Worship as Prayer

27 10 2014

The first “contemporary” worship service I attended was at Willow Creek in the early 1990’s. I was in college and, in fact, attendance was part of a class assignment for a course on church growth. And even in those days when I possessed extensive ignorance in the areas of ecclesiology and liturgy, I noticed the distinct lack of prayer in the service. When discussing this in the classroom, it was argued this was intentional because it was a “seeker” service. The more intensive “praying” took place in small groups throughout the week. There were just too many non-Christians in the Sunday services to warrant the use of the very Christian act of prayer.

 

Setting aside, for now, the pros and cons of using Sunday “worship” services as the main evangelistic tool of the church, it must be pointed out that churches like Willow Creek influenced the way thousands of churches conducted their worship services in North America (and now, the world). Which means this lack of prayer in the main service has now become common-place in “contemporary” worship services in country, small town, suburban and urban congregations. When I sit through these sort of services (and sitting is about all that the “audience” gets to do, except standing to sing) I increasingly feel like I have been to some kind of a show that may be distantly related to Christian worship, but does not quite pull-off the real deal.

 

The truth is painful (and controversial) but it must be said and repeated: most of our Evangelical “contemporary” worship services would be unrecognizable to believers from Justin Martyr to John Wesley. The lack of a distinct and unified prayer of the people of God is an immense contributor to this very lamentable reality.

 

This lack of prayer in our “worship” services has, I believe, been a major impetus for the many prayer movements that have experienced dynamic growth in the last 20 years (The International House of Prayer, IHOP, comes immediately to mind– and while, on the one hand, IHOP takes “contemporary” worship forms to a new extreme with 24/7 worship music lead by a band; on the other hand, IHOP conceives of every facet of their services as prayer which is much closer to Biblical and historic perspectives of worship).

 

My concern and anger are piqued because most of Evangelicalism’s fastest growing churches are training Christians that prayer is either a minor component of Christian practice or it is something best left to the paid professionals. There may be a prayer here and there, and the pastor may pray, but when do God’s people learn how to pray as individuals, much less as a cohesive whole?

 

Hence my preference for ancient liturgies, East and West, and the emphasis on the worship service as the unified prayer of God’s people– a service that is prayer from start to finish. But Evangelicals, by and large, dismiss these prayers as wrote and unreal because they are not prayed from the heart. How can they be since they are just printed words mouthed in unison? But my rebuttal is based on the didactic importance of prayer: how can the heart, or mind, pray well when it has never been invited into the Church’s prayer life that has been going on for 3,000 plus years (going back to the Psalms)? Old and New Testament followers of God prayed written prayers as one. And so did Christians for the vast majority of Church history. How is it that some of us now know better or have graduated to a higher level than the giants of the faith who have gone before us?

 

I’m afraid we place too much emphasis on “heart-felt” emotional prayers and not enough on serious corporate prayer that forms and shapes those who join their voices to it into Christ-like, living sculptures. In fact, if our extemporaneous, “heart-felt” prayers too often seem inane, shallow and self-focused, we need not look far for one of the main culprits. Written, corporate prayers are not meant to replace other forms of prayer, but to breath life, vibrancy and depth into them. Our own time tends to pit written and extemporaneous forms prayer against one another– making them mutually exclusive. But they are meant, and have been used as such down through the millennia, to be the right and left lungs of the prayer life of God’s people. We dare not keep the Holy Spirit on a short leash by using only one prayer form to the utter neglect of the other.


Please take these following paragraphs from the late Robert Webber with the weight and seriousness they deserve. If we are no longer praying God’s story for the sake of the world, we are no longer Christ’s body or bride. We’re just another association with faded semblances to a vibrant Christian heritage. (What follows is from his final book: Ancient-Future Worship)

 

The first crisis of public prayer is its neglect. By neglect I do not mean to suggest that congregational worship has no prayer within it. Indeed, most if not all churches will do prayers. They may begin and end with prayer. A prayer may be said before a sermon or at its ending; intercessory prayers may be made for the sick, for shutins, for the needs of the congregation, local city, country, and even for the world (however, many contemporary churches do not have a place for intercessory prayer). What I speak of here as the neglect of prayer is the failure to conduct all of worship as the prayer of the church for the life of the world.

This failure to grasp all of worship as a cosmic prayer has several underlying causes. The first and, I believe, most fundamental reason why worship is not seen as prayer is the failure to grasp that corporate prayer arises from the story of God. We think of corporate prayers as arising within ourselves. Yet the story of God . . .is the story of the world and of human existence. Worship prays this story. But this thought and the application of this thought for the content and structure of worship is neglected simply because it is unheard of by many.

A second reason why worship is not seen as the prayer of God’s people for the world is because worship has been turned into a program. Worship, influenced by broadcast communication theories of the media revolution, has become an entertaining presentation. The commitment to worship “programming” has been intensified by the contemporary Christian music industry. Because people are drawn by entertainment, showmanship, and celebrity, many local churches have turned to a presentational worship to attract the masses.

Consequently, the nature of worship has shifted from corporate prayer to platform presentational performance. Worship, instead of being a rehearsal of God’s saving actions in the world and for the world, is exchanged for making people feel comfortable, happy, and affirmed. Worship, no longer the public prayer of God’s people, becomes a private and individual experience. Beneath the privatization of worship is the ever-present individualism of our culture. This focus on the self results in prayers that are concerned with my life, my needs, my desires–prayers that seem indifferent to the needs of the poor and the problem of violence and war that devours nations and societies and ignore the works of God in Christ to bring to an end all evil, death, and sin. . . .

Worship as public prayer may be described as follows: “Public prayer lifts up all creation to the Father through Jesus Christ by the Spirit in praise and thanksgiving for the work of the Son, who has reconciled creatures and creation to God.” Because this is what the public prayer of the church does, the story of God is the substance of the inner content that shapes the outer form of public prayer. Worship prays God’s story.

 

 

Paul instructs the churches in Philippi, “Do not be anxious about anything, but in everything, by prayer and petition, with thanksgiving, present your requests to God. And the peace of God, which transcends all understanding, will guard your hearts and your minds in Christ Jesus.” The “your” here is second person plural. This is a corporate activity flowing from and resting on the accomplished work of Christ Jesus. The prayers we pray when we gather for worship need to more intentionally unite us into the true story of Jesus. Written, responsorial, and Eucharistic prayers are indispensible for this task.

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Pasta Bowl Worship

26 05 2014

I love pasta. In fact, I love all sorts of pasta: linguine, fettuccini, penne, spaghetti, bow-tie, and even good old fashioned “elbow noodles.” I even really enjoy different types of sauces: marinara, alfredo, traditional, and many others (as long as they don’t contain big chucks of veggies!). And toppings too! Meatballs, grilled chicken, ground beef, (I’m still not sure about seafood…). But something I do not like, is pasta all by itself. It is the combination of pasta, sauce and meat that make it a meal– a great tasting meal.

I am concerned that too many of our worship services are like bowls of plain pasta, without the other ingredients. Now, it is true that pasta by itself is still food that will provide the human body with some needed nutrients. My wife and daughter sometimes have pasta with just a little butter and it is enough. But most of the time they also crave flavor, protein and vegetables (the last item I personally do not have much interest in!). But a bowl of unadorned pasta would be poor fare day in and day out. There are many millions around the world who subsist on rice as their daily diet. Maybe one or two times a year they get to top that rice with other things, but it is a rare treat. Does this diet keep them alive? Yes, it does. Are they able to thrive and flourish? Not so much. Without vitamins and nutrients that come from other varieties of food, those who have access to only rice have poor or fragile health.

Many millions of Christians subsist on weekly offerings of pasta bowl worship. There is singing, there is preaching, there is some prayer, but the “meat” and the “sauce” of Word and Table are meager, rare, and all too often, poorly prepared.


I have heard and read about Evangelical leaders who say something like, “Why do we need to have multiple Scripture readings and weekly Communion, when thousands flock to our churches, get saved, and have transformed lives without it?!” I accept this as a good point not lightly swept aside. Such is surely evidence of the power of the Cross and the Holy Spirit. It cannot be said that those who worship with “simple pasta” are somehow un-Christian or will fail to make it to heaven. Not even Roman Catholics or Eastern Orthodox make such a claim. I believe it is the difference between simple subsistence and a well-rounded diet.

I realize the analogy with the pasta and rice is not without flaws as I am employing it.* However, it helps me explain why I think the ancient worship pattern of weekly Word and Table is so very important even though millions of Christians seem to get along just fine without it. To me it is the difference between getting by, on the one hand, and really living, on the other. It is the difference between possessing a part verses embracing the whole.

I have also noticed that those churches who make little use of Word and Table, the “meat and sauce”, find other substitutes. Every local church and denomination that does not make the Word and Sacraments central in their worship, will fill that slot with other things. And those other things, in time, become central to those believers: emotion-laded songs (contemporary and traditional), scholarly or emotional preaching, ecstatic prayer experiences, missions (foreign & domestic), social and political issues, even doctrinal distinctives.

Let me be clear! There is great value in every item on that list, and not one is bad or sinful. Not one of them, however, is meant to be central. God is meant to be the focus and center of our worship. And when we keep Scripture and the Sacraments central we have a time tested means of keeping God, and all His saving works in Christ through the Holy Spirit, central. (By the way, “preaching” is not the same as keeping Scripture central, because preaching is human comment and explanation of Scripture. To make preaching central is to dance the near the precipice of idolatry. The same is very much true of music and singing in our services).

I am no fool (usually) and I’m not too terribly naïve. I am fully aware that Scripture and the Sacraments are, #1, not a fool-proof way to keep God central in our worship gatherings. There are some liturgical traditions that have so many layers of words and actions that Christ in His church is obscured. Fortunately, there has been a “clearing of the decks” in the last 50 years with much positive liturgical renewal. And #2, I am painfully aware that the Bible and Communion have been sources of idolatry at various times and places within church history. In other words, some have become so enraptured with the symbol (which truly does participate with Divine reality, by the way), that they no longer see the real thing the symbol is trying to point them to. (For the Bible, think sola scriptura, or King James only; for Communion think keeping the consecrated bread on reserve in little tabernacles, or when lay folk are discouraged from receiving the elements on a regular basis).

Throughout church history, again and again, Word and Table have rescued God’s people from heresy and self-centeredness. But for this to happen in our day, we desperately need to employ the following sorts of things (as quickly as it can be tolerated, as church-folk are lovingly taught their importance):

  • Multiple Scripture readings every Sunday. And preferably not just ones that fit the pastor’s agenda or desires. Additionally, it is not necessary to comment upon or explain every reading that is made on a given Sunday. However, some time of silence after each reading is in order. Even in liturgical churches, there is the annoying habit of rushing from one reading to the next without time for reflection and contemplation.
  • A much greater use of the Psalms as part of our prayer and praise time.
  • Shorter sermons that allow time for longer uses of Scripture (readings and Psalms), longer times of prayer, and a truly full-orbed celebration of the Lord’s Supper that is not rushed to fit it in before everyone is late for dinner or the ball game.
  • Weekly Communion services. I realize that for most in non-liturgical churches, this is unrealistic– there would be mass mutiny as people fled churches implementing this, only to find or establish congregations where their own preferences are kept in high regard. However, the least we can do to remain obedient to Scripture and faithful to the wise saints who have gone before us, is to offer a weekly Communion service that is separate from the “main” service. But I really do hope that ALL churches will quickly realize that the main service should be celebrating the Eucharist no less than monthly!
  • Communion services that emphasize the fullness of Christ’s accomplished work beyond His atoning death on the cross. Protestants and Evangelicals are inheritors of the, often despised, Medieval church more than they will ever admit. Nowhere is this seen more clearly than in the way Communion is carried out– from Baptist, to Presbyterian, to Methodist, to Charismatic, to Lutheran. Our Communion services, with rare exception, are somber and heavy, myopically focused on sin and the Cross and seeming to lack in Good News. This may be appropriate for a season like Lent, or on a day like Good Friday, but Christ did and is doing so much more! Jesus also healed, rejoiced in His Father’s love, rose again, ascended into heaven, and is with us to the end of the age. Our Communion services must do a much better job of reflecting the full reality of Christ and his works.

    Many in the Evangelical universe hope and pray for revival in our churches because so many are struggling and genuine conversions seem few and far between, while many believers live blatantly immoral lives. Just such a revival may come with the renewal of Word and Table in our Sunday services. As churched and un-churched are confronted with the fullness of God’s Word, and immersed in the saving acts of THE Word, Christ Jesus, week in and week out, revival (although quietly and largely unobserved) will come. It may not be the revival of our immediate forbears where the “altar” was lined with weeping, penitent sinners, or the raucous emotionalism of revival tent meetings; but rather the steady growth that takes place because the roots are spreading deep into nutrient rich soil and pure subterranean water-ways. It its season, such a revival will produce a crop thirty, sixty and a hundredfold. A revival of the ole’ fashioned kind burned hot and bright but quickly died away. The next revival must be slow and deep enough to transform, not only individual lives, but the whole culture as well.

    A diet of plain pasta worship, from generation to generation, has and will fail to make disciples of the sort Jesus has commanded us to go and make. I long for the day when Word and Table is renewed and loved across the land, across denominations. Lord Jesus hasten the day.

    *I do, however, like to make the analogy that the different types of sauces and toppings are like the different styles and expressions of Word & Table worship that organically grow out of the many different cultures and “tribes” of the world.

    The analysis of “worship style” by the late Robert Webber, in his last book, Ancient-Future Worship, is spot on:


    The style of doing Word and Table is a matter of making the content and structure of worship indigenous to the local setting. The greatest error I have seen in the style of worship–both traditional and contemporary–is to program it. Traditional worship strings together Scripture readings, prayers, psalms, choir, solo numbers, offering and announcements and then adds a sermon and benediction at the end. Usually there is little thought given to narrating God’s story and vision. On the other hand, most contemporary worship leaders think in terms of opening with thirty minutes of songs and choruses strung together, followed by a time for announcements and offering, followed by the sermon (not generally regarded as worship). The sermon is usually topical, often supplemented with a few Bible stories, but seldom about the Good News that God has won a decisive victory over the powers of evil and will eventually set up his kingdom forever. Consider what is happening in our world today with militant terrorists who wish to cast Israel into the sea and scale the wall of the Western world and bring it to ruin. What is more relevant: a therapeutic sermon that makes you feel good about yourself, or a sermon that speaks to who narrates the world? (pg. 78)