4 Holy Words During Worship

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“Love is a quality of response between persons.” – Mildred Bangs Wynkoop

Having just celebrated another anniversary, I am reminded of the many gifts God has afforded me in and through the wife He has provided. I am, indeed, a graced man! None of these graces or gifts, however, surpasses the shared visual and verbal language of romance that we share. Spouses with any history understand this, and enjoy a unique set of gestures and looks that identify them as a couple. These visual and verbal ques indicate a sense of identity, and frequently provide a means of both purpose and direction. If you ever doubt this, just consider what a quick glance from a spouse might mean when given from across a packed room. All that is needed is a glance or a subtle change of posture.

Every couple, family, congregation, and denomination has a shared language, a language of romance that provides identity, purpose, and direction. Without a commonality of tongue and gesture, we cannot enjoy a common yet productive life. Nowhere is this commonality of tongue and gesture as necessary as in worship. Liturgy, the public process (or work) of worship, tell us everything about who we are, where we have been, and where we are going. The English Reformer, Thomas Cranmer, knew this well when he constructed his monumental Book of Common Prayer (1549, 1552). King James knew this when he began the process of translating the Authorized Version of the Bible. John and Charles Wesley knew this as well when they provided us with an array of Hymns that (I think) define issues crucial to Wesleyan Theology. And we Nazarenes, if we want to remember and revivify our sense of identity and direction, should also clearly understand this important principle. Worship as an expression of love, as the words and actions of liturgical romance, is crucial to our identity as a community of Christian Nazareneslocally, geographically, and globally.

There is nothing arbitrary about true romance, and there is nothing arbitrary about the words and actions related to public worship. Worship does not just happen. It is, so to speak, a well-planned date by which we as a church both renew our vows and revisit and revive our relationships. No spouse would be pleased if we were arbitrary about spending time with them. No spouse would be pleased with truncated conversation. No spouse would be pleased with limited physical contact that reflected a lack of deep intimacy. God is our spouse, and worship is our (at least) weekly date!

Worship can broadly be divided into two parts: Word and Sacrament. The first part of worship is word-centered. The second part of worship is sacrament-centered. There is an order and purpose associated to this, just as there is in certain romantic activities. Both need to be attended to. Together, they constitute the “wings” of worship. Together, again using the romance theme, they constitute the tongue and touch of worship by which we speak and act according to the dictates of that relationship.

There are several words and actions that are central to effective and efficient worship. As we examine these words and actions, we must both ask and answer one very simple question: What do we do when we worship? Worship, specifically public worship, is the commemoration and celebration of God’s saving acts throughout history (Robert E. Webber). All of our words and actions must be rooted within, centered upon, and extend from this priority. We have gathered together as the people of God to commemorate and celebrate the saving action of our God. Those who are in the pulpit and those who are in the pews are called, challenged, and commanded to engage in this celebration. No biblically faithful and theologically informed public celebration of worship means, for all intents and purposes, no personal or social transformation.

When we ponder the process of worship we discover at least four words and four actions central to our consideration. These (broadly) are the sung word, the read word, the preached word, the prayed word, the recitation action, the reconciliatory action, the remembrance action, and the release action. These eight words and actions, properly used, have upward (the God dimension), outward (the social dimension), and inward (the personal dimension) implications. Used improperly, these eight words and actions dishonor God, deconstruct community, and inhibit growth.

Worship uses words. According to Marilyn Chandler McEntyre, in her award winning book, Caring for Words in a Culture of Lies, “[c]aring for language is a moral issue.”   I could not agree more, and would in fact take these words one step further. Caring for words, the how and the why of how we use our language, has salvific and sanctifying potential. This is most especially the case when we enter into public worship. The sung word is essential to this. Over the past twenty-or-more years, there has been an ongoing debate and divide about whether our worship should be contemporary, traditional, or blended. Although there are biblical and theological issues to be considered, as no part of worship is arbitrary, the real issue we are facing has little to do with these categories. The sound and the singing have far more to do with the orchestrated drama of our stated purpose (celebrating the saving actions of God) and the intentional process of worship, than anything else. What this means is that when we celebrate God in public worship, there must be a biblically established and theologically informed process that we follow. This will require far more than simply organizing the song and sound around the sermon. Although this is important, it is not the only consideration. Each part of the Service of Worship must be carefully considered, with every sound, song, and action revolving around it. One simple example of this will be sufficient. There is an entire theology, often unconsciously embraced, centered upon the why, where, and how of Announcements. To overlook or minimize this will declare, again often unconsciously, whether our Service of Worship is God-centered or Man-centered (more later).

Also of importance is the read word. The implication of this suggests that reading God’s written word must be both professional and intentionally profiled. What does this mean? To read professionally means that we should have readers, if readers are used beyond the pastor, who know how to read the biblical text properly. When the word is read, there are issues of posture, articulation, inflection, and pronunciation that must be addressed. Also, and often neglected today, the Bible must be profiled in such a way as to reflect the biblical emphasis upon “the whole counsel of God.” One reading from one biblical text will not do. An Old Testament, Psalm, Epistle, and Gospel reading must be voiced every week. Regardless of whether or not we use a Lectionary for worship, and although we may only focus on one text, one book, or one biblical theme, readings from all of these categories must occur. If we are interested in the whole counsel of God, we will need to profile the entire word of God. We cannot have a piecemeal approach.

The preached word is the centerpiece in most Protestant churches. And, in some ways, it should be. As Paul says, “faith comes from hearing, and hearing from the word of God.” Preaching the word is vital! Consequently, pastors must make every effort to be prepared. Moreover, pastors must utilize biblical models of preaching that are, of necessity, revelatory, revivalist, and relevant. The best proof of the faith is in its effective proclamation. The best defense of the faith is in its effectual declaration. Preachers should preach to convince, convict, convert, and transform. Preaching is always in the imperative! Any preaching style that militates against this, that minimizes this imperative through conversational or narrative styles (although neither is, of necessity, wrong), must be entirely rejected, repented of, and cast off. If nothing is broken down and / or built up in preaching, we have wasted our time.

We must also attend to the prayed word. Certainly every church emphasizes a time of prayer. Every church understands the importance, and even the priority, of prayer. But are we giving sufficient attention to having a time of full and functional prayer? Are we consciously inviting participation during prayer? Are we structuring prayer around participation? Are we capitalizing upon the local, geographical, global, and (in fact) cosmic dimensions of public prayer? These are important. Years ago, a famous Catholic speaker coined this phrase, “the family that prays together, stays together.” Although this reflects a general principle and not a specific promise, it is well said. Churches that pray, that storm heaven, are churches that grow upward, inward, and outward. Revival begins on the knees; in closets, public worship, pews, lecterns, and pulpits.

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