I remember meeting with a group of Evangelical senior pastors. I asked this question: “When we gather for worship, by the end of the service, what are we supposed to have done? How do we know that, yes, that was a legitimate worship service?” After a significant silence, one of the men said, “Bill, that’s the first time I’ve ever heard that question.”
Then these pastors started to share their experiences. Most all of them simply did what they did because … well, that’s what they did. They didn’t seem to think that there was some sort of worship order they should be beholden to.
Growing up as a young Christian musician, I was always being roped into leading worship at the local churches I attended. I often heard the sentiment that, “There is no right or wrong way to worship. There’s great freedom. We can do whatever we want.”
It wasn’t until I began to earnestly study the theology of worship that my eyes were opened. Our God is jealous for our worship, and is quite clear in his expectations for how it is supposed to done*.
Celebrating the Acts of God in History
Christianity is a responsive faith in an active God. It is not a compilation of principles to live by (though it includes those). Our belief is in God’s saving acts in history. For the Jews of the Old Testament, that included creation (Sabbath), the Exodus from Egypt (Passover), and God’s providence during the wilderness wanderings (Booths), and the giving of the law (Shavuot).
In each of these God-ordained celebrations, the people are called to remember. When we, as contemporary, post-enlightenment, recovering-modernist, quasi-gnostics think of remembering, we think of a mental recollection — something that takes place in our minds only.
But this is not Biblical “re-membering”. Perhaps a better term, that better matches the Biblical idea, is “re-enactment.” We see this in the celebration of the Passover. In Exodus 12, God, through Moses, gives specific directions as to how the Passover is to be celebrated for generations to come. (Mind you, he gives these directions before the Passover actually happens!) The people are called to re-enact what will happen at sunset that night in Egypt — a “memorial day”, kept as a feast. Prepare offerings of bulls, rams and lambs, remove the leaven from your houses, eat only unleavened bread, don’t work, hear the children ask questions about the meaning of the festival,
By the way, “If anyone eats what is leavened, that person will be cut off from the congregation of Israel” (Ex. 12:19). Even those who were ceremoniously unclean were to make sure they kept the Passover (Num. 9:9-13). Do you think God is serious about this re-enactment?
But that’s just the Passover. The Sabbath reenacts the seventh day of creation – life before sin and the curse – with feasting, fellowship with God, and no work. The Feast of Booths reenact the wilderness wandering by actually having the people live in tents for a week. At Shavuot, people stay up all night learning the law (not unlike the reading of the law in Nehemiah 8).
New Testament Re-enactments
So … did God initiate re-enactments in the New Testament? Of course. “This do in remembrance of me” said Jesus, as he initiated the Lord’s Supper for future generations (again, initiating it before it actually happened!). And baptism is a re-enactment of the literal death, burial and rising again of Jesus. Both of these sacramental activities were mandated by Jesus and the Apostles.
From the days of the early church, leaders gave great thought to the “liturgy” (aka, “doing”) of their worship. They saw not only the Eucharist and Baptisms as re-enactments, but also the service of worship itself, and the marking of the calendar year! The service was seen as a re-enactment of the saving acts related to the Epiphany of Jesus: The ministry of the Word (the teaching of the Christ), and the ministry of the Table (the saving sacrifice of the Christ). The church year is also a grand re-enactment of the ministry of Jesus: Awaiting the Messiah (Advent), His birth (Christmastide), the manifestation of His Word and works (Epiphany), His sacrifice on the cross (Lent), His resurrection (Eastertide), His ascension (Ascension Day), and the sending of the Holy Spirit, the birth of the church (Pentecost).
The people God have always worshiped by re-enacting the saving works of God. This has always been God’s heart and directive for His worship, and the church should would be wise to return to such a format. Four rock songs and a chat is a bankrupt liturgy.
That Lutheran worship stands squarely and thoughtfully in this classical liturgical tradition is a primary reason I have made my pilgrimage to this denomination. In the next blog, I’ll show you how they do it.