Protestant Worship Revisited

Written by Joel on April 13th, 2008

For the first time in a very long time, I sat in the congregation of a Protestant church (of my own tradition). I began to ponder several things during my time in worship.

First, I want to spell out some of my presuppositions concerning worship. Not in any particular order:

  • We (the congregation) are the actors; God is the audience.
  • It is the duty of the Christian assembly to worship God. Participation is required. This is not an “spectator sport.”
  • Music is worship.
  • The liturgy should be built upon scripture.
  • All churches have a liturgy. It is possible that it is not written out, or that it changes from week to week, but the liturgy does exist.

Here are some of my observations as I revisited Protestant worship. These are made in light of my long acquaintance with the Roman Catholic liturgy.

1) Audience/Performer. There was no silence to begin the worship. Nearly all members of the assembly were talking with one another, catching up on one another’s lives. The music began to signal that worship was about to begin. The members of the congregation continued to converse until a minister rose to give a statement of welcome.

I found myself a bit uncomfortable with the level of informality given to the act of worship. It felt very much more like a lodge meeting rather than a performance for the pleasure of our Lord.

Suppose you were a member in an orchestra just prior to a performance. The orchestra doesn’t spend this time socializing. They are ensuring that their instruments are in tune. They wouldn’t dream of disrupting the audience as they prepare for the show.

In line with my presuppositions I believe that we need to prepare for worship. Get our “instruments in tune” as it were – examine our conscience, focus on God, pray for his help, and give thanks for his intercession.

We must not lose our focus in worship, and we certainly don’t want God to feel left out at a performance meant for him in the first place!

1b) Special music. The congregation clapped following the special music. For those of you who might not be familiar with the term “special music,” it refers to music that is performed by an individual, small group, or choir during the worship service. Generally the congregation is not invited to participate.

This can be done very well – as a gift given by the individual, group, or choir to God on behalf of the congregation. Unfortunately this distinction is sometimes lost and the congregation treats the act as if it were for a performance to be enjoyed by the congregation. Let us be careful to point out that we can clap along with God in thanksgiving to the performer – much like a choir might clap for a soloist in a performance.

1c) This distinction appeared to be completely lost in the congregation I was attending. A speaker, making an announcement about an upcoming event referred to the congregation as “the audience.”

Language plays a very important role in everything we do. The words we use in conjunction with the physical actions we use during worship says a lot about who we are as the people of God. It also says a great deal about our view of God, Christ and the Church.

2) Communion. The children’s message was quite good. The teacher mentioned all of the good things given to children in church, snacks as one example. But, she said, we must also give at church. The main message was that God expects us to use our gifts to build his church. A nice and neat message.

Later in the service another member of the church stood to give a prayer prior to communion. She was attempting to be relevant to the service, and recalled the children’s message in her introduction to communion. She referred to the bread and wine of communion as God’s snack for us!

The intimate meal shared with Jesus and his closest companions, the night before his death was a mere snack? The bread and wine which Jesus calls “my body” and “my blood” is just a casual snack to be enjoyed?

Again, language is powerful. I imagine the statement was simply not very carefully thought out. But why not? Why is it so difficult for many congregational Protestants to seriously consider the words they use to describe what is going on as we worship?

2b) The process of communion. Communion came from a common loaf and was offered to everyone in the congregation. It was divided among several plates, along with a separate plate with tiny cups of grape juice (the wine). These plates were passed through the congregation. I imagine the rationale behind this is “the priesthood of all believers” found in 1 peter 2:9. Understanding that all Christians are priests, all Christians necessarily are able to offer communion to one another in the congregation.

What if there are non-believers in congregation, however? Then that non-believer must handle the elements, and a believer would receive the body of Christ from a non-Christian. There is something unsettling about that.

Also, it does not really provide the option not to receive. There are reasons even for baptized Christians not to receive the Eucharist – for reasons I will address in another post. Going about communion in this way makes the act expected, and without an examination of conscience.

There was a lot of good which I saw in the worship. There was a great concern for the community, members were encouraged to share their personal prayer requests with one another in the context of worship. No one left after the communion service, and there was plenty of food and fellowship after the service.

Perhaps I may be called to help Protestant churches realize the importance of language and actions within the context of worship.


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