Christian Worship in Times of Crisis: Escapism or Engagement with the World?
What is Biblical Celebration-Worship?
Ralph Martin describes worship as “the dramatic celebration of God in his supreme worth in such a manner that his “worthiness” becomes the norm of living.”/1/ Few Christians would dispute with such a concise and balanced statement. What it means in reality is another matter, however, since we do not worship in abstraction. Week after week we go to a church and get involved with ¬people in a worship service. Worship services assume diverse forms. They appeal to people differently and obviously meet different needs. People may express disappointments over some aspects of their worship meetings and may even suggest improvements. Nevertheless, they keep going back faithfully to their church worship meetings. The reality of God must have been experienced and their needs must have been met somewhat, regardless of occasional complaints. I shall bear in mind such human expectations as I try to crystalize some thoughts about three different forms of worship.
Worship is the activity of the new life of a believer in which, recognizing the fullness of the Godhead as it is revealed in the person of Jesus Christ and His mighty redemptive acts, he seeks by the power of the Holy Spirit to render to the living God the glory, honor, and submission which are His due….corporate Christian worship is the activity of a congregation of true believers in which they seek to render to God that adoration, praise, confession, intercession, thanksgiving, and obedience to which He is entitled by virtue of the ineffable glory of His person and the magnificent grace of His acts of redemption in Jesus Christ.
I. CONGREGATIONAL BRETHREN WORSHIP
A. Principles and Practice
A visitor to a Congregational Brethren worship assembly would be most profoundly struck by the Spartan simplicity of the sanctuary. The hall is sparse and devoid of religious trappings. One looks in vain for stained glass windows, banners, or priestly vestments. Even the cross is missing in some churches. The altar, usually the centre-piece of any worship service may consist of a simple communion table placed in front of the congregation. Such simplicity, I guess, is due to the Brethren’s passion for liberty — the liberty they rallied to defend under the cry of the doctrine of the ‘priesthood of all believers’. According to this doctrine, every believer can approach God directly in worship. The mediation of the priest or the sacraments unfortunately in practice can become obstacles to the free leading of the Spirit. Emphasis is on achieving freshness and sincerity rather than on the presentation of beauty of form or depth of expression. As such, they are reluctant to rely on any liturgical ‘aids’. The following arguments are normally put forward for their practice:
1. The reliance on liturgy would deprive the congregation of the ability and privilege to pray their own prayers.
2. Set prayer forms fail to meet the varied needs of different congregations on different occasions.
3. Set liturgical forms can assume such spiritual dominance as to come close to idolatry.
4. On the other hand familiarity with set prayers leads to mechanical routines and carelessness.
5. We must rely on the Holy Spirit in prayer than on external human helps.
In short, liturgies or set forms should be abandoned like crutches that God’s people may worship and walk in the power of faith. The rejection of forms must not, however, be given undue emphasis for this, if drawn to its logical conclusion, would rule out even the use of the hymn books.
The privilege and liberty of worship is offered on the supposition that born-again believers have been empowered with special sensitivity to the leading of the Spirit. Some Brethren have restricted the partaking of the Lord’s Supper to those whose genuineness of faith is attested by baptism and by matured congregational members. The privilege demands responsibility of a continuing education of believers to grow in maturity. As such, even though the Brethren movement was at its inception a rebellion against ecclesiastical authorities, it nevertheless demands the sermon to function as an occasion of spiritual exhortation and a soul-searching exercise. One result is that the entire service can become so subordinated to the all-important and all-sufficient sermon, that the service loses its devotional power. It is not incorrect to say that in the Brethren worship, the sermon has taken the place of the Mass in Roman Catholic practice or, as Evelyn Underhill writes of the Free Church Worship to which the Brethren Assembly owes its debt, “The edification is emphasized, the mysterious refused.” /2/
One prominent emphasis for the Congregational Brethren assemblies is the observance of the Lord’s Supper every Sunday. The first part of the service is devoted to the singing of hymns and the sharing of a thought from Scripture or extemporaneous prayers as and when any male member feels led by the Spirit to do so. It is interspersed by periods of silence /3/ where members are encouraged to engage in inward prayer and meditation. As such, some of the assemblies discourage the use of music in the Sunday worship service.
The bread, usually an entire loaf, is often broken and it is distributed from hand to hand, with each communicant breaking off a small piece. The cup is shared in the same manner, with each communicant drinking a little from it as it is passed around. Silence and solemnity are the hallmarks of these moments, for the Son is then the focus of devotion as members engaged in a long anamnesis of his sufferings on the cross. After the Eucharist, the offering is collected. A long sermon follows which some members consider as the climax of the service.
The first pre-requisite to any assessment of the Congregational Brethren worship must be a historical appreciation of the determination of the movement to maintain its distinctiveness in the face of great pressures from powerful state supported ecclesiastical authorities. Surely the Brethren’s unshakable convictions arose from the possession of spiritual treasures. It stands in the forefront of Christian movements which seek to practice consistently the great heritage of the Reformation, “the priesthood of all believers.” It resists the idea of surrendering the conduct of the worship to any one man, however well trained or spiritually matured. The congregation must collectively exercise its privilege and responsibility of opening itself to the direct leading of the Spirit. It sees no need for any mediation of man or sacraments, taking with utmost seriousness the implications of Christ’s presence in the Spirit when two or three are gathered in His name. The whole service should be the fruit of genuine Christian inward worship and expectation of a word from the Holy Spirit. We have, in short, all the ingredients that are sine qua non to any worship that is alert to the ever changing needs of a congregation.
Honesty, however, also requires that we admit that worship in the Brethren churches do fall short of its ideal. For instance, many Brethren fail to realize that even a worship without any set form is itself a form of worship. Indeed, it demands even more ‘heart preparation’ for worship to be successful, failing which the worship falls into incoherence, lacking movement, rhythm and direction. It can become ‘distasteful’. At least liturgical worship is spared of this pitfall because the historic creeds give depth and objectivity to the worship and the prayers are the crystallized wisdom of the ages. It would be beneficial if the Brethren listen to the voice of one of their prominent sons, H. L. Ellison, “They had not realized that it was not enough for them to approach the throne of grace; they had to take the hand of the younger Christians and lead them to the throne. . . .We make the mistake of condemning preparation for the morning meeting. The error is not in preparation but in thinking that that which is prepared must come out. For all I know what I prepare one week-end under the impulse of the Spirit may be intended by Him to be used a month or so later. Even if I never use it in public, I am richer for having prepared it.” /4/
The moments of silence which are intended to be opportunities to sensitize oneself to the Spirit’s leading often can become quite wearisome, especially on those occasions when a dull worship is covered up for the uncertainty and lethargy of an ill-prepared and bored congregation. To be sure, a few conscientious members try to fill in the empty silence with long prayers. Ironically, one still ends up with a worship that is essentially dominated by the same few people. It is only painfully clear that while the ‘priesthood of all believers’ is a most attractive ideal, in practice few are there who are prepared to pay the price to exercise it.
The lack of purposefulness in worship activity becomes heightened at the moment when the gift offering is put away. In some churches the offering is awkwardly if not surreptitiously hidden away without a prayer of offering. Perhaps the leaders are not sure how best to fit it into the free-form worship. This uncertainty that stumbles an untrained leadership is replayed at the pulpit on occasions when the speaker is a younger and inexperienced lay preacher. The ‘priesthood of all believers’ is mistaken to imply the ‘preacherhood of all believers’. Untrained teachers give rise to rather uneven quality of preaching. Edification is left to a process of trial and error and to the subjective preferences of the lay preacher. Consequently, we see inconsistency between faith and practice in many Brethren churches. There is a strong sense of piety. But this piety is easily restricted to the narrow confines of church life. Churches often fail to take advantage of worship as an occasion to strengthen members and to send them into the world to carry on their mission of being faithful witnesses.
II. CHARISMATIC WORSHIP
A. Principles and Practice
If silence is one hallmark of the Brethren worship, an endless succession of music from a variety of instruments, songs and shouts of praise and acclamation fill the atmosphere of a Charismatic worship service. The Charismatics take seriously the call to worship as a call to celebration. Worshipping saints should be expressive as they enter the Lord’s presence, with uplifted hands and hearts. No doubt the worship is led by a minister. However, he allows every member of the congregation to participate and contribute towards the service. This includes clapping, singing in the spirit or praying aloud in tongues. It strives for an every-heart worship with joy marking the occasion.
The second mark of a Charismatic worship is its anti-liturgical posture. It strives instead for an emotional spontaneity, expressed as a response to the moving of the Holy Spirit. There is extempore prayer. Spontaneous outbursts of praise are raised when the congregation voice agreement with the speaker delivering the sermon. The hymn book which continues in many independent churches elsewhere is here given only a secondary place in the worship. The worship relies largely on modern melodious songs or choruses, i.e. short, spontaneous songs known by heart by the whole congregation and easily projected on a screen by an overhead projector. Some of these are key choruses indicating the transition from one part of the service to the next as they are intoned by the minister or some other members. While larger Charismatic churches tend toward a more structured worship, the true Charismatic ideal is nevertheless fairly summarized by the words of Donald Gee, “A Pentecostal meeting where you know what is going to happen next is backslidden.”/5/ After all, the Spirit blows where He wills.
Charismatics often call their churches “Full Gospel’ Churches”. This expresses a belief that the recovery of supernaturally oriented gifts is a recovery of the full dimension of the Gospel. In particular, their meetings allow for the greatest opportunity for the expression of spiritual gifts, a privilege opened to every member as the Spirit inspires him to do so. Thus there are ample opportunities given to the whole congregation to pray in tongues. Some may even prophesy should the Lord give his Word for a present need. The tongues allow for a non-rational meditative prayer to contribute to the process of worship for the more affectively inclined, and even for the intellectually overburdened academicians. It is no wonder that the Charismatics have attracted great crowds in modern society where people are burdened by arid rationalism and overstimulation. Paul’s insight that he who speaks in tongues edifies himself (1 Cor. 14:4) thus assumes concrete and immediate relevance for our age. The meetings are usually climaxed with the altar call for anyone to come out to be prayed for, either to be healed of some sicknesses or to be ‘baptized in the Spirit’.
Charismatic worship may also be regarded as an ongoing experimentation and innovation in worship given their freedom from traditional liturgy. It has exploited the new developments in music, incorporating a full band with the latest electronic instruments in the sanctuary. In the more indigenized churches in the third world, many of the cultural dances and dramas are also been exploited. It is really a worship that is in tune with the times.
Obviously gift-focused worship plays a central function in the Charismatic churches with spontaneity and celebration as the hallmarks. The movement boasts itself to be the fastest growing Christian movement in the world with justification. One is inclined to believe that the Lord’s words, “But I when I am lifted up from the earth, will draw all men to myself” (John 12:32), finds a genuine fulfillment in the Charismatic worship. Charismatics have developed a form of Christian worship that is immensely attractive to modern man. The quality of spontaneity ensures a worship flexible enough to meet the continually changings of a world of ‘future-shock’. Charismatics, or Pentecostals , in Walter J. Hollenweger’s words, “demonstrate that the alternative to a written liturgy is not chaos, but a flexible oral tradition, which allows for variation within the framework of the whole liturgical structure, similar to the possibilities of variation in a jam session of jazz musicians.” /6/
The Charismatics have also demonstrated that much spiritual power flows from worship when the church appropriates it with faith. When a man finds God in worship he should be blessed with wholeness and healing in his life. Charismatics therefore worship with expectation of the mighty intervention of the Holy Spirit and God has not disappointed them. We rejoice over the many testimonies of miracles of healing and deliverance that often spring from Charismatic worship. This is especially important for times of intensified spiritual conflicts. Undoubtedly, Charismatics are prepared to meet these challenges with confidence and power because they have experienced the reality and power of God in their worship.
Charismatics are vulnerable to problem of stereotyped meetings that do accompany any non-liturgical worship. This was clearly perceived by one of the early Pentecostal leaders, Donald Gee. He warned against those Pentecostals who want the Eucharist to be wholly unstructured. The result “is to produce meetings so stereotyped that, for all their boasted freedom, they become more barren than the very liturgical services they deprecate — and with less aesthetic appeal.” /7/
I also note the danger of subjectivism that can accompany any overemphasis on the inward leading and spontaneous expressions of the Holy Spirit. Perhaps a fuller appreciation of the objective aids of the creeds and liturgy is in order. Such a balance requires a greater role to be assigned to the regular reading of Scriptures in order to ensure that worship truly springs from a biblical response to God’s love narrated in the Bible. Something must be wrong if some Charismatic finds it difficult to incorporate the reading of the Psalms in their worship.
It is also revealing when some Charismatic churches undervalue the place of the Lord’s Supper. The Lord’s Supper is often celebrated once a month and that following a Zwinglian understanding of the Lord’s supper as a memorial. Perhaps, because it claims so much on the immediacy of the Holy Spirit, it has no place for the sacraments to work as God’s means of grace. The net result is a certain superficiality that restricts God’s work to the immediate present. There is a lack of historical depth and consequently an inability to praise the Creator for his universal breath of love and his sovereign work in human history. Charismatic worship has yet to break out from its narrow confines of personal piety, which often, unfortunately finds its assurance primarily in expressive emotionalism.
The emphasis on celebration and joy is a much needed corrective for church worship that never seems to go beyond a pre-occupation with the sufferings of the Lord and solemn rituals. On the other hand, it is only too easy for one to go to a Charismatic worship for the purpose of feeling high, and to seek an experience for its own sake in an atmosphere of an entertaining spiritual rock concert. Worship can become a subtle form of self-centredness that ignores the demands of discipleship and holistic spirituality found in the Bible, “an enterprise undertaken not simply to satisfy needs or to make him [the worshipper] feel better or to minister to his aesthetic needs or social well-being, but to express the worthiness of God himself.” /8/
I cannot help but feel concern that the congregation is sometimes guilty of growing too familiar with the thrice Holy God, as it rushes head-on into praise and joyous singing. Mere emotionalism can be avoided by a restoration of a sense of awe and reverence, mystery and transcendence. Let there be more opportunities for soul-searching, confession and forgiveness in the call to worship, for he who is forgiven much will love much. Rejoicement will then be spontaneously felt and expressed.
III. CONFESSIONAL-SACRAMENTAL WORSHIP
A. Principles and Practice
More than either of the two traditions discussed above, the Confessional-Sacramental church (I shall pick the Anglican Church for the purpose of discussion) worship is one that is fully informed by a solid understanding of a theology of worship. It is first of all built on the doctrine of creation. Because everything in creation belongs to God, the physical elements may be set apart to testify to His glory in worship. It is also rested on the principle of enactment, i.e. God is encountered afresh through a re-presentation of the Lord’s Supper and his grace appropriated in other areas of our lives. Through enactment God meets man in the significant events of his life of his life. Worship consecrates the Christian life in a vital, dynamic and living way. Worship, in Webber’s words, “confronts the believer with the claim of God over his or her life.”/9/
Anglican worship is built on the principle of recitation (here including not only the creeds, but also singing of hymns and preaching). Through it the church is enabled in a few concise words to recall, affirm and to renew its relationship with God. By its confession the church bears witness to its faith in God it seeks to worship.
Anglican worship is built on the principle of drama. As such, while there is a priest leading the worship there is in actuality no passive spectator. The whole congregation, by undergoing the liturgical process in an atmosphere replete with symbolism, contributes to the total drama of worship. As drama it appeals to the whole person — the various symbols (the altar, stained glass windows, and sometimes the incense) appeal to all the senses of the worshipper just as it was in the Tabernacle worship of the Old Testament. What a contrast to the limited cognitive appeal of a pulpit-centered worship, or the affective appeal of a Charismatic worship. Amazingly, it achieves this while maintaining the element of mystery in worship.
In drama, the tempo is always important. The worshippers do not rush presumptuously into the presence of Holy God. There is movement and rhythm: the procession, the invocation, the confession, the recitals, the reading of Scriptures, the sermon, the offering, before climaxing in response and participation of the communion. Pastoral prayer for the church and the world is also practiced and finally the believers are sent back into the world empowered afresh by God’s grace with the Benediction.
I find in the Anglican worship a church giving its theological best to build a system of holistic worship. It grounds worship in the objective work of God while by rituals and symbolic representation it reaches out to the subjective and deeper unconscious psyche of the worshipper. It does this only that it may draw the whole person into the drama of worship. However, because the whole liturgical structure is centred on the altar, any tendency towards man-centredness (an unfortunate weakness in many modern worship) is minimized.
There has been some criticisms of the dominance of a prayer book in Anglican worship./10/ Its many advantages should not be overlooked. It is true that the beginner tends to hear only what the minister is going to recite. But when the congregation becomes familiar with the Prayer Book, it acquires the ability to think and pray along with the minister. At such poignant moments of the worship, the congregation meditates and appropriates the prayers. These prayers are not only beautiful in form but often aptly and concisely capture the rich diversity and deep spiritual experience of believers throughout church history. What an antidote to our own limited devotion which tends to be subjective, and thus less helpful to the whole church.
Anglican worship in general and the liturgical year in particular provides a strong rampart against secularism that is invading the church. I agree wholeheartedly with Robert Webber’s challenge. “If the Christian world is to break from secularism, it must examine the unthinking way it has adopted a secular way of reckoning time in worship. Instead of shaping worship around the saving events of the life of Jesus, many churches have allowed worship to revolve around days such as Mother’s Day, Father’s Day, Children’s Day, Thanksgiving and other national holidays. . . . In order to correct this problem we must understand the Christian view of time, and apply the Christian view of time to the yearly, weekly, and daily cycle of worship.”/11/
The danger of a liturgical worship unaccompanied by personal faith is well known. In this case the beauty of the ritual becomes a deadening formalism. We should be concerned about any nominal Christian in the Anglican Church who weekly undergoes the mechanics of church worship without allowing of church worship to influence his spiritual life in any significant manner. Christian faith which ought to be a living faith becomes merely a way of religiosity, a dead tradition. Worship should be an invigorating experience, not a ‘ritual murder’.
A closely related danger of an unbiblically informed exercise in ritual and symbols is the degeneration of faith. The element of mystery can end up in ignorant superstition. One wonders and worries about the thin line of idolatry which has been crossed when devout but biblically uninformed worshippers focus their attention more on the elements of the worship rather than on the true God who is Spirit.
Finally, a liturgical worship easily leads to a domination of the clergy, the so-called expert. It is only a short step from the violation of the sole mediatorship of Christ and the denial of the privilege of access into the presence of God open to all believers. Such power of ‘controlling’ spiritual access is a deadly temptation and indeed, sorely intoxicating. History offers many examples of the abuse of power within the clergy. On the other hand, the spirit of dependence has also led to the paralysis of the ‘laity’. This is humourously captured in an anonymous poem quoted by John Stott:
The Rector is late
He’s forgotten the date,
What can the faithful do now,
They’ll sit in the pew,
With nothing to do,
And sing a selection of hymns,
As I reflect on the three traditions of worship, I am amazed at the great diversity of man’s expression of worship of God. It is unfortunate that instead of rejoicing in this great diversity many have sought to impose their worship practices and preferences on other believers. It is a tragedy of the church when believers who ought to find unity in worship end up becoming most divided over the issue of worship. It is hoped that in seeing how even the best in worship is beset by human weaknesses we may also be amazed at the grace of God who deigns to receive our worship. Likewise, in seeing how each of us is enabled to capture in our own unique way the beauty of worship, may we also accept one another. After all, though we are merely vessels of clay, we have given to us heavenly treasures. Finally, our God is surely too great and glorious to be limited to praise in a single note. Hallelujah!
Preamble taken from Robert G Rayburn, O Come, Let Us Worship: Corporate Worship in the Evangelical Church (Baker 1980), pp. 20-21.
1. Ralph P. Martin, The Worship of God (Eerdmans, 1982), p. 4.
2. Evelyn Underhill, Worship (Harper, 1937), p. 301.
3. “The silence of a religious and spiritual worship is not a drowsy unthinking state of mind, but a sequestering or withdrawal of it from all visible objects and vain imaginations, unto a fervent praying to or praising the invisible omnipresent God in His light and love.” Ibid., p. 311.
4. H. L. Ellison, The Household Church (Paternoster, 1963).
5. Donald Gee, Pentecost (Springfield Mo. 1932), p. 36.
6. Hollenweger, ‘Liturgies’ in J. G. Davis, The Westminster Dictionary of Worship (Westminster, 1972), p. 241.
7. Quoted in Hollenweger, Ibid., p. 241.
8. R. P. Martin, The Worship of God, p. 17.
9. Robert Webber, Worship: Old and New (Zondervan, 1982), p. 99.
10. David Edwards notes, “Perhaps the best short way of describing the Church of England is to say that it is a Church which uses the Prayer Book.” The Church of England (Church of England, 1962), p. 51.
11. Webber, Worship, p. 161
** This essay was published in The Pursuit of God’s Cause :In Honour of David Boler (NECF 1998).
Christian Worship in Times of Crisis:Escapism or Engagement with the World?