bible-studyWords have power. Some words have life-giving power. And when lifegiving words are embraced in moments of profound meaning, the effect is eternal.

In the Wesleyan theological tradition, there has always been an appreciation for the use of ritual. John Wesley, himself an Anglican cleric, made daily use of the Book of Common Prayer. When possible, he participated daily in the Eucharist, encouraging the practice among the early Methodists in England.

Though Wesley himself designed and commended to the American church his “Sunday Services,” based in large measure on the order of worship in the Anglican Book of Common Prayer, in practice the American Methodists made little use of the more elaborate rituals so loved by Wesley. It must be said that he invested in those rituals a deep spiritual reality and found them, not a distraction or a bother, but a means of grace and a source of deep and abiding meaning.

In the more primitive American settings of brush arbors and simple chapels, house-church gatherings, and itinerant circuit-riding preachers, such use of ritual seemed out of place and difficult to practice. Though many of the churches in the larger cities relied more on the “Sunday Services,” the majority of the churches were less structured and more reliant on extempore formats and orders of service.

In even the most extempore Methodist settings, however, there was a deep appreciation of the need to participate at least occasionally in the sacraments of baptism and the Lord’s Supper. Though not always done with great majesty, the sacraments were cherished, and in the minds of the people, the proper officiant contributed an important element to the significance of the rituals.

At the time of the Holiness awakenings that occurred near the end of the 19th century and the beginning of the 20th century, independent Holiness associations sprang up in many places across the United States and Canada, as well as in other nations. The fellowship and fervor within the various associations was intense. Worship, evangelism, and passionate emphasis on the deeper life were characteristic of the associations. One of the needs that seemed somewhat problematic, however, was the desire by many of those in the Holiness associations to participate in the sacraments of baptism and the Lord’s Supper. A common concern was that without appropriate ecclesiastical training and endorsement, it was difficult to know who should be empowered to administer the sacraments to the people and what forms those celebrations should take.

The desire for proper endorsement and preparation of ministers, who were legitimately able to serve and administer the sacraments, led many to propose that their associations ought to consider forming a larger denominational body. Such a body, they felt, could give appropriate legitimacy to the preparation and oversight of ministers, thereby providing for more adequate pastoral care and the administration of the sacraments.

In time, such endorsement was established in many Wesleyan bodies. While the observance of the sacraments was desired, however, the resistance to ritualism continued. Churches that desired at least minimal form for the administration of the sacraments resisted allowing their worship services to routinely be encumbered with too much ritual.

While such resistance is understood as a justifiable reaction to an overuse of ritual in some traditions, the resistance also produced a distrust of ritual at some levels that stifled the consideration of its legitimate use as means of spiritual formation, doctrinal clarity, and pastoral care.

There has been a recent return to more frequent uses of ritual by many congregations in the Wesleyan tradition, often especially among those populated by young adults seeking expressions of worship found in ancient forms. This has brought a new appreciation of the place of welldesigned ritual in worship and in pastoral care.

At heart, the practice of pastoral care must be theologically driven. It is necessary for every pastor to found his or her practice on a carefully studied theological understanding of the work of ministry. The work of pastoral ministry is to point people to Christ, the Son of the Living God, who by his suffering on our behalf, provides us access to God by grace through faith. The presence of the Holy Spirit in the life of the Church is the essential resource for ministry. It is to this reality that the people of the Church are directed through the work of pastoral ministry.

One responsibility of the pastor is to work with families or individuals, who are experiencing major life passages or spiritual breakthroughs. Those moments are open doors for ministry in ways that help people give voice to their experiences. Such occasions offer a level of pastoral care that is hardly available in any other circumstance. One of the tasks of pastoral care is to provide opportunities for, and experiences of, reflection on life passages that will enable appropriate avenues for new meanings to occur.

It is not the pastor’s role to suggest how people ought to feel in those moments. Rather, it is to show how a particular situation or experience provides possibilities for spiritual growth and the appropriation of grace. Thus, sensitive pastoral care should seek to give voice to the disorienting experiences in the lives of people in ways that enable them to constructively assimilate these experiences into their life journeys. Failure to offer this kind of assistance can leave people to deal with crises with inadequate coping mechanisms or poor theology and may lead to destructive beliefs or actions. Even a positive life passage, dealt with inappropriately, can become a limitation to a person’s spiritual formation.

The Church uses many rituals in the course of its corporate life together. The sacraments of baptism and the Lord’s Supper are treasured rituals, often moments of profound spiritual encounter for the people of faith. But there are other rituals we cherish as well: marriage, the baptism or dedication of infants, the reception of church members, the dedication of buildings, and so on.

There is also a place for working with individuals, families, groups, or all the people of the congregation in developing new and/or unique and creative rituals that can give voice to moments of profound significance, for which there are no other adequate means of expression.

A risk in pastoral care to those in crisis or experiencing major life change is that our efforts may be primarily functional, trying to “help.” The great need is to be present—to minister the consolations of Christ, the resources of the Word, to be a friend, a support. If the objective of pastoral care is the spiritual formation of the people to whom we minister, the manner in which we relate to them and to their needs will influence their openness to the possibility that God may do a deep, creative, sanctifying work in them. What is primary is not what we do, nor even what they do, but what God desires to do in them, for them, and through them. It is in light of what He accomplishes that expression may be found, that voice may be given, that words may come to have new meaning, and that a given life passage may be an occasion for profound spiritual growth.

Ritual, in order to have meaning and significance, must be related to an awakening of faith in the people who participate. There is a need in pastoral care to create and discover ways to aid in that awakening. The reality of God’s gracious initiatives must be acknowledged. Ritual finds a way to embrace that reality, not create it.

May God, who through the Eternal Word spoke worlds into existence, enable you to use words to create worlds of meaning for the people to whom you minister the Word.

JESSE C. MIDDENDORF serves as general superintendent of the Church of the Nazarene

See Jesse's article: 'A Service of Reconciliation' here.
Read a review of The Church Rituals Handbook here. 


Taken from The Church Rituals Handbook, second edition, by Jesse C. Middendorf © 2009 by Jesse C. Middendorf and Beacon Hill Press of Kansas City, Kansas City, MO. Used by permission of Publisher. All rights reserved. Visit to purchase this title.