Tuesday, March 20, 2012

Speaking Up

The other day I ran into a friend of mine who belongs to one of the churches where I’ve preached from time to time. They have a brand new minister now, and I asked my friend how things were going. Her response was, “Well, there are lots of changes.” Not a surprise.

She went on to tell me of what was to her the most significant change. “We don’t just use the Apostles’ Creed all the time,” she said. “Now we have a different creed every week. And I really like that, because it’s not boring.”

I don’t know what the minister has in his arsenal of creeds, but a variety is readily available in the Book of Common Worship (1993) and other worship resources.

Creeds go by different names: Affirmation of Faith, Statement of Belief, Confession of Faith, etc., and come in several different categories.

First are those who are designed to answer some heresy or bring clarity to some theological controversy. The Apostles’ Creed and Nicene Creed are examples here. While the Nicene Creed is most commonly used among Christians, the Apostles’ Creed is more broadly accepted in Western churches.

Then there are other creeds still responding to some issue, but are of length and style that make them unlikely to be used liturgically—the Barmen Declaration and the Confession of 1967 for example.

Some creeds are extracted or compiled from biblical texts. String together these texts—1 Corinthians 15:1-6; Mark 16:9(16:1-9); Matthew 16:16; Revelation 22:13; John 20:28—and you’ll find a solid creedal affirmation. Or, some biblical hymns that may have been originally used in worship, with slight modification, make good creeds, like Colossians 1:15-20 and Philippians 2:5-11.

Yet other affirmations of faith are manufactured by the church through some diligent process precisely for liturgical use, such as “A Brief Statement of Faith” (Book of Common Worship 1993-p.94). The rubrics, however, suggest that the entire text is too long, and only portions should be used for congregational worship.

Occasionally a congregation will devise its own statement of faith. This may be provoked by a special occasion such as an anniversary or the yoking of two congregations. Or it may simply be about a congregation reviewing and redefining its own ministry, looking to build a foundation of faith under it. In any event, accomplishing a home-made statement requires broad participation and a lot of education and discussion.

Not only are the resources rich for mining a creed, but the styles in which they may be proclaimed are happily diverse as well.

Probably most congregations are used to unison recitation. Everyone speaks a creed individually, but in unison with everyone else.

Affirmations of Faith have been set to music. They can be sung by the choir on behalf of the congregation, or, with a little effort, the congregation can become the choir. Musical proclamations amplify the content and make it more memorable.

Sometimes creeds are presented in dialogue, a “Q & A” format. The baptismal order in the Book of Common Worship offers this, with simple questions prompting a response with each section of the familiar Apostles’ Creed.

Creative congregations sometimes stretch themselves a little further by setting out the creed in dialogue with the parts done by individuals or groups of worshippers. Such dramatic expressions, however, need to be careful to avoid fragmenting the confession and obscuring the content.

A primary purpose of a confession of faith in worship is for the worshippers to hear their own voices saying what they believe. This is the first baby step in evangelism, finding some basic language for speaking about the Good News of God’s gift in Jesus Christ. From here we grow in faith, and find the means and words of expression in our own lives.

Following on the heels of that is the fact that it is a corporate expression of faith. Not just what I believe, but what we believe together. Therefore the confession in worship sounds with many voices, and each of us finds support and encouragement in faith.

Furthermore, in using historic creeds, we are reminded that we are part of the church of the centuries, the larger church, the gathering of God’s people from beginning to end.

Again, the creedal affirmation in our Sunday worship is a public statement. Saying the creed, we are the church speaking to the world. In this way we continue the tradition of the great creeds of history by addressing human and worldly issues with statements of belief. What we believe is relevant to what goes on around us. The confession of faith in worship is a witness to the world to what God has done in Jesus Christ and is doing through us today.

Back to my friend’s church with a new creed every Sunday: While this might be entertaining and chase away boredom, two caveats rise up. One, such diversity makes learning a creed by heart difficult—repetition teaches—and it’s a good idea to have creedal affirmations firmly implanted in one’s memory. Two, such a plan is wisely coupled with education of the worshipping community (immediately before or during the service)—a class off in the corner for a handful of devoted members will not suffice.

The creed is a vital part of Christian worship, connecting us to one another and to the whole people of God as we identify ourselves with the Living Lord.

What creed do you use in your church? Do you ever use different ones? When and why?


  1. Dear Don,

    Thank you for another excellent reflection.

    You mentioned that "Affirmations of Faith have been set to music." Carolyn Winfrey Gillette has done three hymns along these lines:
    "I Believe" is a paraphrase of the Apostles' Creed to the tune AUSTRIAN HYMN ("Glorious Things of Thee Are Spoken") and can be sung to other D tunes as well: http://www.carolynshymns.com/i_believe.html

    We have posted an annotated bibliography of new books on The Apostles' Creed after the hymn text.

    She is leading a workshop for Methodist pastors in NJ tomorrow and will be using her hymn on the atonement based on The Confession of 1967, "God, What a Faith-Filled Mystery!" to the tune of ST. ANNE ("Our God, Our Help in Ages Past"): http://www.carolynshymns.com/god_what_a_faith_filled_mystery.html

    John 20:30-31 is part of the gospel for the Second Sunday of Easter and a good time to maybe to use "Your Word is Like a Lamp, O Lord" that is based on what The Confession of 1967 says about the Bible to the tune of CANONBURY ("Lord, Speak to Me, That I May Speak").

    Three additional theological statements that we use in worship besides the Apostles' Creed, Nicene Creed, A Brief Statement of Faith and the scriptural creeds in BCW are:
    the PCUS's "A Declaration of Faith" http://www.creeds.net/reformed/PCUSA1985/1985-int.htm
    the PCUSA's Study Catechism
    and the United Church of Canada's "A New Creed" http://www.united-church.ca/beliefs/creed

    Most Sundays we use the Apostles' Creed because of the reasons you mentioned; two other reasons are that it is helpful for those with visual problems to use things they know by heart,and it is helpful for the young who are still learning to read. A creed we hold in common with other Christian traditions is very helpful for visitors and our members who did not grow up in the Presbyterian Church.

    Blessings on you, your family and your wonderful ministry.

    Grace and Peace,
    Bruce & Carolyn Winfrey Gillette
    Co-Pastors, Limestone Presbyterian Church
    Wilmington, Delaware

  2. All creeds belong to the Church's Witness to the Word of God as the Revelation of the Living God given her as the Person of the Lord Jesus Christ. We need always to make clear that any creed is as true as it enables the user also to become witness to the Word He is in the Name of the Father, Son, and Spirit of the this One True God.

    Dr. John E. McKenna


Thanks for joining in the conversation!