There are so many ways to do a Good Friday service. Perhaps you are feeling as though you have tried them all. What will speak to our modern congregations in a transforming way? What will bring an experience of the pain and the promise in this event? What will help us wrestle with why we even call such a horrific day “good”?
The general rule for worship from the perspective of the Worship Team at Discipleship Ministries is engagement, entering in to the experience and letting the community participate in all the movements of worship from gathering and call, to experiencing the Word, to responding to that Word and then being sent into the world to live that Word enfleshed in our human witness of living. We believe that to not hear the voice of the people in singing and speaking, in testimony and witness, is to miss out on the power of worship to transform and make disciples Worship is always interactive.
Except perhaps today. Perhaps, because there are actions that congregations can do that can make real the depth of Christ’s sacrifice for us. Some churches, for example, have placed a wooden cross on the chancel steps and invited congregation members to come and drive a nail into the wood, additionally nailing a piece of paper on which have been written sins or brokenness that Christ will take away. The sound of hammering drives home the reality of the nails and the pain in a tangible way. Other ritual acts of movement, or confession, or weeping, can also be powerful tools for capturing the “good” in Good Friday.
However, this day is not our day, but his. For us, yes But it is his act, his blood, his death. Sometimes the best way to worship on Good Friday is as a spectator, to stand or sit at the foot of the cross and simply watch. In shame and in hope, guilty and redeemed at once, we watch as blood is shed on our behalf. We are powerless, helpless under this weight. All we can do is watch and listen, as even here he speaks a word to us.
We are recommending a return to an old model for Good Friday observance: the service of the seven last words from the cross. In the African American tradition, this was done over a three-hour span, the traditional length of time Jesus hung on the cross. The seven words are divided up and assigned to different preachers who come and bring a word and a song – a hymn or anthem by the choir of the pastor’s church. The congregation comes and goes over the course of the time; few will stay the whole three hours. But the community keeps vigil; the worship covers the time. Maybe there is a possibility your community could do this ecumenically. Maybe it is already being done by other churches, and your church hasn’t been a part. Maybe it is time to investigate the possibilities of uniting the church divided by race and tradition and worship together, as we all stand powerless before the cross.
It would be a rare local church, however, that could sustain a three-hour Good Friday service. But perhaps there would be a way to shape a worship experience around the seven words. Various Tenebrae services are built around these words. Our Book of Worship includes a model that can be used and/or adapted (BOW, p. 354. See also BOW, p. 362, “A Service for Good Friday”). They can also function as modified stations of the cross, with each word being a moment in the service to pause and listen and reflect in awe of what is transpiring. The congregation is taken on a journey through the sacrifice of the Lord. You can go to the search function on the www.umcdiscipleship.org website to find a variety of services using the words “Good Friday” or “stations of the cross.”
Drama is another way of observing Good Friday. There are effective ways of depicting the power and passion of this day without veering into the voyeuristic. Dramas that focus not on the person of Jesus on the cross, but on those who stand by and watch, or those who can’t watch, can provide powerful insight in the life-changing effect of this event. There are resources, such as the “Skit guys” (skitguys.com), that provide both videos of such dramas and scripts by which you can produce your own live presentations. Perhaps there is someone in your congregation whom you could cultivate into becoming the dramatist or the performer who helps the congregation observe and experience the power of Good Friday.
Finally, music was central to the Selah series we presented for the season of Lent. Good Friday is an appropriate place for silence. But music can also bring us into the experience of the Passion on many levels. Look at the music suggestions to find hymns and anthems that would help carry the theme and mood of the service. You might also listen to “Last Words (Tenebrae)” by Andrew Peterson from the Resurrection Letters: Prologue (Centricity Music: 2018) album. Peterson simply weaves the seven last words into a musical tapestry that is profound in its simplicity.
Rev. Dr. Derek Weber, Director of Preaching Ministries, served churches in Indiana and Arkansas and the British Methodist Church. His PhD is from University of Edinburgh in preaching and media. He has taught preaching in seminary and conference settings for more than 20 years.