Spiritual in the Flesh

10 02 2017

If our view of heaven and the afterlife has become white-washed intangibility with clouds and harps and bodiless spirits, it is largely because we have stopped believing in the Sacraments.   —  C.S. Lewis, from “Transposition” in The Weight of Glory


It is rather frightening to watch how consistently Hollywood depicts Heaven and the after-life:  a bright light, sky and clouds, figures dressed in pure white togas.  The lack of creativity is stunning.  Because this vision of Heaven is so monochromatic and bland, Hollywood must make movies about other worlds, dimensions, and galaxies that display in digital HD the stunning beauty we all long and hope for.

Recently, upon watching Rogue One:  A Star Wars Story, I departed the theater haunted by Eden.  Why?  While the plot and heroics were mildly inspiring, I could not get over the painfully beautiful  planetary landscapes.  Now, I realize our own planet has breathtaking beauty, but for some reason we want to see and experience that beauty in an entirely different, even mythical context.  We long for the other-worldly– somehow innately sensing that this world is not our true and final home.  All of it’s beauty and adventure just leave us increasingly homesick.


So, why do I have to go to the movie theater to have this experience.  Shouldn’t I be having a glimpse of the other-worldly at church?  Sadly, no.  At least, not in the tradition in which I was raised.  My honest confession is that I am weary to the point of being angry to have to attend Sunday morning services in my current context (which is overall good and necessary).  Songs and a sermon (with announcements and a few VERY brief prayers and Scriptures).  My particular ecclesiastical tradition seems to be terribly allergic to the tactile and aesthetic .  We are fearful where that may lead, so we keep to purely “spiritual” practices in our worship– like songs and sermons.  I arrived at home after the morning service and attempted to watch the Divine Liturgy on YouTube just to have some taste of what I longed for (alas!  The quality of the video was poor, and I found I was a mere observer and no real participant!).

For you churches in this stream of the Christian tradition related to Worship practices, hear me:  I would rather watch a movie or drive into the mountains than sit through your worship services.  And if I, a committed believer raised in the church, have this opinion, how much more so do the unbelievers who sleep in on Sunday morning.  Good grief!  Even the early church suffering under heavy persecution took the time and effort to make beautiful mosaics that decorated the floors and walls of their worship spaces which tended to be in the large homes of the wealthy.

Would it really kill our churches to make our worship spaces beautiful, rather than merely utilitarian?!


There is a good deal of irony being in a Holiness tradition– our walls are all white (or the same colors as the local Starbucks), with no art-work to be found (except for the occasional banner with a bible verse), our pulpits and communion tables have been removed to make room for the praise band and casually dressed preacher, but in many cases we still have the “altar”, which is actually the altar rail, where communicants, once upon a forgotten time, would kneel to receive the consecrated elements of the Lord’s Supper.   All furniture our forebears used in worship have disappeared except for a piece that is not used as originally intended!

Holiness churches, if we really want to be more spiritual, we need to become more physical in our worship services.  Christians have always done so until the Anabaptists.  It is the natural human inclination across time and cultures.  But sadly, being more spiritual does not seem toholy-communion-cross-in-cup be the goal.  Rather the aim is to be more appealing to visitors and outsiders so that attendance averages and budgets increase.  I know our leaders voice the belief that all such efforts are a means to the end of saving souls– getting people to Heaven and away from the wide highways to Hell.  But in all our efforts to be relevant and cool, we’ve forgotten the body of Christ who have been assembling with us all these years, and how they and we need the vision of Heaven constantly and consistently renewed before our five senses.   Maybe, just maybe, with the bright beauty of Eternity shinning out clear and true from our eyes, hearts and mouths we would all be more effective evangelists, a hundred-fold.  Then such scheming, marketing and contemporizing would not seem so necessary and we can return worship to the center and heart of Christian life as much more than a tool to attract and keep the new and hip.


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)

Things Are Not What They Seem

17 05 2014


Call me a hopeless romantic. I love fairy tales, super heroes, wizards, and knights with inhuman courage. And there seems to be a boy inside me always looking for the wardrobe– a portal to another reality that is somehow intertwined with the seemingly mundane one that I inhabit.

I remember, vaguely, when it all started. I was five, playing super heroes with my cousin. The liturgy for this is pretty standard. When your opponent displays a power that trumps your power, you “upgrade” to another, more powerful, hero. Superman trumps Batman, etc. At one point in our play-acting my cousin declared himself Superman. No one can beat Superman. Well, I couldn’t let it end there, so I put on my cape AND my cowboy boots and became. . . Super Cowboy! Who, conveniently, possessed the super-powers of ALL the super heroes combined.

I think we all, deep inside the child within each of us, hope and believe that the onion of reality can be peeled back until the ultimate– love, strength, courage, beauty, and skill is revealed– in us! In me, and in you.

Now, stay with me, there is some serious theology at play here (and “play” is the right word).

Fast-forward to when I turned 12 or 13. I learned that those with super powers were real: angels and demons. And we were all engaged in battle with and against them. And in youth group, I saw strong evidence of this hidden reality. And when I prayed I could see the battle between the Light of Christ and the Darkness of the Adversary. In the keen imagination that was still alive at that tender age, as God’s people prayed and praised, I could see heaven’s hidden doors crack open. And that crack was enough to flood our sanctuary with uncreated, all-pervasive light. I knew, simultaneously, I had been brought into something so, so much bigger than me, which also gave me a unique and irreplaceable part to play in the struggle to push back the Dark Lord and his minions.

Over the next few years that clarity faded– all too soon. Other things took precedence, like grades, girls, and getting my driver’s license. I became myopically focused on the visible world.

In college I was given the great gift of rational, empirical thinking. My faith was greatly bolstered and set in stone in my fertile, hungry intellect. But, unbeknown to me, my imagination, my heart, was sorely underfed and began to make some noise to regain my attention. I entered Seminary in the midst of a faith crisis– what was the point of church and prayer?! I already had all the knowledge that really mattered! Then I sat down in Don Boyd’s worship course and discovered a powerful mystery: the sacraments. As it turned out the angels had returned to my world (as if they had ever left!) as fellow worshippers who were present at every sacred gathering of believers. But, like the cheesy, bombastic infomercial, there was more–much more. Jesus himself was present, giving away his very self and life through silly little things like bits of bread and Welch’s grape juice. And as He gave, and we received, we became united to Him and to each other. The church was re-born at every communion service. The church: a sacred fellowship of warriors following their Captain into the fray for the pure joy and love of Him and His Kingdom. (For you Middle-earth geeks, it’s like the Guard of the Tower, Beregond, breaking man-made rules for the love of his captain, Faramir– whose life he rescues in the process).

Super-heroes, saints and angels, had re-entered my story, my imagination. And as I became a pastor this truth– that the supernatural is always impinging and penetrating our hermetically sealed (so we think!) natural order. Things are almost never what they seem! And, oh the mistakes I’ve made, and continue to make, because I do not take that aphorism seriously. And how I wish more Evangelicals, those intrepid inheritors of the late Middle-Ages AND the Enlightenment, would awaken from their slumber induced by naturalism and materialism! Far too many of us who believe the right things about Jesus and accept Him as Lord and Savior, have insisted that He leave His superpowers at the door as He enters the church! Miracles, angels, demons, transformed Bread and Wine– these are fairy tales and we are all grown up now with our exegetical tools, and church growth strategies. Only the emotional Pentecostals and archaic Catholics still follow such outmoded methods of doing ministry. We know better, however.

I grant that such sentiments (theologies?) are rarely expressed so directly. And most Evangelicals would vehemently deny being anti-supernatural. But our actions, the way we behave and the things we don’t do as Christians betray our true beliefs. Fortunately, the tide is turning. Younger Evangelicals are recapturing their imaginations, and the faith of the Apostles and Fathers.

Hans Boersma in his book, Heavenly Participation, labors to help Evangelicals reclaim the ancient faith and a truly Biblical imagination: A way of thinking, feeling and living where we see that there truly is an intricate and real connection with the heavenly, spiritual universe.

And I will have more to say about this soon…

The Physical Side of Faith

8 11 2010

Since Salvation is a Life, it must be an embodied life.  That is hard for us to imagine because our bodies seem to be a constant hindrance to spiritual vitality and obedience to Christ.  After all, Paul insists that the flesh and the Spirit are at war and we must strive to choose to walk with the Spirit (Gal 5:16-25).  The answer to spiritual progress, however, is not to ignore or beat down the body.  Those two options always devolve into heresies.  Rather, the body must be redeemed if Salvation is to be a real, daily reality.  In no way can we follow Jesus on the inside only– in the mental, spiritual, emotional  realms.  If we pursue this course, we fall into the heresies of Gnosticism and Dualism.  These heresies reject the body as either evil or insignificant and all effort is aimed at being liberated from the body.

Does this, in actuality, sound like a fairly Christian idea?  If it does, it shows how far removed we have become from the message of the New Testament and the Early Church.  How can I make such a claim?  One event:  The Resurrection.  Eternal life with Christ will be an embodied existence.  This means our life here and now with Christ must also be an embodied experience.

This is why the spiritual disciplines and Christian worship unabashedly employ the body:  fasting, kneeling, standing, prostrating, pilgrimage, silence, sacraments, holy embracing, singing, dancing, etc.  Other practices that Protestants and Evangelicals have typically rejected are extremely common for other Christians:  using prayer beads/ropes; making the sign of the cross; kissing icons, statuary and the Bible; bowing before the cross/Bible/altar; lighting candles and incense.  Whatever you think of such practices, for those who do them they are as natural as hugging your children is to you.

At any rate, Dallas Willard argues in The Spirit of the Disciplines that a key reason we so rarely make progress in Christ-likeness is because we neglect or dismiss the body.  Jesus used his whole body as he learned to walk in flawless obedience to the Father, so what makes us think we can be effective Christ followers by practicing a predominately interiorized faith?

Matthew Gallatin, in his spiritual autobiography, Thirsting for God, recounts how he comes to regard the physical acts of worship and spiritual discipline as the key to an intimate walk with Jesus (keep in mind that his journey lead him join the Orthodox Church).  This is a sacramental world view– certain physical acts, through the work of the Holy Spirit, enable us to connect in real ways to the Kingdom life of the Trinity and the saints in glory.  It is not magic, but neither is it mere ritual.  Yes, our faith, state of mind and emotions, preparation, and moral state are factors, but they are not the determining factors in meeting Christ through the sacraments and disciplines.  The determining factor, Gallatin confidently asserts, is that God established these acts through the Apostles in the Early Church.  For one raised in an Evangelical denomination with a fairly low and mundane view of the sacraments, such practices and theology feel like forbidden territory– even the Devil’s playground.  And yet it increasingly makes more sense to me at a deep level than how I was generally brought up in the church.

One small example:  Jesus is the King of Kings of the entire universe, of heaven and earth– why shouldn’t I bow when his Gospel word is brought out and read.  Why should I not bow before His Table where he has promised to meet us through the Supper he instituted?  We are human beings with bodies.  We experience those around us by the use of our bodies– hugs, hand-shakes, kisses, a hand on the shoulder, etc.  AND, our life is full of meaningful rituals:  bed-time routines with our children, saying “I love you”, Saturday mornings, birthdays & anniversaries, that daily phone call to “check in.”  Why do we tend to neglect the use of our bodies in our life with God?  And why do we assume any ritual must be spiritually dead?  If we think this way, it is a horrible inconsistency, because we do not treat the rest of our lives this way!  What we do with our bodies in worship and in our “daily devotions” is very important to loving the God who loves us.  Considering all the unhealthy things we do with our bodies, it’s time to put our bodies to good use!

Communion in 3-D

1 08 2010

I offer here some quotes and reflections from J. Ernest Rattenbury’s study, The Eucharistic Hymns of John and Charles Wesley (Akron, OH: OSL Publications, 3rd American Edition, 2006)  [This work was originally published in the mid 1900’s]

“The antithesis [that many mistakenly place] between social and personal Christianity, neither of which is really exclusive to the other, is nearly as absurd as that between Sacramentalism and Evangelism; both antitheses unfortunately mislead many people.” (pg. 135)

Rattenbury spends the first couple of chapters describing how the Wesleyan revival in 18th Century England often took the form of overcrowded Communion services!!  Our own American revivals of the 19th Century often brought sinners to the “altar” (which is actually the altar rail, the real altar being the Communion Table) but rarely resulted in brining them regularly to the Table.  Few things raise my ire more than to hear pastors and worship leaders speak disparagingly about celebrating the Lord’s Supper too often for fear of alienating the “seeker”, who would apparently be offended, frightened or irreparably confused by such an arcane ritual.  On such matters I’m little interested in being diplomatic.

Such pastors and leaders are simply wrong and misguided, while Rattenbury is right when he states: “And even today [in mid 20th Century], when in many Protestant churches the Atonement is a subject of which nothing is ever heard, and the pulpit is often confined at its best to the preaching of Christian ethics, there never can be a Communion Service, whether simple or elaborate, which does not show forth the death of our Lord till He come.  So long as a single Eucharist remains, the fundamental truth of the Gospel is declared.” (pg. 118)  I question the sanity of those who claim heart rending concern for the lost and unchruched while simultaneously exhibiting a nonchalant attitude for the dust gathering on the Communion Table, now hidden behind the drum set and the glare of the giant screens.

Rattenbury, in exploring Wesely’s Communion hymns, also reminds us that we cannot escape the issue of sacrifice (chp. 7).  First, there is Christ’s unrepeatable and impossible to duplicate act on the cross which the bread and wine help us to recall and enable us to re-present.  But second, there is the reminder that the Church, Christ’s followers, are the Body of Christ, who are called, for the sake of the world, to suffer and die with Christ, by offering up ourselves as living sacrifices in loving service to God and others.  Perhaps this second aspect of sacrifice is one reason the Table is too easily neglected and forgotten—we do not like to be reminded that to follow Christ is to take up the cross and walk the Via Delarosa.  Rattenbury graphically states, “The Church can do nothing apart from Christ and out of union with Him.  In reality, apart from Christ it would only be a decapitated corpse, not a body. When not only in ideal but in practice she is one with Christ, she shares alike His suffering and His glory.  Such a realization and implementation of the oneness of the Church with Christ would be indeed a manifestation of the sons of God for which the whole creation waits.” (pg. 128)

Please allow me one other short quote before offering Rattenbury’s brilliant summary of the significances of Holy Communion.  The Lord’s supper points to our need for union with Christ and union with each other.  He states, “Our life in Christ can only be His life in us, which can only be ours by perfect trust in Him.” (pg. 133)

Now, here is Rattenbury’s golden summary of his study on Wesely’s Eucharistic hymns and the multivalent nature of Communion:

“The Lord’s Supper, though primarily a memorial of the crucifixion of Jesus – of Christ crucified – is much more; by means of it the risen and ascended Christ is called to mind, the Victim-Priest in heaven, whose death is ‘ever new’ and always availing for sinful men.  Though ascended to heaven, He is present in His Church, because his ascension does not localize Him.  Heaven is just behind the Veil.  The Elements, the tokens of His dying Love, are the organs which the ever-present Christ uses to feed and refresh His people.  Not only is He really present at the Supper, but heaven come with Him, and His people find their joyful experience heaven on earth and taste of the fullness that is to be.  Furthermore, the bread and wine are the offering on earth of the tokens of the eternal sacrifice in heaven and correspond with that sacrifice, echoing as it were below, the plea made to the Father by the Priest-Victim, the Lamb of God who is also the Shepherd of the Sheep, who ever liveth to make intercession for us.

“But the symbolic offering of Christ is not the whole sacrifice of the Church, which is a real oblation of itself, that is, of the body of Christ, for His body are we.  The sacrifice is corporate, made by the collective body of believers who are priests of God, who altogether offer both symbolically and really the body of Christ to God.  The collective body is not a machine of regulated parts, but a congregation of people, each with his own individuality, although in relation to the body, members of it, bound together not by organization and hierarchy, but by the spirit of love, which is the Spirit of Jesus.” (pg. 139)

The next time you approach the Table (or pass and partake of the bread and juice in your seat) ask the Holy Spirit to help you see beyond the two-dimensional, “I remember that Jesus died for me”, to the three-dimensional, living color glimpse and taste of all that Christ has done, is doing, and will do AND our union in Him!  Try chewing on that this Sunday.

Christ our Passover is sacrificed for us; therefore, let us keep the Feast.  Hallelujah!!

Feeling Religious in Worship

22 04 2010

Feeling Religious in Worship

As we continue to bask in this season of Easter (celebrating the risen Christ and preparing for His ascension and for Pentecost) it would do us well to reflect on how and why we worship.

For the past 40 years the question of how worship should be conducted seems to have been the controversy from which no church and no denomination has escaped unscathed.  Even the Roman Catholics who experienced a major change in their worship after Vatican II (1968) remain mired in debate and unsettledness.  In the Evangelical world the current controversy seems to center around differing notions of “traditional”, “contemporary” and so-called “emergent” forms for worship.  No end to the fighting is really in sight.  Some churches, who in recent decades, have managed to move from “traditional” (organ & hymns) to “contemporary” (praise band & choruses) now find themselves in controversy once again as a new generation rejects both “traditional” and “contemporary” in favor of things like candles, incense, chant, contemplative prayer, and frequent Communion.

I humbly propose a complete re-evaluation of two items that are at the heart of the “worship wars”:  the church and why she worships.

For most Evangelicals, there is a good feel for what the church does (outreach, Christian education, works of compassion, etc.) but relatively little thought about what the church is in her very, God created, nature.  In short, we Evangelicals desperately need a much clearer ecclesiology.  What the church does should flow out of who she is.  Precisely because this is so often misconstrued or not even discussed, the nature and purpose of worship is also misunderstood and misappropriated.

Too many seem to believe that worship is mostly about what it does for them or for the seeker instead of what it does for our Triune God.  Put bluntly, too many are addicted to the particular feelings that certain hymns or praise choruses evoke.  Naturally, there will be emotionally violent reactions and plenty of hard feelings when church leadership makes changes to the worship music.  How could it be otherwise?  The focus has become too much on ourselves and not nearly enough on our rescuing, holy, redeeming God.

A helpful contribution to this discussion has recently come from a Pentecostal, Evangelical Christian from Singapore:  Simon Chan.  The following quote comes from his 2006 book (IVP Academic Press) Liturgical Theology: The Church as Worshiping Community (pgs. 148-49).

Here Chan emphasizes that worship (the liturgy) should transform us more and more into Christ’s disciples—that worship is not just about giving expression to what we feel and think about God, salvation, etc.  Rather, the liturgy uses certain tools like praise, confession, prayer, Scripture, and sacraments to shape God’s people.

Chan states:

The liturgy is a “school” using these tools to train worshippers in the way of Christ.

[Chan then quotes Philip H. Pfatteicher, The School of the Church: Worship and Christian Formation (Valley Forge, PA: Trinity Press International, 1995) 104-5]

“The purpose of the liturgy is not to express our thoughts and feelings but to develop them, and like any good school the liturgy expands our horizon, liberating us from captivity to the moment and to the familiar. . . . Because the liturgy does not always express what we think or feel it has the potential to transform those who share in it.”

Theologically, we could say that the liturgy and Christian living are ontologically one.  The liturgy itself is the primary expression of Christian living, and Christian living is actualized primarily in the liturgy.  In the words of Joyce Zimmerman [from her book Liturgy as Living Faith: A Liturgical Spirituality (Scranton, PA: University of Scranton Press, 1993), p. viii)]:

“The deep, dynamic structure of liturgy is identical to the deep, dynamic structure of Christian living.  Liturgy and life are essentially related because they share a generic dynamic structure that gives access to an ever-deepening experience of their common referent:  the Paschal Mystery [the death and resurrection of Christ].  Herein lies the key to our understanding of liturgical spirituality.  What we celebrate in liturgy is none other than what we live as Christians committed to entering into the ongoing redemptive work of the Risen Christ.  What we live is the content of what we celebrate.[emphasis mine]

Liturgy and everyday Christian living “are but two expressions of the one gift of God’s paschal Presence to us.” [quote from Zimmerman]  If . . . to be a Christian is to be in the body of Christ then there is no Christian living apart from living out what is celebrated in the liturgy, since the liturgy is where the body of Christ is primarily manifested and actualized.  The objective celebration of the liturgy can therefore provide a way to critique our own inadequate Christian living.  It is perhaps more in its challenges to us than in reinforcing positive religious feelings that true spiritual formation through the liturgy takes place.  For if the liturgy only makes us feel good and never challenges us, perhaps the liturgy is not shaping us but we are simply making use of it for our own ends.  Keeping the critical function of the liturgy in view will have a significant effect on the way we approach liturgical celebration, as Zimmerman points out: [p. xii]

“When we celebrate liturgy and experience emptiness or boredom, we might see this as a critique of our life.  Pastorally, we generally assume there is a problem with the ritual itself or the way we celebrate liturgy (and often there is).  But there is another possible explanation:  If the thrust of our Christian living is not response to the Paschal Mystery [that is, Christ’s saving acts] , then no matter what we do to the ritual, its depth meaning will still escape us.  We worship neither to be entertained nor to feel good but to be transformed into the Body of Christ.” [emphasis mine]

In summary, liturgical spirituality begins with the fact of our being Christians, that is, baptized into the body of Christ; and by enacting the gospel, that is, the paschal mystery, the liturgy constantly challenges us concerning the living out of our baptismal faith within the body.  This challenge should lead to new appropriation of and a deeper penetration into the paschal mystery that the liturgy celebrates.  All these understandings help us see what it is about the liturgy that makes it formative.

Chan goes on in this chapter to talk about how believers cooperate with the Holy Spirit in worship to be miraculously transformed and healed, individually and corporately.  Ironically, the more “free” we try to be in our worship services in an effort to not stifle the Spirit, the more worship becomes man-centered and increasingly leaves little room for the Spirit to work.  The ancient liturgy of Word and Table infused with Prayer goes a long way to help us walk with the Spirit and thereby be transformed more and more into who and what God intended from creation.