Tagworship

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 sits 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 the 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; 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.

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 water to come from rocks and turns it into blood.  He makes walls fall and curtains tear.  Jesus is the Word made flesh; he healed, walked (even on water), taught, ate, fed, died, rose and ascended.  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,” “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.

Human beings are shaped by worship, especially through the things that we repeat every Sunday.  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 our life.

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.
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.  We can be 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.

Things get worse when the band steps out of the worship leading role into a performance role making both God and congregants passive.  Now the 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 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.

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 put the table, the font and the pulpit someplace on the stage, with the praise and worship band?
  • 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:

 

 

 

A Case For an Explicit Liturgy

Liturgy 1When I was in about grade 4, I was bored in church. There was 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 appropriate places. I had no idea that every service proceeded through the same elements each week.

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.

“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?

The “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 effect 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.

 

Church and Enchantment

Liturgy 1When I compared the church services of the Christian Reformed Church I went to as a child with the Anglican, Roman Catholic and Greek Orthodox Church, I didn’t understand why a graphic I found in a textbook said that my church, with respect to the presence of the Spirit within the physical elements of the service, was half way between these older churches and the newer Evangelical denominations. I figured the CRC (and every other “mainline” church) was way more like an evangelical church that one of the big three/older denominations. I mean, I didn’t see a whole lot of the mysterious work of the Holy Spirit in and through the physical elements of a CRC church service.

Then I began to regularly attend a modern Evangelical church. I have begun to understand that chart. I can see the difference between my new church and my old church, some of which, makes my old church seem pretty silly, but still, there’s something that I miss.

When I was a kid, there was a big Bible on the pulpit in the front of the sanctuary.   I now know that it’s position declared the centrality of God’s word, but even though I was very young, I got a clear sense that this Bible was holy in some way. This Bible was ever used; the minister always read out of his much smaller personal Bible. The fact that it wasn’t read added to the sense of importance, rather than detracted. It was as if it was too holy to touch.

When I was about five years old, I entered the sanctuary with some other children. I felt compelled to gaze at the power and mystery represented by the Book. I’m not sure how it happened, but while I was looking, the water glass tipped and spilled all over the Bible. Although very young, we all knew the seriousness of this act and bolted from the church.

Then, just a few weeks ago, I was visiting with a seminary classmate of my father’s who recounted a time when he was a young guest pastor at a mainline church. Before he started to preach, he closed the pulpit Bible and arranged his noted on top of it. Following the service he was chastised by an elder of the church who informed him that that Bible had been sitting open on the pulpit for over 50 years. It had never been closed.   Now on one level, it is ridiculous to take offense at the closing of a book, but on another level, this book was clearly far more than a composite of paper, leather and glue.

At my new church we recently had a guest speaker who was asked about the differences between our western churches and those of India where he grew up. He offered several differences; one of them had to do with our treatment of our Bibles. He said that in India, the Bible would never be placed on the ground and we do in Western churches and homes.

In my new church, there is no pulpit Bible, actually there is no pulpit, just a music stand. Most people, including me, read the Bible on an electronic device. Other people place their Bibles on the ground when they sing. The pulpit Bible of my youth was not treated with reverence just because it contained the revelation of the Most High God, but because it was more than just a physical thing–it was an enchanted object.

There aren’t too many enchanted objects in our churches anymore. Is this a problem?

The Dom in Salzburg — It’s not about ME

153Attending mass in the Salzburg Cathedral was the most memorable experience of a wonderful trip to Europe this summer.  The building’s interior was beautifully ornate, but not gaudy.  The music included organ, orchestra and, I think, more than one choir.  Add to that, awareness that this was the very church at which Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart was christened.   In his role as Court Organist, Mozart composed much of his sacred music almost exclusively for this Cathedral.  

I had two very strong impressions during this mass.

The first impression–It’s not about me.

The organ, choir and orchestra are placed behind the congregation.  This placement reinforces the idea that I am not the primary audience for their performance. 

Back home, it’s not about me either, but the praise band occupies the same place as a performance band, so I have to remember that they aren’t there to please me.  It doesn’t matter if I don’t like the style in which the third song was presented.    Nor does it matter that I don’t “feel” like praising God today, he’s worthy of my praise regardless of how I feel.  The sermon’s relevance to me is not the standard by which it ought to be judged. Everything in any church service is directed toward the worship of the triune God.  But back home, sometimes I forget.

In Salzburg Cathedral, I had no trouble remembering that this service wasn’t for my pleasure.

The whole thing was in German, and I don’t speak German.  I ended up thinking about how the audience of every service, is God; he speaks German.  He also “speaks” Evangelical, and Reformed and Catholic.  I imagined how rich God’s experience of worship must be when he is being praised simultaneously in every language and cultural expression that there is and ever was. 

And the benches.  Even in this most beautiful of churches, the uniquely carved benches are quite uncomfortable.  The seat is set at 90 degrees to the back, which has a board running across it as a elbow rest for the kneeler behind me.  This makes it very uncomfortable to lean back.  These seats were definitely not designed with my comfort in mind.  It certainly is not about me. 

Second impression–the mass and the cathedral represent the very best of human ability in craftsmanship, beauty, engineering, art and music.

Putting my two impressions together:  the excellent music and building, which I so  enjoyed because of their excellence, don’t exist for me at all.  That I can see, hear and enjoy them is pure grace. 

The grace I receive through the worship service in my home church is no less than that with which I was overwhelmed that Sunday morning is Salzburg; the only difference was my awareness of it.

 

Heirarchy and the Windows of Prague’s Cathedral

829St. Vitus has a commanding view of the city of Prague.  This Gothic structure  is visible  from all over the city since it stands within the castle complex situated on top of the highest point in the city.   

Getting into the service was a little bit of a trick because church officials stood at the door so as 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 confidence of a parishioner.  Others more hesitant, were refused and had to wait in the long line until 12 when the last mass was over and the camera toting tourists would be let in.

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.

The homily was in Czech, so I had no chance of getting anything out of the sermon.  Instead, I studies the stained glass windows that rose far above the old priest who was delivering the homily.

Prague Stained GlassHighest and most central was depiction was of God, represented by God the father embracing his crucified son.  Beneath  these figures were smaller haloed saints and kings.  All these figures were attended to by angels which were arranged according to their heavenly status.  Beneath these were even smaller images of priests and nobles.  From my position in the pew, I looked up to them all. The windows reinforce the worshipers correct place in the hierarchy of the universe.

This idea is alien to us today–we know that “all men [and women] are created equal” and wage war against any notion of the inherent superiority of one individual over another.  We understand the individual to be autonomous and equal.

Not so in the medieval world. Mankind was seen as higher than the animals and the rest of the created order, and a lower being than the angels.  God, as creator and savior, was sovereign above them all.   No living human beings were could be measured against the greatness of the saints who came before, and no ordinary human could be compared to the greatness of one’s king.

The people who lived in the medieval world, those who built this cathedral, accepted this hierarchical nature of reality.  An appropriate response to those above oneself is awe and a solemn respect, and this beautiful window would have evoked this response.

We are no longer as capable of experiencing the same sort of awe and solemn respect as our ancestors, because there is no other self that is inherently superior to my self. 

Living in medieval society which reflected the hierarchical view of the universe was often a restriction of freedom.   But at the same time as they restricted, these orders also gave meaning to life and the idea that some occasions warranted pomp and ceremony.   This idea is natural to a people who understand that the universe is full of things greater than themselves.  Although it is hard for us to understand, those honoured through pomp and ceremony in medieval society did not think of themselves in a self-important sort of way; they were living in obedience to the structure which undergirds the universe. 

 We sometimes struggle to understand occasions of pomp and ceremony.

I recently heard a person who had only recently moved to Canada express incredulity over reaction of  many Canadians (and of course the English) over the recent birth of a son to William and Kate.  He couldn’t understand what makes this birth any more special than any other?  The same question would likely be asked of royal weddings and coronations.  The overwhelming expression of joy over a royal birth or other special event in the life of the English royalty is a vestigial response to a world that understood the relationship between hierarchy and awe, and the relationship between awe and ceremony.  Perhaps, the more peculiar we find this behavior, the flatter our world is.

In The Malaise of Modernity, philosopher Charles Taylor suggests there have been significant consequences to this shift from the medieval vertical to the modern horizontal understanding of humanity and society.  He says we have lost “a heroic dimension to life.  People no longer have a sense of a higher purpose, of something worth dying for” (4).  Another consequence is we have become more self-centred “which both flattens and narrows our lives, makes them poorer in meaning, and less concerned with others or society” (4). 

We Christians have a problem in that we tacitly embrace the modern, flattened view of the universe, except we retain one aspect of the older view–God retains his position at the top.  The rest of the hierarchy has been disassembled, and with  it we’ve lost much of our capacity for awe, and pomp and ceremony no longer make much sense.  If this is the case, are we not missing something as we approach the throne of God in worship?

The cathedral is a celebration of another view of the universe.  It’s not necessarily a true view of the universe, but neither is the modern one.   The vast internal spaces overhead and the beautiful stained-glass windows begin to evoke the sense of awe that would of powerfully affected the experience for those who first worshiped in this space. What my experience in the cathedral in Prague did, was give me a hint of my capacity to experience my own smallness and, consequently, awe for He who is so much greater than myself.

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