I spent a lot of last week talking about the things that interested me most about each respective day’s session of my Worship class. Which means I spoke about history and social justice, but those weren’t really where the professor focused, so I’ll try to summarize his thoughts about worship itself – as opposed to its historical roots.
One thing that struck me is how conservative he was on this topic despite his progressive views on pretty much everything else – yes, he tied worship explicitly to social justice and argued effective worship should be forming us in the image of Christ, but his view of what kind of worship would do that was certainly not liberal by any reasonable definition of the word.
The model he uses for worship comes from Isaiah 6, which is the story of Isaiah’s calling to be a prophet:
In the year of King Uzziah’s death, I saw the Lord sitting on a high and exalted throne, the edges of his robe filling the temple. Winged creatures were stationed around him. Each had six wings: with two they veiled their faces, with two their feet, and with two they flew about. They shouted to each other, saying:
“Holy, holy, holy
is the LORD of heavenly forces!
All the earth
is filled with God’s glory!”
The doorframe shook at the sound of their shouting, and the house was filled with smoke.
I said, “Mourn for me; I’m ruined! I’m a man with unclean lips, and I live among a people with unclean lips. Yet I’ve seen the king, the LORD of heavenly forces!”
Then one of the winged creatures flew to me, holding a glowing coal that he had taken from the altar with tongs. He touched my mouth and said, “See, this has touched your lips. Your guilt has departed, and your sin is removed.”
Then I heard the Lord’s voice saying, “Whom should I send, and who will go for us?”
I said, “I’m here; send me.”
If that doesn’t sound much like a worship service to you, you’re not alone.
But in this story, he and others see the template for worship – a four-part movement through which every worship service should take us.
First, God appears and the response is deep awe and reverence, as well as a song declaring the greatness, glory, power, holiness and transcendence of God.
Then Isaiah responds: “Woe is me!” in many translations, “Mourn for me!” in the Common English Bible. He confesses his unworthiness to be in God’s presence.
God has a response, however. In an act of unwarranted, unmerited grace, he cleanses Isaiah and transforms him, making him worthy to be in God’s presence.
Finally, Isaiah is ready to be sent, his life is given purpose, and he has a job to do.
This four-part movement also is visible in Luke 5:
One day Jesus was standing beside Lake Gennesaret when the crowd pressed in around him to hear God’s word. Jesus saw two boats sitting by the lake. The fishermen had gone ashore and were washing their nets. Jesus boarded one of the boats, the one that belonged to Simon, then asked him to row out a little distance from the shore. Jesus sat down and taught the crowds from the boat. When he finished speaking to the crowds, he said to Simon, “Row out farther, into the deep water, and drop your nets for a catch.”
Simon replied, “Master, we’ve worked hard all night and caught nothing. But because you say so, I’ll drop the nets.”
So they dropped the nets and their catch was so huge that their nets were splitting. They signaled for their partners in the other boat to come and help them. They filled both boats so full that they were about to sink. When Simon Peter saw the catch, he fell at Jesus’ knees and said, “Leave me, Lord, for I’m a sinner!” Peter and those with him were overcome with amazement because of the number of fish they caught. James and John, Zebedee’s sons, were Simon’s partners and they were amazed too.
Jesus said to Simon, “Don’t be afraid. From now on, you will be fishing for people.” As soon as they brought the boats to the shore, they left everything and followed Jesus.
Upon encountering the divine, Peter’s first response is similar to Isaiah’s. Jesus somewhat consolidates the final two parts of the movement into one sentence, but nonetheless the four movements are visible.
And these four movements of worship are in place in many American and European churches. The mainline Protestant denominations, those with a formal liturgy, use this method, as does the Catholic Church:
Those aren’t the only four things that happen, of course, as the congregation prays and sings through and around all of these steps, but the basic structure of opening with a scripture reading and exposition, followed by prayers of confession, then communion, then a closing prayer or benediction has been in place for centuries. Our professor clearly feels the free-church movement, which birthed the Churches of Christ, Baptists, community churches and others, has gotten away from that model, to the detriment of our understanding of what worship actually is and does.
He truly dislikes the reversal that has occurred, in which the Eucharist is taken before the sermon among American-born denominations, and he feels every sermon should have an element of the gospel in it. In so doing, communion is a response to the gospel message of the word of God recently preached, not a ritual hastily completed so the service can move on to more visitor-friendly fare.
This to me is a very conservative view, and it tracks with some of the arguments I’ve heard my parents make over the years when they felt worship had become too pronoun-centered and not enough God-centered. Unlike them, however, he argues there is room for both, just that they should be in their proper places and be delivering the appropriate messages.
Further, his support of structured liturgy would be considered liberal by those who advocate a restoration of New Testament worship. Of course, no one in America worships like the New Testament church – we’ve done away with the mouth-to-mouth kissing, for one, started using unleavened bread, for another, and no longer bring our own bread and wine for communion and give the leftovers to the neighboring poor, for a third – but let’s put that aside. Structured liturgy I think is seen in our faith tradition as a Catholic corruption of the purity of the early church, neglecting the fact that Roman Catholicism is the evolved version of the early church, and that the church’s liturgical structure is adapted from that followed in the Jewish synagogues before there ever was a church – or a Jesus, for that matter.
In the earliest recorded Christian worship service – recorded by Justin Martyr in 150 C.E., not long after the last books of the New Testament were written – the order is this:
- Reading from the “memoirs of the apostles” and the “writings of the prophets” for as long as time permits.
- The “president” delivers the admonition to imitate what they have heard.
- The congregation rises and “send[s] up prayers.”
- The bread and watered wine are presented.
- The president offers up prayers and thanksgiving.
- The congregation sings the “Amen.”
- Money and food are collected for the sick and the poor of the community.
The service doesn’t end with scripture and the sermon, it starts with it – in fact, seems to devote most of the time to it. Not until the 19th century, when big-name preachers were drawing hundreds to revival services on the American frontier, did preaching move to the end of the sermon, befitting its role as the big attraction for which all else became the prelude.
So our professor certainly advocates a return to the way things used to be, and that’s a fairly conservative position, even if what he envisions would be considered a radical change from how things are practiced in most churches today.
I’m not sure I agree with him – culture often has defined worship services more than any particular doctrinal stance. Even the early church service, which started with lengthy readings of scripture, did so because they simply didn’t know when their service might be broken up by Roman soldiers. It certainly speaks to the primary importance they placed on the scriptures they had – and I agree the continuing decline of scripture reading in modern worship is unfortunate – but I’m not sure the order the earliest Christians chose is anything other than expedience, getting the most important thing done first because they simply didn’t know when they’d be forced to flee the service.
I think he makes a good for argument for his preferred way of approaching worship, but he might be a touch too doctrinaire about it. I find myself agreeing with most of his arguments for how worship should be conducted – approaching God with reverence, reinstating public confession and using scripture and exposition to lead into communion all make sense, but I’m not sure I think it’s wrong to do it some other way. I’m not sure he does either, but he’s so passionate on the subject, that’s the message that comes across.
The difference probably lies in the importance one places on Isaiah 6. It’s a compelling passage, and it’s easy to see the connection, but Isaiah’s perspective is clearly pre-Christian. Yes, he, like us, finds himself face-to-face with God, a humbling experience indeed, but isn’t our relationship with God different in light of the cross? Our status entering worship is not as those with unclean lips; we have been set free, once and for all, by the power of Christ’s blood. That doesn’t eliminate the need for or benefit of reverence, confession or gratitude – that’s what worship is, after all – but I think it changes how legalistic we need to be in doing those things.
Perhaps that’s a small difference, but it’s a difference nonetheless. I’ve spent years retraining myself to be less judgmental about how others worship God; I’m not about to start performing CPR on my high horse just yet.