Sunday, October 16, 2011


Every once in a while, it helps to take a look at Christian worship from a slightly different angle. When we’re busy planning a particular service, every act of worship is important, and they all tend to rank about the same. So it is worth looking at what we do in worship to lift up those things that we would classify as “essential”.

This is not an effort to “minimalize” worship, to see what is most important as a way of finding out how little we can get away with and still call it worship. “Essential” means “what we cannot do without”. Other less than essential acts and words may be desirable as well.

The Reformers agreed that the true church was to be defined by two things: Proclamation of the Word and Celebration of the Sacrament (Eucharist). This definition was itself based on centuries of historical experience and testimony.

Certainly Proclamation of the Word is indispensible. Yet we’re not always sure what that includes.

For example, I preached recently in a church where they have two Scripture readings, one Old and the other New Testament. Not bad, so far. But what happened to the Epistle, the witness of the Early Church? Missing. If the Word is to be proclaimed in its fullness, the texts need to reflect over a period of time the fullness of the biblical message. The pattern used in the New Common Lectionary helps cover the territory.

The other part of the Proclamation of the Word is the sermon. Preaching, however, needs to find its firm foundation on Scripture. I have heard sermons preached (even some in so-called Bible-centered churches) where the only Scripture used was a snippet which served as a springboard from which to launch the homiletical address.

The sermon rarely, if ever, stands alone apart from the Scripture—especially in this day when biblical homework by the pew-sitters is not done with diligence. To preach without scriptural context made clear is to invite problems, one of which is that the preacher is not held accountable to the Word revealed in the full biblical witness. The message is not always comforting, and it is crucial to have the biblical origin of challenges clearly identified.

Another problem is that such abbreviation of Scripture lessons welcomes the “personality cult” of the preacher whose manner and style eclipses the message. Mind you, I like compliments as much as the next preacher, yet when I get them, I often feel like I should respond with, “But did you hear what I was saying?”

The Eucharist – also known as Holy Communion, the Lord’s Supper, Breaking Bread—is another “essential”. This is the most problematic, because it is largely ignored by segments of the Christian community, notably the Presbyterians, who ought to know better.

Infrequent and arbitrary communion is an ecumenical liability. Those who place the Eucharist in the “essential” category by virtue of their celebration every Lord’s Day, look down on those who demean the sacrament by a cavalier attitude toward it. It’s bad enough that we neglect it more than half the time in most Protestant churches, but even worse that we celebrate it willy-nilly on a certain Sunday each month, as though that fulfills some obligation.

Presbyterians need to brush up on their Calvin, and so do some theological education of decision-makers, theology professors, and pastors—and lay people as well—to ensure a more faithful observance of the mandates given by Jesus himself.

When the sacrament of Communion is missing, the worship experience is truncated and incomplete. In the Proclamation of the Word the message of the risen Christ present with us is spoken; in the Lord’s Supper, the same message is acted out. If either is given short shrift, an essential has been compromised and basic Christian worship jeopardized.

What other “essentials” might you add to the list of critically important aspects of Christian worship? Does your Sunday worship include the full set of Scripture readings? Is the sermon based on one or more of them? How often does your church celebrate Communion? Why?

1 comment:

  1. Our church does not include the full set of Scripture readings, which has always seemed odd to me. The Reformed tradition places such importance on Scripture. Another essential I would add is music, not as a component of worship, but an important vehicle to carry worship. How can we ignore the Psalmists' mandates to sing? Then, I would gratefully substitute regular Eucharist and a concise homily for an extended sermon. I wonder if the possibility has been raised with those who plan worship?


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