CategoryThe Church

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.

Truth is a Fad

On a recent trip to downtown Vancouver, my wife and I popped into Christ Church Cathedral on the corner of Georgia and Burrard.  I find it hard to resist a cathedral and always try the doors to see if I can get a look inside.  The door was unlocked and a pleasant woman offered to answer our questions.  I asked about the beautiful interior and she was delighted to tell us about the recent renovations.  There was even a photo album.

The original church was filled with local cedar, but in a previous renovation, the original wood had been covered.  The red cedar ceiling had been covered by fiber-board.  It was the same story with the floor.  With this new renovation, the foul fiber-board and hideous carpeting had been removed and the original red and yellow cedar, covered up for decades is once again gracing parishioners and visitors with its beauty.

Why had the natural wood of the ceiling and floor been covered in the previous renovation?  It seems preposterous that anyone could think that fiber-board and carpeting were an improvement on the natural cedar, but they apparently did.

Changing Fashions, Changing Ideas

This got me thinking about change, more specifically, changing tastes.  It’s a truism that fashions change, but they don’t just change; they change radically–what is all the rage in one time, is hideous and vile in another age.  This is true whether we are talking about clothing, church interiors or ideas.

The second truism is that we are completely aware of the first truism.  We are somehow convinced that the way we think at the present moment is, at long last, the end of changing “truth”–with today’s thinking, we have arrived.

Previous generations had it wrong, but we have figured it out.  As dumb as it seems now, there was a time when it was generally thought that wood ought to be covered by synthetic materials, and in fifty years the congregation will likely vote to cover the wood with synthetic polar bear fur.  So goes fashion.  So also go our ideas.

The Fashion of Truth

I look at some of the ideas that are spreading throughout culture, replacing the old ones, and I think they are beautiful changes.  Others are more like ghastly fiberboard and anemic pink carpeting obscuring beautiful red and yellow cedar.   And we take these new ways of thinking as absolute truth.  Consequently, in our conversations and disagreements, we condemn those with whom we disagree as bigots and freaks and ogres.  Given that our most recent truth is just a phase, perhaps we ought to be a little less certain about everything–a little less venomous.

In our conversations and disagreements, we must remember that the way we think today, is a fad. Consequently, we ought to be a little less certain about everything--a little less venomous.Click To Tweet

Doomed to Relativism?

I believe that there is something under the intellectual fads and whims of our culture that never changes.  Core ideas like courage is better than cowardice and it’s evil to harm a child for one’s own pleasure and the ocean is sublime.

Just because it’s new and in fashion, doesn’t mean it’s objectively true.  I say objectively because, although I’m not entirely sure which ideas are cedar and which are fiber-board, I firmly believe that there is an objective truth.  We will continue down our slide of subjectivism for a time, we will continue to believe that we create our own reality, but I hope at some point we will look back and wonder what the heck we were thinking.  And rip up the pasty carpet to expose the rich wood beneath.

We will continue down our slide of subjectivism for a time, but at some point, we will look back and wonder what the heck we were thinking.Click To Tweet

From the Pew: Reflections on the Reformation

Tama66 / Pixabay

Reflections on the Reformation in the Cathedrals 

When I am in Europe, I worship with the Roman Catholics.  On a recent trip, my wife and I attended services in the cathedrals of three different cities–Salzburg, Vienna and Prague.  Because I speak neither German or Czech, I didn’t get much out of what was said in the sermon, but I did walk out of each service having learned something very important about our Lord and Saviour, His Grace, my faith, our worship–all of which have a little something to do with Protestantism and the Reformation.

Salzburg Cathedral  from exquisite beauty to holiness.

The interior of Salzburg Cathedral is beautifully ornate, but not gaudy.  From my humble pew, I looked up and was overwhelmed, and I realized that the encounter with holiness, is facilitated by exquisite beauty.

My church at home is very nice, but the priorities are different–utility and stewardship are the guiding principles for construction–and the comfort of the congregants.  The seats in my home church are very comfortable. Even in this most beautiful of cathedrals, one always sits on very hard wooden benches.  The back is set at almost 90 degreed to the seat.  The seatback is capped with a board upon which the kneeling parishioner behind you can rest his elbows, so you can’t really lean back.  These were definitely not designed with my comfort in mind.

It begins to dawn on me that very little thought has gone into my experience of this service.

The music that Sunday morning included an organ, a small orchestra, and more than one choir.  These are located behind and above me so I can’t see the musicians.  Obviously, the music is not performed for me–I am graciously allowed to listen in.  In my home church, it’s not about me either, but the excellent praise band occupies the same place as would a performance band would, so I have to do the work of remembering that they aren’t there for my listening pleasure.  I sometimes forget.

Pretty much everything in any church service is directed toward the worship of the triune God, but in Salzburg Cathedral, it was so obvious.  The building and the music represent the very best of human achievement, and none of it was for me.  That I can see, hear and enjoy them is pure grace.

Everything in the church service is directed toward the worship of God, but in Salzburg Cathedral, it was so obvious. The building and the music represent the best of human achievement, and none of it was for me. That I can enjoy them is pure grace.Click To Tweet

St. Augustine in Vienna – where divine Grace intersects with nature

The Hapsburgs were christened, married and buried at St. Augustine so this cathedral has seen a lot of pageantry and ceremony over the years.  The mass still reflects a polish and flair consistent with this history.  I particularly noticed this in the treatment of the elements of the Eucharist.

In all Catholic services, the host, what we call, “the bread,” is treated with a great deal of respect.  When congregants enter the door, they make the sign of the cross, and they genuflect before entering the pew.  Both these actions are directed toward the host.  Before, during and after the Eucharist, the actions of the officiating priests all reflect the veneration of the host.  This reverence is seen in every Catholic service. In the mass at St. Augustine, all this was done with particular precision and flourish.

This elaborate treatment of the Communion elements is easily explained.  Jesus Christ is present in the elements.  From the New Testament until the sixteenth century, all Christians believed that those who partook of communion somehow received the body and blood of Jesus.  Exactly how this happened was an unfathomable mystery, and according to the church fathers, it was supposed to remain that way.  In 1215, against the warnings of the church fathers, the church accepted transubstantiation, that is, the conversion of the communion elements into the body and blood of Christ, as the explanation for Christ’s presence in the Eucharist.  Protestants reject transubstantiation as the explanation for what happens in Communion, but some of us have duplicated the error of the Roman Church in 1215; we attempt to explain “the unfathomable mystery.”

The explanation for the unfathomable mystery is that there is no unfathomable mystery—the elements are just plain ol’ bread and wine.  These are “just symbols” of the body and blood of Christ, and the entire point of the celebration of the Last Supper is to remember this past event.  This explanation is a result of the modern tendency to separate the physical from the spiritual, to the detriment of both.  The physical elements, then, are reduced to mere “crackers and juice,” and the spiritual dimension of the meal is reduced to mere remembrance.

What God did through the death and resurrection of Jesus is inseparably physical and the spiritual.  The sacrament by which we remember this redemptive work is not simply a physical symbol, but also an actual spiritual event where Grace intersects with nature, in which a rational human eats and drinks in faith and so, encounters the divine.

Does that sound a little perplexing?  It ought to be.  That’s why it was called an “unfathomable mystery.”  While I watched the Eucharist at St. Augustine, I was impressed with the mystery and wonder of it all.  I thought I could bring some of this  wonder to my own participation in the Lord’s Supper.

The sacrament by which we remember Christ's redemptive work on the cross is not just a physical symbol, but also an actual spiritual event where Grace intersects with nature, in which a rational human eats and drinks in faith and so, encounters the divine.Click To Tweet

St. Vitus in Prague – The Kingdom of Heaven is not a democracy

St. Vitus has a commanding view of Prague.  This Gothic structure stands within the castle complex situated on top of the highest point, so it is visible from anywhere in the city.

Getting into the service was a little bit tricky because church officials stood at the door to prevent tourists from entering the church before mass, while at the same time allowing worshipers to pass.  We fell into both categories, I suppose, but we entered unimpeded because we approached the door with the confidence of a parishioner.  Other camera-toting tourists would have to wait in the long line until the last mass was over.

This was the oldest of the cathedrals in which we worshiped on this trip; parts of the structure date back to the 14th century.   The age of the church facilitated a connection to the medieval worshipers who also looked up into these same ceiling vaults.

I couldn’t understand the homily, so I looked at the windows.

Highest and most central in the central window was a depiction of God the Father embracing his crucified son.  Beneath these dominant figures were haloed, major saints.  All these figures were attended to by angels which were arranged according to their heavenly status.  Beneath these were even smaller images of other saints.  From my position in the pew, I looked up to them all, reinforcing my place in the hierarchy of the universe.

I’m way down here—the least of these.

This is a good position for a North American Protestant to be in every now and then.  The window presents a medieval reality—a hierarchy.  I am a product of the Reformation and the ensuing centuries.  So is my church at home.  I was recently disturbed to hear a church leader describe the Reformation as a holy response to church corruption.  He implied that God’s endorsement of this step toward purity was certain.  It is certainly true that corruption pushed Luther and others away from the Roman Church, but we tend to forget that it was also a movement toward something else.  It was a step toward freedom—freedom from authority, and would eventually lead to one of our cultures most serious idolatries.

The Reformation was the first major step toward this freedom that continues to this day.   Rebellion against the authority of the pope was followed by rebellions against monarchies in 1640, 1776 and 1789.  In 1882, Nietzsche’s madman, declaring that “God is dead,” captured the spirit of our rebellion against the authority of God.  The last century has seen freedom spread into all different directions—and some of these are very good directions.  But have you noticed how much we talk about Freedom these days?  We sing its praises between innings at baseball games and before NASCAR races— it is now linked with military power and has become the reason we have fought all our wars.   Freedom–individual freedom—has become our god, submission has become sin.  Any form of authority is evil—even that of our biology.

In the absence of this hierarchy, we have placed the autonomous individual at the top of a flattened, dark and lonely reality.  This is why individualism ultimately leads to despair.  Individualism dominates Western culture and has seeped into our churches as well.  It is countered by the windows in St. Vitas.  Looking up at the window I experience my smallness through awe, rather than loneliness, and see that the cosmos is full of light and love.

Individualism has seeped into our Modern churches. It is countered by the windows in St. Vitas. Looking up at the window I experience my smallness through awe, rather than loneliness, and see that the cosmos is full of light and love. Click To Tweet

C. S. Lewis says that the medieval model, as presented in this stained-glass window, has a “serious defect,” that being “it is not true.”  Nor, he goes on to say, is any model “true.”

The cathedral and mass do not necessarily represent a wholly true view of reality, but they do represent a different reality from the modern ideas that are woven into the fabric of our Protestantism.  We might benefit from the admission that some aspects of worship in the cathedral do a little better job of engaging our imagination and allowing us to experience the significance of things.

Biblical Inerrancy: The Spoken Word or Revelation of God?

Growing up in the Christian Reformed Church (CRC), I don’t recall ever hearing the term “inerrancy,” not from the pulpit, and not in catechism classes or at youth conferences.  At Calvin College, I stayed up many nights until 3 am discussing all sorts of theological issues, and I don’t think a single one of them had anything to do with biblical inerrancy.  I didn’t know that in 1978 there had been a major conference that generated The Chicago Statement on Biblical Inerrancy.  You’d have thought that this sort of thing would have trickled up the highway to my dorm room by 1980.  It didn’t.  And it didn’t really come up in the following decades either.

Now, I hear the term inerrancy a lot.  Part of the reason is that I go to a different church, but it’s also because the internet has me reading what other Christians are writing.  I get the sense that those who use the word inerrancy, read the Bible differently than I do.  I struggle with embracing the idea of biblical inerrancy, not because I think the Bible is wrong, but because of something else.  I couldn’t put my finger on it until I read James R. Payton Jr.’s Getting the Reformation Wrong: Correcting some Misunderstandings (IVP Academic, 2010).

Inspiration or Revelation?

Biblical inerrancy is a bigger deal for some Christians than for others and it comes down to what you think the Bible is, revelation or inspiration.  Of course, it’s both.  It is not an either/or proposition. But they are not the same things, and one will be often (perhaps inevitably) be subordinated to the other.

After reading Payton’s book, I realized that in the CRC, as I experienced it, the Bible was revelation, more than inspiration: God reveals himself through his creation–general revelation.  He reveals himself through the written word–special revelation.  And he reveals himself through his incarnate word–his Son.  God reveals himself.  Biblical inerrancy isn’t much of a concern for those who see the Bible as revelation because the focus is on the relationship between the readers and the person we find in its pages–inerrancy is not descriptive of a relationship.

The inerrancy of scripture is necessary and logical when we see the Bible as inspiration, or “the inspired Word of God.”  In this view, God speaks to us through scripture, and because he is all knowing, and doesn’t lie, anything contained therein is objectively true.  The Bible is, therefore, inerrant.

[tweetshare tweet=”The inerrancy of scripture is logical if the Bible is inspired. But is this primarily what it is?” username=”Dryb0nz”]

These different views of the Bible have a long history. According to James R. Payton Jr., the Reformers saw the Bible as revelation.  Later, after the Reformers passed on, the Protestant scholastics emphasized the divine inspiration of scripture in order to defend Protestant ideas against Catholic attackers, who used scholastic methods to argue—a “fight fire with fire” approach.  Because of its emphasis on objective truth, the Bible as inspiration is a more useful tool in such debates.

To illustrate these different approaches, Payton uses the analogy of studying a frog:

One way is to watch frogs for hours on end, the other is to dissect the frogs.  The Reformers watched the frogs, and they kept doing so, repeatedly and at great length.  The protestant scholastics dissected the frogs and probably came to quicker conclusions about what could be said about the frogs; the frogs never jumped again, though.

These contrasting approaches have resulted in different views of scripture that are still with us today.

Although Christians generally believe that God had an active role in shaping scripture, the degree to which He was active in the process is a subject of debate.  Was it 100% God, or were the historical human authors significantly responsible for the contents?   Zondervan’s Five Views of Biblical Inerrancy explores some of the main points on the continuum.  Where you end up on the continuum has something to do with how much you take the idea of revelation into account to shape your ideas of inspiration.

Another essential question is, what is it that God inspired?  Did he inspire the text, the authors, or the overall sense or spirit of scripture?  If one starts with the primacy of revelation, the spirit or sense of scripture is the object of inspiration.  When inspiration is the starting point, the object of God’s inspiration moves from sense toward text.  And again, if God actively inspired the text of the Bible, then it can’t possibly contain erroneous information–it must be objectively true.

Those who are concerned with inerrancy will usually include the text as one of the objects of God’s direct inspiration.

Informational or Relational?

When we think of the Bible primarily as revelation, we are emphasizing the relational dimension of scripture.  The Bible is a revelation between persons–God and his people.

When we think of the Bible as the Word of God.  We think in terms of God speaking to us through scripture, telling us things that we need to know.  Scriptures are thought of, primarily, a source of true information.

Is the Bible, primarily, the Spoken Word or the Special Revelation of God?

[tweetshare tweet=”Is the Bible the Word of God, or it a Revelation of who He is?” username=”Dryb0nz”] James R. Payton Jr. says that the emphasis on the inspiration of scripture leads us to a “depersonalized” reading of the Bible.  It can have a significant effect on, among other things, the way we understand sin and faith. With a relational reading of the Bible, sin is understood as unfaithfulness to God and the effect on this relationship is like that which occurs in any broken relationship—estrangement.  These terms describe a personal relationship.  The Bible as inspired text may result in a depersonalized view of sin.  Sin is thought of as an infraction against God’s divine law and the effect is guilt.  The terms, and the feelings they describe are less personal.

How one understands faith is also affected by the relationship of revelation to inspiration.  The relational understanding of faith is thought of as “cleaving to God.”  The more depersonalized approach understands faith as the acceptance of right doctrine.  Both perspectives are found in the Bible; they don’t cancel each other out, but the emphasis of one idea over the other is not without effect.

One last example, on which I have previously written.  Do the sermons in your church end with applications or implications?  It’s not so much the word, as it is the idea behind the word.  The term application implies an impersonal adhesion of the object to the subject.  We stick the lesson onto the listeners like a band-aid onto a scraped elbow.  It makes the recipient feel better, but it doesn’t do much else.  Although implication suggests a lot more ambiguity than application, it is usually a better term because the clarity of the application is often achieved through a reduction of the truth, either factual or moral, to information.  Implication is not about how the sermon fits into, or onto, my life; it’s about how I fit into the story of the Bible and into a relationship with the person of God behind the scriptures.  Implication bridges the gap between subject and object because I enter the story and it enters me–I experience the story and in so doing, I encounter the truth.

There was a long stretch in my life where I hardly read the Bible at all.  My problem was that I thought of the Bible as if it were primarily informative and the reason for reading it was to acquire the right knowledge. I didn’t feel as if I needed more knowledge than I could glean from sermons and books about the Bible.  I’m much more inspired to read the Bible when it is about a person-to-person relationship, about finding in its pages the God who made us and loves us and seeks a relationship with us.  I have a strong desire for this relationship.

[tweetshare tweet=” Is the Bible more like an encyclopedia or a letter from a loved one?” username=”Dryb0nz”]It’s sort of like the difference between reading an encyclopedia and reading a long letter received from a distant and cherished friend or lover.  Are the contents of each true–inerrant, if you will?  Sure they are, but it is not the veracity of the information in the love letter that motivates you to devour every word–even the description of yesterday’s weather.

 

A Case for Infant Baptism (2)

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I want to move from the scriptural support for the practice of infant baptism to some that is worldview related.  Mixed with these are some personal, perhaps even sentimental, considerations as to why I remain a paedobaptist.

Believer baptism (credobaptism) puts together the offer of God’s promises and their acceptance.  Infant baptism (paedobaptism) separates the offer from the acceptance.

In my mind, separation has a couple of advantages.

God’s Action, Not Mine

For one thing, applying the sign of baptism on an infant emphasizes God’s promises, rather than the individuals reception of these promises. In infant baptism, God promises–He is the agent–and the little helpless human simply receives.

Every time we witness this ceremony we see again this picture of Grace.  The individual is incapable of responding to God.  They can’t reject him, can’t say thank you. There is no way that we deserve or in any way can earn the blessings of God and unity with Christ as symbolized in baptism.  The very helplessness of the recipient reinforces this idea.

This is a strange idea in our modern culture where the individual is supreme, but not so in the ancient world.   It is likely that the first century writers of the New Testament couldn’t conceive of believer baptism for they were community and family oriented, rather than individual oriented.  When they report that “households” (Acts 16:15 and again in verse 31) were baptized, they would likely be shocked that anyone could think that this didn’t involve children.  It wasn’t until the sixteenth century–the century in which the individual was born–that Christians began to question the legitimacy of infant baptism.

Emphasis on Family

While, primarily emphasizing the actions of God, infant baptism also emphasizes community–the nuclear family, biological or adoptive families, and the church family.

At an infant baptism, following the promises of God, the parents promise and the church body also make some heavy promises. The Bible is very clear that just because you are in the family, doesn’t mean that you will necessarily grow into the transformation for which circumcision is the sign, but God still has established family as the means by which God’s Word is to be taught and lived.

This same principle is embodied in infant baptism.  From my position as the father, infant baptism was a daunting event. In it there is an awareness that this baptism is no guarantee that the child will receive the ultimate spiritual blessings for which it is a signifier. And that if the helpless child in your arms is to know about God’s promises, it is pretty much up to me to communicate them. Standing there the parents become poignantly aware of the awesome responsibility that is theirs to train and teach the child in their arms so that she becomes the individual who will profess her acceptance of God’s promises.

Emphasis on Community

When the parents have made their promises, the church body makes theirs–they accept the obligation to support the parents as they raise the child.  The ceremony of infant baptism emphasizes the actions of God and his agents.

We are talking about two very important events in the life of a Christian–every Christian acknowledges the importance of doing something about the children of believers; every Church also recognizes the importance of the new Christian publicly professing their faith in Christ. The questions is where do we put baptism? And what do we use to commemorate the other significant event?

When those who have been baptized as infants come to faith in Jesus Christ, they publicly profess their faith. This is commemorated in many different ways, but this is how it went with my children. They attended a year long class where they were instructed in the foundational beliefs of the church and discipled in being a member of the Body of Christ. Then they were examined by the church leadership. During a church service, an individual who had been a significant mentor on their spiritual journey, introduced my child. She then offered their testimony, after which hands were laid on her by friends and family and she was blessed with prayer. The church service was followed by a time of fellowship with the church family and later, at home, with the extended family. This was a significant event, and it was treated at such.

Many (all?) churches that practice adult baptism alone, practice child dedication.  Child dedication emphasizes primarily the actions of the parents who bring the child forward for dedication.

I have contended that infant baptism emphasize the actions of God at the baptism and believer baptism emphasizes the actions of the believer.  Those who espouse infant baptism would argue that the practice that acknowledges God as the primary agent is the preferred, and more Biblical, approach.

Who is speaking in baptism? God or the baptized? Or both? For the infant baptizers, it is clearly God–he speaks first and human beings receive (as opposed to, human beings are active and God responds to our obedience). In my tradition, the believer will have their chance to speak, but that won’t be until he or she becomes a beleiver.

In a culture where the individual is god, to baptize infants is counter-cultural.  We swim in the waters of individualism, and a ritual that focuses us on God’s action rather than our own, that focuses on the offer of Grace, rather than on our acceptance of it, is a ritual we ought to observe–if it’s scriptural.  I think that there is strong evidence infant baptism is scriptural.

This is an important issue, but it is not a foundational issue, so I can easily continue to worship in my wonderful credobaptist church.

The Case For Infant Baptism (1)

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Lately, I’ve been having a lot conversations about baptism.

Some of these have been with credobaptists who wonder about the scriptural justification for infant baptism. Some with those who were baptized as infants, but now attend a church that holds to believer baptism, and are required to be re-baptized in order to be a member.

This post is my explanation, to those who wonder, why some Christians insist that infant baptism is baptism.

This is a difficult task because, in the case of most protestant denominations who practice it, infant baptism has everything to do with Covenant Theology.  This is more of a worldview, than an interpretation of scripture, so to actually understand infant baptism, you really need to be looking through the lenses of Covenant Theology.

I have no problem with believer baptism (credobaptism). No paedobaptist (infant baptizer) does; it is clear that the church in Acts baptized adults.  Christians are called to be baptized.  When an unbaptized person becomes a believer, they will then be baptized.  Baptism is an important issue, but it is not, as they say, a “Salvation issue.”

I believe that there is adequate historical and scriptural evidence that infant baptism was normative in the early church. I also think that baptism of infants is, today, a counter-cultural practice to which all Christians might consider returning.

Historical Evidence for Infant Baptism

The historical evidence points to infant baptism being practiced in the early church. Augustine of Hippo (354–430) speaks to the universality of infant baptism saying it is  “held by the whole church, not instituted by councils, but always retained.”  There is only a century separating John the Apostle and the Church Father Origin, who was certainly baptized as an infant in around 180 AD.

It is reasonable to assert that the practice of baptism as performed in the earliest days of the church, was imitated in the decades that followed; they did what they saw done. By itself, historical evidence like this is not an adequate reason to accept infant baptism, but it can be used as a support to scriptural evidence.

Scripture ought to be our guideline when trying to determine who to baptize. So the question is, What do the scriptures say?

Scriptural Evidence

Well, this is inconclusive. There can be clarity, but to achieve it, you have to read every verse regarding baptism from a particular perspective. If you read it with one perspective, one can convincingly argue that believer baptism is scriptural; if you read it from another, then infant baptism is the way to go. Proof of this is that both credo- and paedobaptists use exactly the same texts to support their views.

Covenantal Approach

Those who baptize infants start with a covenantal perspective. God deals with his people using Covenants. The mark of the Old Covenant was circumcision, carried out long before a child could make any personal response to God. Abraham circumcised Isaac at eight days old (Genesis 21:4). Babies born into a believing home receive this sign of the covenant, and it is clear that the faith of the parents is sufficient for the whole household, including the children. Clearly, children were a part of the Old Testament people of God.

Circumcision was a sign–it pointed to something else–a transformation of the heart. In Deuteronomy 10:16 this is referred to as the “circumcision” of the heart. We also find this language in Jeremiah (4:4). In Ezekiel 36:24-27 it’s called a new heart, a heart of flesh as opposed to one of stone.

Importantly, outward circumcision did not guarantee the inward transformation.   In Jeremiah 9:25-26 it says, “The days are coming, declares the Lord, when I will punish all who are circumcised only in the flesh–Egypt, Judah, Edom, Ammon, Moab–and all who live in the desert in distant places. For all these nations are really uncircumcised, and even the whole house of Israel is uncircumcised in heart.” The sign of circumcision was not simply a sign of belonging to a racial group, or even a particular religion–it was a sign of spiritual transformation. One which the recipient of the sign may or may not experience.

Paul sees circumcision in this way as well. In Romans 2:25-29, especially verses 28-29, he emphasizes that what counts is “circumcision of the heart, by the Spirit.” He then comments on God’s first command to Abraham to circumcise his household: “[Abraham] received the sign of circumcision, a seal of the righteousness that he had by faith while he was still uncircumcised” (Rom 4:11).  Paul reinforces the idea that physical circumcision is a sign for spiritual transformation. He also says that Abraham is not only the spiritual father of uncircumcised Gentile believers (4:11b), but also of “the circumcised who not only are circumcised but who also walk in the footsteps of the faith that our father Abraham had before he was circumcised” (4:12).

Here we see that faith precedes the sign of the covenant, but once received, the faith of the adult is sufficient for the whole household, including children.

Parallels Between Circumcision and Baptism

The general pattern of scripture shows important parallels between circumcision and baptism; both are a signs of the covenant of the righteousness we receive by faith, both symbolize the righteousness that believers (like Abraham) receive by faith; both point to the cleansing and renewal of the heart, fulfilled ultimately in Jesus.   In the case of circumcision, God commanded that it be administered to Israelite baby boys at 8 days old, before anyone could tell whether God had changed or would change their hearts by his Spirit, whether he would enable them to trust his promises.  The New Testament doesn’t explicitly identify the recipients of the sign of the New Covenant.

Protestant denominations seem to agree that baptism is a sign of union with Christ, symbolizing righteousness in Christ and participation in his Death and Resurrection which can be receive only by faith.   Credobaptists argue that since baptism symbolizes grace received through faith, the recipient ought to have professed their faith before receiving the sign.   Paedobaptists say that, just like circumcision in the Old Covenant, baptism is not a sign that righteousness and union with Christ has been accepted, but a sign that it has been offered.

I believe this is the key difference between the two views, so let me say it again, for the sake of emphasis: Supporters of believer baptism see baptism as a sign that righteousness and union with Christ has been accepted by faith. Supporters of infant baptism see baptism as a sign that righteousness and union with Christ has been offered and will be received only by faith.  You don’t need to accept either view, but you must conceded that both are reasonable readings of the supporting texts.

Supporters of believer baptism see it as a sign that righteousness and union with Christ has been accepted by faith. Supporters of infant baptism see it as a sign that righteousness and union with Christ has been offered and will be received only by faith. Click To Tweet

A Sign of the Promise

I think that many of the credobaptist objections to infant baptism are resolved when we allow the sign of baptism to stand as a sign of God’s covenant promises (which can only be received through faith) and not a sign of the acceptance of these promises. If this point is conceded, then we ought to be baptizing babies. The question now is whether or not it is to be conceded.

I think this point ought to be conceded and here’s why: there is no scriptural reason for children to be treated differently under the New Covenant than they were treated under the Old. The Israelite children were clearly considered part of the covenant community–they received the sign of circumcision. It is appropriate to assume the continuity between the two covenants unless there is explicit biblical reasons not to.

Major Changes from Old to New Covenant: Baptism didn’t make the list.

If the children of Christians are to be considered outside of the New Covenant community, then we would expect this significant change to be explicitly expressed in the New Testament writings. All the other ways where the New diverges from the Old is explicitly articulated.

Here’s the list:

  • circumcision is no longer a requirement
  • both Jews and Greeks must be baptized
  • no more animal sacrifices
  • dietary laws no longer apply
  • temple worship is replaced by the “Spiritual Temple”

The New Testament offers no shift in the relationship of children to the covenant, moving them from inside through the covenant sign of circumcision, to outside through exclusion from the covenant sign of baptism. If children were suddenly outside the covenant, a radical change in God’s way of dealing with his people, surely there would have been some discussion, if not a major controversy, that would have been recorded in the New Testament.

Indeed, what is remarkable about the New Covenant is that it became more inclusive. Where the Old Testament sign of circumcision was restricted to males and, in general, Jews. The New Testament covenant adds women and Greeks. It seems inconsistent that the sign of the New Covenant would become less inclusive in just this one way.

In conclusion, paedobaptists would say that every objection raised against the baptism of infants can be raised against circumcision. If these objections are invalid for circumcision, they are invalid for baptism.

Every objection raised against the baptism of infants can be raised against circumcision. If these objections are invalid for circumcision, they are invalid for baptism.Click To Tweet

There are other dimensions and arguments to infant baptism that I have not gone into because they, too, are not conclusive.

The discussion continues with A Case for Infant Baptism 2.

Microwave Chicken Teriyaki Jesus

I really liked Bryan F. Hurlbutt’s book Tasty Jesus. In it he asserts that Western Christianity holds to various cameos of Christ that aren’t accurate. This is because we tend to reconfigure Jesus to suit our personal preferences. In order to make complex cultural and philosophical ideas accessible, Hurlbutt uses food analogies to illustrate the shortcomings of five most significant “christological malformations” in the Western church. His analysis of these is thorough and nuanced.  But I’m wondering if, perhaps, there is not a configuration that might be added to his list, and a food analogy that would challenge the view of Christ held by many of the readers of this book: Modern evangelicals.

Hurlbutt’s 5 Predilections

First, here are Hurlbutt’s five predilections that wield a lot of power in the Christian West:

  1. Theological liberalism has largely naturalistic roots and, consequently, has stripped Jesus of his deity. This is the “creampuff Jesus,” tasty, but of no nutritional value at all.
  2. Fundamentalism is a response to theological liberalism. It tosses out the creampuff, but keeps crossing things off the menu–out with the potatoes, pasta and bread. This no-carb approach eliminates important parts of a balanced diet.  Ultimately, this approach is  spiritually toxic.
  3. More recently, postmodern ideas have influenced ideas of Christ–the core of this stance is relativism. Like a meal at a smorgasbord, this version of Christ can appeal to many diners because it makes no absolute claims. Have some pork chops, top them with ice cream and vegetable soup–whatever.
  4. Gourmet Jesus is the Christ of those who believe in the prosperity gospel–God wants you to be rich. The Biblical promises of spiritual or eternal flourishing are understood to mean material prosperity–God’s wants you to eat lobster thermidor. He clearly says so in the Bible, if you take a few verses out of context.
  5. Pop-culture Jesus–this is a “shallow and spurious” Jesus. Gastronomically, this is the homogenized Jesus, heated to the point where anything dangerous or confusing has been eradicated.  It’s the opposite of the delicious unpasteurized cheese you can buy in Europe.

These are Hurlbutt’s five. There might be a sixth cameo of Christ that is significant enough to be added to this list. It is the view toward which many of the readers of this book might lean.

My Sixth Cameo of Christ

I called this group Modern Evangelicals.  That’s Modern, with a capital ‘M’–it’s the church that is highly influenced by Modernism.

These terms are so overused that their meaning has become unclear, so let me explain who I’m talking about.

They aren’t like the traditional mainline churches for they have left behind traditional liturgies and no longer hold strictly to their traditional theologies.

They are, like Hurlbutt, critical of the Emergent church because it adopts post-Modern idolatries.

But they are conservative, meaning they resist change.  But in their resistance to post-Modern idolatries, they hold on to Modern idols.

4 ways which Evangelicals Worshiping Modern Idols:

  1. Rationalism: They take a rational approach to reading the Bible.  They tend to talk about the Bible in terms of inerrancy rather than inspiration.  They have a tendency to think of truth in the narrow sense, of fact, rather than in broader terms.
  2. Materialism:  They think of Communion as a meal of literal bread and juice through which we remember the sacrifice of Christ.  There is no supernatural encounter through the physical materials.  There is no mystery.  Jesus does not interact with his people through communion.
  3. Individualism: There is a strong emphasis in the role of the individual.  It is the individual who decides to follow Jesus.  This decision is celebrated in believer baptism.  This emphasis places the role of the community and that of God in the background.
  4. Secularism: They do not deny the transcendent, of course, but they tend to see a radical separation between the transcendent and the immanent.  For example, they will emphasize the the divine authorship of the Bible at the expense of the  human authorship.

They will be quite happy with Hurlbutt’s five cameos because they are not particularly guilty of any of these. Just as it’s easy for Canadians to see peculiarities in the American view of the world (and vice versa), to which they are themselves blind, so too Modern evangelicals can easily see problems in the Liberal or Fundamentalists stance, but fail to see the plank in their own eye.

What is the gastronomic analogy that might get at some of the limitations of the Modern evangelical take on Jesus?

A microwave Teriyaki Chicken dinner.

It is an individual serving, efficiently prepared with the modern convenience of a microwave. It’s slightly exotic–it’s teriyaki, after all–but it’s largely Westernized. The ingredients are theoretically tasty and nutritious, but the effects of mass production and microwaving have removed most of their structure, taste and probably nutrients. It’s convenient, only requiring a few minutes to prepare and eat–ideal for busy people on the run. Even if you ate it every day, you could do worse–it’s probably healthier than any of the other five diets.

Now, I know plenty of evangelicals that do not have the microwave teriyaki chicken image of Christ. For these, the analogy would be more like a healthy, well-balanced dinner–an herb-roasted chicken with mashed potatoes, steamed asparagus and a  small, sweet dainty for dessert. But I think even this more robust and balanced picture, as compared to the microwave meal, reveals the limitations of the evangelical Christ.

The best gastric analogy for the Real Jesus

I think it would be a family meal, something Middle Eastern. My daughter told me about the meals she ate in Israel. These were family meals. They ate fresh pita and hummus, tzatziki, olives of course, lentils, roasted vegetables, lamb on skewers, lamb in grape leaves. Importantly, this is a balanced meal. But the contents, especially the spices–cinnamon, cardamom, cloves, thyme–were strange to her western palate. She had to humbly look to her hosts, even the children, for some indication of how to eat it and what to put with what. She was not confident,  uncertain. She was repeatedly surprised–sometimes delightfully, at other times, unpleasantly by the flavour combinations. This meal was full of grace and love–the family that prepared it, pulled out all the stops because there were guests at the table. My daughter felt so blessed that such a sacrifice would be made for her.

No analogy can ever begin to capture the true Jesus, but I do think that even evangelicals need to think, not only about other, clearly problematic predilections, but also their own reconfigurations of Christ.

“Just a Symbol”?

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Is today (January 28, 2016) closer to

A) January 27, 2016

or

B) January 28, 1986?

The obvious answer is A), because we almost always think of time as sequential, but for the friends and family of the five astronauts and two payload specialists that died in the Space Shuttle Challenger disaster on this date in 1986, the answer would likely be B).   Lamb

In 1986, I watched the launch of the Challenger with my grade eight and nine students.  We watched for a few hours after as we tried to understand how this could have happened.  This was a meaningful event.  Chronologically, yesterday is closer to today, but if meaning is our standard, at least for some people, today is closer to this date 30 years ago than was yesterday.

The Non-sequential Nature of Time

The non-sequential nature of time is something we usually ignore, but it can add significant depth and experience to our lives if we are more aware of it.  I’ll attempt to illustrate this using the elements of Tim Keller’s sermon called “The Story of the Lamb.”

The story of the Lamb is actually the story of three lambs.

The Story of the Second Lamb

The story of the second lamb cam be found in the book of Exodus.  The Israelites are slaves in Egypt and as prologue to releasing his people, God has sent nine plagues upon the land of Egypt.  The tenth plague will be the death of the first born.  In  Exodus 12:23 we an amazing twist in time:

When the LORD goes through the land to strike down the Egyptians, he will see the blood on the top and sides of the door frame and will pass over that doorway, and he will not permit the destroyer to enter your houses and strike you down.

The Destroyer.  This destroyer does not bring regular destruction, but End-Times destruction–Revelation 9:11:

And they had a king over them, which is the angel of the bottomless pit, whose name in the Hebrew tongue is Abaddon, but in the Greek tongue hath his name Apollyon.

Lamb1This Destroyer, then, who visits death upon all the first born of Egypt is the bringer of End-of Time Judgement, long before the end of time.  Time is bent when the Destroyer of the future kills all the first born in ancient Egypt who were unprotected by the blood of the second lamb.

Importantly, the tenth plague is not just the death of the first born Egyptians, but the first born of any who live in Egypt–this includes the Hebrews.  The Hebrews are not exempt from Eternal Destruction–they are not saved by their own merit, nor by God’s ignoring of their sin.  They are saved by the blood of the lamb.  The Passover is the central act of Jewish worship – and it commemorates salvation by “the bloody death of a helpless victim”–the second lamb.

The Story of the First Lamb

The first lamb is found in Genesis 22.  God says to Abraham,

Take your son, your only son, whom you love—Isaac—and go to the region of Moriah. Sacrifice him there as a burnt offering on a mountain I will show you. (22:2)

In this culture, the first born already belonged to God; he has a claim on the first born as representative of the family(Exodus 22, Numbers 3 and 8)–the firstborn’s life is forfeit.

You must give me the firstborn of your sons. Do the same with your cattle and your sheep. Let them stay with their mothers for seven days, but give them to me on the eighth day. (Exodus 22:29-30)

The first born, as the representative of the family, bore the guilt of the entire family.  Abraham, Keller says, believed that God was just calling in the debt.  Although the father would have been distressed by the loss of his son, sacrificing Isaac was also an act of giving God his due.  Just before Abraham can carry out the sacrifice, angel of the Lord calls out “Stop.”  Then this:

Abraham looked up and there in a thicket he saw a ram[a] caught by its horns. He went over and took the ram and sacrificed it as a burnt offering instead of his son.  (Genesis 22:13)

God himself provided the alternate sacrifice.  The ram functions as a substitute for the first born who is himself a representative of Abraham’s family.

Back to the Second Lamb

Lamb2Back to the second lamb. In the Exodus story, the Hebrews understood that God  was, again, making a claims the on the debt of the first born, and that he, again, provided an alternate.  When they heard God’s instructions for the first Passover, they would likely make the connection to the first lamb–the ram caught in the thicket which took the place of Isaac on the alter.  The story of the second lamb doesn’t mean what it means without the story of the first lamb.  Again, time is bent back upon itself.

The deliverance from Egypt wasn’t the solution to all their problems–they still lived in a spiritual bondage, and consequently were subject to Final Judgement. To solve this problem, they need another lamb–Lamb 3, Jesus.  John the Baptist called him “The Lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world!”

The Story of the Third Lamb

Lamb4The night Jesus was arrested, he ate the Passover meal with his disciples.  This night, the lamb wasn’t on the table, but at the table.  The first two lambs were just animals.  The ram that took Isaac’s place on the alter did not actually save the boy.  Nor did the Passover lambs save the Hebrews by their death.  The first two lambs only pointed to the third.  The third lamb was the God’s Son, but this time no one yelled, “Stop.” Like the first two lambs, his death was in the stead of those who deserved it.  Unlike the first two lambs, Jesus is the ultimate lamb that provides the ultimate salvation.

Communion

The central act of Christian worship, Communion, commemorates “the bloody death of an innocent victim.”  The bread and the wine in which Christians partake an obedient response to Jesus command to “do this in remembrance of me.”  In it we remember Jesus, the Lamb of God, giving his life for us, once and for all, on the cross.

Christians have different views as to what happens at communion, from the supernatural event of transubstantiation to it being a completely human act or “just a symbol.”  If we think of time only as sequence, the Passover and the Last Supper happened many, many centuries ago. If they are relevant at all, they are relevant only as a symbol. If you understand that time has loops, it becomes far more than a mere symbol.

Lamb5When we partake of the bread and wine, we are not simply remembering an event that took place 2000 years ago.  We are standing at the convergence of several events, profound events each involving a substitutionary death.

Jesus died once for all, but as time bends, we stand before him as he says the words “this is my body, for you.”  Communion is not merely a memorial because Jesus is active as he offers us the bread and wine–his body, not many times, but once.  But with the bending of time, he’s offering it now.  One death and resurrection, but a continual offering of Grace.

As you partake of the Communion meal this weekend,  think about the nearness in time, higher time, of the ram that took Isaac’s place on the alter, the Passover lambs that died in order to protect the Hebrews from an early encounter with The Destroyer of The End-Times.  Think especially about the Lamb of God–the ultimate lamb–who died to save us from the ultimate consequences of our sin and who is right now seated on the throne of heaven.  Think about standing at the convergence of all the Communion meals being celebrated across space and time as Jesus offers us the salvation he paid for with his life.

If you manage to catch just a glimpse of any of this, you will not be able to think of The Lord’s Supper as “just a symbol.”

A Case For an Explicit Liturgy

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When I was in about grade 4, I was bored in church.

There were a long sermon and long prayers and a whole bunch of singing and some recitation that held little meaning to me. It just kept on going and going, on and on. I remember thinking that if I knew where we were in the service, I might it would be easier to endure.

Since my father was the minister, I had an in. One Saturday, I asked him if he could write out the order of events in the upcoming service. He smiled and directed my attention to the familiar bulletin. One of the pages was entitled, “Order of Worship” and beneath this was written, in order, all the elements of the service. These included “Call to Worship,” “God’s Greeting,” “The Law,” “Call to Confession,” “Prayer of Confession,” “Words of Assurance,” “Congregational Prayer,” “Offering,” “Sermon,” “Benediction” with hymns of praise, adoration, repentance and thanksgiving, in the appropriate places. I had no idea that every service proceeded through the same elements each week.

The Call to Worship

The “Call to Worship” always kicked things off. A Bible passage was usually read, different every week, but they all communicated that we are sitting in church that morning, not because we decided to come, but because we responded to a call. The one who calls us to worship is none other than the Triune God. I’ve noticed that without this sense of calling, I can easily fall into the mistaken idea that my arrival signals the beginning of worship.

Rituals and practices affect us on a deep level--they can shape who we are. When we weekly hear God call us to worship, we begin to learn that worship doesn't start with us.Click To Tweet

God’s Greeting

It’s his house and as a host he greets us. The weekly repetition of this element reminds us that this building is not just bricks and mortar that we assembled and pay for with weekly payments to the bank. We were drawn in by God, and he welcomes us as host–in this sense, we are on holy ground. Lots of churches do the horizontal greeting, congregants to each other, but without the vertical greeting coming first, isn’t the whole experience flattened?

Rituals and practices affect us on a deep level--they can shape who we are. When we regularly hear God greet us, we begin to learn that we are in His house, not He in ours.Click To Tweet

Call to Confession

This is a weekly reminder that we are sinners and in need of forgiveness. It is followed by the “Prayer of Confession” which is an acknowledgment of this fact. The Good News is that these are followed with the “Assurance” that God forgives. The Catholics do this individually. When I was a kid, we did it collectively. Nowadays, we do this occasionally–usually with a song. Does it pass unnoticed those unfamiliar with liturgical confession?

Prayer

My new church is good at this. The church is open for prayer on some weekdays. There’s a prayer room and there is communal prayer and the elders do a lot of praying. Prayer is a strange activity when you think about it. We are talking to someone who appears to not be there. It is an enchanted activity.

Rituals and practices affect us on a deep level–they can shape who we are. When we weekly hear God call us to worship, we begin to learn that worship doesn’t start with us. When we regularly hear God greet us, we begin to learn that we are in His house, not He in ours. When we confess our sins and are forgiven, we learn the gospel. When we sing and pray to someone we can’t see, we believe it because we are doing it.

We don’t learn it in an intellectual sense. Very little of this occurs on a level we are aware of. Modern churches, like modern society, is very rational and emphasize knowledge and information with occasional forays into apologetics and worldview. These things are important, but our identity lives much deeper than these. Far deeper than the mind, deeper even than the heart. The Hebrew believed the soul was in the gut–that’s the level where we are shaped.

Worship services can shape us. Do you think they might be able to do so even more effectively with explicit liturgies?

This post was inspired in part by Desiring the Kingdom by James K. A. Smith. I strongly recommend it for church leaders.

 

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