Last week as part of my church history class, we each had to imagine we were a worship minister in a local church and identify ways to renew that congregation’s weekly worship experience and spiritual life “in light of the historic and time-tested forms of Christian worship extending back long before the modern era.”
We had just finished studying how the first-century Jews, the first-century Christians, and the early Eastern Orthodox and Western Catholic believers had worshiped, so there were lots of ideas to pull from. Here was my post to the discussion board, written not so much for my own church specifically but applicable to just about every church I’ve been part of. How would you have answered the question?
Dear church leaders,
There are many things we do well in worshipping and growing together, but I’m excited to dream with you about ways we might change or improve our worship practices to go deeper as a faith community. As you’ve realized from our study together, we did not “invent” our worship practices, and many of them are rooted not only in the first church but even beyond that to the Jewish temple and synagogues, which in turn came from attempts to worship here “as it is in heaven” and in accordance with God’s requirements. So there is much to consider, but also much opportunity to find new significance and meaning in our worship.
Note that I said our goal is to go deeper as a church. This is in marked contrast from the goals, stated or not, of many churches in America today. For a variety of reasons, we’ve come to think of the weekly worship service as the “front door” of the church, the first place a guest is likely to visit, and therefore an “event” that should be accessible to non-Christians. I want to affirm that I am always pro-visitor and do not want to design our services (or anything else we do as a church) to alienate new people or make them feel unwelcome. However, I find it incredibly interesting that the first church did not seem to share this concern. In fact, for many years, not-yet-believers were invited only to the “Liturgy of the Word” part of the service—the scriptures and prayers and sermons—but not the Lord’s Supper. So how about we start rounding up everyone who hasn’t been baptized and kicking them out before we do communion each week?
Kidding. But you get my point. In our rush to be seeker sensitive, we can unwittingly compromise what I think the first century or two shows us should be a primary focus of the church—edifying and discipling those already following Christ. (Incidentally, Acts says the church still exploded in those days. Perhaps seekers are actually quite attracted to commitment and depth and meaning, even if it’s not packaged exclusively for them? Just a thought.)
So how can we use our worship time to grow as a faith family? One way is to refocus on scripture. Often we think we’re prioritizing this by scolding encouraging people into daily Bible reading or participation in a “life group.” I’m not necessarily opposed to those things, but for many centuries the people of God managed to learn the Bible—and to learn more of it, and to learn it better than us—by simply participating in worship. Large chunks of scripture were read in those early church services, as Justin Martyr and others tell us, and even today in many liturgical traditions each service includes several rather lengthy readings. This was partly due to necessity—many people throughout the ages have been uneducated and unable to read, so this was their connection to sacred text—and partly because I think those early Christians valued these texts as living words with much to tell us. We say we place a high value on scripture, but when its only appearance in our service is a few verses in the sermon, our practice says something different.
So let’s renew and revive our church by reminding it of all that God has for it in his word. Of course, reading it—big chunks, not just a few verses—is one way. The most meaningful Good Friday service I’ve ever participated in included a reading of John 18 and 19. It took about fifteen minutes and you could hear a pin drop in the room.
Other ideas can be almost as simple, and as effective. I once attended a service at a church where at one point the worshipers were instructed to stand and face each other, those on the left side of the sanctuary turning right and vice versa. Then the pastor led them in a responsive reading of Psalm 130 in which each side alternated reading the sentences aloud. It was incredibly meaningful, and even introduced an element of personal and corporate confession into the mix (another thing we don’t see much of in our services).
In addition to ideas like this, we can take other cues from early traditions: perhaps we can read one or more of the readings from the lectionary each week—there is something beautiful about knowing that thousands of churches around the world are hearing and meditating on the exact same verses.
Also, many early traditions considered the cantor or lector a member of the pastoral staff, and as such someone who required vetting and training. I’m not suggesting we have paid scripture readers, but some instruction in reading the text well for a group would be another free, somewhat easy way to add to the spiritual benefit of this practice, and it reinforces the idea of scripture as something of value, something we are entrusted with and privileged to pass on. Also, have you ever had to sit through a long reading of anything by someone with no skill? Your brain goes so crazy it wants to ooze out through your ears which would be a blessing because at least you woudn’t hear anything.
I think we should also take a look at iconography. (Sorry for the pun.) Over the years, especially since the Reformation, we’ve drifted away from the use of paintings, murals, sculpture, stained glass, etc. because our worship is about the living Christ, not man-made impressions of him (or his mother, a whole other fun argument). But again we need to remember that for a pre-literate audience this was a key way they could learn and remember the tenets of their faith. We can read, but that does not make us above the need for visual cues which can create an environment of reverence, remind us of a biblical passage, or perhaps—with the best art—even give us new insight into a biblical truth.
With the advent of “family worship” services in which children and teens join adults for services, we are also again dealing with at least a sizable minority of little hearts who can’t read, but who can learn from images (and, incidentally, are bombarded by them everywhere else). So we should incorporate “icons” in terms of using more visual art to illustrate sermons (and I’m talking good stuff, not the latest SermonSpice image stills), to serve as backgrounds for worship slides, to hang from banners and walls during special services, even to be created in the worship space during the service. (The same church that did the Psalms confessional also once asked a painter to paint a huge canvas during a sermon to visually engage us while we listened. It sounds distracting, but it actually augmented the message. This was also a noninstrumental church–we can learn new things from anyone, can’t we??) And speaking of those kids, how great would it be to show dozens of pictures they’ve created around that week’s theme? What might we “wise” people learn? And how valued and part of the faith community this might make them feel.
One last thing—I know there’s some big confabs coming up about a new building project. Did you know the early church structured the floorplan and footprint of its buildings to reflect theology instead of just building big Walmart warehouse-style concrete deals and painting the walls beige? Just saying. Is that opinionated enough to make sure I don’t have to go to those meetings??