Posted by: Terry | March 2, 2017

A journey to participative worship

6772e74bf2ea726e0f37962e0465b3ccWhen did worshipping God become a sing-along concert with a self-help talk? Yet this is what I have observed at many churches over the last twenty-plus years.

Song leaders have been replaced with “worship leaders and bands.” The message of the songs is frequently more about “me” and my response to God than it is proclaiming the person and the grace of God. Even the songs about the work of God seem to end with “what it means to me.” The musical part of the service is well rehearsed, a polished performance with loud instruments that drown out the voices of the congregation. I miss hearing a congregation’s voice praising God for who he is, above the guitar or organ.

I do not come out of a liturgical tradition, my roots are Baptist. Yet we did have a sort of liturgy. There would be a song or two, scripture reading, prayers for the needs of the church and each other, an offering was taken, an offertory, a sermon explaining a portion of the Bible, and once a month communion or Lord’s Supper – of course in a Baptist church it was never called Eucharist.

When I moved from Baptist churches, to a Nazarene church (A long story having nothing to do with doctrine), there was a time each Sunday morning when people were invited to the alter for prayer. In both of these denominations there was a bit of interaction between the worshippers and the pastors. We actually sang the songs, now we sing along with a music group, then we were part of the music. We entered into prayer with other believers, either in our pew or at the alter. Over time congregations singing and praying together have faded away, our church finally took away the alter.

For much of the church’s history the sermon illuminated God and his work, then offered encouragement or exhortation to live a life that expressed our faith. There was regular reminders of the foundational message of the Bible: God created his world, his created people fell away, he instituted a plan to restore his creation, Jesus the Messiah was the pinnacle of that plan, there is a new people and kingdom entered into by faith, and ultimately there will be a restored creation with God dwelling with his people.

We are people “saved by grace, not our own efforts.” The Apostles and early church leaders were clear that there was a danger of leaving the good news of the Messiah and returning to a life of self-effort, embodied in the Torah (the first 5 books of the Bible). Following Jesus meant embracing him as Messiah then taking active participation in his kingdom, which required adopting a new vocation for our life – bringing his will on earth as it is in heaven. Following Jesus was all about glorifying the Father, just as Jesus had done while on earth.

Someplace along the way self-help has replaced the Torah as the false way of being right with God – but then again maybe they are not so different. The Torah laid out a life that must be lived to be accepted by God, his grace was implemented by living in accordance with the Torah, the Law’s, requirements, mixed with faith. Jesus recognized that human effort would always fall short, it was faith in the Messiah’s coming, his death, and resurrection that would produce right alignment with God.

If you listen to many preachers today who encourage following Jesus, their message is that patterning your life after Jesus results in a better life and that you then are members of the family of God. Following Jesus becomes a self-help program of doing all you can to live your life with Jesus as your role model. Certainly a person could not pick a better example for right living, yet following Jesus for self-improvement was never the prime directive of the New Testament.

It is this trend that caused me to wander and explore. I discovered that much of what I grew up with was not the ancient church, it was as new as the late 1800’s, embodied in the Scofield Study Bible. The early church read the  Apostle’s writings and the Scriptures to each other, they prayed together, and they celebrated the death of Christ weekly, even daily. Worship was praising God,”Hallowed be your name”,  proclaiming his person and work. Prayer was worship, thanking, praising, petitioning.

I was raised on a sort of intellectual-checklist kind of faith. The right distinctive doctrines were more important than the relationship with God. They talked about relationships, but preached theology. Theology is important, but the end is knowing God, checklists just don’t produce relationships. Study is important but not the end. It gives us substance for what we believe, but as it says in Ecclesiastes “Of making many books there is no end, and much study wearies the body.” (NIV)

The turning point for me was when I realized what was missing in what I was hearing. Paul said, “We preach Christ crucified.” Eucharist has been the celebration and the proclamation of Christ crucified since the earliest days of the church, weekly, even daily. Christians have felt the need for constant reminding and recommitting to the death of Christ. Thinking about this I realize that from my early days as a youth pastor, 40+ years ago, I taught that there was more to Communion than just a time of remembrance and warm feelings, but that we should center on what the body and blood of Christ did, and what it means to us who call ourselves Christians.

I began to explore the denominations who’s worship made Eucharist the center or regular part of their services. That led me to discover that their liturgy focused on Praise, Reading Scripture, Prayer, and Eucharist. An added attraction was that they were praying and reading the same scriptures as millions of other Christians around the world were praying, a unity I desired.

For many years I have read the readings from the Book of Common Prayer each morning, and often the prayers for the day. There is something refreshing, comforting, to the routine. The same routine that I have experienced as I have visited liturgical churches.

I am not really sure there is a neat conclusion to this post, it is more of a progress report. Going back to concert-self-help is probably not an option. For now I continue to read, pray, and explore. I do know I feel more connected to God than I have for many years, that is refreshing, and motivating me to keep the process going.

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Responses

  1. Good write-up Terry. I think the only difference for me is that I am not particularly fond of Liturgical services. For me it not only becomes slightly mundane but I find myself about to go “through the motion” without thinking about it. On the other hand, I take comfort in the familiar. So it is a mixed blessing for me. But some portions of a typical service, the taking of the elements for example, offer more meaning in a liturgical services where the congregants are reminded precisely what it means to partake and it is reinforced over and over again. Repetition is how we learn. Thank you for sharing your thoughts.


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