The Critical Adjustment
S. M. Hutchens on Pleasing the Lord in Worship
“Please Me, O Lord” in the May 2004 issue of Touchstone, a criticism of the increasingly sex-charged electrotheatrical liturgy practiced in many churches, has received much attention. The piece was a page from a pathologist’s notebook. The object was to depict something wrong or abnormal, with a brief attempt to trace the genesis and development of the disorder. The challenges from readers have nearly all been questions or statements about what should be considered normal and healthy.
Unlike simple identification of what is wrong, especially of something obviously wrong, that is a very long study, but here I will suggest a first step on the road to recovery of a balanced, sane, and reasonable service of worship. It is in fact a large step backwards to regain something lost. This is no magical formula for spiritual health; I do not here propose that good order alone shall please God and prevent apostasy, or even that diverging from it is necessarily fatal in the short run. What I propose is setting things back in the order where they belong so that gross perversions such as I described in “Please Me, O Lord” will be more difficult to accomplish.
I am convinced that the great error at the bottom of the service of worship in many—certainly not all, but many—Protestant churches is the departure from its classical shape adumbrated in Acts 2:42, where it is said that the church devoted itself to the apostles’ teaching and fellowship, the breaking of bread, and the prayers. Even if this is not to be understood in the first order or intention as a guideline for liturgy, it is at least what the church as those called out and gathered together in one place by the Holy Spirit elementally and by its character does.
The central problem here is that the “breaking of bread”—the communion meal that is the unique and necessary Christian addition to the synagogue service—has, doubtless in reaction to “Catholicism,” been downgraded and suppressed in the Evangelical service. Fermented wine, like bread a symbol of death and resurrection, has been replaced by a modern innovation with grape juice as though this were a perfectly natural part of biblical religion. The words of the Lord: “This is my body . . .” have likewise been suppressed, either by not repeating them, or by effectively denying them with some prayer or preachment that the bread and wine are “only symbolic,” meaning that the words of the Lord, repeated by St. Paul, are to be taken only figuratively, so that anyone who believes that what they are taking is in some sense “really” the body and blood of the Lord is in error.
An inevitable result of this denial is the distortion of the natural shape of Christian worship. In the effective removal of the Words of Institution it has, in fact, been defaced beyond recognition; the very seat of Communion as instituted by the Lord himself has been removed. It is therefore little wonder that the Evangelical service should always be in search of “something deeper,” something more profound and engaging, something that warms the heart and brings one into a more intimate relation with the Lord. Likewise it is little wonder that the service of worship as a whole should distort along the affective fault lines created by this removal.
It is no surprise that the exposition of Scripture and the music (the latter being properly an aspect of “the prayers”) have replaced the Lord’s Supper as the central acts of communal worship. What we are seeing is that in many of these churches “worship”—the principal liturgical act of the gathered church—has become one aspect of “the prayers,” and because these must now bear weight and matter appropriate for “the breaking of bread,” their setting has a tendency to overstep its spiritual—and so also its emotional and sensual—boundaries.
Where the Lord’s Supper is celebrated in a manner natural to the gathering of the church, however, it by its very nature takes first place as the central and defining act of communal worship. This has been true from the earliest days, unquestionably since the Corinthian abuse brought the apostolic instruction on how it was to be eaten—which in effect turned it into a ceremonial meal.
It was to be a true meal, in which true nourishment for the body is received, but not principally for alimentation, which was to be done at home. It was explicitly for receiving the body and blood of the Lord in the bread and wine, given from the hand of Lord himself and passed to his people by his apostolic ministers.
Evangelicals retain the intuition that the defining center of life is “receiving Jesus Christ as one’s personal Lord and Savior.” This “salvation experience” is, indeed, their one and only sacrament, and their belief that the whole of life is to be shaped by this receiving is perfectly correct. But might one suggest it is best to do this in the way we have been instructed in the Scriptures, and that in the meeting in which it is done, it must by its very nature be the principal act of worship, to which the teaching, fellowship, and prayers lead, and from which they follow?
To be sure, one receives the Lord in every act of worship—in the Scriptures, in the prayers, and in preaching obedient to the prophetic and apostolic word. In and by this hour the whole of life is to be lived as a sacrament in which the Lord is received with thanksgiving. But at the high center of it all is, and has been from the beginning, the place in which the Lord himself is, in a mystery, given and received.
If this is so, must we labor to demonstrate the manner in which a Savior and King is to be welcomed? With joy, to be sure, but also with dignity, solemnity, and all the best we have. I write here as to mature and reasonable people to whom I needn’t say, as if they were children, that we should wash ourselves (first, the heart, of course), put on our best clothes, be on our best behavior, and pay attention, as befits those who are meeting the King not only personally, but in the company of others. I needn’t tell such people that it is uncharitable to distract the brethren by suggestive behavior, draw attention to oneself by one’s clothing or actions, or give petty entertainments when the chief interest of those gathered is nothing less than to draw near the Lord of heaven and earth.
Speaking as an elder to my fellows, I make the observations above about the defect in the general shape of the liturgy among Evangelicals, but do not need to tell them that they are responsible for what goes on in the churches or that they are invested with the spiritual authority to be sure that only what is good and seemly transpires in the services over which they preside. Nor do I need to belabor the fact that fully formed Christian worship will have local variations. Look diligently to the principal things; then one will be able to see more clearly how the others are to be arranged about them.
God has given us, with his Spirit, a common presbyterial wisdom that knows, especially in conference, the distorted from the merely different. I am not going to make the mistake of dictating fine points, as some have asked me to do, or define an aesthetic of worship that just happens to correspond to my preferences, since I have considerable evidence that God’s tastes are broader (and perhaps also narrower) than my own. On the other hand, where do we stand if we cannot readily and intuitively distinguish the good and the normal from the diverted or diseased—and if there are not those among us who can address, for the benefit and instruction of the church, the more difficult and subtle cases?
The case I was addressing in the original piece, however, was not difficult or subtle. I used it precisely because it was one of the grossest examples of abuse I have encountered in any worship service, an example of what we finally come to when we lose our bearings in these matters, of what happens when, in an attempt to avoid one kind of error or distortion, we fall headlong into another.
My prescription, then, is this: that Evangelicals restore the service of communion, using bread and wine, as the central act of communal worship, that the presiding elder should repeat and not deny the Words of Institution, and that the whole service be formed and offered to accord with this, its principal part.
S. M. Hutchens works as a reference librarian in Kenosha, Wisconsin. He holds a doctorate in theology. He is a senior editor of Touchstone.
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“The Critical Adjustment” first appeared in the November 2004 issue of Touchstone. If you enjoyed this article, you'll find more of the same in every issue.
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