Tuesday, June 29, 2010

The Traditional Church in the Twenty-First Century: Revitalizing the Liturgy - Part I

By Robin G. Jordan

If the traditional church is going to survive and flourish in the twenty-first century, it will need to change its basic assumptions. The twenty-first century is not the 1950s when most people were churchgoers. In the 1950s traditional hymns were sung in most churches; traditional Bibles like the King James Version, the American Standard Version and the Revised Standard Version were read from the pulpit or lectern. “The language of Zion” was heard in extempore prayers, as well as in hymns, Scripture readings, sermons and service books. Those days are long past and are not going to return.

The number of Anglicans and Episcopalians, churched and unchurched, who are acquainted with the traditional Prayer Book, the 1662 in England, the 1928 in the United States, and 1962 in Canada, who have an appreciation of its good points, and prefer its services to those of the more recent service books is shrinking. Traditional churches cannot depend upon these Anglicans and Episcopalians to fill its pews.

If a traditional church succeeds in attracting new faces, more and more of its new faces are going to come from a non-Anglican or Episcopalian background or have no church background at all. They cannot be expected to see the traditional Prayer Book as a venerable liturgy that is worthy of preservation. They are likely to view it as quaint if not unintelligible. The traditional church is faced with the challenge of overcoming such views of the traditional Prayer Book and of fostering attitudes well disposed to the book and its use.

The particular church community using the traditional Prayer Book plays a much greater role in engendering favorable attitudes toward the book and its use than the book itself. The late Peter Toon recognized the importance of this factor in his article, "Worship Simply, Engage in Mission Joyfully: How to Grow a Traditional Church." If the newcomer sees a vibrant community, it will influence their perceptions of the traditional Prayer Book. They will be more willing to overlook its antiquarianisms and its unfamiliar words and phrases. They will see its value as a means for communicating gospel truth They will see how the services of the book “enable all who participate to think in true and biblical ways about God and their life as his people.”

The Sunday service is still the initial point of contact for most people with a church. It is where they receive their first and most lasting impression of that church. It is therefore critical that the church make a good initial impression. Visitors must come away thinking that they would like to become a part of this Christian community.

The research findings of the Thom Rainer Group is that the quality of the music is one of the factors that the unchurched give for making a return visit to a particular church and eventually joining it. It is seen as a reflection of how much the church values worshiping God. Another factor is the quality of the preaching. These two factors point to the overall importance of the quality of worship.

The implications are that a liturgical church must also give attention to the quality of the liturgy, as well as its music and its preaching. One of the things that distinguish a liturgy that is well done from a liturgy that is poorly done is how the pastor or other service leader performs his part in the liturgy and how the congregation performs theirs.

Liturgy is more than a church’s formularies for public worship. Liturgy is the work of the people of God, his laos, which includes the clergy as well as the laity. Indeed, clergy and laity are artificial distinctions. God in the New Testament recognizes only one “chosen generation,” “royal priesthood,” “holy nation,” “peculiar people” (1 Peter 2:9) Unlike the people of Israel, the people of the Old Covenant, the Church of Christ, the people of the New Covenant have no separate priestly caste. All of Christ’s Church is a “spiritual house, a holy priesthood” “built up” from “lively stones, “to offer up spiritual sacrifices, acceptable to God by Jesus Christ” (1 Peter 2:5). The people of the New Covenant have no need of a temple in which they gather to worship God. They are “God’s building, his field” (1 Corinthians 3:9) God has made them into his holy temple, his dwelling place (2 Corinthians 6:16; Ephesians 2:21). They have no need for a caste of priests to offer sacrifices for the propitiation of their sins. Christ has made propriation for their sins with his own blood (Romans 3:25, Hebrews 2:17, and 1 John 4:10) Christ was the propitiation not only for their sins but also “for the sins of the whole world” (1 John 2:2).

The liturgy is like a play or theatrical performance. The service leader is both an actor and the director. The other ministers and the congregation are the rest of the cast. Everyone has a part and everyone is a performer. The liturgy, however, differs from a play or theatrical performance in that its primary audience is God.

Before we look at this particular aspect of the liturgy, I need to explain the sense in which I am using the term “minister.” All Christians are called to the work of ministry and all Christians are ministers. They are servants of Christ. In this article I am using the term “minister” to refer those individuals who have a particular part in the liturgy—for example, they may read the Ten Commandments or the Epistle in the Communion Service or they may serve as the voice of the ecclesia, the Christian assembly, at a particular juncture in the service, for example, the Prayer for the Whole State of Christ’s Church.

God is the principal audience of the liturgy. The praise, the thanksgiving, the confession, the prayer, and even the recounting of God’s story, His “wonderful deeds,” (Psalm 9:1) are directed to Him. In the latter we declaring the excellencies of God, showing forth his praises (1 Peter 2:9).

As the Bible tells us, God does not look at our outward appearance. He looks at our hearts, our innermost selves (1 Samuel 16:7). What concerns Him is that the words of our hearts match the words of our mouths. In kneeling before Him we are bending the knee of the heart. Our hearts are indeed inclined toward Him (Joshua 24:23; 1 Samuel 12:24). We are offering Him the sacrifices that he desires—“a broken spirit; a broken and a contrite heart” (Psalms 51:17). We are praising Him with our whole heart (Psalm 111:1). We are entreating His favour with our whole heart (Psalm 119:58) His testimonies are indeed the rejoicing of our hearts (Psalm 119:111); our hearts indeed stand in awe of His word (Psalm 119: 161) We are turning to Him with all our heart (Joel 2:12). We have laid it to heart to give glory to His name (Malachi 2:2). In drawing near to Him with our mouths and honouring Him with our lips, our hearts are not far from Him (Matthew 15:18). Rather we “draw near with a true heart in full assurance of faith” (Hebrews 10:22) We indeed love Him with all our heart and all our mind and all our soul (Matthew 22:7). Our hearts are right in His sight (Acts 8:21). However we worship God, we must offer him the real thing—the worship of the heart.

In a sense the participants in the liturgy are having an audience with God. They have been admitted to speak to God. God, in turn speaks to them as an earthly king would speak to petitioners admitted into his presence. He speaks through the Scripture. He speaks through the prayers, the Creed, and the sermon. He speaks through the Holy Communion. He speaks to our hearts apart from these things as well as through them. Some parts of the conversation we may be party to; other parts we may overhear. Some parts of the conservation are private. God takes someone aside and speaks to him. We are not party to that particular part of conversation nor do we overhear it. Indeed we may never know what transpired unless God prompts that person to share that part of the conversation with us.

In a sense the liturgy itself is a command performance. We are performing before a king at his command. The king is God and God is the King of the heavens and earth and all that is within them. We are not performing before ordinary royalty. Unlike an earthly king, this King knows, as we have already seen, our hearts. We cannot dissemble before Him as we might before an earthly king. This command performance is not a one-time event. We are commanded to perform before Him every Sunday and every festival. Moreover, we are the royal company of actors. The King before whom we perform knows us intimately. He is closely acquainted with every detail of our lives, our darkest secrets, and our hidden sins. Our performance cannot be an act, that is, a pretense. He sees through all pretence, all false profession. It must be unfeigned and must come from the heart.

How then do we prepare for this weekly command performance? This preparation is the preparation of the heart. It is not something we do by confessing our sins to a priest each week albeit confession has a place in that preparation. We daily confess our sins to God and pray for his forgiveness and grace. We meet weekly in a small group with our fellow Christians and confess our failings and sins to each other, pray for each other, and encourage each other. We daily read and mediate upon God’s Word. We keep our daily appointment with God, guarding that precious time we have set aside for prayer and communion with Him. We not only ask Him earnestly for fresh supplies of grace but also for a deepening of our sense of His mercies. Even as we go about our daily activities, our hearts frequently turn to God and we converse with him as we would with a trusted friend, sharing with him what is on our heart. We endeavour to honor and glorify God in all that we do and say every waking moment of the day so that in showing forth God’s praises on Sunday, we are doing with our lips what we have been doing in our lives throughout the week. When we come to celebrate the liturgy, our hearts are truly not far from God, and we worship Him in spirit and in truth.

The liturgy is also an offering, a thing offered not as sacrifice but in sign of our devotion to God. A sign is a representation of something else, in this particular case, of our devotedness, our zealous love and loyalty to Christ who has loved us and washed us from our sins in his own blood and who has made us kings and priest to God and his Father (Revelation 1:5-6). It is also a testimony of that devotion. For that reason alone what we offer should be the best that we can offer within our particular circumstances.

A proverbial saying that I associate with my grandmother, my mother’s mother, is, “If a thing’s worth doing, it’s worth doing well.” This proverb is particularly applicable to the divine service. If we truly believe that the worship of God and the celebration of the liturgy are worth doing, they are also worth doing well. They deserve our best efforts.

The Scripture readings should be practiced. The music should be carefully selected and rehearsed. It should be gone over with the congregation as well as the cantors, the choir, and the musicians. If major or substantial changes are made in the order of service, they should be explained to the congregation ahead of time. Under some circumstances a full “dress rehearsal” may be desirable. Whatever the traditional church does on Sundays and festivals must be done well.

The seventeenth century Anglican poet-priest George Herbert in Chapter VI, “The Parson praying,” in A Priest to the Temple, or The Country Parson, His Character, and Rule of Holy Life offers some good advice for pastors and other service leaders. It is also advice from which all the participants in the liturgy would benefit.

“The Country Parson, when he is to read divine services, composeth himself to all possible reverence; lifting up his heart and hands, and eyes, and using all other gestures which may express a hearty, and unfeigned devotion. This he doth, first, as being truly touched and amazed with the Majesty of God, before whom he then presents himself; yet not as himself alone, but as presenting with himself the whole Congregation, whose sins he then bears, and brings with his own to the heavenly altar to be bathed, and washed in the sacred Laver of Christ’s blood. Secondly, as this is the true reason of his inward fear [= awe, reverence], so he is content to express this outwardly to the utmost of his power; that being first affected himself, he may affect also his people, knowing that no Sermon moves them so much to a reverence, which they forget again, when they come to pray, as a devout behavior in the very act of praying. Accordingly his voice is humble, his words treatable, and slow; yet not so slow neither, to let the fervency of the supplicant hang and die between speaking, but with a grave liveliness, between fear and zeal, pausing yet pressing, he performs his duty.”

Herbert did not belong to that school of thought that insists that a pastor should pray woodenly, concealing every trace of emotion. Rather he believed that the pastor should pray with warmth, not concealing how affected he is at being in God’s presence. Seeing their pastor moved by God’s majesty, the people likewise would be moved. Herbert believed that the pastor should not only set a wholesome example for his flock but also instruct them in how they should conduct themselves in divine service and how they should pray their parts in the liturgy:

“Besides his example, he having often instructed his people how to carry themselves in divine service, exacts of them all possible reverence, by no means enduring either talking, or sleeping, or gazing, or leaning, or half-kneeling, or any undutiful behavior in them, but causing them, when they sit, or stand, or kneel, to do all in a strait, and steady posture, as attending to what is done in the Church, and every one, man, and child, answering aloud both Amen, and all other answers, which are on the Clerks and people’s part to answer; which answers also are to be done not in a huddling [=confused], or slubbering [= slobbering or careless] fashion, gaping, or scratching the head, or spitting even in he midst of their answer, but gently and pausably [= hesitantly, not rushed], thinking what they say; so that while they answer, As it was in the beginning, &c. they meditate as they speak, that God hath ever had his people, that have glorified him as well as now, and that he shall have so for ever. And the like in other answers. This is that which the Apostle calls a reasonable service, Rom. 12:1 when we speak not as Parrots, without reason, or offer up such sacrifices as they did of old, which was of beasts devoid of reason; but when we use our reason, and apply our powers to the service of him, that gives them.”

Herbert in Chapter VII, “The Parson preaching,” emphasizes that the character of a pastor’s sermon is holiness. The pastor is not witty or learned or eloquent but holy. He goes on to suggest a number of ways in which this character is gained. One of these ways merits our attention because it also applicable to how we should do everything in our worship of God: how we should sing the anthems, canticles, hymns, and psalms, read the Scripture lessons, and say the creeds and the prayers and even the Words of Administration at the distribution of the Bread and Wine:

“Secondly, by dipping, and seasoning all our words and sentences in our hearts, before they come into our mouths, truly affecting, and cordially expressing all that we say; so that the auditors may plainly perceive that every word is heart-deep.”

We must join the worship of our lips to the worship of our heart so that it is evident even to the man walking into our church services from off the street that what we are doing comes from the heart. When the depth of each participant’s relationship with God, his personal prayer life, and his devotion to God (and not just that of the pastor or other service leader) are manifest in the liturgy, it gives a tremendous vitality to the liturgy that will not be lost upon visitors. They may be prompted to say, "How awesome is this place! This is none other than the house of God, and this is the gate of heaven." (Genesis 28:17 ESV)

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