DateAugust 17, 2018

The Focus of Worship

Chapel at Magdalen College, Oxford

Traditionally, Christian worship has been arranged around two things, the Word and the sacraments.  These were the means by which human worshipers interacted with the transcendent God.  In churches with the more contemporary feel, a new means of encountering God has been given center stage.

In the Roman Catholic worship service, the sacraments are emphasized–particularly the Eucharist.  The primacy of the Eucharist is obvious; the altar from which Holy Communion is served is front and center.

After the Reformation, the new forms of Christian worship still emphasized Word and sacraments, but their importance was inverted.  The sacraments, reduced to two, were moved to the side.  The pulpit upon which sat a huge Bible takes center stage.

From Sacrament and Word to Band

More recently, North American Christianity has apparently undergone another reformation; this one much quieter than the first, but it is not insignificant.  The modern church has cleared the stage of Word and Sacrament and replaced them with the worship band.  Some might argue that the Word and the sacraments are still central, it’s just that the physical representations of these things needed to be moved to make room for musicians and instruments.  In other words, it’s not a shift in meaning, but merely a physical shift made from practical considerations.

My core assumption here, and why I think all of this matters so much, is that the physical environment and liturgies of worship have profound effects on the worshipers, and how they think about the God who we worship.  Even if the move was simply practical, and I don’t think it was, it will shape the hearts and minds of the congregants so that the central location of the band will mean that the music is central.

Active to Passive Worshipers

When the Word is the focus of worship we find a very active God.  In the scriptures, God interacts with his creation and with his people.  He speaks, breaths, commands, warns, condemns, promises and whispers.  He causes some water to come from rocks and some he turns into blood.  He makes walls fall and curtains tear.  Jesus, the Word made flesh, heals, walks (even on water), teaches, eats, feed, dies, rises from the dead and ascends.  The Holy Spirit is also active as we read scripture.  He guides, comforts, indwells, guards, intercedes, baptizes, restrains and combats.

God is active in the sacraments as well.  In baptism, he makes promises and in doing so he creates a people.  In Communion, Jesus extends the elements to us and says “take and eat” and “take and drink.”  When the Word and sacraments are central, and properly understood, we cannot help but understand our God to be active in worship, and in our lives.

When the Word and sacraments are central, and properly understood, we encounter a God who is active in worship. If singing songs is central, does God just sit there and listen?Click To Tweet

Liturgies Shape Us and the Way We Think

Human beings are shaped by worship, especially through the repeated things.  With the weekly repetition of the Eucharist, Catholic worshipers come to the profound understanding of the unifying presence of Christ in his body the church and the Grace we receive by his death.  With the Protestant emphasis on preaching, the weekly reading and exposition of scripture help the faithful to understand the centrality of the Word in their lives.

When the worship band takes center stage, something changes.  Or at least there is a danger that something very important could change.

Properly understood, the Word and the sacraments point to Christ and they present our interaction with an active God. When the worship band takes center stage, something changes.Click To Tweet

Who is active in the singing part of the service?  It seems to me the human beings are the primary actors, and this is a problem.  Are we receiving a weekly reminder that God is passive?  One might argue that, just as in the sacraments, both God and humanity take part.  But this isn’t so obvious in practice.  Singing is something we do–we are active, but we think of God as listening–possibly smiling during the choruses or seriously nodding if the song has a confessional element.  When worship is primarily singing, God is relatively passive.

Who is most active in worship?

Things get worse when the band starts to slide out of the worship leading role into a performance role.  This makes both God and congregants passive.  In this scenario, musicians and singers are the only ones doing anything in worship.

Almost every worship leader that I know would recoil at this suggestion because they are forever on their guard for this shift, but just because they don’t intend it, doesn’t mean it doesn’t or it cannot happen in the minds of the congregants.  It really is a no win situation; if the worship leaders are not a little animated then it seems like they are not engaged and worship lacks energy, but if they move around a little bit, they are accused of drawing attention to themselves.  Perhaps this conundrum is a symptom of the deeper issue: That the worship band shouldn’t be front and centre in the first place.

The Problem of the Central Position

The problem is that from the central position, the Praise and Worship band is almost identical to secular performance bands.  It’s a minuscule shift, then, for the congregation to move into the role of the audience.  This shift isn’t unavoidable, but it requires some deliberate effort from the individual worshiper to experience the Sunday worship music in a different way than they would a concert.  And churchgoers aren’t usually doing this work.

I am certainly not saying that singing praise and worship songs in church is a bad thing, we may have gained much with this shift in focus, but perhaps we’ve lost something too.

Questions to Consider

I’m not sure where to go from here, but I have some discussion questions that might help us address these issues.

  • How can we do communion and baptism in ways that help us to see God’s activity in them?  If we’re calling them ordinances instead of sacraments, should we rethink that?
  • Can we find a place for the table, the font and the pulpit someplace on the stage?
  • And can we preach from something other than a music stand?
  • How can we do worship music in such a way that it’s as unlike a rock concert or dance club as we can make it? Can mix our volumes in such a way that the voices of the worshipers are heard?  Can we reduce the lighting on the musicians?  And can we turn down the bloody bass!?

This last point will be the subject on my next post: Concert versus Worship

In my series The Poetry of Worship, offer ways we can improve the lyrics of the praise and worship songs we sing.  More importantly, I explain why we ought to.

Infant Baptism and Individualism

A few weeks back, we attended the parish Communion service in the Bath Abbey.

Two children were baptized in the service.

Baptism services always get me thinking.

While I attend a church that practices only believer baptism, I think that infant baptism was practiced in the New Testament church and is therefore biblical.  I concede that the scriptural support of infant baptism is contestable, but what is incontestable is the practical superiority of infant baptism as a ritual that prepares us to resist modern idolatries.

The community dimension:

On two occasions in the service, once from the altar and once from the Victorian baptismal font by the entrance of the sanctuary, the officiant emphasized the community of believers that was at that moment gathered around the child.   This community is to be “the resources and support” to the parents of those about to be baptized.  The importance of the community and its relationship to the child about to be baptized is central to the ceremony.

All those assembled made a solemn promise to meaningfully participate in the raising of these children in the faith.  The parents did, of course, but godparents were commissioned as well, adding another layer to the community.  I found it fascinating that the godparents made the same promises as did the parents. They didn’t just consent, but acknowledged their inadequacy by saying,  “With the help of God we will.”

Interestingly, the vows made by the community were almost exactly the same as those made by the parents and godparents.   They promised to “welcome and uphold” those about to be baptized, to “pray for them” and “draw them by example into the community of faith and walk with them in the way of Christ.”  They too acknowledge their limitations by promising, “With the help of God we will.” So many people are committing to these children, and they just lay there oblivious to it all.

Baptism as a Reminder

Imagine the impact of this ritual over the life of the Christian.  Every baptism service is a reminder of the same basic truths:

  • That every adult within the community has the responsibility in drawing the individual into the community.
  • That human effort alone is insufficient to draw the individual into the flock.
  • That the body of Christ, comes first– the eye is there for the body, not the body for the eye.
  • That this is all about Grace; I was welcomed into the family of God, and I could do nothing but drool.

Where churches practice believer’s baptism, a “baby dedication” replaces baptism to commemorate the inclusion of the child in the church community.  While the congregational will often make a promise, the focus of this, usually casual, event is on the commitment of the parents.  In the believer’s baptism, the role of the community is as a passive observer as the baptism is the result of the individual’s decision to follow Jesus.  As in modern culture, in the modern ceremony of baptism, the role of the larger community is diminished and that of the individual is expanded.

Through baptism, individuals are not choosing God, rather, God is building a people.Click To Tweet

The God Dimension

The Liturgy of Baptism we followed in Bath Abbey begins,  “In baptism the Lord is adding to our number those he is calling.”  The idea here is that through baptism, God is building a people.

The liturgy begins with the recognition that baptism is about what God is doing.  God is very active in baptism; he’s not just adding; he’s also calling, helping and giving.

The liturgy declares that faith is a gift. A gift needs a giver. God is the giver and the gift is underserved. All Christians believe this, but human helplessness is better illustrated a drooling baby than a 23-year-old who has finally decided to follow Jesus.

The hebdomadal dimension:

Baptismal Font in St. Gile’s Church, Sidbury

This is a rare word that means weekly.

When you enter the Bath Abbey or any Anglican church, you walk past the baptismal font.  It’s very large and it’s been there hundreds of years. The members of this church were likely baptized at this very font.  But even if they were not, every week when they gather to worship, they walk past this physical reminder of their own baptism–they are reminded again of the basic truths inherent in the service of baptism in the Church of England.

I might be an exception, but the presence of the font in every church I entered, reminded me of my own baptism into a community that in its largest sense, includes the Anglican worshipers in the churches I visited this summer.

I think that a weekly reminder of God’s grace and the community of faith might be a powerful corrective to the idolatry of individualism that so dominates our thinking in the modern church.

Obviously, my argument here will not convince any believer baptists to become baby baptizers, but regardless of who we baptize when (let’s put baby dedication into here as well), we need to be deliberate about emphasizing God’s actions and the important role of the community going forward.

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