Wednesday, August 26, 2009

Coming and Going

Worship, for Christians, begins when, in answer to God’s call, we come together. It’s as simple as that: God calls, we gather. And we become the church. Remember that the New Testament word for church means “called out”—we are called out from the general population to be God’s special people in the world.

The nature of that newly-formed community of God’s people is described by the Greek word, “koinonia.” It is one of those exasperating Greek words that defies translation by any one word in English. “Community” works, but has other connotations as well. “Fellowship” is okay, but has sexist overtones, so it’s not used very often these days. “Brother-Sister-hood,” is close, but terribly cumbersome. “Congregation” is accurate, but has no feeling to it. “Religious association” has even less pizzazz and sounds like it could be clubby. And so forth.

So we fall back on the Greek word. Koinonia describes that unique community, a fellowship of men and women (and children too) gathered by God as a family of faith in a congregation to worship and serve God, associated by virtue of their common call and mission.

Of course, Christians are not just gathered. We are also sent. God calls us out from the world to be the church, and in a short while we are sent out again into the world to be the church still.

Now the worshipping Christian is facing out, going forth into the world on a mission, and this mission is captured in another Greek word, “diakonia.” You recognize the word “deacon,” so there’s a clue. In New Testament Greek a “deacon” was one who waited on tables—the humble servant of other people. So we are sent into the world to be deacon-servants, waiting on the needs of others. Here is the evangelical thrust of the Gospel, welcoming others with a Christ-like example.

Koinonia and diakonia are, in a way, opposites, or at least at opposite ends of the same polarity. We are gathered into a kononia and sent out to participate in diakonia. The first is exclusive—we are not like other people, there is something that makes us different from everyone else in the world, our call to be God’s people. The other word is, by definition, inclusive—as servants of God we are servants of everyone.

We are gathered by God into the church, into this worshipping fellowship to serve God, and then thrust out to worship God still by serving others. It’s an agreeable turn of phrase, a happy ambiguity of the words “worship” and “service.”

There is also a good tension between kononia and diakonia. I’m convinced that we Christians are healthiest when we recognize and appreciate that tension. When we are gathered, we are looking forward to being sent. The worship we experience challenges us and shoves us out the door to follow our risen Lord. When engaged in worldly work with our spiritual sleeves rolled up, we remember the songs and prayers and words that empower and strengthen our service, and recognize our need to go back and worship more.

It has been described as the “heartbeat of the church,” this back-and-forth pumping of the Spirit, so like the diastole and systole of our hearts that brings the blood in and sends it out. Without this “pulse-beat,” the church cannot survive. It takes both coming and going to be a Christian.

Where in your gathered worship do you find nudges to send you out on God’s mission?

Sunday, August 23, 2009

Guest Post - Arlo D. Duba

The following is a "guest post" from my good friend of long-standing, Presbyterian minister Dr. Arlo D. Duba, former professor of worship, which he shares in response to my August 2 post on the question of when we started to use Communion cups.

There is a rather humorous and interestingly long episode in the history of the Presbyterian Churches on the matter of Communion cups, Communion wine and Communion etiquette. First of all, there is the original injunction in the Westminster Directory as used in the Kirk of Scotland that “communicants are to receive seated at the Table, not remaining in the pews.” Even as the transition came, two elders would stretch a “housling cloth” from one end of the pew to the other, to simulate a table cloth while the bread and the chalice were passed over it! However, at least two General Assemblies of the Kirk of Scotland, 1825 and 1829, inveighed against the “lounging indifference” practice of “seated communion.”

Even so, the single chalice that was passed contained wine, not grape juice among American Presbyterians until shortly after the beginning of the 1900s. And the plates held broken (not cut up) pieces of bread. Before 1875 – 1900 Presbyterian congregations always used wine, not grape juice. The use of grape juice was advocated for the first time in 1869 by Dr. Thomas B. Welch, and dentist in Vineland, NJ, and a devout Methodist. He developed a process of pasteurization which would stop fermentation, and keep grape juice fresh (you may recall Welch’s Grape Juice).
The Digest of the Acts and Proceedings of the General Assembly in the southern Presbyterian Church (PCUS), for example, shows that in 1892 the Assembly affirmed that “The Scriptural element to be used in the Lord’s Supper is the fermented grape-juice,” but added that “the use of the unfermented grape-juice would not necessarily vitiate the validity of the ordinance.” In 1893, having received objections, the Assembly rescinded the second part of that interpretation! I assume that means that it was the opinion that unfermented grape juice did vitiate its validity!

Northern “liberals” moved more quickly to grape juice. The 1895 PCUSA Assembly declared, “Unfermented fruit of the vine fulfills every condition in the celebration of the sacrament.”
However, in the PCUS in 1914 a Savannah, GA church was still asking for an opinion. Does the session have the right to decide between fermented and unfermented grape juice, and if so, are both equally valid? The Assembly responded “yes” to the first part, and did not respond to the second part. That did not satisfy some, and it came to the Assembly again in 1916. That Assembly responded that “Previous Assemblies had answered all needs, giving ample liberty for any session to be guided by its own interpretation of the Scripture.” That settled that! But interestingly, the record shows that wine continued to be used at the PCUS General Assembly communion services.

A similar humorous situation repeated itself with reference to the “Chalice – communion cups” debate. Although the northern PCUSA church affirmed as early as 1882 that the Session may determine what is bread and what is wine, and in 1895 confirmed that “unfermented fruit of the vine fulfils every condition in the celebration of the sacrament,” that same assembly said that it “sees no sufficient reason to change the primitive and historic method of administering the Lord’s supper, by the introduction of what is known as ‘the individual Communion cup,’ and urges upon its church not to make the change. Thus they endorsed the “one chalice” option.

This endorsement raised a firestorm! Objections cited biblical references, such as 1 Cor 8:14-17. People said that in the Bible, “cup” is always in the singular, etc. But there was a hygiene group that stressed the newly developing understanding of virology. They spoke equally loudly about the possibility of the transmission if disease. And there were objections from larger churches. They had long ago found it necessary to use two or more chalices to pass through the congregation.

In response, the General Assembly of 1896 concluded that it “leaves the matter of the number of cups to be used in the celebration of the Lord’s Supper to the Sessions of our churches, where it constitutionally belongs.”

There is an interesting postscript. The Presbyterian Church in Floyd, Virginia continued to use chalices and wine on into the 1920s. They moved to individual cups and grape juice when several men were received into the church who had “an alcohol problem.”

Maybe at another time I will talk about the “Pouring-lip Chalice” possibility. It is my favorite communion distribution method.
Arlo D. Duba

Friday, August 21, 2009

Silence, Please

Recently I worshipped in two churches of different denominations and came away feeling something was missing. After mentally rehearsing the experiences, I realized that the absent quality was silence. In each service, from stem to stern, there was not one moment of silence.

Well, there was a situation in which one worship leader forgot it was his turn, resulting in an awkward silence while the congregation held its corporate breath and he woke up to his responsibility. That in itself was the exception that proved the point—when there was silence in the service, it was of the awkward kind, born of an error, and everyone was antsy to get it over with. It was “dead time” that made everyone nervous.

There need to be times of silence in Sunday worship when there is nothing being said, sung or played on an instrument. Not “dead time” however—on the contrary, quality time bearing meaning and substance. Without such times, worship is likely to become agenda-oriented, focused on what has to happen, item after item, and gotten through. That kind of objectivity, centering on the external acts of liturgy, neglects the subjective dimension of worship, what goes on among the people and within each individual. Silence allows time for inner reflection, and opens the worshippers to the movement of the Holy Spirit.

There are several kinds of quality silence that are useful in worship—quite apart from the awkward type which is a distraction.

Relational Silence – This is the very brief pause (just a “beat” or two) before each time a pastor or reader actually launches into a prayer or reading, that few seconds when a long breath is taken and eye contact is made. This is an intimate moment, when silence allows the connection between the worshippers in the pews and those on the platform to be made. Such a moment of silence, fleeting though it may seem, affirms the unity of the worshipping community. It’s a small thing, perhaps, but in the course of a service it can add up to a great deal.

Contemplative Silence – Certain parts of the service call for a moment of private inner thought and personal reflection. Certainly after each reading from Scripture, it is appropriate to keep silent, to let what has been read and heard to soak in. God speaks personally to each of us, and we do well to listen carefully in our own hearts for God’s personal message. Similarly, silence for reflection may follow the sermon, as the proclamation is appropriated by each person. (Note: How long should these silences last? Don’t put a clock on them. The leader should consider him- or herself average, do his or her own reflection—after all he or she is worshipping too—and then bring it to a close.)

Prayerful Silence – Silence is more commonly found in the context of prayer. After the corporate prayer of confession, for example, there should be occasion for silent prayers of personal confession. Or within “prayers of the people” there are opportunities for silent personal prayers, especially if “bidding” prayers are used on various subjects. Here we can silently communicate with God in intimate terms with our own petitions and praise. Silent prayer fills the unison or group prayers with special and specific meaning from our lives in a way more real than any prayer written or composed by any leader ever could. (For duration, see the note above.)

At what other points in the worship service would a time of silence improve the quality of worship?

Friday, August 14, 2009

Hub of the Wheel

Many people look at worship as just one thing among many that the church does. Worship is but a single item on the list, they say, and not even the most important one at that. I suppose that’s one way to look at it. The only thing is, it’s seriously mistaken. If you buy that approach, worship really doesn’t amount to much and is in the take-it-or-leave-it category.

On the contrary, worship is supremely what the church does, and points profoundly to who the church is. The people of God are most visibly revealed to be the Body of Christ when gathered for worship in his name, when, as he promised, he is present. Then also it is made clear what the church is to do in the world as she follows her Lord.

A more helpful way of looking at the church’s liturgy is to see it as the hub of the wheel, from which radiate the spokes of education, mission, stewardship, and other aspects of congregational life. Here are a few of the more obvious relationships.

Worship and Education. All education in the church is rooted in the Sacrament of Baptism, and this is true whether you think of infant or adult baptism. The “Great Commission” (Matt. 28:18-20) makes it clear that we are charged to “go…and make disciples…baptizing them in the name…and teaching them to obey….” The charge to the church is to “baptize” and “teach” for this is how we “make disciples” [literally “learners”]. As a part of the congregation’s baptismal commitment is the resolution to provide the means of faith formation and nurture to each baptized person—so the congregation’s educational program is linked directly to worship. If we fail to see that link, the promises made by the congregation at baptisms are empty ones; if we keep the connection strong, the saints will be equipped and the church strengthened.

Worship and Stewardship. Any understanding of stewardship in the church finds its roots in the Sacrament of the Lord’s Supper. Here we encounter the risen Christ and receive at his table his very life, a life given in sacrificial love. Sacrificial giving on our part is the only suitable response. The sacrament is also known as “Eucharist,” which means Thanksgiving. Thankful giving is generous giving. Keeping this connection between stewardship and worship strong will empower the people and enhance the virtue of generosity.

Worship and Mission. Christian mission will always be anchored in the prophetic proclamation of the Word. Reading and preaching the Word of God is, by the power of the Holy Spirit, an encounter with the Word-become-flesh, our living Lord. Out of this experience flows the mission of the church which is at heart “evangelistic.” The good news of God’s love in Jesus Christ is told in deeds of compassion and justice. Proclamation of the Word impels the people out from the safety of the sanctuary into the wilderness of the world to assure that all will hear and see the good news.

What other church activities are there which find a direct connection with worship? Where do in worship do they link up?

Saturday, August 8, 2009


There are plenty of Christians out there, in case you hadn’t noticed, who say that they have no need or use for going to church on Sundays. They explain their position something like this: “I’m a religious (or spiritual) person, and I believe in God, but I don’t need to go to a building somewhere with other people to pray. I can read the Bible and say my prayers just about anywhere.”

On the other hand, there is another group of the faithful who will state their case in almost the reverse. They sound something like this: “I get myself to church every week…well, when I can. And I really get a lot out of it, so I don’t have to do much in the way of piety or prayer during the week.”

We tend to set these two approaches in opposition to one another. It’s “private” versus “public” worship; or “solitary” rather than “with others”; or “personal” and not “general.” When we do that, we make a serious mistake.

Rather than see them as separate, we should look at them as two parts of the whole worship experience. Our personal devotions, our quiet times contemplating a passage of Scripture, the privacy of our most personal prayers have a direct relationship to our worship with the gathered community on the Lord’s Day. What we do on our own, apart from the fellowship of believers, is our “homework” to prepare ourselves for involvement in the church’s common worship. Both parts are essential.

This is not a new idea. John Calvin (and he probably wasn’t the first) wrote about it nearly five centuries ago: “…we must hold that he who declines to pray in the public meeting of the saints knows not what it is to pray apart, in retirement, or at home. On the other hand, he who neglects to pray alone and in private, however sedulously he frequents public meetings, there gives his prayers to the wind, because he defers more to the opinion of man than to the secret judgment of God.” (See Institutes, Book 3, Chapter 20, Section 29.)

There are many different ways of doing our “homework,” a variety of disciplines, numerous spiritual exercises. Reading Scripture and meditating on the text is a good way. So is just finding time to be quiet and listen to the breath of life, in one’s own body, in the world around. Many find scheduled prayer does the trick. Prayerful reading of the newspaper can even be good preparation, as is remembering family, friends and strangers and their particular needs.

When we do this kind of homework, we come to church on Sunday equipped to make the most general prayers personal, filling them with content from our own lives and experiences.

What are other ways to do “homework” that prepares one to worship with the community and celebrate God’s grace given in Jesus Christ in the most personal way?

Sunday, August 2, 2009

Q&A #1 - Communion Cup(s)

From time to time I’ll post a question asked of me, my answer, and some related questions for further discussion.

QUESTION: When did Protestants start using individual communion cups?

This was posed a while back at a gathering of clergy. We muddled around a bit and guessed at an answer, and, as it turns out, we were fairly good guessers.

Nancy Tomes, a historian, has written a book called The Gospel of Germs: Men, Women, and the Microbe in American Life (Harvard University Press, 1998), wherein she writes about “The Debate over the Common Communion Cup” (pp. 132-134).

The rise of tuberculosis at the turn of the twentieth century, she says, presented a dilemma for Protestants (not, however, for Roman Catholics, since only the priest drank the wine) that began the great debate.

Starting in 1887 physicians in Rochester, N.Y., brought pressure on churches to use separate cups since the common cup had been named the culprit in passing around TB and other “loathsome diseases.”

Tomes says, “The proposal to abolish the common communion cup initially met with deep resistance. For many Protestants, the fact that Jesus and his disciples used one vessel at the Last Supper was sufficient reason to forbid any change in practice…. When the General Assembly of the Presbyterian Church was first queried on the issue in 1895, it agreed that the hygiene issue was insufficient reason to alter ‘the primitive and historic method of administering the Lord’s Supper.’”

We all know how it finally came out. Mini-shot-glass-sized cups became the usual means of delivery of the wine—or often grape-juice, since there was also at this time the rise of the Temperance Movement. Diced bread, rather than a whole loaf to be handled and broken, also became the norm for hygienic reasons.

With that answer, some other questions are raised for all of us, such as:

As a liturgical rite, which is most appropriate—common cup or individual glasses?
Does the common cup work better when people come forward, or can it be passed hand-to-hand in the pews?
Which is preferable, people served in pews or coming to the Table?
Is it better to serve wine, grape juice or both? Why?
How much do the floor plan, furnishings and architecture of your worship space contribute to or inhibit the serving of Communion? What could you do to make it better?
And, finally, what theology is communicated to the worshippers by the different methods of serving and forms of the elements?