Monte E. Wilson

 

Evangelical worship is becoming an oxymoron. Our songs are either belted out in the same mindless intensity with which we sing our football team’s fight song, or we are crooning romantic ditties that would be more at home in an old 1930s B movie. Irreverence has become so rampant in our worship services that one would not be shocked to hear of deacons walking up and down the aisles yelling, “Popcorn, peanuts, sacraments!”

There are many reasons for the denigration of worship in modern evangelical churchville. There’s the dumbing-down effect of public education, 150 years of revivalism that—armed with songs geared to working up the masses—approaches church solely as an evangelistic crusade, and the drive to compete with MTV and be “relevant” (i.e., more like the world), thereby pleasing the tastes of the congregation. Each of these dynamics perverts our ability to appreciate any music that is not simplistic and emotionally intense. All of this together erects almost insurmountable barriers we must overcome if we are to truly worship the Lord.

WORSHIP: ACT OR EXPERIENCE?

For the modern evangelical, worship is defined exclusively in terms of the individual’s experience. Worship, then, is not about adoring God but about being nourished with religious feelings, so much so that the worshiper has become the object of worship.1 When we study the ancient approach to worship, however, we see that the church did not overly concern itself with feelings of devotion, but rather with heartfelt and biblically informed obedience. Moreover believers had a firm grasp on the fact that when they gathered “as a church” (1 Cor. 11:18), their worship was to be a corporate expression. Church worship was not a gathering of individuals but of the body of Christ.

Christopher J. Cocksworth notes that the two underlying elements of the evangelical consciousness are existential and theological. In other words, there is a wedding between piety and theology; an apprehension of the Gospel and a communication of that Gospel.2 Tragically, much of evangelical worship today has chosen to divorce what must remain married if there is to be God-glorifying worship. Some have abandoned any quest for piety, preferring a pharisaical doctrinal purity. Their “worship” services may be correct in every fashion, but they are void of any sense of true devotion or of the life of the Holy Spirit. Others—probably the majority in modern American evangelicalism—have utterly neglected any commitment to the content of the Word and have ended with narcissistic “worship” services where everyone drowns in a sea of subjectivism and calls it “being bathed in the presence of the Holy Spirit.” These people come to church exclusively to “feel” God.

I am not discounting the worth of the conscious presence of the Holy Spirit. I am saying that although the apostolic and primitive church emphasized worship as an act of obedience, we see it solely as an experience. Why? Because “church is for me. Sunday worship is to be centered on my needs and desires. Never mind what the Father desires and commands. I am at the center. My needs are paramount. Meet them or I’ll go to church elsewhere.” The ego reigns supreme.

Where did we go wrong? Historically, as I have noted, evangelicals have been defined by engaging and experiencing the truth of the Gospel. Now, however we are defined solely by experiences, the validity of which is “proven” by the word of the believer. Subjectivism and existentialism are redefining biblical worship. When did we evangelicals trade our rich inheritance for the poverty of revivalistic or MTV-style worship?

FINNEYISM

Up until the 1800s, the evangelical church approached church worship from the same perspective. It was seen as a command performance before the King, Jesus Christ; He was the audience, and we were “the performers.” All action, all content, was God-centered and God-directed.

During the 1800s, the United States witnessed the Second Great Awakening, which transformed not only our ideas concerning church worship but those concerning the Gospel itself. Modern evangelicalism bears little resemblance to the faith of our fathers. Our aim is to make people feel better; theirs was to teach the people how to worship God. We hear of how God enables people to save themselves; they spoke of the God who saves. Our aim is to evenly distribute honor and praise between God and man; their chief aim was to see that God received all glory. The average modern evangelical believes that revivals come via techniques; our Puritan and Pilgrim fathers believed revivals were sovereign acts of God. Today the local church is held in low esteem and evaluated not by the fruit of obedience and changed lives but by the standard of numbers: how many buildings, how much money, how many converts. Today the mind is seen as a hindrance to true spirituality. Jonathan Edwards and the average minister of his day believed the training of the intellect to be of paramount importance.

This transformation of mindsets did not happen overnight and cannot be solely attributed to one event or one person. However, it can be said that one man, more than any other, acted as a catalyst and prototype; that man was Charles Grandison Finney (1792-1875). While practicing law in New York, Finney attended church services conducted by a friend, George Gale. In 1821 he became a Christian and almost immediately declared that he had been retained by God to “plead His cause.” For the next eight years he held revival meetings in the eastern states and for a short while was pastor of Second Presbyterian Church in New York City. Eventually, however, he withdrew from the presbytery, rejecting the Presbyterian disciplinary system.

When Finney began itinerating as a frontier evangelist, his meetings were almost immediately attended with large numbers of conversions, as well as great controversy.3 The controversy centered upon Finney’s methodology and his belief that techniques were the means to attaining revival. Up to that time the majority of ministers attributed revivals to the sovereign act of a merciful God. With the coming of Finney, such beliefs were supplanted.

Finney believed that revivals could be planned, promoted, and propagated by man. Such a redefinition of revival required a revamping of one’s appraisal of human nature. If humans are dead in sin, as the apostle Paul had written, then regeneration depended upon the sovereign act of the Holy Spirit. However, if regeneration was a matter of a will not enslaved to unrighteousness but free to choose between sin and righteousness, then the individual needed to be argued or persuaded into the Kingdom of God.

One obvious consequence of this reappraisal of human nature was the placing of technique at the forefront of evangelism and revivals. Before Finney, prayer and preaching the Word of God were generally believed to be the means of grace God would use, in His sovereign timing, to bring revival. Now it was a matter of changing people’s minds. Therefore, most anything that could accomplish this end became “holy,” and anything that was seen to hinder the individual’s decision-making process was either foolish or evil. Did teaching “mouldy orthodoxy” (Henry Ward Beecher) bore people? Then it must be replaced with emotionally challenging storytelling that would move the masses. Did the singing of the Psalms excite the masses? If not, write simple (simplistic?) choruses and put them to popular tunes. Everything the church did had to be evaluated by one thing—results.

The church as revival center replaced the church as Mater and Schola. What was all-important to the leaders of the Second Great Awakening was one’s “personal salvation.” Every other concern was secondary, if of any importance at all. Subsequently, only those denominations that “exploited innovative revival techniques to carry the gospel to the people, flourished.”4

Before Finney, the church identified its purpose as the worship of the Triune God. Now it was the attainment of “revival” or the engendering of experiences. With the Second Great Awakening, the church’s mission changed from making disciples to getting people to “make a decision for Jesus.” In the mid-nineteenth century, the ministry team of Dwight Moody and musician/composer Ira Sankey solidified this transformation (the first beginnings of what would eventually become the “crusade rally”). Their model would be copied by vast numbers of new churches that sprang into existence in the wake of these crusades.

The focus of church worship changed from God to man. The chief aim was no longer to glorify God, but to please and excite the masses—especially those who were showing some interest in Christianity (“seekers”). This required not only that the church change its focus from the Creator to the created, but that the church cease gathering as the church. Instead, it was to gather around the purpose of reaching the lost.

WORSHIP: FORM AND CONTENT

Worship means to ascribe to God supreme worth (worth-ship). “Ascribe to the LORD the glory due his name” (Ps. 96:8). It is God’s worthiness that makes worship possible. As J. I. Packer brings out in his definition of worship, it is a “due response” in the face of His holy nature and His gracious gifts.

Worship in the Bible is the due response of rational creatures to the self-revelation of their Creator. It is an honoring and glorifying of God by gratefully offering back to Him all the good gifts, and all the knowledge of His greatness and graciousness, that He has given. It involves praising Him for what He is, thanking Him for what He has done, desiring Him to get Himself more glory by further acts of mercy, judgment, and power, and trusting Him with our concern for our own and others’ future well-being.5

In the Old Testament, when the people of God worshiped corporately, they had a very specific liturgy to follow. There were specific sacrifices and offerings to be given in a specific fashion by a specific group of men—the priests. They were not free to worship, corporately, in any manner that suited them. Of course, if they were simply worshiping as individuals while watching over the flocks and herds, they could sing, dance, and exult with spontaneous zeal. But this was not so in the temple. There one had to follow the prescribed order.

Because there are multiple regulations concerning Old Testament worship, there is a common misunderstanding that all that mattered to God was the form: walk through the steps, perform properly, and all was well. However, this was not the case. Just as one was not a Jew unless he was circumcised in the heart, worship was not “true” unless it flowed from a heart of faith.

Form and substance were both critical to true worship. The form pointed the worshiper in the right direction; it ensured that all spoke with one heart, one mind, and one voice. However, God was not satisfied with mere outward observance. Time and time again the prophets were sent to rebuke Israel for such heartless service, thinking that God could be satisfied with outward observance alone. As Calvin wrote:

God did not command sacrifices in order to busy His worshipers with earthly sacrifices. Rather He did so that He might lift their minds higher. This can be clearly discerned from His own nature: for, as it is spiritual, only spiritual worship delights Him. Many statements of the prophets attest to this and charge the Jews with stupidity; for they think some sacrifice or other has value in God’s sight. Is that because they intended to detract something from the law? Not at all. But, since they were true interpreters of it, they desired in this way to direct man’s eyes to the objective from which the common people were straying.6

The external rituals were to be a manifestation of faith and love (Deut. 6:5-6). When used merely as a disguise for a cold and distant heart, they became an abomination. The outward signs were to be manifestations of an inward reality. When they were not, God rejected the sign as having any real worth (1 Sam. 15:22; Ps. 51:14-19; Isa. 1:11-18; Jer. 6:20; Mal. 1).

When Jesus tells the woman at the well that God is to be worshiped “in spirit and in truth” (John 4:24), He is not condemning forms, as such, but the idea that they can have a significance separate from the inner reality they are to embody. The externals were never to be a substitute for the inner reality.

We are humans. Not being wholly spirit, we need external aids to lead and support us in our quest for obedient, spiritual worship. (Certainly man cannot live by “bread alone.” But he also cannot live by “Word alone.”) We are also sinful humans, however, and we must be careful that our rituals never detract from the necessary substance to which they point or become an end in themselves, rather than the means to the end.

More importantly, of course, Jesus was noting the impending abolishment of Old Covenant forms and regulations concerning worship. Soon the Kingdom of God would no longer be bound to the temple in Jerusalem and to fellowship with the nation of Israel. The ceremonies and rituals had all pointed to Jesus Christ, the Messiah. Now that He had come, there was no more need for the signs. This was not rejection of the old, but the fulfillment and perfection of the one true faith.

“The old had passed away, now all things are new.” This meant that in the light of the coming of the Messiah, as a result of His saving work, everything “old” had acquired a new meaning, had been renewed and transformed in its significance)7

Any theology of worship, any study of Christian liturgy, will be deficient if it ignores the influence of the temple and synagogue upon the apostolic church. Christian worship was not created in a vacuum. Certainly there was discontinuity but there was also continuity. Early Christian worship adopted the pattern provided by the temple ritual and synagogue liturgy.8 We see continuity—Peter and John go up to the temple “at the time of prayer” (Acts 3:1)—and discontinuity—they do not offer up a slain animal as a sacrifice. Continuity—Paul returns to Jerusalem to celebrate Pentecost (Acts 20:16); discontinuity—the Feast now takes on added meaning for the Christian.

Given this mind-set, the post-apostolic church studied apostolic doctrine and examples, as well as Old Testament doctrines and practices, and developed a full-blown pattern of worship. Sadly, many today restrict their patterns of worship to the direct commands of the New Testament. It’s as if the Old Testament is utterly irrelevant when it comes to defining biblical worship.

How many of us evangelicals were lured by the ideal of “primitive Christianity”? How many of us rejected the historical outworking and maturing of Christian faith and practice, thinking that we would be more pure, more spiritual, and more biblical? How many of us awoke to the realization that we had a very truncated and impoverished Christianity?

DEFINING “BIBLICAL” WORSHIP

Not long after the passing of the apostles, the church had crafted four principal liturgical forms, attributed to various early leaders (James, Mark, Peter, and John). While there was diversity there was also a common structure.9 Commands, patterns, and expressions of worship found in Scripture regulated all of them. Tragically, the church began to add to these forms in ways that were contrary to the express commands of Scripture.

The Reformation was fueled by a commitment to reform the church’s worship and message of salvation. With regard to her worship, the Regulative Principle was put forth, stating that “Nothing should be introduced or performed in the churches of Christ for which no probable reason can be given from the Word of God” (Bucer). However, as James Jordan brings out in his book The Sociology of the Church,10 we must not apply this dispensationally, as if the Word of God no longer includes the Old Testament. He also rightly comments that we must recognize that this original definition is quite different from the more narrow “whatever is not commanded is forbidden.”

The Puritans made the mistake of not being consistent with their view of covenant theology when it came to their ideas concerning worship. As Ray Sutton has written, in every other area of theological concern they held to the hermeneutical principle that “Unless the New Testament changes it, do what the Old Testament commands.” However, when it came to worship, they became dispensationalists and said, basically, “If the New Testament does not command it, we cannot do it.”11 The present-day consequences of this narrowing of the Regulative Principle are asthmatic worship services that only have the one lung of the New Testament to breathe life into its services, rather than the two lungs of Old and New Testaments.

One cannot help but wonder if the typical evangelical fear of “forms”—of rituals, ceremonies, art—is due more to a reaction to all things Roman Catholic than to a desire to obey God. “If the Roman Catholics do it, then it is evil” quite often appears to be the working definition of the Regulative Principle! Do they use art? It must be a sin. Do they utilize ceremony? Ceremonies are evil. Do they light candles? Candles are of the devil.

When your daughter is married, will there be “pomp and circumstance”? Will there be the beauty of flowers and music? Will everyone run down the aisle in shorts and sandals or walk in a manner appropriate to the occasion? When you baptize (or dedicate) an infant, do you just run through the motions or is there a sense of the weightiness of the moment? On all of these occasions, we act in certain ways because we know there is something going on that demands a reverent demeanor appropriate to the event. Is church worship any less significant?

The forms, of course, are not for God. They are for us. The ceremonies do not impress God, but they can impress upon us the significance of what we are doing. Certainly they can also obscure the focus of our worship and distract us from reality, but that does not make them evil. The beauty of music can distract us from the content of the psalms and hymns we sing. Does that make music sinful?

Early in my ministry as a Baptist evangelist, the word liturgy conjured up pictures of robes, incense, prayers by rote, and death by carbon monoxide; it was a game of smoke and mirrors to hide the fact that the Holy Spirit was nowhere to be found. It had never occurred to me, however, that all churches have a liturgy.

In the Baptist, Lutheran, and Presbyterian churches, the liturgy typically begins with a call to worship and proceeds with three or four hymns. The offering is then taken, there is a presentation of special music, the sermon, and finally the benediction. The Baptist, of course, will be called to respond to the message (the “invitation”) before the pastoral benediction. The Pentecostal liturgy mirrors the Baptist’s, except that during the worship the songs are salted with a few “prophecies” and “exhortations” given by laypeople. In some charismatic worship services, the songs of praises will reach an apex with the congregation “singing in tongues” for a few moments. There will then be another prophecy and then pastoral prayer or special music.

Many neo-Pentecostals (charismatics) and all classical Pentecostals insist they have no liturgy. The reality, however, is that while they may have rejected the idea of a written liturgy, they have an unwritten, oral tradition. This liturgy may be more flexible than, say, the liturgy found in the Book of Common Prayer, but there is an overall structure.

The idea of liturgy is patently biblical. In Old Testament worship there was a prescribed step-by-step order one had to follow or there were grave consequences. In the New Testament Paul gives an overall view of the early church’s liturgy in 1 Corinthians 12-14, emphasizing its exquisite integration of order and spontaneity, and we see this liturgy mature and take on more form in the latter epistles. We have seen the apostles and church keeping certain feasts, as well as hours of prayer. The book of Revelation also gives us a beautiful glimpse of heavenly liturgy.

THE VALUE OF LITURGY

Purposeful liturgies help us experience an orderly and meaningful worship service. The more we consciously “act out our faith,” which consists of the life, death, resurrection, ascension, and glorification of Christ and the subsequent outpouring of the Holy Spirit, the more we fulfill our calling to be the church.

One value of a thoughtfully considered liturgy is that it enforces the idea that we are worshiping as the church, not as individuals or home groups. We are the Ship of Orthodoxy, not 350 separate rafts in a lagoon. In many evangelical circles this is a great temptation. An individual may soar into the heavenlies and, oblivious to everything and everyone around him, dance and shout to his heart’s content. However, when we gather as the church, we can never be oblivious to those around us (1 Cor. 14). A home group may sing, testify, confess, sing some more, laugh, break for coffee, and come back together for teaching; but when we gather as the church, we must remember we are in God’s Throne Room, not our living room. This is not coffee with our buddies but a royal audience with the King of the Universe. This is of particular relevance because so many Christians today approach church worship as an extension of their prayer closets.

A liturgy also has the priceless value of keeping us rooted in the primary realities of the faith. In listening to various (written) liturgies, we hear what the congregation recites each week. Even a cursory reading will reveal the emphasis upon the death, burial, and resurrection of Jesus Christ; praying for the needs of others; the giving and receiving of forgiveness; and the believer’s response to all these spiritual realities. No matter how “dead” the singing is, no matter how “boring” the sermon is (God forbid!), a biblical liturgy sees to it that we are confronted with the basic elements of the faith every week

As a Protestant, my “model” of worship has the pulpit at the center of the service. Everything serves the sermon. Even the music and ministry at the altar are evaluated by how they support or detract from the pulpit. Interestingly enough, as one tours the great seventeenth-century Protestant churches in Western Europe, he or she immediately notices that the pulpit is off to one side with the Lord’s Table at the center.

Now, before we accuse the Reformers of holding on to vestiges of Roman Catholicism, think about the liturgy as a journey with each step being significant. It’s not that the pulpit is insignificant or that the Lord’s Supper is meaningful without the spoken word. Both are critical. The Reformers saw the worship service as a whole. All too often we, on the other hand, see only the pulpit. Consequently our liturgies as well as our architecture has man (the minister and his pulpit) at the center. (Is it any wonder we have produced so many spiritual celebrities who allow themselves to be set up as idols?)

A biblical liturgy will model the faith. This is a benefit of a liturgy consciously fashioned in a biblical manner. It is an auxiliary teaching tool. Concretes—times, places, forms, symbols—help us to see, hear, and remember the message of God’s redemption in Christ. While such forms can become more important than the life and the Spirit of Christ, to ridicule forms is to fall into the error of dualism.

When the worship service is completed, the congregation has seen, heard, and tasted the King and His Kingdom. They have offered up praise, thanked Him for His creation and for redemption in Christ, received and given forgiveness, and are now empowered to go out into the world, seeking all things summed up (i.e., finding their meaning) in Christ.

BIBLICAL PATTERNS AND FORMS

Old Testament worship was patterned after the worship that occurs in heaven (Heb. 8:5; 9:23-24). It was more than just a shadow. A specific order was to take place that followed the worship pattern of heaven. When the people of God worshiped, there was (and is) to be a “heavenly pattern” that expresses the worship of heaven.

In John’s Revelation, we see heavenly worship. The Holy Spirit takes John up into heaven. Accordingly, all the earliest liturgies of the post-apostolic church began with the celebrant crying out, “Lift up your hearts!” The congregation would then respond, “We lift our hearts to you, O Lord!” (4:1, a.k.a. Sursem corda). In Revelation 4—6 we see the throne, as well as the elders and living creatures all crying out “Holy, Holy, Holy” (the Sanctus). The people of God approach His throne with praise, adoration, and thanksgiving. In chapter 8 we read of the prayers and praises of the saints on the earth below being added to those of the heavenly host, telling us that in some very real ways the church militant worships in heaven with the church triumphant and that our praise, adoration, and petitions are joined to those of the angels, archangels, and martyrs who all are standing before the throne of the Lamb. Here the earliest liturgies followed praise with prayers and petitions for the descent of the Holy Spirit, for those in need and all those in authority, as well as including a recitation of the Lord’s Prayer (all interspersed with readings from the Scriptures).

Now, standing before the Lamb upon the throne, we see Him who was sacrificed and raised to Lordship over heaven and earth (Rev. 5:6). At this juncture of the church’s worship, which was following the “heavenly pattern,” the people would hear of their Redeemer’s life, death, and resurrection from the “memoirs of the apostles.” This should follow with more adoration of the Lamb (Rev. 8), which included the eating of the Lord’s Supper—feeding upon the presence of the Lamb who had been slain.

Going back to Old Testament worship being a pattern that revealed the liturgy of heaven, the early church sought to celebrate the New Covenant, following in principle the pattern previously revealed. For example, just as there were daily sacrifices, there would be morning and evening prayers (Daily Offices). It is also significant that when we study the earliest liturgies, we see the church celebrating the Lord’s Supper in ways that expressed the liturgy of the tabernacle, especially as practiced on the Day of Atonement.12 The church’s practice should not surprise us. God had given His people a liturgy that was to teach them how to worship; since this worship was following a heavenly pattern, the church would craft its worship accordingly.

I suggest that one way to view a liturgy is as a spiritual journey, an approach to the presence of the Triune God. We “enter his gates with thanksgiving and his courts with praise”; we offer up prayers and petitions; the Word is preached, cleansing and strengthening us; we then celebrate the memorial of Christ’s redemption by eating the Lord’s Supper; and finally we are sent back into the world, commissioned to be salt, light, and leaven.

In taking this liturgical journey, the church is re-enacting the historical journey of God’s people. We are acting out our history as we know it has been and will be: God called us out of the world, united us to His Son’s body (the church), is making us into a people of worship and service, and will bring us to His wedding supper at the end of time. Again note the journey taken in Revelation.

Consider some of the basic steps or, if you prefer, ingredients of the liturgical journey:

Step one: We have separated ourselves from the world. God has called, and we have responded. The liturgy, then, actually begins when we leave our houses and travel to become “His house.” We are re-enacting our passing from death to life and are entering what has been called “the realm of grace.”

Step two: We come before Him with thanksgiving and praise. Given the reality of our “coming into His courts” and celebrating His redemption, we should take care that our worship is marked with joy and beauty. The early Christians gathered to praise God for His creation and for the new creation (2 Cor. 5:17). It was not a funeral service but a celebration. This is why early on there was such an emphasis on artistic beauty in the liturgy. We give beautiful gifts to loved ones, so why not do the same for God? Even in the middle of great persecution, the early church’s liturgies were almost utterly silent as to any reference to its suffering but, rather, was quite majestic and triumphal.13

Part of our thanksgiving, of course, is demonstrated in the giving of tithes and offerings. These are not things to be hidden by a choir’s musical offering as if we are embarrassed to obey God, nor are they so “unspiritual” that they should be wrapped around the announcements. The giving of our finances represents the giving of our lives to Him who gave His life for us.

Step three: The reading of Scripture and prayer. It is important to remember that this service is different from other fellowship—group meetings, house groups, prayer meetings, evangelistic services, etc. We have gathered as the church (1 Cor. 11:18); so we are now subject to standards of order and demeanor that are different from those of Christian fellowship over a dinner table.

Scripture is replete with passages concerning what and for whom we should pray. The church took seriously such commands as praying for all those in authority, the needy, and the sick and remembering those imprisoned for their faith. Historically, the church has also assigned certain passages (Old Testament, Gospel, Epistle) to be read each Lord’s Day,  so that over a period of a few years the congregation would have heard the major events of God’s redemptive work on their behalf.

Step four: The teaching of the Word. God is now bringing His message to us. By receiving this Word, our minds are renewed and our souls strengthened for service. Here Christ washes us with the water of His Spirit and Word (Eph. 5:25-27).

Church is for believers. In fact, in the early days of the church when confessing Christ could get one thrown into prison or executed, the meetings were closed to visitors. (And the church still grew numerically! Imagine that!) The exhortation and instruction that is given in the Sunday worship should be to build up the believer. Now is not the time to get into heavy theological discussions or political harangues. The Great Shepherd of the sheep wills for His covenant people to be fed.

Actually, the entire worship service is a sermon that speaks to us of Christ and His redemption. The service is a dialogue (liturgy means “the work of the people”) in which God speaks to us and we respond. This is why it is so important that our special worship be seen as more than just an opportunity to hear the minister teach. In biblical worship, there will be congregational participation. For example, God calls us to worship, and we respond with praise and adoration. We hear God’s law in the reading of the Decalogue and, consequently, publicly repent of our falling short of His standard. We then hear the Lord, through one of His representatives, forgive us our sins.

Step five: The Lord’s Supper. We have now arrived, symbolically, at the throne of Christ. By faith we experience the Kingdom of God—His righteousness, peace, and joy in the Holy Spirit. Whether this step in the journey should take place every week or not cannot be considered here. However, it is interesting to note Edersheim’s comment that “the apostolic practice of partaking of the Lord’s Supper every Lord’s Day may have been in imitation of the priests eating the shewbread every Sabbath.”14

Historically, part of the church’s weekly prayer life always included the Lord’s Prayer. Here we are confessing our sins, forgiving those who have sinned against us, asking the Lord to make earth like heaven, and renewing our covenant with Him. It is with this latter understanding (covenant renewal) that, throughout the church’s history, some liturgies have included this prayer with the giving of the elements (distribution) of the Lord’s Supper.

Now we have not only followed a heavenly pattern, but have re-enacted the rhythm of history that is moving toward all things being summed up in Christ (the culmination of history) and the beginning of eternity with the wedding supper of the Lamb. It is here that we see Christ as the center of life and eternity, here that we see the source of all life and blessing.

Step six: In the benediction we are blessed and sent out to make disciples of all nations. The church is not a place for escape. It is the realm of spirit and of truth, the place where we gather to be empowered to become what we are called to be before God and the world: the people of God, the church of Jesus Christ, stewards, servants, kings under the King of kings. In fact, when the church fully realizes herself in worship of the Triune God, she is manifested before the world as a witness to the Kingdom of God.

The point of this excursion through what I believe to be some of the more necessary elements of a worship service is not to assert any specific order (either oral or written) as being the only biblical one. It is simply to help evaluate what we are doing in our worship services and to provoke dialogue and reflection in each local congregation concerning how it may become more biblical in its worship.

Again, the question is not whether or not we have a liturgy, but what is our liturgy telling us about our theology? And is it congruent with the theology we confess? Do our forms of worship place Christ at the center, or man? Does the Bible govern our special worship, or does the surrounding religious culture dictate what we do? Those who love Jesus Christ, the Head of the church, must seriously consider all these questions.

It is not always easy to find the delicate balance between spontaneity and order. Today much of what passes for spontaneity is irreverent showmanship spawned by a desire to be “unique” and “relevant” rather than obedient and biblical. On the other hand, we must also be concerned not to mistake antiquity and orderliness for authentic New Testament worship in the twenty-first century. After all, cemeteries are both ancient and orderly.

PRIORITIES

It must seem strange to the average Christian of our day to read in history where, in the midst of poverty, religious persecution, social upheaval of every sort, war, and plagues, some of the sixteenth-century church’s greatest leaders (Luther, Zwingli, et al) gathered at the Colloquy of Marburg to argue about the nature of the Eucharist. What were they thinking? Shouldn’t they have been out evangelizing Roman Catholics or picketing the local brothels or preaching sermons on the great social issues of the day? But if we look back to the time when Luther was shown that justification was by faith alone and consider the effects of this single theological insight upon all of western civilization, we can see that theological issues have greater societal ramifications than we have heretofore thought possible. Furthermore, we may be challenged to change our priorities.

The cultural mandate (Gen. 1:26-28) declares that we are to cultivate the world for God’s glory. As Ray Sutton has written:

What is “culture”? “Culture” comes from “cultus,” meaning worship. Thus, the task of dominion was to transform the world into a place of worship and thereby create true culture. . . . In Adam’s case, he was to take the raw materials on the ground and fashion a society, not just a cathedral, in concert with God’s presence. In our case, it consists of transforming the unethical debris of society into the glorious praise of God.15

How does this happen? How do we seek to make all of life a praise to the Creator-Savior? How do we work toward influencing the world for Christ and His Kingdom (Matt. 5:13, 16; 13:31-33)? I assert that it all begins in church worship.

As we have already noted, many well-meaning, serious-minded, conservative evangelicals have turned the Sunday service into a revival or worse, a political rally. What they do not realize is that by changing their priorities from worship to evangelism and political action, they are actually weakening their effectiveness in these endeavors, If the people do not focus on Christ, worship Christ, feed on Christ, ascend into the heavenlies with Christ in worship as a church, all of life suffers due to a perverted perspective, not to mention suffering a depletion of spiritual empowerment.

If we are not straight about the nature of worship or the nature of the God we worship, what and whom will we be taking to the world? If our understanding of the bread and the wine of the Lord’s Table is defective, won’t this pervert how we view the world and, more importantly, Christ Himself? And if we are wrong here, what sort of gospel are we taking to the world? Worship is critical not only to our spiritual welfare but to our mission to the world as well.

The world will never be as radiant with the glory of God as is the church. In itself, indeed, the world is darkness, uncomprehending of the Light. But with the coming of the Sunrise from on high (Luke 1:78), and the shining of His light through His city, the world is lighted and is transformed into an image of the heavenly kingdom. Though the world cannot be God’s kingdom in the same way that the church is, the world can, however dimly, reflect the glory of the kingdom that shines through the church.16

If we wish to see God glorified in the world, He must first be glorified in the church. Toward that end, we must completely rethink our paradigms of worship. The secular culture has far more influence upon how a vast number of evangelical churches conduct their worship services than does the Bible or church history. Consequently, when the world looks to the church, all it sees is its own face with a religious veneer.

Theology, biblically-based liturgy, and spirituality must all take their place at the heart of our worship. It is not enough to just speak appropriately of God; we must also perform our worship in a way worthy of Him, with hearts on fire with love for Him in whom we live and move and have our being.


NOTES

  1. Alexander Schmemann, Introduction of Liturgical Theology (New York: St. Vladimir’s Seminary Press, 1986), p. 30.
  2. “Gospel,” in Christopher J. Cockworth, Evangelical Eucharistic Thought in the Church of England (Cambridge, England: University Press, 1993), pp. 3, 5.
  3. Iain H. Murray, Revival and Revivalism: The Making and Marring of American Evangelicalism 1750-1858 (Edinburgh: Banner of Truth, 1994).
  4. Mark Noll, The Scandal of the Evangelical Mind (Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 1994), p. 62.
  5. J. I. Packer, Concise Theology: A Guide to Historic Christian Beliefs (Wheaton, IL: Tyndale, 1993), P. 98.
  6. John Calvin, Institutes of the Christian Religion (Philadelphia: Westminster), Book II, ch. VII, p. 349.
  7. Schmemann, Introduction of Liturgical Theology, p. 100.
  8. Cf. Ralph Martin, Worship in the Early Church (Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 1995), p. 19.
  9. Cf. Royal Grote’s monograph, Calling on the Name of the Lord (The Reformed Episcopal Church, 211 Byrne, Houston, TX 77009), where he gives an excellent overview of J. H. Blunt’s, The Annotated Prayer Book of 1868 and the history of the church’s liturgical forms. Also note Alexander Schmemann’s Introduction of Liturgical Theology.
  10. James Jordan, The Sociology of the Church (Tyler, TX: Geneva Ministries, 1986), pp. 208-210.
  11. Ray Sutton, That You May Prosper (Tyler, TX: ICE, 1987), p. 4n.
  12. Alfred Edersheim, The Temple: Its Ministry and Services As They Were at the Time of Jesus (Grand Rapids, MI: Kregel, 1997 repr.), pp. 176-196.
  13. Schmemman, Introduction of Liturgical Theology, p. 96.
  14. Edersheim, The Temple, p. 126.
  15. Sutton, That You May Prosper, p. 125.
  16. Peter Liethart, The Kingdom and the Power: Rediscovering the Centrality of the Church (Phillipsburg, NJ: Presbyterian & Reformed, 1993), p. 167ff.

Author

Monte E. Wilson(B.A., Bethany College; M.R.E., D.Min., Bethany Seminary) is director of Global Impact, a ministry that teaches developing nations how to apply biblical truth to every area of life. He is also the editor of Classical Christianity, a teaching publication designed to introduce ecumenical orthodoxy to the evangelical church.

This article is taken from The Compromised Church© and used by permission of Dr. John H. Armstrong, General Editor.



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