26 February 2008

Who decided?

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?


liturgy said...
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Carole said...

I don't know 'when' the focus shifted for Protestants, but I suspect it was pretty much in the beginning. Luther was a priest, so even after he broke with the Church he could still consecrate. However, after him, the power of Holy Orders was not extended to anyone else, since that only comes through laying on of hands by the Bishops. Thus, their view of priesthood changed, and with it their view of Eucharist. (This is my very superficial analysis). Plus, Luther's 'thing' was the Word--and he was a gifted preacher. So no wonder.

In the absence of an approved translation of Scripture into the vernacular for 60+ years, (Luther's version went on the index of forbidden books because of a number of important inaccuracies) Catholics came to see the Bible as a Protestant thing. So they devoted themselves more and more to the Sacraments, and became more and more alienated from Scripture.

One effect of this and I suppose the converse of the issue you present here) is that, in general, in Catholic worship settings, the homily is virtually empty of any real content; the word is not effectively preached, and people are starving for it. It is interesting that in Vatican II's Dei Verbum 21: "The Church has always venerated the divine Scriptures as she venerated the Body of the Lord, insofar as she never ceases, particularly in the sacred liturgy, to partake of the bread of Life and to offer it to the faithful from the one table of the Word of God and the Body of Christ."

This seems to place the Word on an equal footing with the Eucharist, yet in practice it doesn't really seem to be the case.

I think we need to ask God for an increase in the charism of preaching in our Church. Real preaching of the word, not entertainment, not 'try to be nice to each other'--but real substantive breaking open of the word of God.

Qatfish said...

In the absence of an approved translation of Scripture into the vernacular for 60+ years.... Catholics came to see the Bible as a Protestant thing. So they devoted themselves more and more to the Sacraments, and became more and more alienated from Scripture.

Based on writings of the time period, like the writings of St. Thomas More and the translaters of the King James Version, I don't think this is really true. There were already many Catholic vernacular translations, and literate Catholics read them.

This seems to place the Word on an equal footing with the Eucharist, yet in practice it doesn't really seem to be the case.

I think we need to ask God for an increase in the charism of preaching in our Church.

While I agree Catholics should pray for better preaching, and should find other ways to encourage both faithful Scripture reading and quality preaching, Dei Verbum does not put Scripture and the Eucharist on "equal footing," nor should it. The Eucharist IS Jesus himself, the Bible is not. Scripture is inerrant revelation of God conveyed through human language, and rightly called "Word of God" by analogy to Jesus, but Jesus himself is the true Word incarnate.

Sacrosanctum Concilium no. 7 dispels any equation between Christ's presence in the scriptures and in the Eucharist. "[Christ] is present in His word," the Church affirms, "since it is He Himself who speaks when the holy scriptures are read in the Church." But Christ is present "especially under the Eucharistic species." Pope Paul VI's Mysterium Fidei explains: "All of us realize that there is more than one way in which Christ is present in His Church.... He is present in the Church as she preaches, since the Gospel which she proclaims is the word of God, and it is only in the name of Christ, the Incarnate Word of God, and by His authority and with His help that it is preached.... Christ is present in His Church in a still more sublime manner as she offers the Sacrifice of the Mass in His name.... These various ways in which Christ is present fill the mind with astonishment and offer the Church a mystery for her contemplation. But there is another way in which Christ is present in His Church, a way that surpasses all the others. It is His presence in the Sacrament of the Eucharist, which is, for this reason, 'a more consoling source of devotion, a lovelier object of contemplation and holier in what it contains' than all the other sacraments; for it contains Christ Himself and it is 'a kind of consummation of the spiritual life, and in a sense the goal of all the sacraments.' This presence is called 'real' not to exclude the idea that the others are 'real' too, but rather to indicate presence par excellence, because it is substantial and through it Christ becomes present whole and entire, God and man." (MF, nos. 35-39) :)

Emerging into Chaos said...

To track the shift to emphasis on Preaching and Teaching...check out Frank Viola's book Pagan Christianity, he outlines this subject well

Well said !

Ragamuffin said...


I could be wrong, but I don't think Luther believed that he couldn't ordain ministers or that he reoriented the emphasis toward the Word over the Eucharist. For that matter, neither did Calvin. Even leaders as late as John Wesley believed that we should receive the Eucharist as often as possible.

Now, the practice of Communion once a quarter among U.S. Methodists came about because of something similar to your theory. In the colonies, there weren't enough ordained Anglican (the church Wesley was part of) priests available so they would travel around a large territory, making it to each town or parish only once every 2-3 months. Since the priest was the only one able to perform the sacrament, they only had it when he was in town. Someone else handled preaching and other pastoral duties while he was away. But once that difficulty no longer existed and most local congregations had their own minister, they simply never changed it back.

Now as far as the preaching thing, it's a mixed bag in the Catholic church from what I can tell. Much more so than say the Baptists. I've been to two Masses in recent weeks. One had a very good homily. The other had me scratching my head as to whether the Catholic Church even expect priests to be capable of teaching and preaching. It was monotone, hard to follow, meandering...basically a crash course in how to bore your parish to tears.

Ragamuffin said...

welcome, emerging into chaos!

Just curious, how'd you stumble upon my blog?

Ragamuffin said...

So sorry, welcome also to liturgy and carole. Pardon my manners.

Carole said...

Thanks for your hospitality!

And thanks for those subtle clarifications, Qatfish. I agree that the Eucharist is the presence of Jesus,par excellence--however, I also think that in practice we Catholics do not place as much value on the Word of God as our doctrines say we do.

And, just to continue an interesting conversation, Ragamuffin, I am pretty sure that Luther did not understand himself to be in a position to consecrate someone as a priest--he himself was originally Catholic, and was himself ordained by a Bishop. Catholics understand the 'power to give the power to consecrate the Eucharist' as coming through the laying on of hands, by a Bishop.

What I'm not sure of is whether you might be equivocating 'priesthood' with 'minister' or pastor. Ordination to the Priesthood, in the Catholic sense, involves an ontological change in the person, which is why we say 'Once a priest, always a priest', even if the guy leaves and gets married, or is suspended from ministry. Whereas, for Lutherans, the minstry of being a pastor has more to do with being entrusted with leadership or authority--not an ontological change.

Another thing I'm not sure of is whether, when Luther (and Northern Germany) broke with the Roman Catholic Church, some Bishops didn't 'go Lutheran' and do some ordaining. Nevertheless, the Lutheran view differs from the Catholic view of transubstantiation, but rather consubstantiation. The Catholic view is that the bread and wine become the flesh and blood of Christ; the Lutheran view is that the spirit of Christ is 'in, with, and under' the elements of bread and wine. The bread is like a container or a vehicle. So I was told by a Lutheran pastor, anyway.

Qatfish said...

I also think that in practice we Catholics do not place as much value on the Word of God as our doctrines say we do.

This is certainly true for many Catholics. Thankfully some of us are working to change that. :)

Heide Seward (aka, Miss Climpson) said...

Thank you for your thoughtful post. I find echoes of my own spiritual journey in your story, and I enjoy reading your posts.

I can't speak authoritatively to the exact historical origins of the change in focus away from the Eucharist and toward preaching/teaching. Like Carole, I suspect it started with the Reformation itself. Once the doctrine of the Real Presence went by the wayside (or, in the case of the Anglican tradition, became muddled) the current situation was the logical consequence, I suppose.

As Qatfish points out, the Catholic Church does indeed focus primarily on the Eucharist. It is the main event, after all, and the scripture reading and preaching also build up to it.

Fortunately, my own experience as a Catholic convert belies Carole’s comment about the average Catholic homily: "…[I]n general, in Catholic worship settings, the homily is virtually empty of any real content; the word is not effectively preached, and people are starving for it." Certainly I have heard homilies that fit that description, but some of them, including most I have heard preached in my own parish, are amazingly insightful and almost always based on the scripture readings of the day. I would stack some of our pastor’s homilies up against some of the best Protestant sermons I have ever heard. They are the sort that one remembers and ruminates on for months and years afterwards.

I know what you mean when you say you have “developed a real love for the liturgy.” I grew up in the Episcopal Church and fell in love with liturgical worship as a child, back when we had a liturgy that my 16th century ancestors would have recognized (the 1928 Book of Common Prayer). I migrated to evangelical churches as an adult, and though I missed liturgical worship, I thought the stripped-down liturgy and “Jesus is my boyfriend” music was the price I had to pay in order to hear orthodox preaching from the pulpit. Eventually I discovered Episcopal churches that combined liturgical worship with solid evangelical teaching.

For a long while I thought I was home. Eventually I realized that there was still a problem. The same fuzzy thinking about the Eucharist that had bugged me about liberal Episcopal churches was still there in the evangelical ones. I was growing more and more convinced about the Real Presence of Christ; but I found few evangelical Episcopalians who shared my conviction. What I thought was the main event—the Eucharist—was treated sometimes almost as an afterthought.

In the Catholic Church I have found, at last, a place where the Real Presence is proclaimed unapologetically in word and deed. (And, at least in my own parish, where the Word is also preached very effectively.) I have attended some masses elsewhere that make me somewhat wistful for the beauty of Anglican worship. Nevertheless, I have never really looked back for a moment, because the thing I was really hungry for is there, in the Sacrament of the Eucharist.

Carole said...


Where are you going for these substantive Catholic sermons? I wanna go!!!

Heide Seward (aka, Miss Climpson) said...

I live in Northern Virginia, and my parish is Holy Spirit Catholic Church in Annandale. You are welcome anytime!

Stacey said...

In "Counterfeit Revival" by Hank Hanegraaf (sharp fellow, even if he does has his blind spots), he outlines the growth of revivalism and camp meetings in early America during the expansion west. It seems that Pentacostalism, charasmatic renewal, and the emphasis on preaching, singing and feelings oriented church-going really spread through this. Although it probably started, as the others have said, in the Reformation with a de-emphasis on the sacraments. Hanegraaf has a gazillion footnotes and citations in his book and gives excellent biographies and histories. It's kind of creepy to hear about the shady roots of a movement I've been so involved in for so many years.