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?