Altar Calls: Discussing Liturgical Worship with Evangelicals

A couple of Sundays ago, I filled the pulpit for a friend in Coldwater, MI.

After church, I checked out a local barbecue joint and got to chatting with a lovely Evangelical couple in line with me. By the time we reached the register, we had become so friendly, the clerk thought we came together and rang us up as a single check. I decided to just roll with it and picked up the tab. They ended up inviting me to their table. 

Knowing I had just come from a preaching gig, and seeing me cross myself before eating, the wife asked me how it is that I maintain a personal relationship with Jesus in the midst of worship that seemed so “religious.” I gave a response in the moment, but have continued to think about her question since then.

Here is my fleshed out response to my new friend, sent over Facebook:

One of the marks of a good question is when someone is still pondering it, weeks after it was asked. Such is the case with the question you asked over lunch in Coldwater, about my personal relationship with Christ in the Episcopal Church and its more formal, some might say “religious”, worship. Still thinking about that one. Bravo!

Continuing to formulate an answer:

As I tried to articulate on the spot, the worship I experience in the liturgy is no mere “going through the motions”. I have a personal relationship with Jesus Christ as my Lord and Savior. Bottom line. Full stop.

It is sadly true that such has not been the case for many in mainline denominations, Episcopal and otherwise, over the years. The temptation to simply “go through the motions” is ever present and one must be vigilant to guard against it. Equally dangerous is the temptation to snobbery that one form of worship is better or more pleasing to God than another. Christ was quite clear in his declaration that the Father is only interested in those who worship “in Spirit and in truth.”

Whether this takes place with a rock band or Gregorian chant is, at one level, irrelevant. Forms of worship are human creations. In their best moments, they are outward expressions of one’s deep relationship with God and vessels through which others can enter into a similar relationship.

My experience of the Church’s liturgy has been one such vessel for me. Furthermore, a careful reading of history, especially time-tested classics like the Rule of St. Benedict and the Book of Common Prayer, indicates that the liturgy was certainly born of sincere devotion and a desire to nurture others’ formation into the Imago Dei.

There are two staples of a healthy spiritual diet in our tradition: the Daily Office and the Eucharist.

The Daily Office is our version of what Evangelicals might call their “quiet time”. As the name indicates, it is meant to be practiced every day. Our current prayer book provides services for Morning, Noon, Evening, and Bedtime.

Its roots are in the monasteries, dating back to ancient times. Even today, at my favorite monastery in Three Rivers, the monks rise every day at 4am to pray and read Scripture. They repeat this pattern around the clock, seven times a day. Basically, the job of a monk or nun is to be a full-time intercessor. Our churches often employ full-time pastors for leadership, administration, preaching, worship, youth, and children… but why do we not encounter pastors whose whole ministry is prayer? Strip away the mystique surrounding monastic life and that is what you have: people who have given their whole lives to the work of prayer.

When practiced faithfully, the Daily Office causes us to step back from the hectic rhythm of life to remember that we are ever in God’s presence. Brother Lawrence (another famous monk) called this “the practice of the presence of God”.

The Offices contain prayers of Thanksgiving, Intercession, Confession, Adoration, and Self-offering. They contain copious readings of Scripture for study and reflection. They leave room for holy silence, which is so often lacking in our hectic world. In the service, we recite the Apostles’ Creed and the Lord’s Prayer as a way of calling us back to the center of Christian faith and spirituality.

Above all, the center of the Daily Office is the praying of Psalms. These ancient prayers were the first hymnal of the Church. They express every imaginable emotion. As prayers from Scripture, they are especially interesting because they are simultaneously God’s Word to us and our words to God. Reading them as one’s own prayers engages us in a holy conversation. If one is interested in exploring the power of liturgical worship, all one has to do is crack a Bible and read a Psalm as one’s own prayer.

The other thing is the Eucharist (a.k.a. Holy Communion or the Lord’s Supper). In our churches, we celebrate this mystery every Sunday. We can no more imagine a church service without Communion than Protestants can imagine a service without reading from the Bible… it just wouldn’t be church! Strip away the formality from the written prayers, and one can see a familiar pattern (I bet even the most casual church service follows something similar to this):

  • -Welcoming the presence and power of the Holy Spirit
  • -Praise and worship
  • -Reading from the Bible
  • -Hearing the Word explained in a sermon
  • -Proclaiming our faith in Jesus Christ
  • -Praying for the needs of the world
  • -Confessing our need for God’s grace
  • -Giving to support the work of the Church

And then comes the celebration of Communion itself. This is the high point of every service. For us, this is so much more than an occasional remembrance that Jesus died for us (although it certainly includes that). Think of it like an ‘altar call’:

  • -The priest (pastor) recalls God’s creation of the world, humanity’s fall into sin, and Christ’s redemptive incarnation, death, and resurrection.
  • -In response to this saving grace, we offer our whole lives to God’s service, along with the physical gifts of bread and wine.
  • -The priest asks God to send the Holy Spirit upon this offering, to transform it (and us) into the Body of Christ (remember… you are what you eat).
  • -Then we get up from our seats and walk down to the altar at the front of the church, with hands outstretched to say, “Yes, I want to receive Jesus Christ. I want to welcome him into my heart, my life, and even my body… so that I may become part of his Body in the world today.”
  • -Then the priest pronounces God’s blessing and sends us out to be the hands and feet of Jesus in the world today: filled with the Holy Spirit, instructed by God’s Word, strengthened by prayer and worship, and fed by Christ.
  • …and next Sunday, we do it all over again!

This is why I have come to love the worshipful liturgy of the Episcopal Church. This is home for me. Yes, I have to guard myself against “going through the motions”, but the same thing could be said of Evangelical churches where the same praise choruses are sung from week to week. Often, I find the words of the formal prayers helpful if I am feeling spiritually dry or empty. These ancient prayers carry me along, like floating down a river. Even when I am not strong enough to swim on my own (which is all the time), God is strong enough to bring me home. I think of it like the Good Shepherd who finds the lost sheep and carries it home on his shoulders. That’s me in worship.

Thanks for asking good questions and getting me thinking!

Christos anesti! (Christ is risen!)

Happy Easter!

Barrett

7 thoughts on “Altar Calls: Discussing Liturgical Worship with Evangelicals

  1. Pingback: A Liturgy response to Evangelicals | Simplecountrypastor's Blog

  2. Gregory Hooker

    The music of the Church is something that has formed over time in a similar fashion to its liturgy, polity and theology. A distinguishing feature of liturgical music is that the form follows the function required within the liturgy. This characteristic is not necessarily true of all music from other Christian worship traditions. Another distinctive characteristic of liturgical churches is ecclesiology: We have a view of the history of the church that includes the communion of the saints at worship with us in the present day. Those saints of old (whether 3rd century or 20th century) are poets, priest, composers, artists, architects, theologians, prophets and all who have died in the hope of the resurrection. We are not limited to the past, but we welcome it, we are informed by it and we celebrate it in our liturgy and in our music.

  3. Anonymous

    I think your reply was an excellent response. Thanks for taking time to think the question through and write out your feelings. Much appreciated.

  4. Chaplain J.R.Bunyan

    In my earlier days, Morning Prayer was often the main service, sometimes the only service in Episcopal churches, and perhaps that was one reason why the Episcopal Church was far stronger then and less sectarian. Now most Episcopal churches (other than those in independent churches such as the Reformed Episcopal) provide only the “Eucharist”, a term which though it simply means “thanksgiving service” I think is unintelligible to most outsiders – i.e. here in Australia and in England the vast majority of those who identify as C.of E. (as I do) or much less often as Anglican but who rarely if ever attend church. I do think the Holy Communion should be celebrated every Sunday but many of those people (and I have met met many, many thousands over the last 19 years as an honorary hospital chaplain) are unlikely ever to come to the Communion – none of my own family ever would. Some will sometimes come to Evensong (as the English cathedrals find) ; some would come to Morning Prayer – and they do – where it is provided – preferably without creed or narrow, nagging sermons ! Over 22 years as a rector in my last parish, a flexible, imaginative 1662-based Morning Prayer and shortened Communion on two or three Sundays a month was voted the most popular service. As a C.of E. priest, at 81 I still travel 170 miles by train every month or so to attend Morning Prayer in the historic S.John the Baptist’s in the national capital – and usually resort on other Sundays to a Uniting Church, with fundamentalist Conservative Evangelical services and a few Anglo-Catholic services the only options in the CBD of the vast city of Sydney – or when in the US, I attend another church of which I have long been a member, the very traditional and lively unitarian Christian church, King’s Chapel, Boston. S.John’s, Canberra every Sunday has 1662 BCP services at 7 am and 11.15, the latter Choral Matins on two or three Sundays a month, plus a monthly Choral Evensong – with An Australian Prayer Book Communion at 8 and 9.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s