Why Bother With the History of Worship?

I am feeling happy tonight, because I got through another huge to-do list over the past 24 hours. I am tired, worn out. But it is a good tired. Akin to the tired from working in a garden, I think. A tired that feels like my energies went to the appropriate places.

This morning I was responsible for a couple pieces in our Intro to Worship class. I had about five minutes to talk about the Revival/Frontier 3-part worship structure. Then later I had about a half-hour to talk about the lectionary–what is it? where did it come from? what theology went into shaping it and how does that theology end up shaping how we hear the texts? and what are the benefits and challenges to receiving (or rejecting) the Revised Common Lectionary?

I got to everything but the last question. We’ll have to pick up there next week. It strikes me as funny to think about how impossible it is to say all of those things about the lectionary in thirty minutes–when just two weeks ago we were going through the history of Christian worship in the same exact allotment of time! Ha! [That’s a perverse sense of humor.]

Sometimes I learn more from what I end up saying spontaneously in a lecture as I do in the hours of preparation beforehand. Today two things came up that I hadn’t exactly thought about before saying them, but felt as if the words were called out of me.

The first was a brief explanation about why we slog these poor MDiv students (who are mostly UCC and UMC, but also Baptist, Mennonite, Brethren, Pentecostal, Disciples, and UU) through this history of these various elements that we talk about. Why does it matter to know how lectionaries developed over time?

One big reason, I told folks today, is because history is often used in an authoritative way. If there is a sense that something was done in a certain way a long time ago, then this can be perceived to have some normative claim on our practice today. It’s as simple as the Liturgical Movement of the 20th century seeking to reclaim early church worship practices as ideal ecumenical models for our worship practices today.

It is a macro-version of “we’ve always done it this way.” But sometimes, it’s not the way we’ve always done it; it’s just the way we believe it was.

We teach folks the histories of these various rites and pieces of worship at least in part to give them the ability to critically engage with it themselves. If you know what the history is, then you can ask: how is that valuable to me? what does it teach me about current practice? are there things that I can learn from how previous Christians engaged with this?

A lot of folks who are in free church settings also tend to be a-historical. There is not a recognition that we are part of a history of Christian worship practices. It comes down to the autonomy of the local congregation–and that congregation is in no way indebted to the practices of the church universal.

Interestingly enough, the person who had the most significant influence on the 3-part worship model from the frontier tradition, Charles Finney, also challenged the church to be a-historical. The frontier worshipping tradition was based on a model of extreme pragmatism–it was intended to reach the unchurched who had been dispersed across the giant land of the United States. The frontier model was based on seeing results. How American is that? The results they were looking for were lots of converts at the end of the service.

The three part service was created to enable the most results–it begins with songs or a praise service (often called ‘preliminaries’), then the sermon, and concludes with the altar call. Finney said the church needs to be willing to employ whatever means necessary in order to bring the most results. The church should feel no obligation to history, if history does not serve to produce more converts. It was with all intention an a-historical approach to Christian worship.

So, fine. But that was two hundred years ago now. And the irony is that there is now a frontier tradition with its own history that these churches have to take into account. Because the truth is, this model of worship is deeply in the bones of the people who worship in it. In this model, the sermon is truly the apex of the worship experience. And the altar call has become truncated for the most part, because nearly everyone in church is already a baptized believer.

Church leaders who attempt to change this pattern, by introducing the prayers of the people after the sermon, or the offering, or other “response to the Word” elements, will likely be met with vehement resistance.

In the pbs documentary The Congregation, we see just how divisive such changes can be. Although this documentary mostly tracks the story of The Rev. Beth Stroud as she comes out to her congregation and consequently faces a trial in her United Methodist denomination, it also includes the story of her co-pastor, Fred Day, who had the audacity to try and change the order of worship at their otherwise “open” congregation. The idea that the service would no longer climax with the sermon (and end immediately) afterwards, was too much for this congregation to handle. It was as if it went against nature to try and do it any differently.

Fred Day was simply trying to integrate the changes suggested by the new worship book of the United Methodist Church, which suggests a model of worship that has four movements: Gathering, Word, Response, Sending Forth. [Based on what the early church model of worshipis currently perceived to be.] But it couldn’t be done. The Frontier tradition was too embedded in the expectations of that congregation who had always known its rhythm.

Well, sheesh. I’ve gone on forever here. Tomorrow I’ll try to take some time to write about my afternoon workshop on Disability and the Practice of Worship. But this is enough for now. Surely you have other things to do than read this all night! 🙂

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