather the community in a large space with tables set up around the room. Each ministry group/committee/mission has a table displayed with information, opportunities, sign-ups, etc. There may be a theme for the whole fair that ties everything together. Children and youth should be included, and one way to do that is to have “passports” for them to visit each table and receive a stamp or sticker. The leaders of each table may come up with other ways to include children: coloring sheets, games, children’s literature, etc. No matter what, this can be a very visible way to celebrate what God is doing in and among a congregation.
- New Bibles- Many churches gift Bibles to children/youth at some point along their faith journey. This is reason to celebrate! The church family can be part of the celebration and charged to help the children and youth learn the Bible stories and how to use their Bibles. It may be a good reminder, too, for the adults to pull out their own Bibles and bring them to worship.
- God’s Creation- There are so many ways we can celebrate God’s Creation! It’s nice when a church family is able to gather outdoors for worship, or for a picnic, or maybe even a weekend retreat. Some churches hold a “Blessing of the Animals” as a way to celebrate. There may be an occasion for an evening vespers service outside or an opportunity to gather for a nature walk. One of my favorite picture books, which is certainly appropriate for adults, is I’m In Charge of Celebrations by Byrd Baylor. I’ve used this book a number of times to remind people to keep their eyes and hearts open for celebrations in creation all around us.
- Stewardship- Whenever we talk about stewardship of our resources (people, buildings, money, food, water, plants, and animals), it is a time to celebrate all that God has given us—and to be reminded that we are called to be wise stewards and caretakers of such resources. This can be a celebration throughout the year, but whenever we gather our resources (money, time, talent) in a Stewardship Campaign, let us be sure to celebrate with God and one another. If there is a day to commit our resources to the church’s ministry, let us celebrate in our liturgy and in our fellowship!
Honestly, the list of Celebrations in the Church goes on and on… Community Service Days, Mission Trips, New Babies, New Members, Adults who teach/lead children and youth, Graduations, Anniversaries, … What occasions does your church celebrate? And how do you carry out these celebrations in your faith community? How are we sharing the good news that God is our provider, our strength, our reason for celebration?