What is the message that the assembly should communicate to the members and to visitors? There are, of course, countless good things that one might teach, but what is the over-arching goal?
Sometimes we approach the assembly microscopically, that is, focusing on today’s lesson without thought to the lesson taught over the course of the years.
I’m persuaded that we’ve greatly erred in not communicating the Story as well as we should have. By the “Story” I mean the over-arching narrative of Scripture. It’s a true Story. Indeed, it’s Truth.
You see, if we fail to teach the Story, then all the other lessons become atomistic, separated truths that aren’t seen as part of the total Truth of God’s revelation. And so, we pick and choose the parts that seem relevant and ultimately decontextualize our preaching and our worship.
Hence, we might overly focus on the therapeutic lessons in the gospels. The preacher will be praised by the members who are struggling to cope with insecurity, low self-esteem, and depression, but it won’t be because they truly understand how they fit into God’s Story. They might in fact consider Jesus to have come to earth and died so that they could feel better about themselves — which is not really quite the point.
In Worship by the Book, Timothy J. Keller writes about Calvin’s approach to the assembly —
Calvin’s corporate worship tradition resonates with many of the concerns of postmodern people. They have a hunger for ancient roots and a common history; Calvin emphasizes this through liturgy in a way that neither traditional Free Church worship nor contemporary praise worship does. They have a hunger for transcendence and experience; Calvin provides an awe and wonder better than the cognition-heavy Free Church services in the Zwinglian-Puritan tradition and better than the informal and breezy “seeker services.”
The Churches of Christ inherit their worship style from the Puritans via certain branches of the 19th Century Baptist Churches. We tend to be very non-creative, favoring routine and predictability, highly rational, and not very relational. Our services focus on doctrine more than personal experience with a present Savior.
Meanwhile, the “seeker service” is often highly emotional and experiential, but can become very passive — with those in attendance reduced to viewing a spectacle. Indeed, often such congregations compete with each other to have the hottest band and the most exciting service — selling worship experience rather than building a true community.
Calvin favored —
* Simplicity — in form and language, in preference to spectacle or sentimentality. Hence, he abhorred all ostentation. We do not earn God’s favor by the excellence of our performance! It’s about grace.
* Transcendence — Calvin sought to bring the membership face to face with God. Thus, he seeks a balance between objective and subjective knowledge of God. Worship is about both head and heart.
Therefore, he had songs written by the best poets available. However, he insisted on congregational singing — and even had “singing masters” train the congregation in how to sing.
He further urged those leading the worship to demonstrate both delight in God and awe in God’s presence.
That is, the leadership must be manifestly amazed at God’s grace. We aren’t here to earn God’s approval, but neither do we ignore God’s presence. God is here! We don’t deserve his presence, and he doesn’t want us to pretend to be someone other than who we are. (We can’t fool God by putting on a coat and tie, you know.) Therefore, we approach God’s presence with honesty and wonder.
Instead, Calvin saw the entire service, not as a performance for God by the celebrants, but as a rhythm of receiving God’s word of grace and then responding in grateful praise. That is how the gospel operates. We do not perform duties, anxiously and wearily hoping that some day we will deserve to enter his kingdom and family. Rather, we hear the word of our acceptance now; and transformed by that understanding, we respond with a life of thankful joy (Rom 5:1-5).
Thus, Calvin divides the service into two elements: the “Service of the Word” followed by grateful joy in the “Service of the Table.” Rather than treating communion as a chore to be hurried through so that we get to the real worship — the sermon — Calvin used the sermon to point to communion — to celebration of Jesus.
You see, the Church of Christ tradition is about 200 years old and borrowed from the Frontier Revivalism of the Second Great Awakening. We conclude with a sermon and invitation because we’re replicating 19th Century revival preaching, not First Century assemblies.
Indeed, one reason we so struggle to escape legalism is our services are designed to prompt enough guilt in our members so that they “respond” by “going forward” — meaning our preaching is targeted toward feelings of guilt and unworthiness, rather than grace and forgiveness.
Hence, Calvin’s order of worship would be along these lines:
* Scripture reading
* Singing of psalms
[The first three elements are built on Isaiah 6. God speaks, we confess, we are pardoned, we celebrate in song.]
* Illumination prayer
* Scripture readings
* Psalm sung
* Intercession prayer
[The next elements are the “Mosaic cycle,” that is, the goal is to make us as aware of God’s presence as Moses was before the burning bush.]
* Creed (sung)
* Words of institution
* Communion (with singing or scripture readings)
[The final elements are the Emmaus cycle, in which Jesus becomes known to us through the communion.]
Now, there is no magic in the particulars. The part of Calvin’s approach I find particularly intriguing is the relocation of the Lord’s Supper to the climax of the assembly, so that the service points to a sacrificed and resurrected Savior rather than the teaching of the word and the use of guilt to create “responses.”
That is not to reject the propriety of responses in the assembly, but to move the service more toward a celebration of Jesus and God’s grace, beautifully symbolized in the bread and cup.
I might add here some thoughts from Neo-Anabaptist Stanley Hauerwas.
The Eucharist is usually not considered an essential aspect of Christian worship by those concerned with church growth. Evangelism means getting people to church, because unless we go to church, it is assumed, our lives are without moral compass. Thus the assumption that lack of attendance at church and our society’s “moral decay” go hand in hand. What such people fail to see is that such decay begins with the assumption that worship is about “my” finding meaning for my life rather than glorification of God. Such evangelism is but another name for narcissism. Christian worship requires that our bodies submit to a training otherwise unavailable so that we can become capable of discerning those who use the name of Jesus to tempt us to worship foreign gods. Without the Eucharist we lose the resource to discover how these gods rule our lives.
If we re-center the assembly on God, then rather than assembling for what we can get out of it, we assemble to be in God’s special, intense presence and to celebrate him for what he’s done for us. This would lead to a remarkable turn. By re-centering the worship on God and his grace, we will in fact find meaning in life for ourselves. It’s only in the presence of God that we learn who we really are: God’s chosen, elect people, deeply loved, bought with a great price.
Rather than using the assembly as a platform to preach baptism or how to “get saved,” the assembly will preach the joys and beauties of God and our special, incredible relationship with him. And that will be more evangelistic than a thousand lessons in apologetics.
Visitors don’t come to church to learn your theology of atonement or the Trinity. They come to see whether God is there among you. And God is most truly present when the service focuses on him.
And, remarkably enough, this will also lead to greater encouragement. You see, the best way to encourage me to love and good works is to remind me of the work of Jesus and what he has done for me. When the assembly is focused on the submissive, serving character of God as revealed in Jesus, we can’t help but grow to imitate Jesus.
So, anyway, it seems that we’re long overdue to rethink the purposes and nature of the assembly. We can do better.