Something Has Happened… Duane W.H. Arnold, PhD
There is much to be commended in traditional Protestant and Evangelical theology and practice. Pre-eminent, of course, is the priority of Scripture and the emphasis upon the study of the Bible. We might add other contributions such as expository preaching, the value placed upon personal experience and, perhaps, the openness to the use of contemporary music in worship. Almost all of these elements have made their way into more traditional and/or liturgical communities of faith.
Alongside the positive elements, however, another basic understanding of Protestant and Evangelical contemporary worship practice has also “crossed the street” and has largely been incorporated into the life of many, if not most, churches. This is the concept of Sunday worship as an “event”. Now, this is not to say that there is not something unique about our worship on Sundays. In an early account of Christian worship provided by Justin Martyr in his First Apology, we read the following:
“And on the day called Sunday there is a meeting in one place of those who live in cities or the country, and the memoirs of the apostles or the writings of the prophets are read as long as time permits. When the reader has finished, the president in a discourse urges and invites [us] to the imitation of these noble things. Then we all stand up together and offer prayers. And, as said before, when we have finished the prayer, bread is brought, and wine and water, and the president similarly sends up prayers and thanksgivings to the best of his ability, and the congregation assents, saying the Amen; the distribution, and reception of the consecrated [elements] by each one, takes place and they are sent to the absent by the deacons. Those who prosper, and who so wish, contribute, each one as much as he chooses to be deposited with the president, and he takes care of orphans and widows, and those who are in want on account of sickness or any other cause, and those who are in bonds, and the strangers who are sojourners among [us], and, briefly, he is the protector of all those in need. We all hold this common gathering on Sunday, since it is the first day, on which God transforming darkness and matter made the universe, and Jesus Christ our Saviour rose from the dead on the same day. For they crucified him on the day before Saturday, and on the day after Saturday, he appeared to his apostles and disciples and taught them these things which I have passed on to you also for your serious consideration.”
This Sunday gathering, however, appears to have been merely the culmination of other times of worship and service, for Justin tells us that, “After these [services] we constantly remind each other of these things. Those who have more come to the aid of those who lack, and we are constantly together.” Other writers inform us that it was common and recommended to say the Lord’s Prayer three times daily, either with others, or in one’s own home privately or with one’s family. In reality, for the better part of 1500 years, worship was not seen as limited to a singular gathering and celebration on Sunday. Instead, it was simply a part, albeit an important part, of the rhythm of prayer and service that took place throughout the week, the month and the year. That rhythm was punctuated with days of special devotion, the remembrance of saints that have gone before us and even whole seasons such as Lent, Advent and Eastertide that invited penance, anticipation and rejoicing over a period of weeks. All this is to say, liturgical life was all encompassing, stretching far beyond the confines of a Sunday “event”.
In almost all liturgical churches, a remnant of this remains in the provision of set texts for daily worship. Almost all have made provision for Daily Offices of some description and some, especially among Roman Catholics and some Anglicans, provide for a Daily Eucharist. Both of these practices, however, have increasingly become the domain of the clergy and, upon occasion, a few of the faithful. Sadly, even in my own Anglican family, a good many of the clergy have abandoned this yearly, seasonal and daily rhythm of worship in favor of the Sunday “event” with the exception of Lent and Advent being the lead up to Easter and Christmas, respectively.
There are, however, reasons for this, but I fear the reasons are ill-founded. You see, a Sunday event requires a “personality” and, perhaps, more than one. In attending an Evangelical Sunday service, it is the gifted teacher or preacher that is on display. It is the dynamic worship leader who will carefully and skillfully both perform and lead. Moreover, we expect that the “personality” will have personality. We will expect their particular brand of humor. We will engage in the stories they recount as illustrations. We will await the sharing of their emotions and laugh or cry along with them. The thirty minute sermon, it is thought, allows for all of this.
In some churches, Christmas and Easter, rather than being celebrated as highlights of the liturgical year, become the opportunity for an evermore extravagant “show”, often with theatrical overtones.
Yet, are we missing something? I love that in Justin’s description he merely says that after the reading of Scripture, the person presiding presents a “discourse” and “urges and invites [us] to the imitation of these noble things. Then we all stand up together and offer prayers.” It is interesting to note that as the assembly moves on to the Eucharist, Justin describes the person presiding as offering prayers and thanksgivings “to the best of his ability”. This is hardly the ringing endorsement of an event in which a “personality” is front and center. Indeed, he is almost inconsequential apart from his care of the poor, the widows and orphans, prisoners, and being “the protector of all those in need.” Sunday, in this early church context, is not a personality driven event. Rather, it is merely the culmination of the worship and practical ministry that takes place week by week, month by month and season by season in the life of this community of faith.
I do believe that something has happened as we have taken on a Sunday “event” mentality. Perhaps it is that we have forgotten the steady and constant rhythm of the Church Year and of the daily worship which the Church knew for centuries. Perhaps we have become convinced that in a celebrity driven culture, we must have outsized personalities to be successful pastors, priests and church leaders. Perhaps, with demanding schedules and the press of other activities, we feel it is impossible to enter into the settled rhythm of daily worship. Perhaps, we simply want the “show” and the “event”…
I cannot help but feel, however, that we are losing something vital and that, once lost, it will be difficult to recover.