I recently sat down with a pastoral friend of mine to catch up. During the course of our conversation, we began talking about various ministries and events coming up in each our lives. Since Christmas, at the time of the conversation, was right around the corner, he began asking me about our Christmas Eve services, so I told him about the teaching rhythm I've landed on for both that service and also Good Friday.
His interest and follow up questions caused me to think that other pastors and church leaders might like to hear about what we do. It's not the only way, but I have found it fruitful for our fellowship, so I thought I'd write about our Good Friday service here, with a small note at the end about Christmas Eve. If you are interested in my thoughts about Easter, I've written about it previously at nateholdridge.com.
Our Good Friday service has only been in existence in its current format for the last eight years or so. I have always loved to celebrate the cross uniquely that evening. The gathering has grown over the years, and at this point, we offer multiple services to accommodate everyone who desires to be there. When we first began, my message was a cross-focused message declared with full passion and joy about the implications of the cross of Christ. My sermons were typical of a Good Friday, and I would choose typical passages from which to declare the gospel. The seven sayings of Christ on the cross, Isaiah 53, Psalm 22, and other similar passages were the types of Scriptures I chose to teach. I loved these messages because I felt they gave me a chance to get back to the heart of it all and resoundingly and declaratively celebrate the cross of Christ.
But then something happened. I got better at preaching and declaring the cross of Christ every...single...week. I began noticing that my Good Friday messages and my regular Sunday messages were not all that different.
And another thing happened. I realized how stressful it was for me to select an Easter and Good Friday passage. Here's a note about me: I am not good at making decisions. I mean, the choices I make are usually good ones, it just takes forever for me to make my mind up and make a call. So I'm sure there are guys out there who can select a Scripture or two in a matter of minutes, but not this guy. I deliberate and weigh and think and reconsider over and over again.
Putting those two conclusions together, one Good Friday a few years ago, I decided to try something different. Instead of a classic sermon where I choose a text and expound on it for a set number of minutes, I decided to simply retell the events of the entire last week of Christ's life in my own words to the church, intermixing the story with various songs and a time of communion. Let me explain.
The night starts with a word of welcome by our worship pastor, and then the band begins to play. When they start, I am up there with them (with my mic muted for reasons which would be evident to you if you heard me sing). Instead of standing behind a pulpit, I sit on a stool without any notes or papers or tables of any kind. It's just my Bible and me.
I sing along with the band and congregation for a couple of songs, and then the music fades.
With that, I begin, "On the Tuesday night before Jesus died on the cross, Jesus and his disciples gathered in the house of Simon, along with Lazarus' family, for a meal." I then tell the story of what transpired on that night, and how Jesus' rebuke of Judas' theory that Mary's alabaster flask should have been sold and the proceeds given to the poor was the moment Judas went out to make a deal to betray Christ. In my own words, often paraphrasing or quoting various Scriptures directly, I tell them about the events all the way through the Passover meal. Then, I stop talking, and the band takes up their music and they lead us into a time of praise. Since the first movement starts with Mary's anointing of Jesus and ends with the last supper, It is usually during this first movement we partake of communion.
I tell the full story in four parts. Part one is from Tuesday night at Simon's house through the institution of the Lord's Supper. Part two is from the John 14-17 discourse and prayer through Jesus' trials before the Jews and then Pilate. Part three is from Jesus' beatings by the soldiers, the Via Dolorosa, and through his final saying on the cross, "Father, into your hands I commit my spirit." Part four, the shortest section, is the telling of the aftermath, from the centurion's comment to the sealing of the tomb to the fact the women saw where Jesus had been laid.
Then I stop, right there, with Jesus in the tomb. Leaving it there gives us great anticipation for what we will celebrate on Resurrection Sunday. The way it works in my mind, the four movements are titled The Passover, The Trials, The Cross, and The Aftermath.
Now, everyone's brain is different, but the way this night works for me is that on Good Friday I absolutely immerse myself in the passages and memorize the order afresh. I hit my study early in the morning and stay in it all day long. I've got music playing in the background and read and reread the texts all day. I write down list after list as a technique to memorize the events. I retell the story to myself, seeing where my memory is fuzzy so that I can go back and shore up weak areas. I let my heart ruminate over what Christ did for us during that week. I commit this one full day to what will happen that night during the services.
The first year we did this, I handwrote bullets of the events to jog my memory, and placed the paper inside my bible. However, since I never used it that night, I have decided not to rely on notes of any kind. Instead, I only have my Bible in hand in case there is a Scripture I would like to read or turn to, but normally I don't open it either. Instead, I merely retell the story in the Bible to the church.
Frankly, by the time the services roll around that night, after a day meditating on the cross of Christ, I am somewhat overwhelmed. For this reason, I generally keep to myself before the services. The events of the passion week are moving, but when people arrive at church that night their day wasn't filled with thoughts regarding the events surrounding the crucifixion of their Lord and Savior. They are ready to greet me warmly, and, though I wish to return the greeting with the same warmth and receptivity, it is often difficult to do so because I am worked up into a lather about Christ's sacrifice. It's all so fresh to me at that point, and I hope to help make it fresh to them once the service begins, so I try to keep to myself before that particular church gathering. It's not that I am trying to be overly somber or leave everyone with a depressed feeling, not at all, and that is not how I'm feeling anyway. However, I do feel a bit of the gravity of the cross, and for that reason, I'm not as free to meet and greet in the church lobby before service. Perhaps I will grow to be able to someday, but at this point, I stick to myself before Good Friday services.
The retelling of Christ's story in this way has been a beautiful tradition at our church. One might wonder if it ever gets old, but, to this point, it hasn't. For one, it is difficult to recall last week's sermon, let alone last years. Secondly, if there was ever a story worth telling year after year, the passion week is that story, so no one seems to mind the repetition.
The impact this time together has had on our church is lovely. Without detailing the implications of the cross much, people feel overwhelmed by the love of Christ for them. I don't even say much about his love, but the events speak for themselves. He paid such an incredible price to purchase us for his own. By the time the story is finished, we all feel and sense the wonderful love of God for us in Christ. We rejoice at his great rescue mission, and we sense he is the hero of all, the glory of the new creation, the one we ought to worship.
The impact this format has had on me is profound. Easter week, as I've written previously, is fraught with challenges. One of them is the selection of a text, so conducting Good Friday services in this manner helps eliminate some of my decision fatigue, and gives me ample time to rejoice over the cross of Christ personally. My soul is always warmed by the experience.
I am only one pastor, and I know no two pastors are identical, so I would hate to suggest this style for everyone, but I do think highly of this style and would recommend it without hesitation. Perhaps this storytelling style is unique to a certain type of pastor -- I, for one, have always gravitated towards teaching the narrative passages of Scripture -- so bring it to the Lord before jumping in. Still, whatever the execution, it is a great delight for the church to hear straightforwardly of what Christ did to gain his bride.
Christmas Eve Note: Without much elaboration, I can also add that in the last couple years I have adopted this storytelling style for our Christmas Eve services as well. Rather than tell the story for 30-40 minutes, as I do on Good Friday, I tell the events surrounding Christ's birth in one 15 minute chunk. I start with Malachi's prophecy that Elijah would come first, then move into Zechariah's encounter with Gabriel, and move all the way through Simeon's proclamation regarding the infant Christ on his fortieth day. Since entire families, including little children, attend that service together, this storytelling style seems useful. Perhaps, at another time and in another post, I will write about that particular service, but so far it has been a great experience for the church to hear the story in that simple manner, and my preparation and personal experience are largely the same as on Good Friday.