I need to, at last, turn to Robert E. Webber’s Ancient-Future Worship: Proclaiming and Enacting God’s Narrative, in which he proposes a fresh direction for the Christian assembly. He writes (p. 40),
Worship–daily, weekly, yearly–is rooted in the gospel. And when worship fails to proclaim, sing, and enact at the Table the Good News that God not only saves sinners but also narrates the whole world, it is not only worship that becomes corrupted by the culture, it is also the gospel. Not only has worship lost its way, but the fullness of the gospel, the story which worship does, has been lost.
Amen. We are to worship in Spirit and in truth, and “truth” refers to the gospel, the truth that Jesus lived, taught, and is. Worship is all about the gospel.
The issue that all of us need to deal with is the reduction and fragmentation of God’s whole story. The full story is that of the work of the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit. God creates, becomes involved with creation, and is made incarnate into time, space, and history in order to redeem and restore the world as the garden of God’s habitation and people as his community of love and fellowship.
In summary, here is what biblical worship does: It remembers God’s work in the past, anticipates God’s rule over all creation, and actualizes both past and future in the present to transform persons, communities, and the world.
(p. 43). That sure seems to be a lot to ask of a one-hour assembly! But if we don’t teach God’s story during the assembly, our membership is not going to learn it — and they certainly won’t understand how their lives fit into God’s story.
Look at the five early Christian sermons in the book of Acts –every one of them is based on the memory of how God has acted in history and has now acted in Jesus Christ to rescue the world from sin and death (see Acts 2:14-36; 3:12-26; 4:8-12; 5:29-32; 7:2-53).
(p. 47). Webber urges us to remember God’s mighty deeds on our behalves in preaching, in reciting creeds, and in song. Interestingly, he finds the “creeds” that should be recited in the text of the New Testament, such as —
(1Ti 3:16 ESV) 16 Great indeed, we confess, is the mystery of godliness: He was manifested in the flesh, vindicated by the Spirit, seen by angels, proclaimed among the nations, believed on in the world, taken up in glory.
To these he adds dramatic reenactment, especially in the Lord’s Supper —
The Lord’s Supper is the worship ritual that reenacts Christ’s sacrifice of himself for the sins of the world. It is the primary way of reenacting the sacrifice of Christ that fulfills all Hebrew sacrificial expectations.
(p. 52). Finally, Webber urges the church to honor the Christian calendar, as way to remember critical events in our salvation history: Easter, Pentecost, etc.
Webber adds that the assembly should reflect how living today reflects our hope for eternity.
“Dear friends,” [Peter] writes as an immediate follow-up to his instruction on worship, “I urge you as aliens and strangers in the world, to abstain from sinful desires, which war against your soul. Live such good lives among the pagans that, though they accuse you of doing wrong, they may see your good deeds and glorify God on the day he visits us” (1 Peter 2:11-12). Not only does worship point to the culmination of all history in the new heavens and new earth, but it also shapes the ethical behavior of God’s people to reflect kingdom ethics here on earth. Consequently, the ethical life of the church is an eschatological witness to the world of how people should be living and how the world will be under the reign of God.
(pp. 65-66). In contrast to his proposals, Webber criticizes modern trends —
In many of our churches today there is a neglect of remembrance in worship. It arises from the loss of attention to the whole Bible. A shift has taken place toward a focus on therapeutic or inspirational preaching and to the rise of entertainment or presentational worship. Pastors and church leaders would do well to return to the Scriptures and be more faithful to the biblical emphasis on remembrance that is found in the ancient liturgies of the church. One does not need to become liturgical to become more biblical in worship. Remembrance of God’s actions in history to save the world can be effectively done in a spontaneous way as well. When planning worship ask, “Does the service connect creation with God’s involvement in the history of Israel, with his incarnation, death, resurrection, ascension, eternal intercession, and coming again to establish his rule over all creation?” If you can answer “Yes” to that question, you are well on your way into worship that has the biblical content of remembrance and anticipation.
(pp. 70-71). Tell me if the following doesn’t sound familiar —
The contemporary chorus movement is not a theologically sensitive movement. If anything, it is atheological. At first, passages of Scripture, especially the Psalms, were put to music. The movement was soon influenced by the culture of narcissism, however, and the songs became more and more about me and my worship of God. The biblical story clarified in this book has attempted to show that worship is about God: God’s wonder, mystery, and majesty; his wonderful story of rescuing his creatures and creation. The great majority of choruses, however, are about me. How much I love God and want to serve him. How I worship him, glorify him, magnify him, praise him, and lift him up. The focus seems to be on self-generated worship. God is made the object of my affection, and worship is measured by how strongly I am able to feel this gratitude and express it to God.
Seeker-oriented contemporary churches argue that worship does not need to present the whole gospel. The purpose of worship, they say, is to get people in the door. Then, after they have gained a hearing, they present the gospel in small-group settings. This argument may be good marketing, but it fails to understand the biblical purpose of worship. Worship brings glory to God because it remembers God’s saving deeds in the past and anticipates God’s culmination of his saving deeds in the new heavens and new earth.
The delight of worship is not:
“That was a great program!”
“I loved the music today.”
“What an entertaining sermon:”
“I really felt like I was worshiping today.”
“That sure was fun dancing around, shouting `Amen!’ and giving my neighbor a high five:”
These descriptions ultimately are a delight in self as if “I did it; I broke through; I really worshiped:” Worship that generates that kind of response is not worship. True worship generates the sense of:
“What a great story!”
“I can’t believe that God would do that for the world and for me.”
“What a God to become human and to restore all things through Christ:”
(p. 110). Webber thus urges a renewed emphasis on the communion —
How do bread and wine draw us into a participation in the life of God in the world? Bread and wine disclose the union we have with Jesus, which is not a mere standing but a true and real participation lived out in this life as we become the story of God in this world individually in all our ways and corporately as the people of God. First, we ingest bread and wine. Then, in contemplation we look on with steadfast delight in all that bread and wine disclose. And then in participation, we reach out and see the whole world in the hands of God. We lift the Alpha and Omega to our mouth. We take God’s whole story into our stomach, let it run through our bloodstream, let it then energize our entire living-our relationships, our work, our pleasure; all of life is now to be lived as Jesus lived his life. As he took into himself the suffering of all humanity, so we are to take into ourselves the suffering of the world and do something about it. As he rose above all that is evil in the world through his resurrection, so we too are to rise to the new life by the Spirit of God. All our death to sin and rising to life finds its true and ultimate meaning in him who lives in us, living in our sufferings, living in our struggles with evil, living in our resurrections to new life.
What is ancient-future worship? Well, it’s taking seriously how the early church worshiped in their assemblies, not as rule books or patterns of acts of worship, but as exemplars of the heart of worship.
The goal is not to decide how many songs and prayers we need, but what is the content of the assembly to be? Is the assembly purely about teaching? music? a feeling?
Webber suggests that the heart of the assembly is a retelling of the Story — the true story of what God has done, is doing, and will do for man. And this closely parallels Deuteronomy, when the Israelite ekklesia was called together to be reminded of God’s mighty works and to renew their covenants with him.