Spiritual Mysteries in Worship

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When I was a university student, I came across a graphic in a textbook which put the major denominations on a continuum from Roman Catholic/Anglicans on the one end, to the “Evangelical” churches on the other.

I can’t recall the exact wording, but my recollection is that the continuum compared the degree a denomination was open to the mysterious work of the Holy Spirit in and through the physical elements of the sacraments. The mainline churches, like the Christian Reformed Church to which I have belonged since birth, was right in the middle.

Spiritual Mysteries in the Sacraments

At the time, I was puzzled by this.  I didn’t understand exactly how my church was at all open to the movement of the Holy Spirit in the physical elements of the sacraments. It was nothing like the Greek Orthodox, Anglican and Roman Catholic worship services I had attended over the years. These services were full of mysterious objects and activities that I didn’t understand and I definitely got the sense that the physical elements of the sacraments were infused with mystery and power.

Then I started to attend an Evangelical church.  It has a strong emphasis on biblical teaching and a contemporary style of corporate worship.

I now understand that continuum in the textbook.  In the Modern Evangelical churches, the sacraments are strictly human activities.

  • Baptism is an external sign of a decision to follow Jesus.
  • Communion is a meal of remembrance; participants remember Christ’s death on our behalf.

In the Greek Orthodox, Anglican and Roman Catholic expression of these sacraments, God is active in some very specific ways.  In the church of my youth, God was also active, but the explanation as to how, was a little less specific.  The sacraments were cosidered a neabs by which we receive Grace.

The Call to Worship

I once went to a Greek Orthodox on a Sunday morning but hadn’t bothered checking when the service began, so I got there about an hour and a half too early. Although the pews were completely empty, there was a lot of activity behind the heavily iconic screen in the middle of the sanctuary.

The priests were chanting and praying and doing things with the Bible and candles and incense and I don’t know what else. What struck me was the lack of an audience. Adorned in their priestly vestments, they were going through all sorts of complex ritual and there was no one there to see it.

Or was there? It’s interesting that as much as we talk about God being the centre of worship in our Protestant churches, our rituals suggest otherwise. In the churches I’m familiar with, the worship starts when the congregants show up and not before.

The Physical Space of Worship

Besides meaningful interactions with God and preparing themselves for their role in the service, I think the Greek Orthodox priests were also engaged in activities that prepared the physical space for worship. It makes some sense that you can’t just have people walk into a place and start worshiping the Almighty, Triune, Creator God.

I was thinking about the space of worship in the church of my youth. Back then it was called a “sanctuary.” I know that the worship space in many churches today is called an “auditorium.”

Labels make a lot of difference. A sanctuary is a sacred or holy place. An auditorium is a place where you hear things. Notice how the first suggests the presence of the holy and the spiritual in the physical space, where the second places an emphasis on human activity; humans making noises and hearing them.

I’m glad my new church doesn’t call the space we gather for corporate worship as “the auditorium.” But what about the sense of holiness for the space in which we worship?

I wonder if we have gone too far in the last 500 years.



  1. Isaac

    Since nobody has bothered to comment on this so far and since I’ve been wrestling with the same questions lately (college guy speaking here) and since it’s a good article, I figured I might as well chime in. I grew up in one of the more evangelical traditions known as the Church of God, Anderson Indiana. It’s not Pentecostal or especially charismatic, but just plain ole Wesleyan thought that’s presented in a way that’s super easy for a layman or a kid to walk in and digest. Sometimes it is just what I need, sometimes it’s a drudgery. Same as any church I guess in that manner.

    There is not a formal liturgy but in a general sense:
    Sing songs while standing with projected lights zipping around in the background to some good contemporary music with stellar musicians doing 1/2, if not most of the work, pray, listen to the sermon, pray (maybe an alter call) then more singing, pray with the pastor, leave
    … and that could all change from week to week.

    There was no Eucharist/Communion celebrated but once a month, hardly ever a benediction, and since it’s a congregational organization, each church in each area could be pretty different depending on where you were in the country. That being said I absolutely love the pastors at High Point Church I had going through high school (before then, my dad had been a pastor too, so we moved around quite a bit). I’ve never heard better preaching in my life! Their contemporary worship isn’t too bad either. Honestly it’s an epic church. But when I left for college (left for one year then transferred back to the college that is within the same denomination) I discovered the beauty of the liturgy of the historical church. I began and still am, questioning the notions of Holy Communion and Baptism as “just a symbol” that I grew up in… as well as the usefulness of the Church calendar, and appreciation of early leaders’ wisdom, at least in a casual sense. There was no mystery where I was from and I’d felt almost cheated in a sense. I say almost because the amount of scripture and spiritual experiences I’d had in this really unstructured environment and it’s portrayal of the Gospel taught me about God in a way that virtually none of my Catholic or Episcopal friends had had. That actually helped me to understand the various forms of liturgy a little better I think. So I truly see that there’s some method to the holiness-movement madness, having firsthand experienced it. I am still searching, while at the same time keeping very close ties at the church I finished high school in. The church I visited on my own in college and the one I eventually stuck with was a satellite of a larger, more traditional Lutheran (LCMS) which had both the mystery of Sacrament and the laxed approach to worship my parents’ church had. I also, for the first time, really got to go and attend some very traditional Roman Catholic services. I felt that those, as far as the homilies and the songs and the scripture readings, are fairly hit-or-miss depending on the priest and the songs sceduled for that Mass. I’m hoping to find another place I can go to be fed in the way that I need in addition to where I go with my parents and younger brothers. The mystery of the walk with Jesus Christ and the history of His Church fascinate me. Praying for you and your faith walk! God bless you, the Spirit’s peace and presence be with you, and Christ ahead of you to show you the way!

    • Trent

      Hey Isaac, I’m glad that you found my article (I’m curious as to how you found it among all the clamour of the internet). I think that your struggle is not unique, and it’s an important journey–I think the churches with some of the older forms of worship help shake us out of our modern idolatries. But, I try to always remember that Jesus is the point, regardless of the form of worship. We can tweet the form, but must never lose that focus. Thank you so much for commenting and sharing your story. Blessings to you in your search. If you don’t find the perfect church (I doubt you will), rest in the assurance you’ve found the perfect saviour. Thanks for reading, Trent

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