Worship Calendar w/ Michelle Fleming
Welcome to the GC Podcast. A podcast to help you develop into the healthiest ministry leader you can be by sharing practical ministry experience.
Cara: Hello friends, and welcome to the latest episode of GC Podcast. This podcast is devoted to exploring best ministry practices in the context of Grace Communion International churches.
I’m your host, Cara Garrity, and today I am so happy to interview Michelle Fleming. Michelle is the Hope Avenue Champion in the Charlotte, North Carolina church plant and the GCI Communications and Media Director. When she’s off the clock, she spends her time reading, puzzling, and exploring and enjoying the outdoors.
She has always been drawn to liturgy and finds a comfort in thinking seasonally. So, I’m really excited about what she has to share with us today. Thanks for joining us, Michelle.
Michelle: Thanks for having me, Cara.
Cara: We are going to be talking about the worship calendar and this episode is going to be released during the Easter season in the worship calendar.
So, before we really dive in, I’m wondering what is one of your favorite practices for the Easter season?
[00:01:09] Michelle: Even in preparing for this, I have all these big ideas because I love liturgy and the worship encounter so much. And I know you’re asking about Easter, but I can’t think about Easter without thinking about Easter preparation or the Lent season, because really as the title that we use in GCI mentions, we are preparing for Easter. And so, a practice that I have in the season of Easter Prep is naming our deaths. Because in that season, we are modeling Jesus’ 40 days in the desert, and we are remembering our need for a Savior.
We’re naming the things that we turn to for comfort, for safety, for security instead of turning to him. And so, in that season, it’s been a practice for a few years to just name the things that I need to let go of, name the things that are no longer serving me.
And then in the Easter season—which also is not just a day. They’re actually 40 days between Easter Sunday and the Ascension. And I think it’s because Jesus knew his disciples needed to grieve not having him on earth. They needed time to process the whole idea of what was happening. And then he ascended into new life. And so, we need to be in a season of Easter too where we’re naming the births.
I think sometimes in our spiritual lives we pretend that we want resuscitation instead of resurrection. We want to bring back to life things that have served us before that are no longer working. But the Christian life, being a follower of Christ, we are letting go of the old and embracing the new.
And in our humanity, Jesus answers that and gives us space to do that. And so, in the Easter season, for the past few years, it’s a prayerful posture because I’m not the one manifesting this new life. I’m paying attention. I’m saying, okay, this is what I’ve spent time letting go of. This is what I’m grieving, letting go. God, what are you growing?
What are the seeds of new life that you’re planting in my life, in my community, and in my relationships as well? It’s an openness to saying, okay, we are not a people who are mourning; we are people who are celebrating. But we are also limited. And it takes us time to process that. That’s a long answer, but it is my favorite practice for Easter is just claiming that new life.
[00:03:23] Cara: Yeah. No, that’s beautiful. And it’s a really powerful image that you give resuscitation versus resurrection. I’m going to hold onto that.
[00:03:32] Michelle: Yeah. And sometimes it’s because it’s all we’ve known. Once we want that resuscitation because it’s comfortable, it’s familiar.
As we know who our God is, he does more than we can ask or imagine. We just have to ask for a holy imagination to want those things too. Because in our flesh we don’t always want those things.
[00:03:53] Cara: Yes. That’s a great example of how the worship calendar can be formative in our journeys of discipleship. And as we talk about the worship calendar today, I want to come back to even the basics. What is a worship calendar? And then specifically can you talk to us a little bit about the GCI worship calendar?
[00:04:18] Michelle: Yeah, absolutely. I think before we talk about the GCI worship calendar, we have to think about, why a calendar in the first place?
And that is something that humans have always done. It’s not just a western thing. It’s not just a modern thing. We have had calendars, we mark seasons, and I think it’s because we are people who look for patterns. We look for routine, we look for those rhythms. So, whether we explicitly say that we have a liturgical calendar or worship calendar, we have one.
And we also are drawn into culture as people too. So, we have a cultural calendar as well, which I think is equally as important to think about when we are talking about our formation, because God has called us to be a people in this time and place, and we have to be aware of the time and place that we’re in.
We also have to be intentional that we’re not just following the liturgy and being formed by the culture around us. But it’s a both / and. We have to pay attention to both. For example—I tried to think of a non-American example, but that’s where I’ve lived most of my life. And we have a calendar where we think about New Year’s celebrations, 4th of July, Thanksgiving. Those are things that form us as a people to our culture.
And in GCI, we have been following for the past, I’d say, four or five years, we’ve been really intentional about laying out the worship calendar, which follows the liturgical seasons. And I think we do that because the worship calendar forms us around the full story of who Jesus is. We can be biased and drawn to certain seasons. I’m someone who [inaudible] doesn’t want to always pay attention to the negative. I might just live in Easter forever. Let’s just claim this new life. But that’s not the full story of who our God is and what he’s been doing in his people.
And so, the anchors of the gospel story are Christmas and Easter, but those are a pretty big deal. We can’t just celebrate those for two out of 365 days, and say we’re being formed into the image of Christ.
And so, there the seasons build on each other. They transition. I could go through a whole thing, so I don’t want to go through the whole calendar. We’ll drop in the show notes an example of what the calendar looks like, but it’s important to think about the seasons that come before those big days.
So, in Easter Preparation, like we talked about in the beginning, that prepares us for Easter and it gets us ready for Resurrection Sunday, which is a day that changed human history. So, I think it’s pretty important that we don’t just spend 90 minutes in church thinking about that. But that we’re intentional in our worship services, in our discipleship groups, even in how we’re engaging with our culture, in thinking about, what is God doing? How is God moving in this season of the calendar? And that helps us live out our faith in our daily lives, because we are not a people who are only in our brains. And we’re not transformed by just the information we receive.
We have a faith that we live out. And the Holy Spirit’s in us, helping us participate in that. And if we’re following the worship calendar, it helps us remember that Jesus is at the center of his story, that he moved history to draw humanity to himself. And the seasons of Epiphany and Ordinary Time are the seasons of his earthly ministry, of the building of his church, that he invites us to do with him. And the biggest chunk of the calendar is Ordinary Time. And I think that’s intentional. That’s on purpose because that’s what we’re doing until his ultimate return.
And so, I don’t know if I said everything I wanted to say about the calendar, but I think big picture, we follow the calendar to be formed more into the fullness of the image of Christ, to have the full understanding of who God is. And it’s a mystery. So, it’s not something we can do one year, and we’re like, okay now I understand resurrection life; I’m holy forever.
But we go deeper every year in understanding. And what’s happening in our circumstances, what’s happening in our culture, God is present and moving and active in that too.
[00:08:30] Cara: Yes. And I love this idea of the worship calendar helps us remember and to tell and bear witness to the whole story of who God is. I think that’s really important. And then what you said, how it impacts all aspects of how we live an embodied life, not just oh what we think we know, but even how we live, how we engage with our culture, our neighborhoods, the people that we encounter in our lives. I think that’s a really beautiful thing that just the calendar, how we mark time, if it can be centered around Christ, that’s a really cool thing.
[00:09:12] Michelle: I kind of like the idea of orienting our lives around Christ and who he is. And I’m glad you said the word remember, because I think that’s something—we are forgetful people, like we see that in the story of Israel in the Old Testament. We constantly need to be reminded of how constant and faithful God is. And the calendar helps us do that.
[00:09:32] Cara: Yes. Amen. And so that leads me to the next question that I had for you. How can our worship calendar help us in building healthy church rhythms?
[00:09:46] Michelle: Like I said before, I think it really has to be a combination of the worship calendar, but also the cultural context that you’re in.
I think it can help us even in the biases of ministries that we are bended towards. I think especially if you’ve been a follower of Christ for a long time, we just want to come together and worship. But we’re also sent.
So, I think about Ordinary Time in the northern hemisphere. It aligns really well with the summer. And one way that it can help with healthy church rhythms is in Ordinary Time, we’re talking about building the church, we’re talking about mission. We’re talking about evangelism. That’s a perfect time, also culturally, where people are not in school; they’re not as busy. It’s a great time to have events where people want to be outside in a lot of places.
So, you tie those things together to think about not just the full story of who God is, but our full calling as Christians too. And I think that’s the benefit of the Avenues, which we’re not getting deep into in this podcast, but I think that’s why we use both frameworks.
Because God is creative. I believe in being creative. But I also think we are limited, and if we don’t work within frameworks, we’re going to be put into what we are drawn to. And that’s not necessarily how the Spirit is always calling us for. In my experience, he often pulls me out of my comfort zone and reveals new ways of thinking and being. And I think working within a framework where you can contextualize and be creative, allows you to have the unity among your people, but also the ability to think in new ways, to not get stuck in a rut or be in cruise control.
[00:11:33] Cara: Yeah. And the way that you connected the story of Christ to how we participate in it, in our rhythms as a church, I think that’s really important because it’s connecting how we’re living as disciples to who God is. And so, holding those two things together, the cultural calendar and then the worship calendar, helps us to do that because we say, oh, it’s Ordinary Time. So, this is part of the story of Christ, that means it’s part of who he is making us to be too, so we should live or we’re invited to live this aspect of who he is instead of just thinking about this one aspect of who Christ is as a one-dimensional way of being Christ-like.
[00:12:16] Michelle: Yes. And I think it’s also important too, to look for where it naturally overlaps. It’s something I’ve been thinking a lot about in our current culture because in the States, it’s a claim that this is a Christian nation and a majority of people have been followers of Christ. And there is that influence, but you don’t see that in the daily rhythms. If you look 40, 50 years ago, things weren’t open on Sunday. But now that’s when a lot of us get stuff done.
So, we don’t have that rhythm of following what a church life calendar would follow. But we still do have Christmas and Easter. And so, I think it is important to think about maybe before Easter, having some missional small groups, building relationships, exposing people to experience who Christ is. And then those people are probably most likely to come on an Easter Sunday.
So, thinking of even okay, where are the handles we can hold onto where there still is overlap. And in other places there might not be any overlap. And that’s something you have to think about. But then I think of regions like Africa, or even in the Philippines, where those are places where their cultural contexts are more Christian. They’re going to have even more overlap that they can benefit from.
[00:13:30] Cara: Yeah. No, that’s this is rich. I think I can see in this a lot of examples of how the worship calendar can help us to build in rhythms as a healthy church, rhythms that kind of center on the life of Christ and who he is in our midst and what he’s up to.
So, what would you say to those of us who might be a little bit concerned? Because you mentioned, there’s a creativity to this too but we also have a framework that is helpful to work within. So, for those of us who might be concerned that the worship calendar might be constrictive or might be too rigid or prescriptive, maybe even too traditional or repetitive, what words of encouragement would you give to us?
[00:14:18] Michelle: Yeah, I think I would say, you don’t have to decide to do the whole calendar all at once. I think ease your way in and ease your way in with the days or the celebrations that would match your cultural context. I’ve seen more and more churches celebrating Advent, which I don’t think was true 10 or 20 years ago, but that I think is an easy entry point to say, okay, we are preparing for the Incarnation. And there were hundreds of years when between the prophecy of Jesus coming and Jesus’ actual arrival. And can we just be like, okay, it’s Christmas, and then we put up a tree, and we’re celebrating. But can you build in some advent practices into your congregation?
Also, I think the idea that like, okay, well then let’s do an Advent candle lighting. Just because you’re following the calendar, doesn’t mean you have to do the, maybe, more traditional ways of celebrating it? I think there is beauty in the symbolism of a lot of the traditional celebrations, but I think the fruit of the calendar is from understanding how God is moving in that season.
So, if you can capture, okay, how is Jesus being revealed in this season of the calendar? How can we express that in our congregation, in our Sunday services, in our Faith Avenue discipleship groups, in how we engage with our neighbors? I think you’re starting to live out the calendar in ways that could be more creative and innovative.
It doesn’t have to be this restrictive thing of, okay, it’s this season and this is how you celebrate this season. It’s about getting to the heart of it, about how we’re being formed in who God is and who he’s revealing himself to be.
[00:16:08] Cara: And so, there’s still a lot of room to be responsive and discerning and expressive based on what God’s doing. So, there’s a lot of room to play even within this rhythm of the worship calendar.
[00:16:21] Michelle: Yeah. And I think just in my experience as a Hope Avenue champion—which has been for about a year—I think it can even keep us from getting into that cruise control and going stale. I think we can actually be more rigid in not following a calendar because life gets busy, and we just end up doing the same things all the time.
And so, our team comes together before each season begins, and we talk about: what does the season mean? What’s happening in our community right now? What does our congregation need? And we change the order of service to reflect that. And I think it’s helped us grow closer together as a community, grow deeper in who our experience of who God is, because we’re being intentional, we’re being prayerful.
I could go on—and I think it’s also the beauty of being team-based. I hate to keep going back there. But you know, as the Hope Avenue champion, I could come up with a theme, and I could email it out. And I could ask the worship leader to send me some songs that align with that theme. But when we sit, and we share a meal, and we talk about it, and we were prayerful before we even come together, there’s ideas that come up that I don’t think any of us could come up with by ourselves. But the Spirit is moving in and among us and is revealing to us what we need as a congregation.
[00:17:33] Cara: Yes. No, that is a really beautiful point about the corporateness, too, that the worship calendar leads us to celebrate with. I love that.
You’ve already talked a little bit about how when we follow the worship calendar and organize our activities and rhythms around the life of Christ, that it gives us kind of a focus. What is God doing at this time, in this season?
And I’m wondering, can you speak a little bit more to what that means as we collaborate across the ministry Avenues? How does organizing church rhythms across or around the worship calendar contribute to a healthy and well-integrated church ministry?
[00:18:25] Michelle: Yeah, I think I can give you an example based on what I was talking about before, how we come together and we brainstorm what’s going to happen for this season, but how that even builds out, outside of the Hope Avenue team, into our other team meetings. And how we are, I guess, being transformed together.
So, in Epiphany, the season of Epiphany is the good news that Jesus came for everybody—not just for one group of people. And so, when we were brainstorming, okay, what does this mean for our worship services? We decided to take our intercessory prayer time and make that dedicated to praying for a specific group of people. And because we want to be a neighborhood church, and we are a church plant, and so we’re exploring our neighborhood, a lot of our prayer time in church, corporate prayer time—which is something I think that’s being lost in a lot of cultures where faith is not necessarily at the center of the culture—was dedicated to praying for our neighbors and praying for our schools, and praying for our government leaders and just really asking God to give us a heart for these people, a heart for our neighbors, to have the eyes to see them how he sees them.
Epiphany leads to Easter Preparation, which leads to Easter, and so then a few weeks later, we’re talking about missional small groups, and we want to launch several of those within the Epiphany and Easter Prep season so that when we get to Easter, we’ve made some connections so you can then be invited to an Easter service. And then even within the different seasons of the calendar, we often will create a guide, which draws on the Faith Avenue. This is how you can participate in this posture of worship and in this way of understanding who God is outside of the Sunday service.
And so, I think in that way, you can see that all of the Avenues are working together for the fullness of the story of the gospel. But also, for the fullness of experiencing participation in ministry with Christ.
[00:20:25] Cara: Yeah. And so, the worship calendar and the life of Christ and his present ministry becomes that unifying thread between all the ministry Avenues, so that they can actually collaborate well, and not become their own little silos, because they’re being united and telling the story of who God is and united in inviting into participation in that ongoing story and ministry of Christ. That’s beautiful.
[00:20:53] Michelle: Yeah. And we’re meditating on who God is in the same kind of ways. We’re experiencing him in similar ways, and so we’re being formed more and more like him, in those ways together, as a people.
[00:21:02] Cara: Yes. No that’s really wonderful. And then I think even like on the practical level, then when you’re able to collaborate like that. And you have a kind of a framework that you’re working with, and you can agree upon. Then it makes it a little bit easier to think about, oh, what does—we talk a lot about, follow up events, right? Or what comes next? How do we connect people in, after this thing or this on-ramp, this connection point? If we are able to collaborate around an organizing framework, we have a little bit of a pathway to figure out, what’s the next step? How do we go from here?
[00:21:45] Michelle: Yeah, it’s like implicit synergy.
[00:21:46] Cara: Yes. No, this is excellent. So, I we’ve talked a lot about different aspects of the worship calendar, and for some of us it’s a new thing to put into practice the worship calendar, to embody the rhythms of the worship calendar, and to organize the life rhythms of the church around the worship calendar.
What advice do you have for those of us who are getting started using the GCI worship calendar?
[00:22:19] Michelle: I think my advice would be to, like I said before, begin with what matches your cultural context and what your congregation would be familiar with or comfortable with. And I think also too, the idea of understanding the themes for every season, which I haven’t really said yet, so maybe I can go into that a little bit.
So, for example, in Advent, Advent is the celebration of the coming of Christ. We know that he’s come, but it’s a both / and because we’re also waiting for him to come again. And culturally, we skip over that. And it’s—at least in America—it’s Thanksgiving and then Christmas.
And so, I think the posture, I would say is a slowing of remembering what it means to wait, that we’re waiting on Christ. We’re waiting on our Savior. That is our one true hope. He is our one true hope.
And some practices that I’ve adopted even this year was someone—I receive their blog; I don’t even remember their name—but they don’t decorate for Christmas all in one day. Every Friday or Saturday they get their house a little fancier. They slow-build the celebration. And I think so much of this life is waiting, but we separate that from our spiritual life.
We create idols of what we’re waiting for. I’m waiting for that promotion. I’m waiting for that next step in my relationship. I’m waiting for all these different things, but really we’re waiting on Christ to return and make all things well. And so, if we can build into our everyday lives the idea and advent that he’s coming. He’s coming again, and we’re waiting. And we know he’s been faithful. He’s come before.
I think that kind of can form us and prepare us to experience a deeper Christmas celebration. Which isn’t also just one day, that’s 12 days. So, in Christmas, we can soak in that celebration of who he is, that we do have a Savior that entered our world. And I think that’s one time in the year where I spend probably the most time just in Scripture reading about the prophecy of his coming and then reading the story of his arrival and then what that meant.
Then in Easter Prep, I know people often think of that as fasting, but it’s actually fasting from idols and feasting on Christ. And so that is a shift I’ve made recently too, of okay yeah, I’m going to fast during the week from the comfort and the ease that I seek instead of seeking Jesus. But then on Sundays, I’m going to feast on him. I’m going to go to church, and then I’m going to be outside in nature, and I’m just going to soak in all the ways that I experience him in the already, but not yet.
And then in Easter it’s a pretty big deal to conquer the grave, I think. And so that’s a time of worship and gratitude and acknowledgement that he’s continuing to draw us to himself. That he is going to come again and make all things well, and to ask for the eyes to see the seeds of that, of that fruit in your life now.
And Ordinary Time, as we’ve talked about, is a great time for place-sharing, for remembering. We’ve spent all this time in the calendar remembering the story of who Jesus is. Now we’re remembering that we’re invited to participate in it, so to listen to other people’s stories, to share our stories when appropriate. Let’s start with listening. But sometimes our stories can be encouraging to other people too.
So that’s a great time for missional connect groups because also to people travel, it might not be the time to do an in-depth study. But it’s time to think about, okay, what are these postures? How can these postures be lived out in our lives personally, but in our lives corporately as the church?
[00:26:21] Cara: No, that’s excellent advice. And for those of our listeners who are wondering where they can get even more information, or—you just went through the quick one liner of what each of the seasons are—but for those of our listeners who are interested in getting some more information about what these seasons mean as they get started, where can they find that information?
[00:26:47] Michelle: We will put the calendar in the show notes. And then also in Equipper, (which is our monthly ezine) for every season of the calendar, we address what that season means, but then we also have an article on spiritual practices for that season, that kind of gets to some of these things of what you can do practically individually and as a congregation.
[00:27:07] Cara: Yeah. So as y’all get started, we don’t have to get started alone. We’re doing this together, and that’s part of the beauty of the worship calendar, too. It’s not just us in GCI, but followers of Christ all around the world are united in telling and remembering the story of Christ.
So y’all don’t have to do it alone. We’ve got some resources for you.
[00:27:29] Michelle: Yes. And I want to say again, that you don’t have to do it all at once. If you just are like, this is a lot to take in. Let’s just start with our Hope Avenue. Let’s just think thematically for this season, let’s think about it, what it means. And then move from there.
You don’t have to build it all in one day, but I do really see so much fruit in it, in my life personally and in the life of the church.
[00:27:50] Cara: Absolutely. Michelle, we’re coming up to the end of our time, so I just have one more question for you. What final words do you have for our listeners here today?
[00:28:00] Michelle: I’m filled with gratitude thinking about our listeners. Thinking about not just in the cultural context that I know or I’m familiar with, but in all different kind of cultural contexts, we’re declaring the glory of who God is. We’re revealing his love for the whole world for people. And so, I feel unity and affinity and I just encourage you to share your stories with us too. I would love to hear different ways that you are celebrating and maybe engaging with the calendar in a way I haven’t thought of.
I think, just like you said, remember we’re in this together. And it’s such a good story to tell. Let’s be proclaimers of the good news.
[00:28:50] Cara: Amen. Amen. That was a wonderful bundle of insights that you shared. Michelle, I’m so thankful for you joining us. I know that the worship calendar is something that you’re really passionate about.
But before I let you go, we have our fun segment where I’m going to ask you—I know, your favorite thing—a bunch of random questions that you don’t even know what they are, and you’re going to have to tell me the first thing that comes to mind. So, if you’re ready for the fun…
Michelle: I’m ready.
Cara: Here we go. All right. First question. What have you completed on your bucket list?
Michelle: Oh! One of my bucket lists is to see all the US National Parks. And last year I ran a half marathon through Lake Powell and that was really, really cool.
And so that’s the most recent thing I’ve crossed off of that bucket list. And it was beautiful to take in. I ran between two different states in those 13.1 miles and it’s so interesting. It’s a desert area, so it’s so different than anywhere I’ve ever lived.
But to take in the beauty of that because I love lush, green, beach mountains. But just to take in canyons and valleys and just think about the metaphors of that’s the depth of God’s love for us. It’s like these canyons that we’re running through and how life can even be sustained in what seems like such a dry place.
I don’t know. It’s really cool to take in.
Cara: Yeah. No, that is cool. That’s awesome. Speaking of running though, would you rather be able to run a 100 miles an hour or fly at 10 miles an hour?
Michelle: I’m not patient, so I’d rather run 100 miles an hour. Let me get where I’m going.
Cara: It’s about the speed, not the mode. If you could invent a holiday, what would it be?
Michelle: Oh I think my introvert takes over and it would just be like a day of silence. Everyone just pause. Let’s just be in solitude. Let’s just rest. Yeah, that sounds really lovely to me. In whatever way you want to, just don’t speak or engage because I don’t want to miss out on anything, but I also would just really some time for myself.
Cara: It’s for you to have time alone without any FOMO [fear of missing out]. That’s excellent. All right. Final question. Would you go on an expedition to Mars?
Michelle: In heaven, in my renewed body without all my anxiety, fear of claustrophobia, with a mind that is not living in fear…
Cara: I’m going to take that as a no.
Michelle: Would I? If I’d already died, yes. Would I on this side of heaven? Probably not. I think my heart would explode.
Cara: Yeah. No, me either. Oh, we are on the same page for that one. Let me tell you.
I really appreciate you joining us today. As we wrap up, it’s our practice to end our show with prayer, and so could you say a prayer for our churches and pastors, ministry leaders, and members in GCI?
[00:33:08] Michelle: Absolutely.
God, we just praise you for being a God who so relentlessly pursues us with your love, a God who is constant, who is faithful, whom we know we can trust. You’re just so vast that we can’t wrap our minds around who you are.
But in your grace and mercy, you slowly reveal yourself to us. You do it in the fullness of your time so that we can keep up in our limited capacity. You move at the pace of your love and our lives. And you don’t do it just for us individually, you do it for us corporately. So, we thank you for the beautiful church that you have established, a church that declares that you are near, that you are love and that there’s hope.
And so we pray for, specifically, our congregations around the world, that we will be churches who declare those things to the people around us. That we will be churches who embody those things to the people around us. And that we will be a people who point to you, who point to your glory and whose fragrance is among us.
We know that is a beautiful thing, but it can also be overwhelming in the day-to-day. So, I pray for our members, for our ministry leaders, for our pastors who’ve answered the calling of shepherding your people. I pray just for a movement of your Spirit, for encouragement, for inspiration, for new ways of doing ministry in this ever-changing world.
We thank you that we see the fruit of your life, of you in their lives. And so, we trust, and we pray, knowing that you are moving for our good, and we pray that we will move for your glory. We pray all these things in your holy name. Amen.
Cara: Amen. All right folks, until next time, keep on living and sharing the gospel.
We want to thank you for listening to this episode of the GC Podcast. We hope you have found value in it to become a healthier leader. We would love to hear from you. If you have a suggestion on a topic, or if there is someone who you think we should interview, email us at firstname.lastname@example.org. Remember, Healthy Churches start with healthy leaders; invest in yourself and your leaders.