FAQ about Worship

Questions about worship in general at St. John’s…

Questions about general movement and actions in worship at St. John’s…

Questions about various moments in the service…

Questions about worship in general at St. John’s…

Why worship in community?
The Episcopal Church’s Book of Common Prayer (BCP) explains “In corporate worship we unite ourselves with others to acknowledge the holiness of God, to hear God’s Word, to offer prayer, and to celebrate the sacraments.”

What’s a worship service like at St. John’s?
Our Sunday worship services take place in two parts: The Word of God and the Holy Communion.

During the Word of God we begin by praising God, offering prayers (also known as Collects in the Episcopal Church), and hearing as many as four readings from the Bible (an Old Testament reading, a Psalm—which may be sung or recited by the congregation, an Epistle reading, and always a Gospel reading.) The preacher will give a sermon or homily, drawing from Scripture and exploring God’s word for us today. We then respond to the Word of God in proclamation by reciting the Nicene Creed (the basic statements of belief from the early church), bringing our concerns to God in the Prayers of the People, seeking to amend our lives through the Confession, and choosing to live in reconciled lives with each other through the Peace.

Then Holy Communion is celebrated beginning with an offering of our gifts to the Lord, monetary offerings along with bread and wine. While the deacon or priest prepare the Altar for communion we prepare our hearts participating in traditional prayers and, depending on the service, with music. The celebrating priest then leads us in the “Eucharistic Prayer.” Eucharist comes from the Greek word for thanksgiving and the prayer itself gives thanks to God for our creation and redemption. We present our offerings of bread and wine to God in prayer, asking the Holy Spirit to sanctify them and make Christ present to us us once more as his body and blood. All baptized Christians are then invited to receive the sacrament. Those who are not baptized, or prefer not to receive, are invited to come forward for a blessing. After communion, there is a Post Communion Prayer and the Blessing and Dismissal.

Where does your worship service come from?
We use three central texts during our services:

  1. The Bible
  2. The Book of Common Prayer
  3. Hymnal

We offer a variety of worship opportunities each week and throughout the year, in a variety of worship styles. But all of our worship is based on the Book of Common Prayer as the Episcopal Church is a liturgical church.

What do you mean by a “liturgical” church?
Worship in the Episcopal Church is said to be “liturgical,” meaning the congregation follows service forms and prays from texts (from our Book of Common Prayer) that don’t change greatly from week to week during a season of the year. This sameness from week to week gives worship a rhythm that becomes comforting and familiar to the worshipers.

For visitors, liturgy may be exhilarating… or confusing.  Services may involve standing, sitting, kneeling, sung or spoken responses, and other participatory elements that may provide a challenge for the first-time visitor. However, liturgical worship can be compared with a dance: once you learn the steps, you come to appreciate the rhythm, and it becomes satisfying to dance, again and again, as the music changes.

What is the Book of Common Prayer (BCP)?
The Book of Common Prayer is a treasure chest full of devotional and teaching resources for individuals and congregations, but it is also the primary symbol of the unity of the Episcopal Church. We, who are many and diverse, come together in Christ through our worship, our common prayer.

The BCP includes: a Calendar of the Church Year, the Daily Office, Litanies, Collects (short prayers to be recited at certain points in the service), Liturgies (full orders of service) for weekly worship and important occasions such as holidays and baptisms, a Psalter (the biblical psalms), written Prayers and Thanksgivings, an Outline of the Faith (catechism), and the Lectionary.

Since 1789 there have been four editions of the Episcopal Church’s Book of Common Prayer. The current version, used at St. John’s, was adopted in 1979.  To learn more, we invite you to read the Book of Common Prayer online here or borrow a copy to read from our parish!

So, you pray from a book? Why?
Liturgical worship, that follows set texts and a set structure, can seem odd to someone more familiar with an extemporaneous tradition. However, the Episcopal Church finds the grounding of our worship in the Book of Common Prayer.

When other churches in the reformation era were coming up with Confessions and doctrinal statements—including the Roman Church with the Council of Trent—our tradition was coming up with a prayer book. The goal of the prayer book was to find a way for Protestant-minded and Catholic-minded Christians to be able to worship together, using shared words that drew from ancient sources.

Most people, after experiencing the richness of the prayer book, grow to love the familiar words and find that they hear them anew each week depending on what is going on in their lives. Liturgical worship transforms us like the slow drop of water upon a stone—bit by bit—and also ensures that our worship is grounded in tradition and yet responsive to the realities of our world.

Why does the Church use assigned readings from the Bible for each Sunday and holy day in the church year?
So that most of the Bible can be covered in a three-year period. The use of a lectionary keeps us from harping on favorite passages over and over and helps us to discover and re-discover the gems of the whole Bible. The lectionary is available online here and many Episcopalians like to read and meditate upon the readings during the week, before coming to Sunday worship.

I’d like to follow the readings in a Bible, but there aren’t any Bibles in the pew rack.
We don’t have Bibles in the pew racks because when we encounter Scripture in worship, we encourage people to listen to the Word being proclaimed by the Reader. For most centuries of the church’s existence, Scripture existed primarily as something that was heard. When we listen to the Word proclaimed, instead of following along, we tend to hear it differently.

That said, some people still like to follow along with the Scriptures being read. You are more than welcome to bring your own Bible to follow along (or ask the parish office, which will be happy to help you get one!). There are Bibles in our Guild Room, too. Also, each Sunday we have a sheet with the service readings on the parish information table (around the corner from the entrance to the nave – or ask an usher for help locating the table!). For multi-lingual and special services, the Bible lessons are often printed in our service bulletin.

What version of the Bible do you use during worship?
The Episcopal Church uses the New Revised Standard Version (NRSV) of the Bible in worship. This version is the latest revision of the Revised Standard Version (RSV) Bible. It was published in 1989 under the authority of the National Council of Churches of Christ in the USA (NCCCUSA). It was the work of committees of scholars drawn mainly from Protestant churches, but also including Roman Catholic and Orthodox scholars, and a Jewish representative for the Hebrew Scriptures (commonly known as the Old Testament). The committees operated under certain principles laid down by the NCC:

  1. To continue in the tradition of the King James Version;
  2. To depart from that tradition only when required for accuracy, clarity, euphony (the sound of words), and current (American) English usage, with the result to be “as literal as possible, as free as necessary”;
  3. To eliminate masculine-oriented language where the original texts were intended to be inclusive.

The NRSV is authorized by the Episcopal Church for use in worship.

Why does the Episcopal Church have communion every Sunday?
Because this is what the early Church did. In the New Testament, Christians met together every Lord’s Day to celebrate the resurrection of Jesus Christ and to be nourished on his body and blood. The Church celebrated the Holy Eucharist (Communion) every Sunday for centuries. During the middle-ages, people stopped receiving communion regularly for fear that they were unworthy or for superstitious reasons. During the Protestant Reformation, some Christians decided that it was not necessary to celebrate Communion weekly due to infrequent reception of Communion. In the Episcopal Church of the nineteenth and early twentieth century, it used to be common to have Morning Prayer on Sundays and Communion only occasionally. However, the 1979 Book of Common Prayer restored the ancient practice of Communion being the principal act of worship on Sundays.

Do I have to pay anything to go to church?
There is no “fee” to attend church, but you will notice that an offering is taken as part of the service.

Members of our parish give gifts of their money, time, and talents as a spiritual discipline and an expression of faith and generosity and ultimately to identify with Christ’s self-offering for our salvation. There is no expectation that visitors to our congregation give at the offering. (However, whenever visitors feel called to contribute, we are very grateful.)

The offerings received at worship are one way in which we provide the resources for mission and ministry in our community.  Most ongoing members of St. John’s are pledging members, supporting our congregation with their time and talent as well as their treasure. (To find out more about pledging, you can click here.)

The offering is followed by an offertory, during which representatives of the congregation bring the people’s offerings of bread and wine, and money or other gifts, to the deacon or celebrant at the altar.

Are visitors/guests introduced, or asked to stand, during worship?
During the announcements, the officiant may welcome visitors to the church, but visitors/guests will never be singled out or asked to come forward or speak up for any reason at our worship services.

If we are doing our job to be a welcoming community, people may introduce themselves to you and invite you to our coffee time after worship. The ushers or the priest might notice you as a visitor and offer you a small gift bag which contains a coffee cup and more information about our church. If we don’t notice you as a visitor, please let the ushers know you are visiting so they can get you a gift bag. We hope that this honest warm welcome will make you feel part of the community. No matter what, please feel free to stay after the service for a cup of coffee and a snack in the parish hall. We’d love to get to know you more.

I’d love to come to church, but my kids have a hard time sitting still.
Relax! God put the wiggle in children; don’t feel you have to suppress it in God’s house. All are welcome! If you have infants or smaller children, you can make use of the “Soft Space” at the back of the church. There are rocking chairs along with toys and room for children to play on the floor. The entire service is also streamed—with audio and video—to the nursery downstairs if parents ever feel a need to exit the worship space. (An usher would be glad to show you to the nursery or give you directions.)

Once people become more comfortable in worship, we also encourage parents of older children to sit toward the front where it is easier to see and hear what’s going on at the altar as the priest and other ministers lead the worship of the congregation. As you learn more about worship, you can explain the parts of the service and what the worship ministers are doing. Encourage them to participate.

Besides Sunday services, are there other worship opportunities at St. John’s?
Yes! St. John’s offers a variety of weekly and special worship services. In addition to three services on Sunday, St. John’s has a healing service, with Holy Eucharist every Wednesday at noon. Plus, Monday through Thursday, we offer Morning Prayer at 8:30am and Evening Prayer at 5:15pm.

There are special services throughout the Church year. Click here to go to our “Service Times & Feasts” web page for information on current and upcoming services. 

Do you ever use incense? What is it? Why use it? 
Our worship does include incense—but only rarely and whenever we do use it, we always ensure there are other “non-smoking” opportunities for worship. It is used to mark and sanctify holy spaces on the highest and most important feast days of the year. You can read more about its history, use, and practice online here.

Do you ever cancel worship?
Our parish will never cancel a scheduled service of Holy Eucharist, so long as a priest can find some way of getting to the church. Even if it is just the priest and one other person saying Holy Eucharist, the worship of the church will continue. Lay ministers and worshipers are encouraged to use their best judgment to determine if it is safe for them to come in.

The only exception to this worship policy is our regular services of Morning and Evening Prayer at 8:30am and 5:15pm respectively during the week, Monday through Thursday. Those services are cancelled if the Parish Office is closed.

The Parish Office follows the closing decisions of the Grand Haven Area Public Schools (outlined here). Information on when GHAPS is closed can be found on the district website (www.ghaps.org), GHTV (Channel 187), school closing line (616-850-5100), WGHN (92.1) or WAWL (103.5), and many other major television stations. (When the Parish Office is closed, any meetings or activities scheduled for that day are also canceled/postponed, unless the person leading the meeting has contacted everyone saying otherwise. Safety is our number one concern.) More information can also be found on our website here.


Questions about general movement and actions in worship at St. John’s…

Why do many of the people bow or genuflect (kneel briefly on one knee) upon entering or leaving their pew?
Possible reasons for bowing or genuflecting include:

  • Some might think they are bowing to the cross on the altar, but bowing upon entering and leaving was done before crosses were placed on altars. So, the focal point of our reverence is the altar, upon which Jesus comes to us in the elements of consecrated bread and wine. The Christian altar has its roots in the huge altar of sacrifice in the Jewish Temple, which is why for most of history it has been made of stone. (In the Old and New Testaments, rocks — think of Jacob’s rock for a pillow, the huge rock of the Temple Mount, and Peter who is also called the Rock — have been places of encounters with God.) The altar is similarly a place of encounter with God for Christians, and such places, as God tells Moses from the burning bush, are “holy ground.” Just as Moses was instructed to recognize this by taking off his shoes, Christians have recognized their holy ground by bowing, or briefly kneeling, towards the altar when they enter and leave a church. It is an important way to recall that this is truly a place of encounter with God and no ordinary room.
  • Many churches reserve the sacrament (the consecrated bread and wine) on or near the altar so that it may be taken to those who are ill or who for other weighty reason were not able to attend the Eucharist. When the sacrament is reserved, out of reverence for the real presence of Christ, it is customary to bow deeply or genuflect (kneel briefly on one knee) as a symbol of respect for our Lord’s presence.

That said, this is not a requirement of anyone and is, instead, a personal custom or spiritual practice many choose to adopt. You can either follow this custom or not, that is up to your own sense of spirituality and reverence.

When do I stand, sit, or kneel during worship?
Specific instructions are in the rubrics (directions) of the Book of Common Prayer; but in general:

  • We stand when we sing, praise, say the Creed or hear the Gospel in Eucharist.
  • We sit during all other Bible readings and during the Sermon.
  • We kneel to pray—though many choose to stand during prayer as well, either for physical reasons or to be more in keeping with the more ancient practices of the early church, which often stood during prayer.

If you’re not sure, just follow the example of the people around you.  If you are unable to stand or kneel for long periods of time, please feel free to remain seated.

Why does the congregation stand for the reading of the Gospel in Holy Communion?
The Gospel is composed primarily of the words of Jesus himself. Out of respect for our Lord and the good news he brought us, we stand. We keep this custom primarily at services of Holy Eucharist because of the special way Christ becomes present to us, through bread and wine, in the Sacrament of Communion. The Gospel is the first “stirrings” of the presence of Christ (through Word) in the service of Holy Eucharist, so we stand in reverence for Christ’s presence in the Gospel and in anticipation of Christ’s presence in Communion.

Why do many in the congregation cross themselves at various places in the service?
The sign of the cross was originally used as a mark of identification as Christians. It was probably first used at baptism on the foreheads of those being baptized to mark them  as “Christ’s own forever” (Book of Common Prayer, “Holy Baptism,” p. 308).  It still has that significance today, and in the baptismal service the Prayer Book directs the baptizer to mark the baptized one with the sign of the cross.

However, over the centuries other meanings have been attached to the sign.

  • It may be a silent prayer.
  • It may mean that the Christian acknowledges receipt of the sacrament or of a blessing of some sort.
  • It may be an acknowledgement of the Holy Trinity.
  • It may be used as a reminder of the Christian’s baptism, thereby reminding the person that he/she is indeed a Christian and must behave in a Christian manner.

The sign may have other uses as well; but however it is used, it is important that it be used in a reverent and prayerful manner

When do people make the sign of the cross in worship?

We often cross ourselves at these points in the liturgy:

  • During the opening acclamation, usually beginning with the words “Blessed be God”
  • When we profess belief in the “resurrection of the dead” during the Nicene Creed or the Apostles’ Creed
  • When praying for the dead in the Prayers of the People
  • After we confess our sins, during the absolution, when the priest makes the sign of the cross over the congregation
  • During the Sanctus (“Holy Holy Holy”) when we say or sing “Blessed is He who comes in the name of the Lord”
  • During the Eucharistic prayer that precedes the Eucharist, when the parish or the priest asks God for sanctification
  • After receiving the Eucharist
  • At the blessing from the priest at the close of the liturgy

If I want to, how do I make the sign of the cross?
To cross yourself, you hold your thumb, middle, and index fingers together (a symbol of the Trinity) and fold your pinkie and ring finger into your palm (a symbol of the divinity and humanity of Christ. You then begin by touching your forehead, moving to touch the middle of your chest, then to your left shoulder, followed by your right shoulder, and finally back to touch the middle of your chest.

Why do some people bow their heads at the name of Jesus?
People bow their heads at the name of Jesus as a sign of respect for our Lord. This sign goes back to the New Testament itself. St. Paul wrote to the church at Philipi, “At the name of Jesus every knee should bow.” (Philipians 2:10)

Should I be doing all these actions and movements during the service?
One thing you will notice is that there is a wide variety in physical actions people do in the congregation. Some sit, stand, and kneel with great intentionality, crossing themselves several times. Others maintain a more restrained physical engagement. There is not one right or wrong way to do it—everyone engages in worship differently and we cherish that diversity in the Episcopal Church.

If you find movements and physical actions help you engage more deeply in the worship, then you should feel free to do them. If you find they distract you from the worship, then you should feel free to refrain.


Questions about various moments in the service…

Why do many people in the congregation kneel in prayer upon entering their pew?
People kneel in prayer after entering their pew to prepare themselves for worship. They pray for themselves that they might worship our Lord in spirit and in truth; they pray for the congregation; they pray for the priest and other ministers who will be leading the worship; and they pray for any other matters that may be weighing on their mind.

Why do many in the congregation bow as the cross passes them in procession?
Just as the altar is a symbol of our Lord’s sacrifice, so is the cross. We bow in reverence and respect for this holy symbol, whereby Christ has transformed the death and sin of our world into life and love through his death and resurrection.

Why do so many people come out of their pew and walk around during peace?
When the priest says, “The peace of the Lord be with you,” it is an expression of our wish to extend the Peace of Christ to all people. The sharing of the Peace is based upon the teachings of Christ in Matthew 5, when he said,

So when you are offering your gift at the altar, if you remember that your brother or sister has something against you, leave your gift there before the altar and go; first be reconciled to your brother or sister, and then come and offer your gift.

The joy and welcome of one another at the Peace is meant to be a sign and symbol of our willingness and desire to be in reconciled relationships with all people. That is why it follows the Confession, where we acknowledge our faults and ask for God’s forgiveness. Some of our members exit the pews and greet those around them. Kids may run up to the chancel to greet parents who are serving. Others remain in their pew and greet those nearby. It’s fine to stay where you are until you feel more comfortable; if we are doing our job to be a welcoming community, people may come to you!

May I take communion in your church?
In the Episcopal Church all baptized Christians are welcome to receive communion. This is based upon our beliefs, as articulated in the creeds, that there is one baptism and that when we are baptized we are baptized into Christ’s body and not into any specific denominational practice of Christianity.

That said, some denominations restrict their members from receiving communion in other churches—so if you are Christian who is practicing in another denomination, you may want to consult your local pastor first.

Those who are not baptized, or do not want to receive communion, are still warmly welcomed to the altar rail where they may cross their arms over their chest to indicate they would prefer a blessing.

How does one receive Holy Communion at St. John’s?
As ushers direct, people who desire to take communion are welcome to come forward to the altar rail at the front of the church. (Usually, there are instructions in the service bulletin where to go.) Please note: we have a ramp (on the organ side of the Chancel) for those who struggle with steps, so they can still approach the altar rail if they desire. Once at the altar rail:

  • Episcopalians customarily place their right palm across the left palm for the priest to place the consecrated Bread (or wafer) upon the open palm, and then raise the Bread to their mouth to consume it. Out of a deep sense of reverence, some leave their hands folded and open their mouths for the priest to place the host directly in their mouths.
  • When the chalice minister offers the consecrated Wine, it is helpful if you assist by gently touching the base of the chalice, guiding the cup to your lips, and taking a small sip.
  • Sharing the common chalice is a powerful sacramental symbol and privilege enjoyed by Anglicans for nearly 500 years. But persons who do not wish to receive the consecrated wine for any reason may accept the bread only; Holy Communion is fully received under either form of Bread or Wine. Simply cross your arms over your chest to indicate to the chalice minister that you are declining to receive the cup. Similarly, you may decline to receive the host and instead choose to receive only the consecrated Wine.
  • Some people prefer to receive Communion by intinction, that is, dipping the consecrated Bread (host) into the wine and then consuming it. If you prefer to intincint, hold the consecrated Bread between your thumb and index finger so the chalice minister can see it, the chalice bearer will lower the cup so that you can dip the Bread in the chalice.
  • If you wish to come to the altar rail to receive a blessing from the priest (without receiving Communion), cross your arms over your chest and the priest will bless you. Remain in that posture until the person following you has finished receiving both the Bread and the Wine. You may receive a priest’s blessing whether you are a baptized Christian or not.

I have a gluten intolerance, can I take communion at St. John’s?
Yes! We have gluten-free wafers. To indicate to the Eucharistic minister distributing the consecrated Bread that you want a gluten-free wafer please clasp your hands in front of you.

I am unable to walk to the Altar to receive communion. Can I still receive communion?
Absolutely! We have a ramp for those who struggle with steps, so they can still approach the altar rail if they desire and are able. For those who are unable to navigate the ramp, simply inform the ushers and the priest will bring you communion at your pew.

How can my child participate in First Communion? 
The Episcopal Church does not offer a rite of “First Communion” because we believe that every Christian, by virtue of baptism, should be welcome to receive communion. The sacrament is a gift of grace, not dependent upon our knowledge or understanding of it. Indeed, all of us grow in our understanding of the sacrament throughout our lives.  This was actually the practice of the early church, affirmed in the 4th-century Apostolic Constitutions. Reception of communion by infants was even strenuously advocated for by such church fathers as St. Cypria, St. Leo the Great, and St. Augustine of Hippo, who said, “Yes, they’re infants, but they are his members. They’re infants, but they receive his sacraments. They are infants, but they share in his table, in order to have life in themselves” (St. Augustine, Sermon 174, 7)

The universal church continued this practice until the 12th century, when the bread began being withheld (though not the wine) for fear of infants and children not fully swallowing the sacrament—however, this was only occurring in Western Christianity. Further, it was not until the 16th century that withholding communion from infants and small children became the normative practice in the Roman Catholic Church. The practice of all baptized Christians—including infants and small children—receiving communion has continued without interruption in Eastern Orthodox Christianity.

Historically in the Episcopal Church, children could not receive communion until they were confirmed, but our theology of Baptism has evolved in the 1979 Book of Common Prayer to understand that it is not a partial entry rite, but a full and complete entry rite. Just as a child is fed long before he understands nutrition, so a child is fed with the sacrament before understanding how it works. At St. John’s, we hold to the norms of the prayer book that all baptized Christians, regardless of age or understanding, are invited to receive. When a child is baptized, that child, if an infant, is generally communed through the priest dipping a pinky in the chalice and then giving a drop of wine to the infant—a symbol that the child is fully a part of our community.

That said, some parents, for pastoral reasons, parents may wish to have a period of sustained instruction for their children about the meaning of communion, culminating in a Solemn Communion in the Sunday liturgy. They may even want to wait until their child is old enough to receive this kind of teaching before having their child receive the Holy Eucharist for the first time. We affirm parents in this decision because the household is the first community of faith. If parents want to follow this approach, they can contact our rector, Fr. Cramer, for help with resources to teach their children. Our clergy and staff will also spend time with any children whose parents would like their child to receive more teaching about the sacrament. Our children’s ministry program—Godly Play—also has specific teaching about communion that is offered to children throughout the year.

How can I learn more about Episcopal worship practices after I leave?
The best way to learn more about our worship practices is to keep coming back and ask questions when you are unsure! We also have small booklets outside the Nave doors for more information about various parts of our life and worship.