[Ed Note: The following article is a wakeup call to the point of, or reason for, Christian worship.
Remember that which is “of first importance” (1Cor 11:20-32 ; 15:3)]
“The Church is always to be reformed (Barth)”
Recent encounters have challenged me to comment on the shape of Sunday church services i.e. liturgies. First, some observations at a church we visited last week, then a meeting with a devout Christian disturbed by the form of service in his own congregation. Time changes us. As a young Pentecostal Christian I would never have opted to attend services that were so unspiritual as to be scripted from a book. Soon however I was left without a choice; through living on campus at an Anglican theological college I was compelled by college rules to attend Sunday chapel. A little reflection made me quickly realise that all churches are liturgical. Contemporary congregations generally adopt an unwritten liturgy that looks something like: welcome, opening prayer, songs, sermon, offering, songs, closing prayer. Even in my original Pentecostal congregation the expression of the charismatic gifts was in a fixed place after the preacher. Even if all churches are liturgical the contemporary structure of services in our most influential (mega)churches raises some issues of deep concern.
We are witnessing a new generation of Christians who do not know the Lord’s Prayer by heart. Whereas repeating the Creeds shaped the minds of generations about Trinitarian orthodoxy today younger converts in trendy congregations have no idea what “Three in One” means! By pronouncing, “Therefore with angels and archangels, and with all the company of heaven, we proclaim your great and glorious name” ancient liturgies lift our minds from earth heavenwards, popular worship services are focussed on our emotionality (cf. Col 3:1-3). My main concern is whether our Sunday meetings image the shape of the life of Christ.
Where is Jesus?
What I found fascinating about the church we visited last Sunday was its centring on the Bible. After a single song and brief welcome the entire first chapter of Mark was read followed by an expository sermon on this passage. Everything after that, the communion, prayers and singing was subordinated to the profile of Scripture. Two observations sprung to mind as I attended that meeting, the primary witness to Christ is scripture but Jesus is not to be equated with the words Bible. Conservative Bible-centred churches do have a problem, but the dominant pattern in most large churches is far more grievous. Here the peak point of participation is likely at the climax of a long period of singing which sets the mood the congregation for the sermon. The address will not be a structured exposition of scripture but a motivational story line in sync with the choruses that stirred the emotions of the people. Biblical illustrations and texts are likely used to support the plausibility of the sermon rather than being its foundation. In such churches the offering talk will be about the benefits of our “giving back to God” and when communion happens it will focus on our ability to “remember Jesus”. Almost certainly there will be few public prayers; certainly none about matters of government, public justice and so on; this despite the scriptural injunction, “First of all, then, I urge that supplications, prayers, intercessions, and thanksgivings be made for all people, for kings and all who are in high positions…” (1 Tim 2:1-2). What ties this liturgical form together is not the shape of the life of Christ but “me-centredness”; where “ME” is the moods and needs of the stressed individual Westerner. Religion and culture are a powerful mix and one that can only be deconstructed by the power of the cross.
The Compass of the Cross
Paul exhorts “test everything” (1 Thess 5:21) and Luther pointedly remarked, “The cross is the test of all things.” Not that every sentence needs to use the word “cross” but the shape of our liturgies, oral or written, should reflect the cruciform (cross-shaped) character of God’s great saving plan. The first step in God’s laying out his plan to bring creation to himself was the choice of Jesus to be the Lamb slain from before the world was made (Eph 1:9-10; 1 Pet 1:19-20; Rev 13:8). This makes Christ’s death-and-resurrection the foundation of all salvation history. In God’s dealings with lost humanity all of fallen space-time history has been laid on the cross, judged there and in Christ elevated as a new creation (John 19:30; 2 Cor 5:17; Gal 6:15). The scope of the revelation given us in the gospel unites heaven and earth (Rom 16:25-27). Nothing we do in our public gatherings should diminish the extent of what God has accomplished in Christ; any stress on this-worldy peace and prosperity does exactly that, “Little children, keep yourself from idols.” (1 John 5:21; cf. 1 Cor 7:29-31). The litmus test of every form of church service is the gospel; “I delivered to you as of first importance…that Christ died for our sins in accordance with the Scriptures, that he was buried, that he was raised on the third day in accordance with the Scriptures,” (1 Cor 15:3-4).
All questions about liturgies boil down to, does our singing, prayers, preaching, communion publicly portray the shape of the life of Christ (Gal 3:1)? Here is a clear, if unpopular, example that embodies the shape of the gospel. Corporate confession of sin followed by a declaration of forgiveness images the death-and-resurrection of Jesus who “was handed over to die because of our sins, and raised to life for our justification with God.” (Rom 4:25 cf. James 5:16). Such gospel-centred actions continually remind us of our need for a Saviour and that Jesus has fully met this need. Run this litmus test at your own church next Sunday.
“The church is always to be reformed” (Barth). This is as true now as it was during the Protestant Reformation or the Nazification of the German Church in Barth’s day. Responding to the tangled shape of modern life where people are stretched by forces of family, finance, work and technology many orders of service have moulded ‘Jesus’ to meet our personal needs. A mind set in complete contrast to what entertains us is called for. Since creation is a platform for God’s glory (Calvin) we must inhabit a vision of our services as an encounter between heaven and earth where the Father beholds the Spirit-inspired worship of the standing-as-slain Lamb (Heb 12:18-24; Rev 1:10; 5:6-14; 13:6). This is a God-centred vision of a new creation created through the gospel. The gospel promise is that where the form of the death of Jesus is enacted his resurrection presence will be real (Rom 6:8; Phil 3:10).
“Reformation, Sunday”; two simple words, but through the lens of the cross they speak of a new spirit of seeing and enacting the cosmic drama of redemption. Because of its cost the road of reform is a road less travelled; most will opt for a predictable Sunday routine that supplies a spiritual hit to get us through the week whilst leaving “ME” firmly in control. Perhaps however a few readers of this article will desire to experience the great power of the gospel of Christ which left Paul breathless, “Who is sufficient for these things?” (Rom 1:16; 2 Cor 2:16). These few will no doubt suffer in seeking a reform of the religious systems of the day for the glory of God alone. Such a cruciform life will certainly pass the test and bring great pleasure to our heavenly Father. Is there anything else that matters?
 The English word “liturgy” derives from a Greek word for public service and is generally used for a set order of congregational worship e.g. in Catholic, Anglican and Orthodox churches.