12 June 2006

liturgy and christian formation

liturgy and christian formation

A process of biblical reformation in all that we do is one of our ongoing tasks as Christians - how we think, how we speak, how we produce, how we consume, how we live with one another. Most importantly, the process involves thinking through how we worship our triune God since, after all, we become like what we worship, so that worship is central to Christian formation.

Our recent trip to England renewed my thinking about worship.

This was, in part, due to the wonderful times of worship we enjoyed, in a variety of settings from a college chapel to a local parish to a grand cathedral, and which exhibited a remarkable diversity despite their adherence to the basic patterns of the Book of Common Prayer and the more recent updating of those patterns in Common Worship. Indeed, though I've studied Common Worship and used it in a domestic setting, our trip was the first time I was able to see it taken up in a fully congregational setting.

My thinking was also renewed through some books I was reading during our trip, both books I took with me (Newbigin in particular) and books I purchased in England at Durham cathedral's SPCK bookshop (Liturgical Worship by Mark Earey and the chapter on worship from Tom Wright's Simply Christian).

These experiences and writings underscored to me, as I noted above, the formative character of worship, but also the significance that formation has for the church's mission to the world. But we should begin with what the very notion of "worship" means.

In his recent book Simply Christian, Tom Wright explains, "Worship means, literally, acknowledging the worth of something or someone. It means recognizing, and saying, that something or someone is worthy of praise. It means praising someone or something so far superior to oneself that all one can do is to recognize their worth and to celebrate it" (124).

As those who exist out of the overflow of love among of the Persons of the Trinity and who have been redeemed by that same love, we celebrate God as creator and redeemer in our worship. And one of the main ways we do this is to tell and re-tell "the story of salvation precisely as the story of the rescue and renewal of creation," to rehearse the mighty acts of God (129). This is why Scripture, particularly in its overall narrative centered on Jesus Christ, is the fabric of the church's prayer and praise, her teaching and action.

But the Christian story that we enact in worship is central not only to our praise of God, but also for way that we, as the church, rehearse what it means to live and speak that story within the world. God's grand rescue operation, by which he intends to renew the whole creation, has at its center the renewal of humanity in and through the person of Jesus Christ. The corporate character of worship embodies the corporate character of God's salvation. As Mark Earey writes, "At the heart of liturgy is an understanding of public worship that goes beyond the personal encounter with God (without denying it) to the corporate drama of being the people of God" (18).

This requires, therefore, that we be deliberate and intentional in how we organize and carry out worship as God's people, making sure that worship is shot through with Scripture as the word of Jesus and truly remains the work of the people. And this intentional, biblically suffused, corporate action is what we mean when we speak of "liturgy."

Earey explains further:
Liturgy is the rehearsal - the many rehearsals - for the part we are called to take both in the world now and in eternity with God. We each have a part to play in God's work in the world, and liturgy reflects this, but our personal engagement with God at an individual level finds its proper place within the 'duty and joy' of the corporate event. (19)
This is not to pit the corporate against the individual, but to recognize that they mutually contextualize one another. Salvation involves not only the remission of personal sin through personal faith and repentance, but also the restoration of truly human relationship within the community of faith - and all of this for the sake of the world to which the church is called to minister as a priestly people.

Tom Wright fills out this picture of Christian formation even further, noting two rules that define how worship forms us. First, he writes, "You become like what you worship. When you gaze in awe, admiration and wonder at something or someone, you begin to take on something of the character of the object of your worship." If this is so, then, Wright asks, "What happens when you worship the creator God, whose plan to rescue the world and put it to rights has been accomplished by the Lamb who was slain?" (127).

Second, he notes, "...because you were made in God's image, worship makes you more truly human." This is the other rule of how worship forms us as Christians. Wright continues, "When you gaze in love and gratitude at the God in whose image you were made, you do indeed grow. You discover more of what it means to be fully alive...the chance, the invitation, the summons, is there before us, to come and worship the true God, the creator, the redeemer, and to become more truly human by doing so. Worship is the very centre of all Christian living" (127-8).

Again, Earey unfolds this further:
Corporate worship should engage, in a representative way, with things that matter in our daily lives: hospitality, listening to God, community, sharing the good news, serving our neighbour. This connection is not simply one-way (with worship reflecting life); nor is it an empty symbol. Because it is engagement with the living God, corporate worship, with its symbolic and representative nature, has the potential and the power to be formative; it can shape our lives in Christ and our understanding (including our unspoken assumptions) about God. (8)
We listen to Scripture being read and explained, not only because the Bible is important on Sundays, but also because listening to what God is teaching us through Scripture is important every day. We pray and intercede for various needs in the church and world not only because it's a churchy thing to do, but also to remind us that God cares about those sorts of things all the time and wants us to share in and act upon that concern. We partake together in the table of the Lord not only because we commune there with Christ by faith, but also because we learn God's own hospitality and grace that we in turn share from our own tables. And so on for everything we do as we gather in worship.

Furthermore, as Lesslie Newbigin notes in his work The Good Shepherd, "Christian worship is a protection for those who take part in it against the false standards and convictions of the world." As we are "drawn week by week into this act of adoration and self-giving to the living Lord who is revealed to us in Jesus Christ," Christian worship becomes for us "the most powerful possible antiseptic against the infection of worldiness" (31).

In addition to prayer and praise, Christian worship, from the start, has involved both the word and the sacraments - or perhaps even better, a speaking and forming word that comes to us through both preaching and sacraments. Newbigin takes up the ministry of word and sacrament in turn.

In his chapter "Preaching Christ" Newbigin addresses the central importance of preaching in the worship of the church. He writes,
We have to preach Christ. That is really our only business in the pulpit. The reason why preaching has a central place in the life of the Christian Church is that the word of God to men is Jesus Christ, and he has to be put before men. He has be put before men again and again in his flesh, in the concrete reality of his manhood - his life, his words, his deeds, above all his death and resurrection. (24)
Newbigin goes on to note that preaching Christ involves "preaching him both as Saviour and as Lord," not merely for the praise and glory of his own name, but so that our identity in Christ might overflow into mission so that God might be further praised and glorified in the salvation of the world. Newbigin explains,
It means that people go out from the church not merely comforted with the assurance that they are saved, and not merely crushed by the unbearable knowledge that they are sinners, but rather re-enlisted in Christ's army as fighters for the rule of God in this world. This means they are liberated from care about their own salvation in order to be totally at his service for the world's salvation. (25)
As Newbigin later says, proper preaching isn't simply giving a lecture, but "springs out of action and leads into action" since the word we preach is a word that was "made flesh, became part of history." And in order to engage in this sort of preaching, the preacher must have his congregation with him in prayer as he prepares. He must be "standing beside" his flock "in their battles with the world and in their trials and problems" and, in this way, his words, by the power of the Spirit, can become "vehicles of God's eternal life" (26-7).

Newbigin, however, doesn't stop with the importance of preaching, though that is important. He also goes on to speak of the sacramental life of God's people. As the story of the disciples on the road to Emmaus teaches us, the exposition of Scripture, though it may cause our hearts to burn within us, is only fulfilled when we know Jesus in the breaking of bread.

As Newbigin rightly notes, part of the burden of the Protestant Reformers was to transform the eucharistic liturgy from a spectacle into something in which "the whole congregation would be involved" (33). Unfortunately, "because of the partial failure of the Reformation, Christians became accustomed to a kind of worship which was robbed of its central element - the breaking of bread and the sharing of the cup." As Newbigin notes, medieval spectators were transformed into modern hearers who went to church to hear the pastor pray and preach. He comments, "In some places even the last vestiges of congregational participation were eliminated, and the preacher had to say Amen to his own prayers - the ultimate limit of morose sacerdotalism" (34).

This sort of Protestant sacerdotalism, according to Newbigin, "cannot be called true Christian worship." Rather, "Christian worship is the corporate act of the whole body, in which everybody right down to the last man standing at the back of the church has a part to play" (30). Again, if Christian worship is to be formative of who we are as God's church, his new creation people, then worship should involve the concsious, active participation of the congregation in a variety of ways.

Newbigin, however, reminds us that this kind of liturgical involvement is never for the sake of that particular congregation alone or unto itself. Rather, proper Christian worship is always catholic and missional in character. He writes, "it is not only the congregation present which is involved" in Christian worship, but it is also "the act of the whole universal Church in earth and in heaven" (30).

Moreover, our worship must therefore "reflect the catholicity of the whole Church." This doesn't mean that local and immediate concerns and expressions are ignored or suppressed. Nonetheless, they "must be seen within the context of the whole fellowship" of the church universal, so that what we do in worship should be "recognisable as the worship of the universal Church" (30). This sort of catholicity is, of course, difficult since all manner of patterns and styles have grown up among Christian churches worldwide. Still, some basic patterns of prayer, word, sacrament, creed, and the like have a certain weight and priority given their ancient origins and ecumenical usage.

Christian worship, however, is not merely catholic, but is also missional in character. Newbigin writes, "true Christian worship is an offering on behalf of the whole of mankind" since the "Church as a whole is called to be God's holy priesthood for all of the human family" (30). Therefore, the church should never turn into a "self-enclosed community" that shuts itself to the wider world.

Instead, our worship has what Newbigin calls "an evangelistic dimension," since in our worship the convictions and standards by which we live as Christians "stand out in the sharpest possible contrast and challenge men with the question of truth" (31). As those who sometimes find ourselves becoming cynical and hopeless, worship helps us to see "things as they really are." When Christian worship is authentic, therefore, we will be able to go out from church every Sunday with a true testimony upon our lips and in our hearts of God's transforming love.

The pattern of Christian liturgy is the pattern of the biblical narrative, the story of God's pursuing love to rescue his fallen world. It is the tale of the Emmaus disciples, found by Jesus in their sadness and confusion, but changed by his word and table in order to go tell others of their encounter with the living Lord. It is the story of God's provision for Noah on the ark, of Israel's exodus from bondage, of the building of God's temple under Solomon, of exile and return.

In Jesus Christ, God seeks us out in our fallenness and brokenness, reaching out by his Spirit to draw us to himself. We can only respond with a confession of our own failure to be and do all that God intended for us as human beings and then, receive in faith, God's word of forgiveness in Jesus. God speaks to us, teaching us who we are in Christ and what how he wants us to live as his renewed people. As we offer ourselves up through and with Christ to his saving mission, God feeds us by his Spirit with the transformed and transforming life of Jesus. Then we are sent on our way to tell others what we have heard and witnessed: "Go in peace to love and serve the Lord."

We continually need to learn, then, how we might better worship in Spirit and truth in order that our liturgy more and more forms us into the people God would have us be and equips us for his saving mission to our world.