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Archive for February, 2008

As I’ve been exploring more traditional worship approaches in recent months, I’ve noticed something going on and I’m still trying to work out in my head what it means. When I first began to ponder what I was looking for, I thought what I wanted were a few simple traditional elements: more hymns and less “Jesus is my boyfriend” music, more times of silent prayer during the service, reciting of the creeds and the Lord’s Prayer and finally, more frequent partaking of Holy Communion and more reverence when we do so. Fairly simple, huh?

Then of all the churches in town that I could have chosen to visit to possibly find those things, I chose a traditional Anglican parish and now I’m ruined. Not only have I developed a real love for the liturgy: spoken prayers, responsive readings, sung litanies and the Sanctus, but there was something else: weekly Communion. In fact, the entire structure and orientation of the Sunday worship service is centered about it. Yes, there are announcements, scripture readings, the offering is taken up during which the choir or a soloist offers a song and there’s a sermon. But all of that is done as a lead up to the real reason we’re there: receiving the Eucharist. And that’s quite an adjustment for the average evangelical Protestant.

But why should it be such a shock to the system? Of the roughly 2000 years of Christian history over 1500 of them were like this. Christians everywhere for 1500 years went to church on Sunday and celebrated just as the earliest Christians did…by coming together and receiving the body and blood of Christ. And even after the Reformation, things pretty much continued on this way even amongst the Protestants. Luther affirmed and practiced it as part of the weekly worship service. But somewhere along the way, the orientation changed for some. The focus of the worship service for some Protestants was shifted away from the Eucharist and toward the preaching of the Word. And this has become the dominant expression in Protestant churches across America to the point where people born and raised in evangelical Protestant churches can’t even fathom it any other way.

I grew up in a Methodist church that celebrated Communion once a month and at special services like Good Friday. The Assemblies of God church I came to Christ in did so probably every 6 weeks. I know it wasn’t a rigorous monthly schedule but it was more than quarterly. Other churches I’ve attended since celebrated maybe once a quarter.

Meanwhile, the supreme emphasis was on preaching and teaching. In conversations with many Protestant friends over the years, the issue of the pastor’s preaching abilities came up frequently and certainly whenever there was a change in pastor. It was debated and discussed when evaluating candidates for the role, cited as the reason certain churches were experiencing a downturn in attendance and so on. In some Pentecostal settings, the sermon may go on for 45 minutes or more depending on the subject (anything revolving around spiritual gifts such as tongues inevitably go longer). But never did the question ever arise as to whether we might be emphasizing the wrong thing. So I’m asking it now.

First of all, anyone who can answer please help me out: when did this emphasis change? Is there a particular strain or denomination that we can point to? Can it be traced back to the writings or teachings of an individual?

Second of all, is this change a good one? From my perspective, on the one hand, I’ve learned quite a bit over the years from the excellent preachers/teachers I’ve sat under. I have notes from some sermons all the way back to my high school days. I can remember eagerly anticipating getting to church on Sunday to hear my pastor expound on a passage of Scripture and help me gain new insights into what God’s Word is saying to us. But on the other, this orientation tends to create a “cult of personality” situation where people gravitate to a charismatic, gifted speaker. As a result, the church experiences growth and expansion. But if a pastor leaves for another church, or if he falls into serious sin and has to step down or retires, often times the church can experience a significant drop in attendance. And then the importance of finding a replacement with a similarly winsome personality and inspiring speaking ability is of utmost importance. Pick the wrong guy, even if his heart is in the right place, and you might send the church into stagnation or a downward spiral. And that’s just the fairly normal ones that are doing a lot of other things right. I’m not even getting into the churches that experience explosive growth due to the forceful persuasion of a slick-tongued charlatan or the seductive lies of the “health and wealth/name it and claim it” gospel.

Conversely, churches that are focused on the Eucharist and the accompanying liturgy seem less prone to this problem. The first reason is,the liturgy doesn’t change much except for a few minor changes during the bigger events like the Easter or Advent seasons. Therefore it isn’t dependent upon the pastor to come up with eloquent or novel things to pray or say. It certainly doesn’t hurt and you certainly wouldn’t want someone who was utterly incapable of preaching. But it’s not what people are there for. The main thing that matters is that he does the liturgy in a reverent and heartfelt manner. The liturgy seems to actually enable him to get out of the way and not have the focus fall on him, but on what we’re there to receive from God. This mitigates the problems described above when a pastor for whatever reason, has to leave. I realize it doesn’t completely eliminate such concerns, especially if the pastor has been there a long time and was a truly good shepherd to the people God entrusted to his care, but it does mitigate the performance aspect of that problem.

Secondly, the “build up” of the entire service is not toward what amazing new insight the pastor will give us today, but on the receiving of the body and blood of Christ. Our focus isn’t on a sermon that will hold our attention, but on the sacrifice Christ made for us so that we can have a relationship with Him. Instead of looking for easy to follow life application principles in outline form, we’re examining our conscience and confessing our sins, first corporately, then personally. We’re clearing our consciences and receiving forgiveness. We’re taking time to examine ourselves. And as we are called to remember Christ’s death for our sins, we are reminded that grace is not cheap. It cost a man his life and the gravity of offending a holy God and what it took to redeem us is put back into the forefront of our minds. In so many evangelical Protestant churches, having a specific and intentional time of confession is rare. I can recall several weeks going by without such an instruction from the pulpit unless they were talking to the unsaved during an altar call. How often does your church have a time set aside to do this?

I’ve mentioned over the last few months that my appreciation for this approach has grown, but I don’t think it was until a recent conversation with someone about the matter that I was able to really express for sure that it’s not a phase. It’s not just a matter of personal taste for me. The feelings aren’t going away. I’m slowly becoming convinced that the wisdom of our centuries of forefathers in the faith still holds true today. We need to keep the Cross at the forefront of our worship. And not just an abstract, intellectual assent or understanding, but in our actions and in the receiving of His body, broken for us and His blood, poured out for our redemption. So my verdict is, we’ve reordered the worship service to our own hurt and we’re missing out big time.

But let me put the question to you. First, does anyone know where the practice of orienting the Sunday worship service around the sermon started? And second, do you think it was a wise thing for us to do?

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Prayers

I’ve enjoyed using the prayers in the Book of Common Prayer, particularly the Morning and Evening Prayers from the 1928 BCP. But while I don’t mind using the more formal language (Thee, Thy, Thine, etc.) for prayers in corporate settings, it seems too formal during personal prayer times. So I updated the language a little. Mainly just losing the archaic pronouns and a few other terms while keeping the prayers mostly as is. Some may hate it, but I thought I’d put it out there for those that might enjoy using it.

Morning and Evening Prayers (PDF file)

Again, I hope I haven’t committed some kind of sacrilege in doing this. I just wanted something that sounded a little bit closer to how I actually talk to God, only more eloquent.

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I’m not alone

Well, I know I’m not alone from some from reading some of the combox entries here. But sometimes around here I feel that way. There’s an excellent article at Christianity Today on the movement in evangelical circles toward revisiting the past, as in liturgy, the Christian calendar, Advent, even the Divine Hours, candles and incense. And it’s primarily coming from 20-30 somethings, not their parents. Any reader of this blog will know that this particular passage connected with me:

In 1985, I gave my life to Christ in a Canadian charismatic church. It was a modern-church setting with a giant, auditorium-like sanctuary that someone had decorated to look like a suburban living room, complete with sea foamgreen carpeting and rubber plants. On Sunday mornings, I would walk in and feel the palpable presence of the all-powerful and all-loving Lord. On Saturday nights, at cell-group prayer meetings, I was mentored by wise “fathers and mothers in the Lord.” On Monday nights, I participated in the music ministry of a dynamic youth group.

Yet through the years, though this wonderful church formed me in the joy of the Lord that was my strength, I felt like we were missing something. As a stalwart outpost of the kingdom in a threatening world, our faith seemed somehow precarious. We stood, as we faced that world, on a foundation made of the words of our favorite Bible passages—our “canon within the Canon”—and the sermons of our pastors and a roster of approved visiting evangelists. There was utterly no sense of the mystical massiveness of a church that had stood firmly for 2,000 years. No sense that our foundation actually stretched down and back through time. I didn’t have a clue who John Wesley, Martin Luther, Bernard of Clairvaux, and Ignatius of Antioch were. I just knew that I felt like I was part of a church that was in some ways powerful, but in other ways shallow and insecure in a threatening world that did not share our faith.

I now see that my early sense of the church’s insecurity stemmed from what J. I. Packer has called evangelicalism’s “stunted ecclesiology,” rooted in our alienation from our past. Without a healthy engagement with our past, including historical definitions of “church,” we are being true neither to Scripture nor to our theological identity as the church. Though Packer doesn’t put it this way, it is easy to see ways in which their stunted ecclesiology has led evangelicals to allow the world to shape the church.

So true. Now, I knew who everyone except Bernard of Clairvaux was, but that feeling of floating around without an anchor (or at least one that wasn’t big enough), that lack of understanding of the “mystical massiveness” of the historical church was there even before I knew how to put it into words.

And it’s good to know that other people feel that aesthetics matter. Part of me feels guilty saying that. I was taught that it shouldn’t matter whether you’re in a beautiful cathedral, a modern state of the art worship center or an inexpensive rented storefront with folding metal chairs. You should be able to press through and block out the surroundings and focus only on God. And certainly there is some validity to that. If Paul and Silas can praise and worship God in a dank Roman jail cell, certainly I don’t have to have the perfect little stained glass sanctuary with plush padded kneelers nor quibble that the worship space looks like a school auditorium or a massive living room. Yet it matters to me. It’s not that I’m unable to worship God in those settings, I just find a traditional church setting with beautiful architecture, imagery, pews and so on more conducive to doing so.

I also related to the feeling Sharon Carlson describes. Though she speaks of the Plymouth Brethren, she may as well be talking about my Pentecostal days or many generic evangelical gatherings:

Carlson described the Communion experience as “tearing up bread and passing around cups of grape juice after men in the assembly spontaneously stood and repeated the words that they felt prompted by the Holy Spirit to say,” and she felt that was no longer enough. As Campbell reports, ” ‘I want to be more connected to history, the history of the Christian church,’ said Carlson, who relishes the knowledge that she is worshiping the way Christians have for centuries. ‘There have been generations of people before me saying the same prayers.’ “

Carlson found it difficult to attend emotional, upbeat, and impromptu services on those days when she did not feel the fervor to worship. When she encountered liturgical worship as a student at Gordon College in Wenham and during a year in Oxford, England, she noticed herself gravitating toward the Anglican churches, where she could reaffirm her beliefs with a creed, regardless of her feelings. She also liked following a church calendar that connected the seasons of the year with the seasons of Christ’s life. Now Carlson uses the Book of Common Prayer regularly and worships at Christ Church, a theologically conservative and highly liturgical Episcopalian church.

Geez, I’m tracking with you sister. I can’t tell you how many times I faked it through upbeat, happy-clappy services when all I really wanted to do was be left alone and cry because life was hard and my faith was weak or because I’d committed some sin that week and felt utterly unworthy to be in God’s presence. At times like those, clapping and smiling is at best not the proper response and at worst dishonest and hypocritical. But that’s sort of what was expected. There’s comfort sometimes in being able to say the words of others when your heart is in tatters. The Creeds, the collects and other prayers say for you what you cannot.

But, I’ve struggled with trying to analyze my motives on all this. There’s a certain streak in me that likes to be the one who likes what’s different from everyone else. I’m a beer snob and admit I take more pride than I should in not drinking the regular stuff most folks grab at the grocery store. I have extremely varied tastes in music and love discovering little known bands and not just jumping on the hot and trendy. My political views don’t jive with many of the conservative Christians I know (in other words, I tend to buck the Limbaugh/Coulter/Hannity party line a lot). So, is this just another instance of me just wanting to be different?

I live in an area of the country dominated by Southern Baptist and Charismatic worship settings. And if not those, it’s just a contemporary, non-denominational evangelical gathering. There are three Catholic and three Anglican parishes in my city. And three of those six are rather small (one has around 20 people on a Sunday morning). Compare that to dozens of Baptist churches, a healthy dose of Pentecostal/Charistmatic ones and more Methodists and Presbyterians than you can shake a stick at. Some of these churches are huge and many others have several hundred in attendance. The subject of church comes up and what kind of place I’d like to find and you just get this look like they can’t fathom why you’d want all that tradition. But the main thing is, it’s completely against the current of what’s going on these days. How much of this is me just wanting to feel cool and different?

I also wear myself out wondering if I’m not giving other churches a fair chance over matters of taste and personal preference. Why does this stuff matter to me? Am I doing this for sound biblical and theological reasons or just because I’m bored with the kinds of churches I’ve been attending (and enjoying I might add) for the last 20 years or so?

This article felt like a little validation today and had I not been at work when I read it, I might have teared up a little. I’m not going crazy. I’m not the only one. Other people are looking around the contemporary evangelical churches they’ve loved for so long and have been such a big part of their growth as a Christian and feeling like they want something else and it’s just beginning to dawn on them that they probably won’t find it there. And it’s sad. And a little scary. They don’t know how to explain it and they feel misunderstood when they try.

Just knowing they’re out there makes me feel better.

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