Tuesday, April 12, 2016

Worship Resources for Small Christian Communities

By Robin G. Jordan

In 2002 I was briefly involved in the pioneering of a house church in my former diocese. The house church was the last new work started in the Episcopal Diocese of Louisiana. If any new works have been started in that diocese since then, I am not aware of them. Like a number of churches in the diocese the house church would fall victim to the events of 2003, losing most of its members. It would maintain a shadow existence for a number of years but it never recovered from that devastating blow. The two priests who had helped to start it would eventually retire from active ministry in the Episcopal Church. One of the priests and most of his congregation would join the Anglican Church in North America. 

While the part I played in the new work was quite limited, I did learn something from the experience. Among the things that I learned was that the 1979 Book of Common Prayer and its predecessor, the 1928 Book of Common Prayer, are inadequate worship resources for small Christian communities worshiping in non-traditional settings. The 1979 book has An Order for the Celebration of the Eucharist and the 1928 book has the Communion of the Sick but these orders are not for use as regular services of public worship. Both books assume that that the Christian community using them will be expressing itself as ekklesia, as church, in a conventional way. This is also one of the weaknesses of the Anglican Church in North America’s proposed 2019 Book of Common Prayer.

What these Christian communities need are guidelines to help them in planning their worship gatherings, patterns of worship that they can follow or adapt, and texts that can use to flesh out a worship pattern after they have decide upon one. These resources should reflect the experiences of cell churches, house churches, and other non-conventional expressions of church. What they do not need are forms of service that have very little flexibility and far too many compulsory elements.

A worship gathering in a house church, for example, typically falls into segments, each devoted to a particular worship-related activity. A different member of the house church may lead each segment. The worship gathering may begin with a Praise segment in which the members of the community praise God in song. Someone may introduce a new song of praise that he or she has written as a special offering to God. Someone else may read a poem praising God, and so on. This segment may conclude in a spontaneous outpouring of praise and adoration. A Word segment may follow. Passages may be read from the Bible and a teaching may be given. A discussion may follow, in which the members of the house church consider how the teaching applies to them as individuals and as a church. A Prayer segment may follow the Word segment. Those present are given an opportunity to share prayer needs and requests. Answered prayers are reported. During the Prayer segment hands may be laid on those in need of prayer and prayers offered for them as well as intercessions for the Church and the world. Thanksgivings for answered prayers may also be offered. The worship gathering may conclude with a Fellowship segment or a Planning segment.

The process of planning such a worship gathering is similar to the process of planning a Service of the Word described in New Patterns of Worship. The main sections of the Service of the Word are compared to tubs into which are put the various items in the service. In the case of a house church worship gathering the segments of the gathering replace the main sections of the service.

No community, no neighborhood, and no relationship network should be deprived of the ministry and witness of a community of Anglican Christians simply because circumstances do not permit that community to take the form of a conventional expression of church. Over time those circumstances may change. On the other hand, a non-conventional expression of church may be the best way to engage and reach that community, neighborhood, or relationship network.

A denomination that confines its church planting efforts to conventional expressions of church is limiting not only its own growth but the growth of the Kingdom. The Kingdom grows with each new disciple that is made in obedience to our Lord’s command to leave our comfort zones, to spread the Gospel, and to make disciples of all people groups. God’s rule over the human heart expands as each new believer accepts Jesus as his Lord and Savior and turns his life over to Jesus.

One of the aims of A Prayer Book for North America is to provide the kind of worship resources that house churches and other small Christian communities need. The provision of these resources is one of the innumerable ways that a denomination can support the ministry and witness of these communities. Producing mp3 worship music tracks and accompanying multimedia slides and songbooks is another way. Offering free online seminars and workshops on worship planning and preaching is a third.

How else might a denomination support their ministry and witness? What do you think?

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