Worship with four songs and a sermon (and a short a pastoral prayer) that varies little over the fifty-two weeks of the year is inadequate. Throwing in the occasional video, drama, or surprising stage prop doesn’t really change that reality.
Songs are good. Sermons are essential. Videos, dramas, and occasional visual aids can be helpful. I’ve been to many worship services with four songs and a sermon, and learned a lot, worshipped Jesus with the people, and left inspired. The faith, and the ministries of service, of people who worship this way is often inspiring.
But what’s missing?
But a lot is missing. This is not about preference or tastes. This is about discipleship, evangelism, and worship.
Jesus attended synagogue, where the Scriptures were read in a cycle through the year. Early Christians adopted this pattern. Paul told his churches to read his letters out loud, and then pass them on to other churches to do the same. We really don’t have a choice but to read Scripture out loud every time we gather for worship. Its not an “add on,” its essential. It takes up time. The long standing pattern is to read from the Old Testament, the Psalms, the Epistles, and the Gospels. The shared pattern is called a Lectionary. This practice is so old, that the oldest copies of the gospel books are usually lectionaries.
Confessing the Christian creed every Sunday is also essential. We didn’t make this stuff up. We pastors complain that people seem to misunderstand or misstate basic, trinitarian, orthodox belief. Yet many churches here in the U.S. never recite the very creeds that undergird this belief. Its very possible for us to recite the creeds and yet reject their teaching. But not reciting them at all only exacerbates this problem. And every time we recite them, we are reminded that we didn’t make this up. This isn’t an American gospel. This is a Christian gospel.
Standing up to confess our sins, and hear that we are forgiven, is also an ancient practice. The forms and timing have changed. But the basic idea has remained. And not only does confession give us a chance to repent each week, it’s also a statement to the world about our church. We are sinners. We don’t gather for worship because we think we’re already perfected. We know we aren’t, and we say it out loud together each week. And at some points in all of our lives, we will royally mess up. We will need to repent. And our weekly repentance prepares us for those moments in our individual lives.
Responsive prayer is literally all over the Bible. The Psalms are the classic example. The congregation of people hears a bidding, or a prayer, then they respond in unison, or in parts. Early Christians, medieval Christians, and even Reformation Christians used responsive prayer. Some of these prayers were biddings, which called up people to pray out loud individually. Some were in unison. In any case, the congregation was constantly reminded that worship is participatory and not passive. We don’t sit and watch worship happen. We are the priesthood of believers, gathered to worship the one true God. Responsorial prayer and praise is the script that invites all of the actors to join the performance, with God as the audience.
I think this is the main reason why people call music ‘worship’ nowadays. Worship obviously includes music, but its more than music. I think people call music ‘worship’ today because its the only time when most worshippers are actually allowed to participate as a whole. No wonder the average person thinks music is the sum total of worship itself. If we add responsive prayers, that adds a new sense of the whole people’s participation in the whole of worship, rather than just the music.
Thankfully, all major churches continue to obey Jesus and partake of communion. Sadly, however, it is practiced rarely in many places, and sometimes is approached casually. Jesus said that as often we gather, do this in remembrance of him. This is our holy meal. It is a weekly meal. That is not to say that if we miss a weekly Eucharist, we have disobeyed Jesus. It does mean that we are supposed to be providing a communion every week for God’s people to share. The meal is essential because it is the word and gospel that we preach enacted. We are literally fed bread and wine, receiving Christ. We may disagree on exactly how Christ makes himself present to us in communion, but we need to follow him (and the vast majority of Christians in history) and receive him in this way.
Many churches practice a flat church year. That is, besides Easter and Christmas, other Sundays are basically the same. Sometimes a series or theme is followed. But this theme is chosen by the local pastor. If it isn’t a historic theme, that is shared with the global church, it doesn’t signify that we are continuing the Faith of our spiritual fathers and mothers, and joining with our global communion of saints.
These flat years are boring. Sorry, but they are. Gather, sing, listen, pray, go home. Same thing, week after week. Videos and dramas don’t really change that.
In contrast, the historic Church Year is not flat. It follows the cycle of the Gospel of Jesus Christ. Themes that are often neglected in “flat” churches include the Ascension, the Transfiguration, and the ministry of John the Baptist for example. There is Trinity Sunday, the Day of Pentecost, and the Annunciation to Mary. There are also traditional themed days such as Scripture Sunday and All Saints. Practices are often associated with the various seasons, feasts, and fasts, which involve all of our senses, and which change over time. They often are practiced during the week by families. Light and darkness. Fasting and feasting. Somber or joyful (or both together!). And when you follow the Christian calendar, you know that millions of other believers are prayerfully experiencing that same Gospel theme with you (and millions who have gone before you).
The beauty of the Church Year is that you can just follow it, and it will lead you through the Gospel. There is a lot of room for local themes, special services, and even if you want, inclusion of videos or drama. But overall, it links your worship to the larger church and the larger Theme of Christ.
Discipleship, Evangelism and Culture
All of these traditions were incorporated to teach, to inspire, and to invite. They are all a part of being disciples of Jesus. They invite all of the people to participate. And they create a cultural community. Don’t leave cultural shaping rituals to the product marketing folks. As James K.A. Smith wrote in Desiring the Kingdom, our commercial marketing people are better than the Church at emphasizing seasons, visioning the good life, and providing participatory experiences to reinforce their goals for us. Following the whole Christian worship pattern subverts those “secular” rituals. Incorporating Christian patterns and ritual directly confronts our consumerist machine.
Yes, its possible to do these practices just to “get through them” or by rote. Its possible to misuse or abuse them. But since the Church that turned the world upside down, again and again, used these practices, it makes more sense to revive them than to abandon them.
Do you have to become an Anglican?
You don’t have to be Anglican to incorporate whole Christian worship at your church. Reading Scripture out loud – lots of it – doesn’t have any denominational copyright. The Creeds are considered universal statements of the Faith. What is holding us back from confessing our sins together? Responsive prayer can be designed to fit any tradition. The Church Year is neither catholic nor protestant, it is shared by all. It’s basic outline has been followed by Orthodox, Catholic, Protestant, and other churches for millennia. And communion is not an Anglican thing. Its a Jesus thing.
So lets keep the music, and the preaching, and the pastoral prayer – but also re-discover the old paths that can be made new.